Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Armed Guards Banned as Pirate Threat to Oil Tankers and Cargo Vessels Continues

Nigerian Navy Act Whilst Crew Detained in India Enter Fifth Year of Incarceration
Shipping News Feature
WORLDWIDE – NIGERIA – INDIA – As the International Chamber of Commerce's International Maritime Bureau (ICC IMB) releases it latest piracy figures for the year so far, Intertanko and Bimco recently met with Rear Admiral Osondo, Nigerian Navy’s Head of Standards and Transformation, who was directed to brief the Nigerian Chief of Naval Staff on issues related to security in Nigerian waters. In his briefing, the Admiral expanded on the steps taken by the Nigerian Navy to effectively police its waters, stating that they have started to station floating operating bases in the Niger Delta and, coupled with a new monitoring process supplied by the US Navy, are able to interdict pirates at a very early stage.

The main briefing point was that Nigerian officials are now only allowing naval guards to operate in the area on board Nigerian naval-operated armed vessels. The navy wished to be explicit and make it crystal clear that armed guards are no longer allowed on board merchant vessels. This rule applies to anyone carrying a firearm, whether from the navy, police or any other agency civilian or military. They warned that any vessel found with armed guards on board would be detained and if the guards were from the navy, then they would face sanctions.

To provide security in Nigerian waters, the Nigerian navy has entered into agreements with private security companies to supply armed escort vessels. These escort vessels are painted in Nigerian navy colours, have a Nigerian navy designation and will be crewed by, and under the command of, the navy. Civilian contractors would be on board to assist in maintenance and other general duties. Some 20 such companies are now operating under MoUs covering such deployments. The escort vessels must carry much heavier weapons than can be carried by a mariner and so the navy claims they afford greater protection. This change follows on from at least seven incidents where teams of four armed guards have been outgunned and overpowered by pirates.

Both Bimco and Intertanko noted that it was stressed on several occasions that no private security company has the right to place armed guards on board merchant vessels. If any Member is approached by a company stating that they can, then the documentation supporting this should be reviewed very closely and liaison sought with the industry associations on this matter, at which point work can begin in coordination with the Nigerian navy to authenticate any such documentation.

None of this is of course new as our article in February 2015 illustrated. Shipping lines were warned at that time that armed vessels would be liable to detention, and indeed some were despite a deteriorating security position. The troubled history of the Niger Delta has been well documented and many of the incidents have their roots in the political situation after energy groups first started exploiting the reserves of oil in the region whilst locally they stood accused of serious environmental crimes and the authorities faced charges of collusion and corruption.

Oil extraction has certainly caused devastation to the region and the military are often accused of collusion in ignoring the theft of oil from tankers. More relevant material can be found in an exhibition on the subject which won the First Prize at the Bayeux Festival for the War Correspondent and the Nikon prize in 2010 for French photojournalist Veronique de Viguerie.

The threat of piracy in Nigeria remains according to figures released by the ICC IMB, which reported a total of 20 incidents of piracy and armed robbery against all types of vessels in the waters off the coast of Nigeria. Guns were reportedly used in 18 of the incidents and vessels were underway in 17 of 20 reports. 39 of the 49 crewmembers kidnapped globally occurred off Nigerian waters in seven separate incidents. Other crew kidnappings in 2017 have been reported 60 nautical miles off the coast of Nigeria.

The possibility of possible incarceration faced by armed guards of is of course one not to be taken lightly as the crew of the MV Seaman Guard Ohio can attest to. The 35 men, including 6 Britons, were held by the Indian authorities on weapons charges exactly five years ago and continue to languish in jail, thought by many to be a set of political pawns to deter any more such expeditions.

Looking globally, a total of 121 incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships were reported in the first nine months of 2017. Whilst the figures reported by the IMB presents a declines in pirate related activities as compared to the same period the year before, underreporting remains a prevalent concern.

The seeming decline also covers the fact that there is a continuing concern over attacks in the Gulf of Guinea and in South East Asia. There is a reported increase in attacks off the coast of Venezuela and other security incidents against vessels off Libya, including an attempted boarding in the last quarter, which highlights the need for vigilance in other areas. In total, 92 vessels were boarded, 13 were fired upon, there were 11 attempted attacks and five vessels were hijacked in the first nine months of 2017.

Photo: Earlier this year the Nigerian Navy destroyed three illegal oil refineries situated in the Niger Delta and associated rivers.