The Nigerian government has secured the first convictions under its new anti-piracy law, the Suppression of Piracy and Other Maritime Crimes (SPOMO) Act 2019, giving hope to the world’s shipping fleets that legal reforms will help stem rising attacks in the Gulf of Guinea.
The three men fined by a Federal High Court sitting in Port Harcourt, Rivers State on Monday, were among nine accused of hijacking the tanker MV Elobey VI off Equatorial Guinea in March and securing a $200,000 ransom for the crew.
The Nigerian Navy had arrested nine persons, namely, Binaebi Johnson, Daniel Lemmar, Ghane Gordon, Hassan Hakeem, Gregory Smith, Ofem Uket, John Mark, Chidi Amadi and Eze Amadi, who were suspected to be members of the kidnapping syndicate. They were said to have demanded a $2 million ransom out of which $200,000 was eventually paid.
During the proceedings in the court, Binaebi Johnson, Daniel Lemmar and Ghane Gordon pleaded guilty to counts 1 and 2 and not guilty to counts 3 to 5 while the remaining six accused persons pleaded not guilty to the charges against them.
The merchant shipping industry has long pressed the Nigerian government to take action in the Niger Delta and Gulf of Guinea area, which have become the world’s most dangerous zone for ships and seafarers. It accounts for over 90% of maritime kidnappings globally, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), with attacks on everything from oil platforms to fishing vessels.
The court fined the three convicted men N10 million naira each for each of the two counts of piracy to which they pleaded guilty. The remaining six who pleaded not guilty will continue their trial.
Nigerian navy spokesman, Commodore Suleiman Dahun, said the convictions were the first under the law, which was passed last year to make it easier to prosecute pirates. He said the fines were levied in lieu of prison sentences.
While the Gulf of Guinea spans more than a dozen West African countries, experts say the pirates typically come from Nigeria’s oil-rich but poverty-stricken Delta region.
Previously, attackers rarely faced judicial consequences due to absence of adequate law to prosecute them.
A total of 49 crew were kidnapped in the Gulf in the first half of this year, compared with 27 last year, according to IMB figures. It said attackers were also going further out to sea.
“This will serve as a deterrent to other criminal elements who are still engaged in the nefarious activities on our waterways. On our part as an agency, we will not relent on our efforts to ensure a safe and secure maritime domain in line with our mandate,” Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) Director-General, Bashir Jamoh, said.