The story of the reported hijack of a Palau flagged vessel, MT Apecus, off Bonny coast in the Niger Delta and the subsequent revelations on the ship deserves more than a cursory attention. In the first place, the ship has a very intriguing history. She was built in 1973, and has remained a die-hard ever since. From the time of build to 2014, she has changed names almost 15 times. She started off as MT Lachs with TMS Lachs as owner. She bore that name till 1995 when she started changing names like a chameleon. That year, she was re-christened MT Belli after bearing MT Lachs for most part of the year. In 1999, she became MT Apollon. One year later she changed name again to MT Porto 1.
In a space of 15 years, this intriguing ship has had the names: Aparo, Agia Zoni Vll, Madina, Porto l, Porto lBB, in addition to the names already mentioned above. In most cases, the name change occurred twice a year with or without a new owner. But the most fascinating thing about the ship is that despite her age and having gone through 15 husbands, she is still very strong, resilient and ready to do more exploit.
However, her criminal nature was exposed on April 19 when it was “hijacked” while at anchor off the Coast of Bonny Island in the Niger Delta, resulting in the abduction of seven crew members. According to the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), MT Apecus, as it is presently called, “has been conducting trading activities in Nigerian waters since 2014 without any valid permits or documentation.” Investigations by the agency confirmed that the tanker vessel has changed name and the flag under which she operates up to a combined 15 recorded times, with an additional five changes in call sign since 1993 and four MMSI changes. All this, the Director-General of NIMASA, Dakuku Peterside, said points to her suspected involvement in illegal activities.
Giving details of the NIMASA investigation, Dakuku further revealed that “before her hijack, she was spotted in Lome, Togo on the 26th of February, 2019 for an hour, Tema, Ghana for two hours on the 27th of February, 2019 and Lagos anchorage for twenty nine minutes on 2nd April 2019 until her eventual hijack on the 19th of April. Reports also indicate the vessel was in the habit of switching off her Automatic Identification System (AIS) in order to avoid detection and had done the same thing prior to being attacked which had made locating her whereabouts extremely difficult. There is no clarity on her business in Bonny area where the incident occurred.”
For this enigmatic ship, the bombshell was yet to come. While authorities were trying to negotiate the release of the crew members, a new twist was introduced into the hijack and kidnap saga. The Nigerian Navy came up with the revelation that the reported hijack and abduction of the crew members was fake. The Navy said the purported piracy attack and abduction of crew was stage-managed by the Managing Director of Retrogress Incorporation in Nigeria, Osimili Adah. The Executive Officer of Nigerian Navy Ship (NNS) Pathfinder Port Harcourt, Navy Capt. Adegoke Ebo, said his men arrested Adah and 17 others including one Indian for allegedly attempting to illegally export stolen crude oil to Ghana.
While handing over the suspects and the vessel to the police for further investigation at the naval base in Port Harcourt, Ebo said the suspects had planned to move stolen crude oil from Nigeria with MT Apecus and MT Invictus, another vessel believed to be owned by Petrogress Incorporation which has offices in Nigeria, Greece and the U.S.
He said the suspects were on the verge of moving their crude oil to Ghana before they were arrested by naval forces. Findings by the Navy also “revealed that Adah, has been actively involved in sourcing crude oil from Nigerian creeks and shipping it to Platon Gas Oil Refinery in Tema, Ghana without clearance and approval.”
But why did they fake piracy attack on the ship and abduction of crew members?
The faking was the aftermath of a business deal that turned sour, said Capt.Ebo. He said during interrogation, Adah disclosed that the piracy attack was stage-managed after disagreement between two alleged oil thieves over rights to lift the stolen crude abroad.
“Contrary to the initial reports, our investigation revealed that the abduction was rather as a result of failed oil theft collaboration,” Ebo said, remarking that one of the aggrieved syndicates resorted to the abduction of the Indians and two Nigerians after their quarrel.
There is no doubt that there are many MT Apecus in Nigerian waters. One recalls that in 2015, two months after the swearing in of President Buhari for his first term, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) announced the ban of 113 oil tankers from the country’s waters. The national oil corporation said they were acting on the directive of the President as part of a crackdown on alleged oil thieves. The ban was however lifted two months later after government demanded and received letters of comfort from oil terminal operators, oil companies and off-takers of Nigeria’s oil and gas as guarantee for their nominated vessels.
The Federal Government also, as part of measures to stem the bleeding of the country through oil theft, established an inter-agency committee comprising the Department of State Security (DSS), NIMASA, Nigerian Navy, Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) and NNPC with the mandate to collect data and investigate the activities of the banned vessels within Nigerian territorial waters. The committee was also mandated to appraise the culpability or otherwise of each of the vessels in the past.
One cannot tell how far this job was done, as the theft of Nigeria’s oil continued unabated. Official sources said crude oil theft on the pipeline network resulted to a loss of about 11,000 barrels of oil a day in 2018, more than the approximately 9,000 bbl/d in 2017.
A report of investigation carried out by Nigeria Natural Resources Charter (NNRC) also revealed how the IOCs were stealing Nigeria’s crude using a high-wired network of onshore and offshore operators, sellers, financiers, as well as logistics and security firms to pull the deals through. The report said Nigeria was losing a whopping N995.2 billion annually to the IOCs. Of course, this is different from other categories of oil theft going on in the sector, which includes small-scale pipeline tapping, bunkering and over lifting. The report said while these three types of theft are not mutually exclusive, they each have different sources, actors, markets, and revenue streams.
Another issue thrown up by the MT Apecus “piracy attack” saga is the genuineness or otherwise of the numerous piracy attacks being reported on Nigerian territorial waters. Only the creator of the oceans, who sees what is going on everywhere, can tell which of the piracy attacks is genuine and which is fake. Nigeria’s waters suddenly became piracy hot spot, overtaking Somali waters. But it was known that piracy off the coast of Somalia was a business sustained by foreign interests – piracy barons, lawyers, negotiators etc. Who says these criminals cannot turn their attention to Nigerian waters and the Gulf of Guinea?
Besides, of the numerous piracy incidents, ransom negotiations and payment for ship and crew releases, who has been able to tell when the piracy attacks were stage-managed?
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