In Nigeria, it is normal to detain ships and allow them to sink or rot away. In this piece, this story looks at the possible causes of this anomaly and the way forward
The nation’s maritime industry woke up on April 3, 2022, to yet another sad story of a gunboat, named NIMASA/Barugu, going down the waters at the Kirikiri area of Lagos State.
The tragic event, which is still generating controversy from maritime practitioners due to the circumstances surrounding the ugly incident, was said to belong to Global West Vessels Specialist Limited.
In the video circulating online, seafarers onboard the adjoining vessels blamed Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency for negligence, saying that they had been reporting the impending disaster to the agency for a long time without any response.
NIMASA, just like an average Nigerian agency, in a statement, quickly denied the accusation, saying that both the owners of the gunboat and the boat itself were under litigation. The agency also noted that the gunboat and the owner were still under the custody of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.
It is no longer news that there are so many ships at different locations on the Nigerian waters under the custody of both the EFCC and the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria for one offence or the other.
Neither is it news that some of these ships that are still under detention have either not been found guilty or have been discharged by courts of competent jurisdiction. The news, however, is that some of these ships have started rotting away and some have even sunk.
In 2021, the Punch had reported that 90 ships seized by the EFCC were sinking in waters across the country, while many of those temporarily and permanently forfeited by suspected corrupt persons were rotting away due to lack of maintenance.
Sources at the House of Representatives said that the Nigerian Navy, which was mandated to oversee the seized, recovered or forfeited assets, had no budgetary provision to maintain them, leaving them damaged and eventually submerged.
According to the report, most of the vessels were in Lagos State, which was worst hit by the abandonment.
A maritime lawyer, Emeka Akabugo, told our correspondent in a chat in Lagos that there were recurring losses and wastes following the seizure of critical maritime assets by some law enforcement agencies.
Akabugo maintained that there had been an increasing number of cases where active ships detained by some government agencies were wasted away.
“There have been an increasing number of cases where otherwise active ships detained by Navy, EFCC, AMCON and even NIMASA have ended up rotting away as constructive total losses under the custody of such agencies. This is hardly salutary, as such ships, apart from offering critical services for the industry, employ hundreds of persons directly and indirectly,” he said.
He noted that it was important to put a framework in place not just for custody but equally for management of such assets during the pendency of either investigation or litigation.
“It is, therefore, crucial for a framework to be put in place not just for custody but equally for management of such assets during the pendency of either investigation or litigation. This should have been part of the Harmonised Standard Operating Procedures on Arrest, Detention and Prosecution of Vessels and Persons in Nigeria’s maritime environment 2016.
“Unfortunately, that was not the case as the SOPs fell short of proposing an actionable and legal framework. It remains a challenge which could be championed by a collective initiative of all relevant law enforcement agencies. NIMASA, on its part, needs to urgently issue and start implementation of the Nigeria Ship Detention Regulations, which has long been prepared further to its statutory mandate.”
Meanwhile, the President of the Shipowners Association of Nigeria, Mkgeroge Oyung, blamed lawyers for the high rate of seized ships, explaining that they were not acting as though they understood the intricacies of maritime law.
“Lawyers are the problems; they are the ones that get hired and they are members of the Maritime Lawyers Association. They are supposed to know what the intricacies of maritime law is, and they are the custodians.
“Vessels are rotting away and AMCON is the biggest ship owner in Africa because it has so many ships in its custody that are rotting away.
“Many ships are sinking because of them. Even the Trinity that sank was a ship under AMCON control. My question is this, why did they not go arresting aeroplanes?”
He questioned why the same harsh treatment given to the maritime sector was not extended to the aviation industry.
According to him, shipping was 95 per cent of the global trade, stressing that the maritime industry was getting the hardest part of the bargain.
“Arik is under AMCON control, likewise Aero Contractors, and they are even making new plans. Why is the system that they use in aviation not workable in maritime?
“Aviation is like 0.1 per cent of global trade, banking is 0.01 per cent of global trade, shipping is 95 per cent of global trade, but shipping is an area that so many people don’t understand. It is only a ship operator that fully has a responsibility to know, understand, and is knowledgeable in the maritime business.
“The rest are like the proverbial five blind people who were asked to touch an elephant and they explained what they touched in their own different ways. These are the problems that we face, that even the people regulating us do not understand fully.”
Another shipowner, Captain Dada Olaniyi Olabinjo, also lamented that despite meeting the bail conditions, his vessel, MT Adeline Jombo, had been detained by the Nigerian Navy since 2018.
Olabinjo explained that he was arrested alongside his $1m vessel in 2018 when the vessel was accused of bunkering.
“My vessel was arrested together with myself in 2018, but the court has granted bail to the ship. However, up till now, it has not been released. By the time they release the vessel, there will be nothing inside it again.”
Olabinjo said he was detained for 15 months alongside his vessel but was later released, yet his vessel was still confiscated even after meeting bail conditions.
“The ship was acquired at about $1m. We got it on Dare Boat Charter, which means you have the right of the owner. You can also crew the ship and all that, but you are not the owner. And the vessel was arrested on the 12th of September 2018 by the Navy. It was alleged that the vessel was used for highjack, which was the basis for arresting me, the ship, and everybody. We remained in detention for 15 months and there was no charge.”
The shipowner also disclosed that in 2003, one of his ships had also been arrested and the court awarded N20m damages in his favour against the Nigerian Navy but up till now, the Navy was yet to obey the court order.
“Now, I was released on the 3rd of December 2019 and the ship was granted bail in 2020. Up till now, the Navy has not released the ship. The court gave us conditions before it would be released, and we met all the conditions but they are yet to release the ship.
“In 2003, one of my ships was arrested and for three and a half years the ship was with them, we went to court and we won. The court even awarded N20m worth of damages to us against the Navy, but up till today, they have not paid.
“So, it is only in Nigeria that you have a government institution like the Nigerian Navy that is behaving like an emperor that is above the law. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian Navy investigating a ship. All over the world, the Navy investigates ships.”
Also speaking a former President of the Nigerian Association of Master Mariners, Captain Tony Olugbude, fingered irresponsible port agents as the reason for the delay of ships.
“What I could say is that there are quite a lot of reasons for ships being abandoned. Indebtedness is one of them. Some are also due to failure to abide by certain rules and port regulations. You know there are lots of port regulations about discharging the things you will do and what not to do at the ports.
“And then, all these are tied to the type of agents that are responsible for the ships. You know before ships come in, the agent must book and it must be a recognised agent that can be held responsible to cater for this. If you have a bad agent, the crew will leave it abandoned. But the major thing is that these are ships that do not have worthy and reliable port agents. If the agent is port worthy, he/ she should be held responsible,” he concluded.