A special press briefing recently conducted by Chief of Naval Staff Vice Admiral Vice Admiral Ibok-Ete Ekwe Ibas highlighted both the successes recorded by the Nigeria Navy [NN] in 2019 and the serious challenges of securing this country’s maritime environment. The Navy Chief mentioned three special operations conducted by NN in 2019 to tackle various threats. They include Choke Point and Management Control Regime in order to choke the land origins of maritime crimes. Ten houseboats otherwise known as Naval Security Stations were deployed in the creeks. In 2019 they arrested 70 large wooden boats and destroyed another 463.
NN also pursued Operation River Sweep aimed at illegal refineries in Delta, Bayelsa and Rivers States. In 2019, 378 such refineries were destroyed while 62 speed boats and 275 suspects were arrested for suspected involvement in illegal bunkering or petroleum product smuggling. This number was less than that of the previous year because swamp buggy operations destroyed identified illegal refineries and made their reactivation difficult. NN also carried Operations Tsare Teku and Calm Waters meant to combat attacks on shipping. While Operation Calm Waters focused on backwater operations, Tsare Teku focused on operations beyond the coastline. Many pirate attacks were successfully thwarted in Nigerian waters, though some were successful.
Under Operation Swift Response, NN tackled smuggling in Nigeria’s maritime waters. It confiscated 10 trucks of 33,000 litres of petroleum products valued at N80 million and seized 14,056 bags of rice worth N210 million. The Navy also carried out round the clock surveillance of Nigeria’s maritime space using the Regional Maritime Awareness Capability (RMAC) and Falcon Eye facilities in addition to the use of vessels and helicopters. NN’s 24 Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) sensor sites across the Nigerian coastline ensured effective surveillance of all vessels in our territorial waters whether fitted with Automatic Identification System (AIS) or not. They enabled the Navy to arrest 40vessels including 17 fishing vessels and 25 barges for contravening Nigerian Fisheries Act in 2019. NN ships spent a total of 22,262 hours on patrol last year, an increase from the previous year.
While the Navy’s successes last year were impressive, the size of the nation’s maritime environment shows the enormity of the challenges. Nigeria has a coastline of about 420 nautical miles [nm] and 200nm Exclusive Economic Zone [EEZ], a total 84,000 square nautical miles. Nigeria must also police the entire Gulf of Guinea, which is 574,800 square nautical miles with a coastline of 2,874nm.
This vast maritime area contains this country’s network of oil and gas installations. Nigeria relies on the sea for 90 per cent of its imports and exports. Among others, the Navy listed security threats in the maritime environment to include piracy, sea robbery, crude oil theft, illegal oil bunkering, illegal unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, militancy and hostage taking. Piracy continues to threaten the nation’s maritime commerce in the Gulf of Guinea, including recent cases of kidnapping of ships’ crew for ransom. This insecurity affects shipping costs and insurance premiums, resulting in higher costs of goods and shipping services.
For its part, smuggling poses an economic threat to Nigeria with its perpetrators exploiting the vastness of Nigeria’s maritime environment. Illegal fishing has adversely affected Nigeria’s economic prosperity. The most worrisome maritime crime however is crude oil theft, illegal refinery operations and kidnapping of crew for ransom. While there has been a significant reduction in these crimes, there is still a lot of ground to cover.
Needless to state, warships and other fighting vessels are costly to acquire. Maintaining them is also a costly business, as is training of naval personnel and equipping of naval facilities. However, compared to the national economic and security benefits of securing our maritime environment, this is an investment well worth it and we urge the government to invest more in naval assets in years to come. We should also aim in years to come to enhance our local capacity to build and maintain ships, including naval vessels.