•Fighting Maritime crimes in the Gulf of Guinea
By Evelyn Usman
For a long time time, maritime insecurity at the Gulf of Guinea,GoG has assumed an alarming dimension , with incessant cases of kidnap for ransom accounting for more than 50% of maritime crime in the world in 2016, according to statistics of the International Maritime Bureau. There were reportedly 53 attacks in that region same year,out which 36 reportedly occurred within Nigeria’s corridor. Also in 2017, 10 incidents of kidnapping which involved 65 crew members occurred in the region, in addition to cases of piracy, where ships were fired at , crew members held hostage and goods and products carted away. Out of the 16 vessels reported to have been fired at worldwide ,on sea last year, seven reportedly occurred in the Gulf of Guinea alone.
In a move to tackle this menace and by extension, send warning signal to criminals operating in the region, the Nigerian Navy in collaboration with six other natives within and outside the GoG , embarked on a sea exercise last Wednesday, as part of the one- week event lined up to commemorate its 62nd anniversary.
Vanguard’s Assistant Crime Editor, Evelyn Usman, who was on board one of the nine Nigerian war ships: NNS UNITY , that participated in the Regional Maritime Exercise code named EKU KUGBE. She shares her experience .
The Flag off
Different ships, with different shapes and sizes, from different countries, berthed last week at the Naval Dockyard, Victoria Island Lagos, giving the jetty an array of beauty. The ships included those from West African countries along the corridor of the Gulf of Guinea and other foreign ships. Out of the 15 participating ships, nine of them: NNS Okpabana, NNS UNITY, NNS PROSPERITY, NNS ZARIA, NNS SAGBAMA, NNS BADARY, among others, belong to the Nigerian Navy. The navies of other participating countries included those from Cameroon, Ghana, Togo, China, France and Portugal. Their ships participated in the exercise.
Flagging off the exercise, shortly before the crew members embarked into their respective sips, the Chief of Defence Staff, General Gabriel Olonishakin, decried the criminality that had bedeviled the GoG region.
According to him :” Exercises of this nature are critical towards sustaining the resources and huge potentials of the GoG. Sadly the potentials of the GoG are constantly undermined by domestic, cross border and trans national threats that limit economic development of the region with adverse political consequences.
“Major threats like piracy and attacks on ships have become predominant in the region with negative consequences on the economy and overall well being of GoG nations. The situation calls for measures to address it.”
Describing the exercise as timely and instructive, Gen Olonishakin explained that it was aimed at bringing together navies from the Gulf of Guinea nations as well as from other allied nations including the Chinese Navy , which participated for the time, to confront threat of a common interest and restore order in the region.
The exercise which was part of proactive measures by the Economic Committee of Central African States( ECCAS )and ECOWAS, according to him, had established maritime security mechanisms. But to facilitate the goals of the security mechanism, he said there was need for regional navies to operationalize existing maritime security frame work .
Earlier in his welcome address, the Chief of the Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Ibok- Ete Ibas, disclosed that 12 Nigerian Navy ships and one each from Cameroon, Ghana, Togo, China, France and Portugal were participating in the exercise.
“ The Nigerian Airforce also participated with its MPA. The exercise was aimed at promoting regional cooperation and coordination for the enhancement of maritime security in the gulf of Guinea (GoG). The GoG is the primary conduits of international trade and central to the economy of associated regions. The GoG is increasingly looked upon today as resource provider and critical contributor to national growth and prosperity of the several nations lining it’s coasts and even those landwards with no shared boundaries.
“ Exercise Eku kugbe is intended to enhance cooperation beyond and away from mock exercises, as well as continue the nurturing of the spirit of togetherness in the task of restoring order in the GoG.”, the CNS said.
Ships set sail
Journalists were paired into the various Nigerian Navy war Ships, with this reporter embarking in one of the latest acquired from the Peoples Republic of China : NNS UNITY , two years ago.
The routine registration was done at the entry point, from where three other female journalists and myself were led by a naval personnel to our twin double deck cabin. Thereafter, an announcement was echoed through the radio system, informing all visitors to go to the Helicopter deck , where we were given some safety tips and our medical history, including information on blood groups taken.
