Section 7(d) and (e) of the Nigerian Ports Authority Act, N126, LFN, 2004 gives the Authority powers to, amongst other things, chart, designate, own, operate and manage its Anchorage area.
In the maritime industry, an anchorage is an area suitable for ships to anchor within the approaches of a port. They are created within pilotage districts for the purpose of providing shelter for vessels calling at or departing from ports and their personnel. By the nature of the industry, every country is expected to avail shipping lines this service.
It came to our knowledge that a private company had set up and was operating a Sedefaulcure Safe Anchorage (SAA) within the Lagos Pilotage District, and we embarked on an investigation that revealed that Ocean Marine Solutions Limited (OMSL) had operated the SAA for about four years without any legal relationship with the NPA.
Investigation conducted by the Authority revealed that the area with the centre line coordinates 6° 17. 3N 3°12. OE Nautical miles offshore, came into operation after OMSL signed a memorandum of understanding with the Nigerian Navy (NN) in 2013.
Without being specific about area of coverage, the MOU gave the mandate for the security of the anchorage to the company, which informed us in the course of discussions that it invested huge sums of money for the purchase of patrol boats and engagement of personnel.
For providing this service, OMSL charged every vessel the sum of $2,500 (two thousand, five hundred dollars) for the first two days at anchor and $1,500 (one thousand, five hundred dollars) for subsequent days. At the time of the investigation, it was staggering to calculate how much OMSL must have made from this venture given that a total of eight hundred and seventeen (817) vessels called at the SAA between 1 January 2020 and 17 July 2020 only when the Authority checked.
We also discovered that each of these vessels spent a conservative average of 15 days at the anchorage. When NPA staff computed the sum that would have accrued to OMSL within these six months’ period, it came to approximately $17,974,000 (Seventeen million, nine hundred and seventy-four US Dollars).
In addition to this, records of submissions from Maersk Line, one of the leading shipping companies in the country indicated that the company paid a total sum of $1,969,443.00 (One million, nine hundred and sixty-nine thousand, four hundred and forty-three Dollars) for the first half of 2020 and $3,001,031 (three million, one thousand and thirty-one Dollars) in one year.
Inexplicably, not a dime of the entire sum generated by the company was remitted to the coffers of the NPA or any government agency. The company did not also render accounts to government agency since 2013 when it started its operation!
The operation of the facility was contrary to the laws of the nation and as if that was not bad enough, a private entity was generating significant income of which no portion was remitted to the national coffers!
Also, the operations of SSA added significantly to the operational costs for vessels calling at Nigerian ports. This had implications on the cost of doing business index and rating for the country and its ports. Furthermore, the additional cost would ultimately be transferred to the consignees and end users of the transported goods.
While we agree that additional security may be required at the anchorage, by the provisions of the Armed Forces Act and the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency Act, (2007), it is the statutory responsibility of the Nigerian Navy and the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) to provide this service at no cost to vessel owners. If these security agencies encounter any difficulties in performing their functions and feel compelled to get third party service, it should be done at zero cost to vessel owners.
It is noteworthy that at the time this matter was being investigated, the federal government had approved the sum of $195,000,000 (One hundred and ninety-five million dollars) for the Integrated National Security and Waterways Protection Infrastructure (otherwise known as the Deep Blue Project) as the security superstructure for the nation’s waterways.
NIMASA was coordinating this project which was designed to cover all the nation’s anchorages at no charge to owners. We, in fact, could not find records of any other country in the world where payments are made by vessels for security while at the anchorage within the pilotage district of the ports.
With the foregoing in view, the NPA wrote two letters to the Minister of Transportation. The letters were to intimate him of the situation and seek his intervention regarding dismantling the SAA. The Minister initiated a series of meetings between the Federal Ministry of Transportation (FMOT), the NPA, NIMASA and the Nigerian Navy. At the end of these meetings, he directed the NPA to work towards dismantling the SSA.
This directive was communicated to the Nigerian Navy. The Navy replied and confirmed their agreement with the decision to dismantle the OMSL arrangement on 23 October 2019. OMSL, however, put up a spirited fight to stop us from executing the ministerial directive. They wrote a letter to the President seeking his intervention.
They claimed to have made significant financial investment in the Anchorage. They also warned that there would be an upsurge in piracy and attacks on vessels if the SAA was dismantled. The company spuriously argued that the area in which the Anchorage was set up was not within the administrative and operational purview of the NPA, a claim which was manifestly untrue.
The National Assembly mandated its joint Committee on Navy, Marine Transport and Finance to organise a public hearing on the Safe Anchorage Area of the Lagos Ports.
All parties in the matter were, thereafter, invited to the public hearing which held at one of the committee rooms at the Senate on 3 December 2019.
