By Tonye Williams

The recent Marine Notice issued by the management of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) to ship masters, ship owners, and other operators whose vessels currently enjoy some level of security at the designated anchorage, seems to be a signal to a fresh battle over the controversy around the Secured Anchorage Area, SAA.

The latest move comes despite the intervention by the National Assembly on an issue, which had almost torn apart frontline operators at the Lagos Anchorage District, Ocean Marine Solution Limited, OMSL, and the management of NPA under the leadership of Hadiza Bala Usman, the Managing Director.

At the peak of the dispute between the operator and the authority, the Senate intervened to maintain the status quo, thus restricting the NPA management from taking any action that will stop OMSL from carrying out its activities.

But the issuance of a marine notice on the anchorage is seen as not only controversial, but bound to generate fresh crises. Above all, it is perceived as an attempt to undermine the Senate. Hence concerned stakeholders think it is uncalled for, and may further impact the nation’s economy negatively even as it struggles to survive the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

It is important to emphasize that the collaboration between the Ocean Marine Solution Limited, and the Nigerian Navy, predates the emergence of the current NPA management. Although some industry watchers have attributed the unfolding scenario to a lack of understanding of the importance of the services being rendered by OMSL in the nation’s maritime industry in particular, and the Gulf of Guinea in general, others suspect some Nigerian factors.

Those who hold the latter view wonder why the NPA management after the decision of the Senate, still insists that it is not bound by such. The NPA administration, while explaining the latest marine notice it issued, said: “A Committee of the National Assembly can only play an advisory role in this matter, NPA is not compelled to abide by their directive.”

What this portrays in its entirety is an attempt to create a face-off between the Authority and the National Assembly, which outcomes would not be favourable to national interest. Interestingly, the management of OMSL has remained calm over the controversy, and has refused to join issues with anybody, except for honouring the invitation of the National Assembly.

Moreover, for national interest, OMSL has continued to provide security services at the anchorage to the admiration of ship owners and operators that anchor their vessels at the designated area.

Hence, the latest marine notice is perceived as scorning the National Assembly, and trying to flex muscles with the lawmakers, by violating its directive as reflected in the committee’s submission.

While the NPA is the agency responsible for the administration of the ports across the country, it is not statutorily bound to provide the much-needed security for the safety of vessels in the maritime sector, especially when it comes to unsecured anchorage areas under dispute.

Worse still, it becomes more worrisome when the Nigerian Navy that is saddled with the constitutional responsibility of providing the required security is in collaboration with OMSL on the issues at stake; thus, underpinning some underlying factors that are being presented to the public.

Meanwhile, the management of OMSL is also willing and ready to partner with the NPA on the secured anchorage area for the larger interest of the nation and the economy.

Furthermore, stakeholders believe that if the security arrangement in the Lagos Anchorage District is replicated in the Eastern ports, it will curb the issue of insecurity currently being experienced in that axis, and boost the Eastern economy.

Moreover, since OMSL does not have any direct business dealings with NPA, as the relationship with the Nigerian Navy is purely for security purposes and not port operations, the stakeholders believe the port management can, and should, better concentrate on the more pressing issues. These include the challenges of bad port access roads, ports congestion, and instituting a cost-effective and efficient system.

It is also noteworthy that given the collaboration between OMSL and the Navy, vessels at the anchorage area cannot be arrested.

Recall that the Ports Authority, late last year, warned vessels against anchoring at the SAA, and had threatened to arrest any ship found within the axis, but the threat did not survive as ship owners preferred to go for proven security facilities even at a higher cost rather than risk the danger inherent in open locations.

Threat to national economy

According to the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel Report, piracy, is the fundamental reason for the anchorage initiative, and poses a great challenge for the country, as the 2019 report showed that Nigeria lost approximately $2.8 billion in 2018, due to crude oil theft and maritime crimes.

A maritime analyst, Emeka Ejiofor, who spoke on the renewed efforts to curb OMSL’s involvement in the SAA project, said: “The disruption of the SAA arrangement operated by OMSL might cause the shipping community a huge loss, as ships may be compelled to divert goods destined to Nigeria to other countries, which will not do the country’s economy any good.

“Diversion of goods to neighbouring countries will surely have a catastrophic effect on our economy; this is why it is surprising that this is coming from those who should know better.”

Evidence of result oriented performance

Recall that Nigeria, a couple of months ago, was saved from the negative publicity of being reputed to have unsafe sea territory, where piracy and nefarious criminal activities strived, as a combined team Nigeria Navy and OMSL rescued a Chinese cargo ship attacked in the Gulf of Guinea.

According to reports obtained from FleetMon Explorer, an international news agency, a general cargo ship ‘Huanghai Glory,’ which left the Lekki Port, east of Lagos, Nigeria, on Thursday, March 5, 2020, was reported to have been attacked and boarded by pirates at 18.20 UMT some 85 nautical miles (NM) south of Lagos.

The report said the ship and its 23 crewmembers (all Chinese), were held hostage by the pirates for about 24 hours after the matter was reported to the Nigerian authorities.

Independent investigation revealed that neither the NPA, nor the Nigerian Maritime Administration & Safety Agency (NIMASA), whom reliable sources said were adequately informed, but could not render any rescue efforts until a patrol boat (NNS SPARROW), owned and operated by the joint team of Nigeria Navy and OMSL under the SAA of the Lagos port rose to the occasion.

Narrating the incident, FleetMon Explorer stated: “General cargo ship HUANGHAI GLORY reported by Dryad Global as attacked, boarded by pirates at 18.20 UTC March 5, some 85 nm south of Lagos Nigeria, Gulf of Guinea. The ship was drifting after the attack, not responding to contact requests.”

