•How ships were arrested with illegal arms and ammunition
By Evelyn Usman
Worldwide, 201 incidents of maritime piracy and armed robbery were recorded last year, according to the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre, a figure that indicated a rise when compared to 180 recorded the previous year.
Reports of attacks on seafarers along the Gulf of Guinea’s corridor had a larger ratio of this figure, with other acts of criminalities such as trafficking in human, arms smuggling, crude oil theft among others, holding sway according to the report.
To address the worrisome trend, the United States of America initiated a multinational maritime exercise code named Exercise Obangame Express, with the aim of fostering regional cooperation and information sharing among navies in the Gulf of Guinea, towards tackling maritime criminalities in the corridor. The ninth edition of the exercise which was hosted by the Nigerian Navy, was conducted last month, with over 30 countries of the world participating.
Barely three weeks after Exercise Obange Express, Operation Junction Rain, OJN, an operational phase of the United States African Command’s African Maritime Law Enforcement Partnership, (AMLEP) was launched in Nigeria, with the aim of enhancing the maritime enforcement capabilities of African partner nations and increase interoperability between the United States navies/Coast Guards and the Nigerian Navy.
This time around, it was not just an exercise like last month’s but a real operation, by way of taking the battle to water criminals’ haven, with a view to making the nation’s maritime domain and the Gulf of Guinea corridor unconducive for their nefarious activities.
Vanguard’s Assistant Crime Editor, Evelyn Usman, who was on board one of the Nigerian Navy’s warships, NNS Thunder, writes about the one-week operation, the arrest and modus oparandi of sea robbers.
For the first time in the history of the Nigerian Navy and its fight against maritime crimes on the nation’s water and along its corridor on the Gulf of Guinea, other maritime law enforcement agencies like the Nigeria Customs Service, Nigeria Immigration Service, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, NDLEA , the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, The National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, NAPTIP , the Nigerian Police, the Nigeria Ports Authority, NPA, the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, NIMASSA, the Ministry of External Affairs, among others, were incorporated into Operation Junction Rain.
Six warships: NNS Centenary, NNS Thunder, NNS Sagbama, NNS Karadua, NNS Nguru and NNS Ekulu, were deployed by the Nigerian Navy for the exercise. In addition were the United States Coast Guard Ship (THETIS) two NIMASSA boats and two helicopters. Destination was the maritime space within the Western Naval Command Area of Responsibility.
The stern looks on the faces of operatives of the US Navy Special Boats Service and its Nigerian counterparts, showed that all was set to confront any intruder at sea.
Briefing journalists on the essence of the exercise shortly before take-off at the Naval Dockyard, Victoria Island, Lagos, the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Ibok Ete-Ibas, said, “Operations of this nature are critical towards protecting and sustaining the resources and huge potentials of the Gulf of Guinea in general and the Nigeria’s Exclusive Economic Zone in particular.
“In addition, it will enhance the cross fertilization of ideas on best practices across a broad spectrum of maritime operations including safety at sea, inspection and search procedures amongst others”.
Participating naval ships according to the CNS who was represented by the Flag Officer Commanding Western naval Command, Rear Admiral Oladele Daji, would interrogate and conduct Visit Board Search and Seizure (VBSS) on identified vessel of Interest and escort vessels that have been cited for maritime crimes back to the harbor for prosecution.
Thereafter, participating ships sailed from their different jetties, with NNS Thunder leaving from NNS Beecroft jetty, with different thoughts of what the seeming confrontation with pirates would look like, should there be a showdown. Ships were assigned to different locations to conduct a sustained patrol within the designated maritime space. NNS Thunder patrolled area Fox Jort on the first day, (Thursday). But there was no interrogation of any ship until the next day, (Friday) where four ships : MV Lilly, MV SIRIAL Laurel, MT ASHAVI and MV Florida 1 were interrogated . But none of them was boarded for search, as they did not portray any cause for that.
Patrol was intensified and stretched to the Bight of Benin Republic, where another ship, Matrix ASA, was interrogated at about 3.07pm, on Saturday.
At this point, the speed of NNS Thunder was reduced, owing to change of weather which affected visibility. A standard fog signal and navigational light were applied, with Naval personnel on watch at the Portside and Starboard side of the ship, from where they alerted their colleagues in the bridge of the presence of any ship sighted afar off, with the aid of their binoculars.
Patrol was conducted around Area G, J and E
Questions during interrogation of ships bothered on the name of the vessel, its call sign, port of registration, last port of call, destination, number and nationality of crew, cargo type, cargo quantity, bunkering permit, availability of fishing license and expiring date for fishing at designated point.
If any of the ships’ response contradicted what was on the original document, particularly Naval permit, such ship would be boarded and search conducted on it.
Between Monday and Tuesday, 14 ships were interrogated by NNS Thunder. They were: MV Grand Cotonou, MT Hanson, MV Milan Trader, MT Ortakoy and MT Hugh Sea. Others were: MV KOTA SURIA, MV CMA CGM Jamaica, MT C- Horaison, MT Saint James , MT Marlin Acqua Marine, MT Central, MT Prince Joseph 1, MV Chang Hang Huai Hei and MV Zim- Rio-.