The decision followed a motion on “illegal security activities by OMSL at the Safe Anchorage Area of Lagos Ports and the need to investigate their excesses,” moved by Senator George Sekibo during the Senate plenary on 7 November 2019.
I represented the NPA in person and explained our position in line with the laws of the country. I expressed the firm opinion that the SAA increased the cost of doing business in our ports and that the best option was to dismantle it.
If the Nigerian Navy felt it needed the company to provide the service, then the Navy and not vessel owners, should pay the company. I explained that the situation at that moment was contrary to international best practice and that it increased the cost of doing business at the ports.
Representatives of the Nigerian Navy and NIMASA agreed that it was their responsibility to provide security on Nigeria’s waterways and that the federal government had already invested in the Deep Blue water Project, which was meant to come on stream shortly.
Chairman of OMSL, late Captain (Dr.) Idahosa Wells Okunbo, was in attendance, also gave his testimony, supporting the SAA and explaining why he was convinced that it was the only way to keep Nigerian waterways safe. He was the only one who held this opinion as the Nigerian Navy, with which OMSL signed the SAA MOU, agreed that it had the duty of protecting Nigeria’s waterways. At the end of his submission, Dr. Okunbo walked out of the meeting room visibly angry.
As I was leaving the meeting room at the National Assembly Senate building with the NPA team, we encountered some hoodlums.
No sooner had we stepped out of the door than they practically ambushed us and made to push their way forward to physically attack me. They rained invectives on me accusing me of trying to “take away food from them and their boss”.
Gratefully, my security detail, the former Executive Director, Marine and Operations, NPA, Dr. Sekonte H. Davies and security personnel deployed from the office of the Deputy Senate President took charge and ensured that I got out of the premises unhurt through a side door reserved for the Deputy Senate President.
Frustrated in the attempts to inflict personal harm on me, the group threatened that they would find me anywhere I go and harm me. Suffice it to say that it was a very unsavoury and unsettling incident.
It was an affront, the height of impunity and disrespect for the National Assembly for a public official to be attacked while performing a national duty. On arrival at the office, I wrote a petition to the Inspector General of Police, the President of the Senate, and Director-General of the Department of State Services (DSS) reporting the harassment and threats I encountered at the National Assembly.
I also wrote the Senate President to convey my displeasure at the incident. I pointed out that if heads of agencies would not be protected during public hearings at the national assembly, I would cease to attend.
The petition questioned how the hoodlums gained access into the premises of the National Assembly and requested for a full investigation of the incident with the intent of bringing the culprits to book. I emphasised that I took the direct threats seriously and informed the Inspector General of Police, the DG, DSS as well as the public that Capt. Idahosa Wells Okunbo should be held responsible if any harm should befall me or any member of my family.
I reiterated my unwavering resolve that the NPA under my watch was not going to be intimidated to backtrack from doing everything to put an end to the reign of impunity and corruption in the sector.
In addition to threats and intimidation, some reports in the media claimed that Governor Godwin Obaseki of Edo State was behind NPA’s insistence on dismantling the SAA. They attributed this to Obaseki’s determination to destroy Captain Okunbo’s business interests in retaliation for the late businessman’s support for Pastor Osagie Ize-Iyamu, Obaseki’s rival in the 2020 gubernatorial elections in Edo State.
Perhaps not surprisingly, late Captain Okunbo helped promote this ludicrous insinuation. In a newspaper interview, he even alluded to it by referring to an overheard telephone conversation between an unidentified third party and Governor Obaseki.
The decision of the NPA on the SAA was in the national interest and we remained undeterred despite the maelstrom it generated.
In response to OMSL’s petition to the presidency, President Muhammadu Buhari asked the Minister of Transportation, Hon. Rotimi Amaechi for a review of the document to guide his decision. To prepare his advice to the President, he asked for an update through a letter dated 15 July 2020.
After giving him a breakdown of preceding events, we made the following recommendations:
- That in view of the cardinal mandate of the Deep Blue Project, which amongst other things is the provision of security at Anchorages at the various pilotage districts, NIMASA be directed by the HMOT to treat the Nigerian Ports Authority Lagos Anchorage (NPALA) as a priority.
- That the President direct the Nigerian Navy to forthwith 99 dismantle the illegitimate SAA by amongst other things, liaising with the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office (UKHO) to expunge the SAA from Admiralty Chart No 1381 and indeed any other UKHO publications.
- That the President direct the Nigerian Navy to exit any subsisting MOU with OMSL relating to the security of all port anchorage areas.
President Muhammadu Buhari found merit in the position of the NPA. He approved the cancellation of the Safe Anchorage Area managed by OMSL in January 2021 and directed NIMASA to take over the security of the waterways. The President commissioned the much- anticipated NIMASA Integrated National Security and Waterways Protection Infrastructure, (Deep Blue Project), in June 2021, to national approbation and pride.