Nigeria: May 29, 2003


Nigeria's waters are unsafe places for merchant ships. The Nigerian Navy has impounded two ships and 12 barges impounded in the past month, with over 2000 metric tons of stolen Niger delta crude oil. The crude oil was handed over to the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), while all of the suspects were handed over to the police for prosecution. However, a Shell Oil spokesman overflew the area earlier in the month and counted 33 barges loaded with stolen oil in the waters. 

During the May 20th renaming ceremony of the NNS Delta naval base, Navy Captain Olufemi Ogunjimi told the Delta State that the Navy was committed to making Nigeria's waterways safe for navigation. He vowed that the men under his command would not allow miscreants, sea pirates, thieves and illegal bunkerers to seize the waterways as that is the only link between here and the hinterland.

The latest incident saw the 16-man crew of the offshore support ship MAERSK SHIPPER freed on 4 May, having being held hostage since being boarded on April 15 off the Nigerian Coast and only after paying a $2,500 ransom in local currency. Hostage taking involving the Nigerian oil industry and foreign employees has become commonplace and while ransom payments have probably been made in the past, the Maersk incident is unusual and could possibly set a bad precedent. 

Most of the incidents are fairly stupid larceny attempts, but the crews are generally unarmed and left in more dangerous positions than if they were issued pistols. In the early morning hours of April 28th, an unidentified tanker anchored off Lagos port was boarded by three persons from a 14 ft boat (who threw threw empty glass bottles at the watchman when discovered). One of the intruders had earlier been observed to board the ship under the pretext of selling goods.

Intimidation sometimes works as a deterrent. The Royal Dutch/Shell company reported on April 27, they received threats from "criminal elements" to blow up their storage and processing vessel "SEA EAGLE". The company retaliated in the past by placing notices in local newspapers announcing that the criminals' plans were well known, a tactic which has reportedly worked in the past to prevent damage.

Armed guards can make a difference. Twelve persons in a speedboat attempted to board an unidentified offshore support vessel at 8.30 AM on April 25, off the coast. The guard on board fired warning shots and the intruders withdrew. Later that afternoon, another unidentified cargo ship was subject to five unsuccessful boarding attempts, using gunfire to try and stop it, while underway along part of the Benin River. Despite the reported failure to stop the vessel, the would-be pirates were reportedly paid off in cash, provisions and diesel oil from the ship. 

The last string of ship-jackings was back in November 2002, when at least five fishing trawlers were attacked in the space of one week by pirates operating in Nigeria's coastal waters. Around 20 men in masks and painted faces on two high speed power boats boarded the fishing trawlers when they were at anchor. - Adam Geibel


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