It may be one of the world’s major shipping routes, but the Gulf of Guinea region has been wracked by criminality for decades. The waters off West Africa are plagued by piracy, sea robbery, crude oil theft and kidnap for ransom, as well as other crimes such as illegal fishing, which affects the region’s food chain.
Maritime crime is a major drain on Nigeria and other West African countries, with the threat of boardings costing shipping millions in so-called War Risk Area premiums.
A 2020 report by the non-profit Oceans Beyond Piracy shows that these insurance policies against piracy cost Nigeria-bound ships transiting the Gulf of Guinea $55.5 million in that year alone. Thirty-five per cent of ships transiting the area also carried additional kidnap and ransom insurance, totalling more than $100 million.
Faced with such crippling barriers on trade, Nigeria’s highest policy-making body, the Federal Executive Council (FEC), has approved the Integrated National Security and Waterways Protection Infrastructure through which the country plans to rid its waters of the increasing menace of piracy and other related maritime crimes. Dubbed the ‘Deep Blue Project’, the scheme includes a $195 million maritime security contract with an Israeli firm, Homeland Security International (HLSI), to tackle maritime crime on land, air and sea.
Funded by the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), with HLSI as technical partners, the Deep Blue Project will see the establishment of a new surveillance system, new weapons and anti-piracy patrol vessels, and the training of more personnel to patrol Nigeria’s territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Key to the project will be the new C4i Command, Control, Communication, Computer, and Intelligence Centre, which serves as the central nervous system for intelligence gathering and analysis. Other assets under the project include, 16 armoured vehicles for coastal patrol, and about 600 specially trained troops, known as the Maritime Security Unit (MSU), for land operations.
There will also be two new Special Mission Aircraft for surveillance of the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone, three Special Mission Helicopters for search and rescue, and four Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. The sea assets consist of two Special Mission Vessels and 17 Fast Interceptor Boats, among others.
Above: A helicopter lands on board a ship during a five-day military exercise in 2019.
Nigeria became the first country in the West and Central Africa sub region to introduce a specific law against piracy, when it passed the Suppression of Piracy and Other Maritime Offences (SPOMO) Bill in June last year.
Speaking in Lagos recently at the project’s flag-off, Nigeria’s President Buhari reiterated Nigeria’s commitment to ending the piracy scourge, not only in the country but also across the Gulf of Guinea region.
He disclosed that more than 10 pirates had been convicted since the SPOMO Act came into effect in 2019, and said the new security deal would further boost the federal government’s campaign to rid the country’s waters of all forms of crime.
‘I am confident that the project, which provides a robust maritime security architecture, will enhance maritime domain awareness capability, and improve law enforcement action,’ he added.
‘This flag-off is an important step in the continuing shift in strategic action about regional maritime security.
It will serve as a benchmark for member states in the Gulf of Guinea and other relevant stakeholders to further develop innovative strategies, and align efforts with the subsisting framework to improve maritime security in the region.
‘With shipping accounting for over 80 per cent of transport requirements of the global economy, concerted efforts and innovative actions are required to address attendant security challenges.
This intervention, no doubt, will facilitate a conducive environment for the maritime sector to thrive and contribute to the diversify Nigeria’s economy.’
The Nigerian president also called for greater synergy among Gulf of Guinea member nations to further boost Nigeria’s efforts to secure her waters and beyond, adding that the assemblage of the new maritime security assets was coming at a critical time when global discussions are on piracy activities and the new dimension it has taken in the region.
Kitack Lim, Director General of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), commended Nigeria’s effort to stem piracy in the Gulf of Guinea region, saying the country is sending a ‘strong and valuable message’ to the global community.
He also commended the Director-General of NIMASA, Bashir Jamoh, for his brave and dynamic approach to maritime security.
‘I would also like to reiterate my congratulations to the Nigerian Navy on the successful capture and arrest of pirates from the fishing trawler Hailufeng II, and more recently on the rescue of the crewmembers of the containership Tommi Ritscher,’ said the IMO director general.
‘Those actions, together with all the other initiatives you highlighted in our meeting, including progress with the Deep Blue Project, send a strong and valuable message to the international community with respect to the considerable efforts your government is making to curb piracy and armed robbery against ships in the Gulf of Guinea.’
Above: Nigerian naval members sit in a vessel during Obangame Express, a multi-national maritime exercise involving 33 countries off the coast of Lagos on March 20, 2019. Getty.
The Nigerian Navy recently detained a vessel, MFV Marine 707, which was engaged in illegal fishing in the country’s waters.
Another 10 pirates who attacked and boarded a Chinese vessel, MV Hailufang II, on May 15 off the Ivory Coast were also arrested by the navy after the pirates approached Nigerian waters.
With improved maritime security in Nigeria and the Gulf of Guinea, the NIMASA director general is campaigning for the cancellation of War Risk Insurance premiums on Nigeria-bound shipping.
Jamoh is currently galvanising regional powers ahead of the Gulf of Guinea Maritime Collaboration Forum and Shared Awareness and Deconfliction Conference meeting scheduled in July.
He has called on the bloc to sustain the progress already made in the anti-piracy war, and wants regional and international navies to join forces to combat maritime crimes in West African waters.