Nigeria’s coastal areas and adjoining maritime territories have in recent years been bedevilled by a number of nefarious activities, including kidnapping, pipeline vandalism and oil bunkering, against which the security agencies claim they are doing their utmost to combat and stem. But bad as the situation is, it has been worsened by the increasing incidence of piracy whose intensity is now threatening maritime business and other activities, such as sea travel. This fact was recently highlighted when the Commanding Officer of the Nigerian Navy’s NNS Victory Calabar, Commander Oladipo Oluwole, paid a visit to the Cross River State legislature in Calabar.
He told lawmakers there that the Navy and other maritime security agencies were unable to take the battle to the pirates because existing laws do not permit firing at the pirates nor allow the prosecution of those captured, and this had emboldened the criminals so much so that their activities now impede normal maritime business. This they do through attacks on ocean-going vessels in order to dispossess them of their cargoes and other valuables. Though piracy is distinctly different from bunkering, oil theft and pipeline vandalism for the simple reason that it entails seizure of ships on the high seas whereas the others are carried out on land or in the shallow waters bordering the coast, pirates could also be involved in those other activities.
The Navy’s constitutional duty is to protect Nigeria’s territorial waters against foreign attacks as well as other criminal activities perpetrated within the maritime area. It could deploy force, if necessary, to accomplish this mission. It is therefore difficult to fathom why there should be legislation that appears to act against proper performance of the Nigeria Navy’s duty, as Commander Oluwole noted. The National Assembly should therefore look into the issue raised urgently by annulling such enactments hampering the Navy’s ability to safeguard the territorial waters of Nigeria for normal activities.
Beyond empowering the Nigeria Navy through legislation however, it is necessary also to investigate why laws curtailing the powers of a crucial agency of government such as the Navy should find their ways into the statutes at a time when felons have virtually overran Nigeria’s littoral and maritime territories, stealing oil, hijacking ships and spreading mayhem and endangering lives. From Oluwole’s revelation, it would seem that the ever escalating criminal activities on the sea and the coastal areas are being abetted and supported by individuals in high places in government and other privileged quarters. Any measures aimed at combating piracy must begin with establishing this vexed issue and prosecuting those involved.
Only a couple of months ago, in order to stem the tide of piracy and other criminal activities, government awarded a multi-million contract for maritime surveillance to a private firm owned by an ex- militant; if piracy activities are still on the increase rather than declining, then it means the firm has not performed its contractual obligation. The importance of maritime safety in the growth of trade and business cannot be overstated; government should therefore rescind the contract and search for a more realistic measure in dealing with piracy and other maritime security challenges.
The Navy and, to some extent, other statutory maritime security agencies should remain central in any policies aimed at getting rid of pirates and other hoodlums. The first step to take therefore is to put in place the appropriate laws that would empower the agencies in doing the work; such enactments should include the power to use force to subdue pirates and their eventual prosecution under the law. Commander Oluwole hinted at the collusion of coastal communities in the act of piracy, and this is done when pirates use local fishermen as shield to avoid being attacked. Any measures against piracy should therefore include sensitization and the enlightenment of these communities towards the danger in helping pirates in their criminal activities and that they should desist from acts that could undermine the peace of their communities.
It is about time government through its agencies ended its lip-service to rooting out piracy and demonstrated the necessary will to decisively deal with the matter.