During the voyage, over 100 vessels were interrogated, with about 40 boarded out of which two arrests were made. Arrests of two vessels were made by the NNS Centenary and one of the NIMASSA’s boats during the operation.
In the first arrest, an American, four Greeks and five Nigerians on board Sea Angel 3 boat were arrested over questionable dealings bothering on illegal arms and ammunitions. Recovered from the suspects were sophisticated weapons and military kits .The Officer-in-charge of Tactical Command, OTC, Commodore Dickson Olisemenogor, who was onboard NNS Centenary, explained that the arrest and startling discovery were made during a search conducted on the ship.
The arrested vessel, according to him, was sighted via the Navy’s Sea Vision through its Regional Maritime Awareness Centre, even though the arrested vessel did not beam its electronic gadget while at sea, to indicate its position. This action which is against the International Maritime Organisation, is a common feature used by criminals on sea, to avoid being detected.
This attracted the Navy which contacted the ship and subjected its Captain to interrogation. Not satisfied with the Captain’s response, particularly as the ship had similar colour with the Nigerian Navy’s, a search was conducted where a startling discovery of assaulted riffles (Bernelli MR-1) with 1000 rounds of ammunition and various military kits were found inside the ship.
The suspects included three Greeks, one American and five Nigerians
Another arrest was made on Tuesday, April 16, 2019, by the NIMASSA Enforcement Vessel component. The vessel, MV Adonai, a tug boat and MV Bela, a barge, were allegedly involved in towing operation. MV Bela was discovered not to have relevant document nor NIMASSA guidelines for operating within Nigeria’s maritime domain and IMO number. MV Adonai had six crew, all Nigerians while Bela had three crew, all Nigerians too.
Preliminary investigation revealed that the Tug Adonai was towing MV Bela barge from Ghana where it was allegedly bought as a scrap to be pieced together in Nigeria.
Vanguard observed that ships were interrogated more in the evening, an indication that movement of ships were done more at that time.
One would have expected more arrests to be made owing to the seeming secrecy with which the operation was conducted,. But from the foregoing, it was evident that some criminals who carry out nefarious activities on the nation’s waterways could have got hints of the operation.
Information during the operation, revealed that some of them who sighted the warships from their devices, bolted to South Africa and Garbon, to evade possible arrest.
The arrested suspects and exhibits were handed over to the Nigeria Police, last Friday, at the NNS Beecroft parade ground, Apapa, a day after the end of the patrol.
In his handover remark, Officer in Tactical Command, OTC of Operation Junction Rain 2019, Commodore Dickson Olisemenogor, explained that “Before now, we have made arrests and handed them over to the relevant agencies but somehow, activities of these criminals continued on the sea. So, this time around we made a detailed interrogation and search of ships at sea within the period of the operation.. The mission of the suspects on the sea was unknown. Further investigation by the police would ascertain that’. He further explained that the inclusion of other maritime law enforcement agencies in the operation was to expedite actions during prosecution.
Receiving the suspects and the recovered arms and ammunition, Deputy Commissioner of Police, INTERPOL, Alagbon, DCP Tunji Akingbola, said the outcome of the investigation would be made public.
He said: “I have been instructed by the Inspector-General of Police to take over all the exhibits and suspects for further investigation. I want to assure the public that we are going to have a discreet investigation and the suspects will be brought to book accordingly.
Shortly after the handover, the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Ibas Ibok-Ete , at the closing ceremony of OJR 2019, held at the NNS Quorrah auditorium, described the operation as unique, “in the sense that over 21 Ministries, Departments and Agencies took part in planning events and coordinating conferences that led to what we witnessed at sea during the period.
“Permit me to reiterate the essence of hosting this operation at this time. Primarily the current security breaches in the maritime space around the Gulf of Guinea is of serious concern to Nigeria and the United States of America as well as the larger global community.
“What is perhaps more worrisome is that much of the activities associated with the evolving threat scenario around the Gulf of Guinea maritime domain are directed at economic lifeline of both littoral and landlocked states.
“In other words, the scourge of various forms of illegalities such as illegal Unreported and Unregulated fishing (IUU) sea robbery, piracy, crude oil theft, poaching, human and illicit trafficking in weapons and drugs, among others, constitute serious challenges to the development of the region. What is common among these maritime threats is that they have since become transnational and have evolved beyond the scope and capability of one nation to solve.
“Accordingly, it behoves on nations and national MDAs to collaborate in tackling these threats to security in the maritime expanse”
With the operation concluded, one expects the Nigerian Navy to sustain its presence at sea, in order to ward off criminals and other illegalities at sea. If the Nigerian Navy can achieve this feat at the inception of such operation, with limited ships at its disposal, there is need for the Federal Government to make more platforms available to the Navy to comb the vast maritime domain, if the clamour for crimes on the nation’s waterways to be brought to its barest minimal will be attained.