By Wale Akinola
No fewer than 27 suspects are reportedly in military cells across the country following the onslaught on armed banditry on the waters of the west coast of Africa, particularly Nigeria, in recent times with oil vessels as prime targets.
Vessels are attacked on high seas and diverted to other shores while the crew members are robbed of cash and other valuables. The unlucky ones get maimed or killed and their oil cargos emptied into other thieves vessels.
Refined imported petroleum products laden vessels are largely prime targets, but crude –carrying vessels are not spared either. Losses to oil thieves on high seas are put at several billions of naira by industry analysts with operators resigning to fate and putting a reluctant insurance sector under pressure.
Containing the pirates on Nigerian waters is a big challege to the navy, the marine police, the Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) and the Global West Vessels Specialists Nigeria Limited, a private concern.
The hijacking of MT Anuket Emerald, which cargo of oil was stolen, was a test case to stem piracy on the nation’s waters. A vessel allegedly owned by a Nigerian firm with 16 armed pirates on board was said to be behind the attack on the foreign ship. They apparently siphoned the contents of MT Anuket Emerald into another vessel and heeded to Lagos to store the product in some tank farms in Apapa for distribution and sale.
The pirate vessel was reportedly impounded and now in the custody of the EFCC. A security source told Sunday Vanguard, last week, « A report of the incident by the ICC-International Maritime Bureau (Piracy Reporting Centre), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, revealed the incident happened to the oil/chemical tanker carrying a Panama flag and laden with a total cargo of 3,450.443 metric tonnes on August 18, 2012 close to the port of Lome, Togo.
The pirates, who spoke French but were recognized to be Nigerian, Ghanaian, and Togolese nationals, were said to have aggressively attacked the ship for five days, bearing 16-20 sub machine and machine guns and AK47 riffles, which they actually used for the attack to cause extensive damage to the ship before boarding it with extended ladders.
While no injuries were caused any of the 17 crew members and one technician of the fully hijacked vessel made up of three Russians, 12 Filipinos, one Ukrainian, one Latvian and a Lithuanian, the ship’s communication equipment were all damaged, all the cables were cut, the hand-held radios were stolen and the speed and rescue boats were damaged.
Also, the engines were destroyed, the craft was vandalized, the ship funnel was repainted, the vessel name was changed, and the IMO Number was removed, the loading computer and hull were damaged, the printers and scanners, the anti-piracy equipment-flashlights, bullet proof vests, night vision binos, batons, safety equipment-lifebuoys & lifebuoy lights, ropes, all crew clothing, safety helmets, shoes and boiler suits were stolen. »
Investigations, it was learnt, later showed that the coastal town of Igbokoda in Ondo State was the haven of some notorious pirates who may have been involved in the MT Emerald incident and the base of a training camp for pirate recruits.
Officials from the navy, the army, NIMASA and Global West Vessel Specialist Limited (GWVSL), owned by a former leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), Chief Government Ekpemupolo , better known as Tompolo, involved the Ondo State community penultimate week.
A suspect identified as Thomas, aka Wazobia, was said to have been arrested during the operation. Sources believe the suspect’s confessions gave him out as the kingpin of Nigeria’s sea hijacking syndicate. The operation reportedly lasted about 35 minutes of a gun duel between security forces and the men of the highly armed syndicate. A training camp for the pirates with a shooting range was also detected at Igbokoda. 13 other suspects were apprehended there.
Items recovered from the suspects, according to sources, include 16 sophisticated weapons made up of a small machine gun, three ML rifles, one axe, 10 AK magazines, three ML magazines, 574 rounds of 7.62mm, 44 live cartridges, three walkie-talkies, three AK-47 riffles, explosive devices, long range high calibre weapons, about 10, 000 ammunitions of all sorts, some other dangerous weapons and an operational map, which indicated that the pirates were getting set for another assault on a vessel on the high seas before the swop on them by security operatives.
The confessions of Wazobia and his men are said to be creating ripples as some top government officials, some NNPC top brass, high level oil marketers and three traditional rulers were indicted. Some of them are identified as sponsors and beneficiaries of stolen oil from hijacked vessels. Three major oil storage facilities, including one recently raided in the southwest, were allegedly fingered as receiving stolen oil from them.
The two others are reportedly under security watch while their top management staffers are on the run. One of the traditional rulers mentioned by the arrested suspects, sources claimed, has moved to Abuja from where he has been trying to get top government officials to prevail on NIMASA and security agents to halt action in the matter. The monarch, it was learnt, owns a huge oil storage facility.
Along with his son, who is also believed to have fled the country for Benin Republic, the hijackers alleged, were supplying them with arms and receiving stolen oil from hijacked ships. The suspects were quoted as saying the traditional ruler’s oil facility was used as a major depot when stolen oil was stored.
The suspects also alleged that the monarch’s son not only coordinated the movement of stolen oil to the depot but was also directly involved in its sale and distribution.
The suspects, it was gathered, admitted to having successfully hijacked over 20 oil laden vessels on the high seas while killing, in the process, no fewer than 24 persons, including three foreigners and uniformed men.