Maritime disorder in the mighty ocean

Shipping is one of the most dynamic industries in the world with fluctuating profits and losses depending on global economy. Shipping business is anchored on international trade and operates within a complex web of international treaties among shipping firms, shippers and governments. Maritime scholars believe, however, that there is hardly any shipping firm, shipper and government, which obeys international treaties.

In general, all waters in and off Nigeria remains risky, despite intervention in some cases by the Navy

A scan through archival records shows that on August 2, 1939, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to former President Franklin Roosevelt of the USA, informing him that work by his colleagues Leo Szilard and Enrico Fermi indicated that uranium could shortly be an important source of power that should be developed with caution. Noting that uranium could “also lead to the construction of bombs.”

Einstein was a physicist, not a prophet. But he predicted that “a single bomb of this type, carried by a boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory.” Regrettably, Einstein’s prophecy has been a security nightmare to most maritime nations worldwide. Globally, most maritime authorities are worried about ensuring the safety of their ports and ships from terrorist attacks.

Some years ago, press reports have discussed a number of sailors operating under Al Qaeda control. Hard evidence was difficult to come by on these reports. But some maritime scholars’ estimate of Al Qaeda’s “fleet” varies widely, from say 15 to 300 vessels or more. This is debatable, the unfortunate fact, however, is that Al Qaeda struck twice at sea against warships and sailors two decades ago. For overworked maritime security officials at that time, it was not a question of “if” but rather “when” and “where.” Today, the grim reality is that, with a global maritime fleet of about 56,000 merchant ships trading internationally in 2020, any solution for inspection and search would be haphazard at best in a mighty ocean.

But merchant ships are vulnerable against pirate attacks at sea. Over the years, Peter D’Rock, a retired sailor has observed that it is not the vulnerability of merchant ships that is of concern but the use by terrorist groups. Why? There are unconfirmed reports that Osama bin Laden owned or controlled some aging freighters some years ago which a fleet industry watcher dubbed the “Al Qaeda Navy.” Are you surprised? You don’t have to be surprised because anything happens in the mighty ocean.

Read also: NIMASA assures shipping firms of safe, secure navigation on Nigerian waters

One wonders why Osama bin Laden had so many freighters. The answer is simple: He was in shipping business. But details about his shipping business remain shrouded in secrecy until his death in 2011. Nonetheless, the Al Qaeda ships are believed to be freighting cement and other legitimate goods around the world, perhaps using other names and registered under different flags of convenience.

That is why most ships used to carry illegal goods have not been found. Unless a cargo ship is boarded by a navy, it will not be known that most vessels carry both legal and illegal goods. To a layman, it is an ordinary merchant ship carrying a cargo and sailing from one port to the other going about ordinary business.

With globalization, conventional threats of the past have given rise to new challenges that many times are not limited to regions and have no respect for international borders. Globally, sea piracy has gone haywire in recent times. In the past couple of years, maritime nations are worried about the consequences of an ocean dominated by rising sea robbery and piracy.

Despite the romantic image of pirates, the violent seizure of sailors on the high sea was a growing challenge. Modern piracy now covers illegal boarding, extortion, hostage taking and kidnapping of people for ransom. Others include murder, robbery, sabotage resulting in a ship sinking, and shipwrecking done intentionally to a ship.

Recently, Peter D’Rock drew attention to a report obtained from the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) that within nine months of the year 2020, Gulf of Guinea kidnappings made up about 95 percent of the year’s global piracy attacks. As per IMB’s report, “135 crew kidnappings happened globally. Of which the Gulf of Guinea alone had 95 percent share.”

The report, according to Peter, was very frightening when the importance of the oceans to global economic survival of nations was considered. Despite prompt action by navies in the region, there remains an urgent need to address this crime, which has direct impact on the safety and security of innocent seafarers. The attacks have prompted insurers to increase rates for ships transiting in the region adding extra clauses for protection. So, what should we do? “This requires action,” according to Peter.

The perpetrators of maritime crimes are aware that the risk of being caught is slim. Pirates usually hold hostages for ransom in a region where some maritime experts believe attacks can be prevented. These are attacks which international naval coalition could mitigate. An observer remarked that: “In general, all waters in and off Nigeria remains risky, despite intervention in some cases by the Navy”. Has the situation improved? Anyway, “We advise vessels to be vigilant. The number of attacks in the Gulf of Guinea could have been higher than our figures as many incidents continue to be unreported.” Thank you.

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