Court orders status quo as firm challenges Cabotage Act

The Federal High Court in Lagos has ordered parties to maintain status quo pending the determination of a suit by a firm, Seadrill Mobile Units Nigeria Limited, against the Federal Government.

Justice Babs Kuewumi directed that hearing notice be issued on the defendants.

Seadrill is praying the court to determine whether drilling operations fall within the definitions of ‘coastal trade’ and ‘cabotage’ under Section 2 of the Coastal and Inland Shipping (Cabotage) Act.

It also wants the court to determine whether, based on sections 2, 5 and 22 (5), drilling rigs fall within the definition of ‘vessel under the Act.

The Minister of Transportation and Attorney-General of the Federation are the defendants.

The plaintiff, through its lawyer Olumayowa Owolabi, is seeking a declaration that drilling operations do not fall within the definitions of ‘coastal trade’ and ‘cabotage’ under Section 2 of the Cabotage Act.

It also wants the court to hold that drilling rigs do not fall within the definition of vessels under the Act.

Seadrill is seeking an order of perpetual injunction restraining the defendants or their agents from taking any further steps to harass, intimidate, disturb or stop its rig operations based on any alleged violation of the Cabotage Act. The rigs, said the plaintiff, include the West Capella, the West Saturn and the West Jupiter.

When the case came up before Justice Babs Kuewurni last Friday, there was no legal representation for the defendants.

Owolabi told the court that the bailiffs only just effected service of the processes on them in Abuja last Wednesday. He requested for an adjournment for hearing of the pending motions.

In a supporting affidavit, the plaintiff’s Supply Chain Manager, Steve Taylor, the plaintiff said officials of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), last November 10, paid an unscheduled visit to the West Capella on board the “Nimasa Oweikenighan” and made an attempt to board the rig without having pre-informed the plaintiff of its intentions.

After a stand-off which lasted for several hours, the officials demanded evidence of cabotage registration, the crew list of the vessel, waiver approvals for the crew, vessel building waiver and evidence of payment of cabotage surcharge.

The deponent said NIMASA officials last November 19 paid another unscheduled visit to the USAN Field with the intention to board the plaintiff’s West Capella.

“Before dis-embarking from the West Capella, the NIMASA agents served a Detention Order dated the 19th of November 2015 on the Master of the West Capella, which indicated that the rig was being detained for failure to register as a vessel with the Agency’s Ship Registry amongst several other alleged infractions,” Taylor said.

He added that the plaintiff took steps to resolve the issues, yet the detention letter was not withdrawn.

“Therefore, it is quite worrisome that rather than withdrawing the detention letter, NIMASA issued another letter of non-compliance dated the 14th of March 2016 to the plaintiff.

“In view of the foregoing, I verily believe that it is in the interest of justice that the questions for determination as contained in the Originating Summons are determined in favour of the plaintiff and the declarations sought therein are granted as a matter of urgency,” the deponent said.

Justice Kuewumi adjourned till June 17 for hearing of pending applications.

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