Although that was not the first time of embarking on sea trip with the Navy the cozy ambiance of NNS UNITY, was too pleasant to ignore , particularly from the convenience in the cabin. As we went about the the nitty- gritty, the ship sailed, on a calm sea with favorable wind, heading towards the Bight of Benin , a 500 miles journey.
Barely had we sailed, than a ‘ bloody civilian’ ( not a journalist) embraced the motion sickness, witnessed by almost every one who travels by sea. This motion sickness caused by intense or unpleasant smell of the sea , induces feelings of nausea,often accompanied by uneasiness, sweating and dizziness , to vomiting, with symptoms of gastrointestinal distress such as diarrhea.
This feeling is orchestrated by the rocking of the ship by waves of the sea, which causes passengers( be they civilians or military) to stagger. Before he could seek necessary assistance, he threw up. Being an old layer, yours truly quickly found her way into the cabin to sleep. The air conditioned room was comforting.
After a sumptuous super, our curiosity (my colleagues from Punch, Radio Nigeria and NTA) took us to the bridge where the Commanding Officer , NNS Unity was seen directing the affairs. Other visiting senior officers who represented their respective units, watched the ocean with keen interest , while other personnel were seen taking jottings of every needed information bordering on the movement of the ship. At intervals , one of the personnel would be heard calling out the speed at which NNS UNITY as well as other ships were moving.
At night, the ships were divided to different designations for patrol of the Gulf of Guinea region , with NNS UNITY assigned to Area Papa, to look out for any ship on illegal fishery and conduct Visit Board Search and Seizure , VBS on any caught. But as at 10pm, no ship was found within our assigned area of patrol, which extended till the next day (Thursday). We however retired to bed, leaving the officers to continue with what they knew how to do best.
Next day ,we were woken up by the sound of a pipe, a device distinctive to the sea, followed by an announcement of waki, waki ( requesting everyone to wake up). Before we could tidy up, another call came, inviting us to assemble at the helicopter deck, where a simulation exercise on search, locate and interdict a suspected vessel hijacked by pirates. We watched with keen interest as an helicopter which was part of the exercise lowered on the helicopter deck of our ship to pick a supposed injured person to a safer destination for treatment.
On the other hand,operatives of the Special Boat Serve, SBS were lowered from a boat in NNS UNITY, to the supposed hijacked ship ,to rescue and possible arrest of the pirates. As this simulating exercise was going on, I kept asking myself whether a real life scenario would be that easy.
Also, the ships conducted another operation known as maneuvering. Finally, the exercise was concluded with a last operation known as Man and cheers. I watched with admiration as all participating ships lined up and took turns to greet the most senior officer on board NNS Okpabana .
Giving a highlight on the exercise as we sailed back to the Naval Dockyard, Victoria Island, the Commanding Officer , NNS UNITY, Captain Anthony Kujoh, said : “ We have just witnessed exercise Eku KUGBE which means in the local parlance, specifically Isoko language, cooperation . The sea is a global common, where events or incidents have global implication. This exercise is one of Nigerian Navy’s contributions towards enhancing international cooperation. It is also aimed at building synergy among other countries of the world in combating crimes, since most maritime crimes are of transnational in nature . What is means is that crimes in any part of the sea or any part of the world have effect on other parts of the world. So, we need a collective effort to address it.
We started with the fleet maneuver, a gunnery exercise where all the participatory navies had an opportunity of taking a lead at the designated target . We also had two scenarios: one that borders on intercepting a vessel that was engaged on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and the second was to interdict a motor tanker that was hijacked by pirates.
Though no arrest was made but what we were able to achieve during that patrol was deterrence. I think our presence at sea is able to send a message to the bad guys”, Kujoh said.
By 3.15pm, on June 1, 2018 our ship berthed at the Naval Dockyard , Victoria Island. One take from the exercise was that it was able to achieve deterrence, as criminals stayed out of the vicinity while it lasted. But there is need for regular patrol along Nigeria’s corridor of the GoG, as only that can deter criminals to a large extent, from carrying out their nefarious activities.