The report said the tracking process monitored showed that, “the ship started moving at around 13.00 UTC March 6, after about an hour went adrift again. As of 15.00 UTC March 6, the ship was still adrift or moving at slow speed.”

This continued until, a “Nigerian Navy patrol boat NNS SPARROW approaching – in nearly 24 hours after alert, came in the vicinity of Lagos.”

Although FleetMon Explorer did not expatiate on how the patrol boat, NNS SPARROW, rescued the ship and its crew members, independent sources confirmed that it belonged to OMSL. It is part of the vessels purchased by the firm and hitherto deployed to the Lagos water coast to assist the Nigerian Navy to carry out patrol operations under the SSA agreement, now being subverted by the NPA management.

 Besides, the move is perceived by some stakeholders as an attempt to further increase the level of unemployment in Nigeria, while also frustrating a noble ideal established to secure the nation’s maritime space, especially the Lagos port from embarrassing situations such as what occurred on March 5th.

Findings show that the ship ‘Huanghai Glory,’ rescued by the NNS SPARROW is not under any contractual agreement with OMSL before it offered to intervene for national interest.

A source at the firm, who confirmed the incident, said: “The vessel is not our client, but the Navy beckoned on us to assist considering the amount of bureaucracy it would take for them to rescue it.”

Pirates expanding, threatening offshore oil storage

As International oil companies (IOCs) grapple with a historic plunge in crude prices, a rise in piracy is will also threaten the supply chains. The first quarter of 2020 saw a spike in piracy around the world, with 47 attacks compared to 38 for the same period last year, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB).

The Gulf of Guinea, a key production hub surrounded by eight oil exporting countries in West Africa, emerged as a global hotspot, accounting for 21 attacks so far this year, and 90% of all kidnappings at sea in 2019.

Most of the attacks occurred in the Nigerian waters, and are expected to rise in 2020 and 2021, and expand further into neighbouring states, thereby posing serious concerns for shipping and IOCs, according to research by political risk consultancy, Verisk Maplecroft.

The number of crew kidnapped off the Gulf of Guinea climbed 50% to 121 in 2019, up from 78 in 2018, and the Gulf has now surpassed more well-known areas such as the Strait of Malacca – a waterway which separates Malaysia and Singapore from Indonesia – to become the global hotspot.

“This trend will continue into 2020 and into 2021, as regional security forces hampered by security hotspot across the continent, and a lack of adequate equipment, continue to be unable to effectively tackle piracy,” Senior Africa Analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, Alexandre Raymakers, said in a research note.

“The prospect of international assistance is equally remote, as international shipping routes avoid the Gulf of Guinea. Both regional shipping and oil and gas operators should expect further disruptions to supply chains, export routes, and increased costs as more ransom payments will be necessary to liberate crews.”

Around 60% of incidents in 2019 occurred in the Nigerian territorial waters, specifically in the areas surrounding the Niger Delta, and, to a lesser extent, the shipping hub of the Port of Lagos. Raymakers highlighted that the socio-economic factors underpinning these incidents were unlikely to change.

 Risks to the oil industry

While pirates traditionally limited their operations to raiding oil tankers to sell at the black market, the collapse of the oil prices in 2015 forced them to alter their strategy, refocusing their efforts on abducting crews for ransom, Raymakers said.

Unlike their Somali counterparts, pirates in the Delta do not have use of secured ports or beaching areas for captured ships, which limits their ability to hold a vessel or its contents for ransom, and means operators in the region therefore rarely lose ships or cargo. However, they do face delays and increased costs due to the disappearance of the ship’s crews and subsequent ransom payments.

“IOCs like Shell, ExxonMobil, Total, Chevron, and Eni operating out of Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and Nigeria, are particularly at risk of experiencing sporadic, yet highly disruptive instances of piracy in their supply chains,” Raymakers said.

“While many have learned lessons from developing comprehensive security structures in order to protect their assets and personnel in Nigeria, smaller supply and service companies will be highly exposed to expanding piracy risks.”

Given the recent collapse in global oil prices due to falling demand, Verisk anticipates that pirates are likely to attempt to board static tankers used as offshore storage facilities for unsold production. The ships’ crews and cargo represent “ideal and relatively simple targets for pirates.”

The indiscriminate nature of the abductions means that pirates are likely to target IOCs’ supply chains and oil shipments leaving export terminals in the Niger Delta, as evidenced by the abduction of seven crew members on the ExxonMobil-contracted supply vessel, Zaro, off the coast of Equatorial Guinea in December 2019.

IOCs will also have to contend with the risk that pirates will seek to abduct workers, particularly expatriates, directly from oil platforms in the Niger Delta.

“The kidnapping of three oil workers from a Niger Delta Petroleum Resources (NDPR) oil platform in Ogbele, in April 2019, highlights the ease and speed with which such an operation can be conducted,” Raymakers said.

Also, three employees of Acme Energy Integrated Services Limited, which owned and managed the rig and was working on NDPR’s drilling campaign, were kidnapped, and nine others injured when unknown gunmen attacked on April 26, 2019. The three kidnapped workers were released without harm on May 28, 2019, NDPR confirmed.

“Indeed, pirates have easy access to high speed crafts and a plethora of small arms giving them the firepower and agility to conduct such operations,” Raymakers explained.

Therefore, it is not gainsaying that the company, which has been working tirelessly and quietly mitigating all pirate-associated risks in collaboration with the Nigerian Navy at no cost to the Government, is rendering its services to desired clients, who are willing and happy to do so.