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The sea: What a world of freedom?

“So far, the tanker has incurred two serious offenses; first, entering our waters without prior authorization, and second, navigating without an identifying flag.” – Equatorial Guinea Detains a VLCC Accused of Oil Theft By Nigeria, The Maritime Executive, August 18, 2022

The sea covers almost three-quarters of the earth’s surface and that is why experts say, it is a world of its own. The sea has no boundaries and it is a world of freedom, chaos and confusion where legal and illegal enterprises take place. The freedom of the sea is seen in over 50,000 ships, 1.5 million seafarers in over 150 nations, and 11 billion tons of cargoes plying the oceans.

The so-called freedom at sea is accompanied by global problems – pollution, shipwrecks, piracy, maritime terrorism, smuggling, Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing, (IUU) and oil theft, among others. These are all maritime crimes in the eyes of man and various Admiralty laws.

These maritime crimes are severe in most African coastal waters than other areas areas of the world.

No nation likes its crude oil to be stolen, especially when it generates about 90 percent of its foreign exchange earnings. Research findings show that a few countries are mostly plagued by oil theft. It is unbelievable that they are all major oil-producing countries losing millions of dollars in revenues and taxes as crude oil smugglers attack oil installations. These crude oil thieves operating in a complex international syndicate cheat the system to siphon off precious crude oil. Regrettably, Nigeria is one of these countries.

The local media has been reporting that HEROIC IDUN, registered in the Marshall Islands, was seen near the AKPO oil field, off the Nigerian coast, on August 7. The Nigerian Navy’s Maritime Domain Awareness facility we were told was the first to detect the vessel.

The Navy vessel GONGOLA, a source claimed, reported the oil tanker for suspicious activity saying that they did not believe the vessel had permits from the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), nor other valid documents to be at the offshore field.

Despite these claims, the naval vessel at sea believed the vessel was loading oil. Loading oil without necessary papers? This clearly validates the widely held suspicion by Nigerians that international collaborators are involved in siphoning the country’s crude oil in connivance with some powerful individuals within and outside the country. It is just a pity!

The quote above raises fundamental issues which may be interrogated by those who will be saddled with the responsibility of investigating what went wrong with this particular oil theft case. In fact, most Nigerians would like to know if there was negligence, ignorance, poor training and many more on the part of those whose responsibility it is to protect our natural and mineral resources at sea.

Nigerians are wondering who are those stealing our crude oil, because oil revenue has dropped to a low level. The capacity of HEROIC IDUN tells the story better why the country has been denied the much needed foreign exchange. But still, the government has responsibility to explain to the citizens why the country’s financial crisis deepens.

We were told in newspapers, that the country, a major oil producing nation in Africa, was struggling to produce about 1.6 million barrels of crude oil per day whereas the 2022 budget had provided for 1.8 million barrels per day. The shortfall, according to official sources, was as a result of massive oil theft and that was responsible for low level of foreign exchange revenue. No wonder there are serious fiscal and monetary issues currently on ground.

In spite of the confusion which the issue has generated, Nigerians are worried about oil theft in the country. I know this because in the past two weeks, public intellectuals have been pontificating and bombarding the media space with questions.

Many naval thinkers are concerned about huge loss to the nation as a result of oil theft. The arrest of a 3 million barrel-capacity supertanker, according to newspaper reports reflects the scale of crisis. Some industry experts say the Navy was complicit. And I was quick to react: In what way was the Navy complicit? Anyway, the Navy has issued a press release on the matter. At the time of writing this article, the Navy has said that the tanker MT HEROIC IDUN, did not lift crude oil from Akpo terminal. Period.

But some stakeholders see it from another angle. These stakeholders are of the opinion that oil theft is not the main problem but a symptom of a larger problem on land and at sea. On land we have poor governance coupled with pipeline vandalism which requires adequate surveillance and protection.

Many unconfirmed reports have accused some Nigerians in the delta area who possess the skill to do some underwater welding and joining pipes to oil wells. It is through their skills, observers say, that they have allegedly perpetrated oil theft by connected pipelines underwater to siphon crude oil. This needs to be confirmed by relevant authorities.

Or, is this the reason why the NNPC Limited and the government signed a multi-million dollar deal with a former militant leader to protect pipelines crisscrossing the creeks? Is this a case of community- based – approach to preventing oil theft? Time certainly, will tell!

At sea we have offshore oil platforms and other maritime assets which need protection. The protection of these offshore assets as reflected in the constitution falls under the purview of the Navy. Moreover, under the Gulf of Guinea (GoG) Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA), the interdiction of HEROIC IDUN by Equatorial Guinea is in order as it conforms with the requirements of the international maritime law. And most importantly, a display of maritime cooperation among the GoG countries.

The Akpo oil field is about 108 nautical miles (200 kilometers) offshore Nigeria’s coastline. This oil field, according to research, is owned by the Chinese National Offshore Oil and South Atlantic Petroleum. This particular oil field is close to Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. It was learnt that the oil field has its own security arrangement and could only invite the Navy when there are security challenges.

Read also: Troops arrest sea pirates, pipeline vandals in N/ Delta

In spite of all efforts by stakeholders, one thing is certain – a thief does not come from outside to steal, unless with the connivance of insiders. But how does a supertanker of almost 300, 000 deadweight with a capacity to load about 3 million barrels of crude oil enter a loading bay without necessary papers?

Bearing in mind all the technicalities involved in this arrest, maritime cooperation among GoG nations will continue in a sustainable manner as no single nation can provide security in the global maritime commons. Analysts want the VLCC back in the country for investigation by Nigerian authorities.

But we should ask ourselves what is the position of International Law of the Sea and relevant provisions in our constitution on such matter? What about extant regulations regarding oil theft? I expect Maritime lawyers to help brighten one’s horizon in this regard.

However, marine accident investigators know that they cannot make conclusions on any marine accident and incident without being part of the investigation team, or after reading through an investigation report. It is after investigation has been done, if any, that informed analysis can be carried out in order to come up with realistic recommendations to avert such occurrences in the future.

But some pundits are wondering whether naval patrol matters anymore. I will say boldly that naval patrol matters to protect our nation’s maritime assets as well as take care of the chaos and confusion at sea. All we need do as citizens is to be more patriotic and be alive to our responsibilities. We have only one country which is Nigeria – that we can call ours. Thank you.

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