Nigeria has great maritime potential, but …
By Jeffrey Hawkins
I’ve been in Nigeria about seven months now, and I wholeheartedly share the perspective of others that the potential of this country – in the maritime sector and many other areas – is enormous, If I had a hundred Naira for every time I’ve heard – and said – the words “Nigeria” and “potential” in the same sentence, I’d be a rich man. The challenge, of course, is not to have potential, but to realize it.
This is as true in the maritime sector as it is in any other. While there are a variety of obstacles that forestall the realization of Nigeria’s full maritime potential, I’d like to focus today on one area that to us is particularly and persistently troubling the growing incidence of criminal activities off of Nigeria’s coast, and what seems to be the ineffectual security response to those activities. Both the available data and the anecdotal evidence suggest that the situation is only worsening, and we have difficulty seeing how it is going to get better in the near- term without major improvements in institutional collaboration, and a marked increase in political will.
The International Maritime Bureau recently reported that sea piracy around the globe dropped substantially in 201 2, to its lowest level in five years. Yet at the same time, the frequency of maritime attacks in the Gulf of Guinea has increased and increased significantly. The 1MB reported 10 attacks off Nigeria in 2011, then 27 attacks in 2012 – and most people we’ve talked with have suggested the 1MB figures only account for a portion of actual incidents.
Indeed, we’ve heard reports of over two dozen attacks just since January I of this year. This criminal activity – whether armed robbery or piracy or kidnapping extends along Nigeria’s coastline. On February 4, in the Lagos Anchorage. On February 6, along the River Forcados. On February 7, off Brass. On February 10 and II, two separate attacks off Bonny. On February 17, two separate attacks, one in Lagos and one off Brass. On February 22, again off Brass, and on February 25, in the Calabar Channel. And that’s just three weeks in February.
We’ve talked with a lot of individuals associated with Nigeria’s maritime environment in the past few months – Nigerians and expatriates alike – and I’d like to share with you some of what we’ve heard.
From cargo theft to kidnapping for ransom, the Gulf of Guinea is becoming known as a very dangerous place to do business. It is becoming known as a place where you must sail in convoys, and where you must hire armed guards – who themselves are Nigerian police officers or sailors, and theoretically should have responsibilities other than serving as hired guns. The Gulf is becoming known as a place where you must prepare your crew to be attacked at any time. It is becoming known as a place where maritime security enforcement is weak, when it exists at all- we’ve heard many accusations that entities involved in providing maritime security collude in some of the illegal activities that take place off of Nigeria’s coast. When the very bodies that are expected to protect and defend the maritime.
Commerce that constitutes such an essential component of this country’s economic livelihood are instead perceived to be undermining it, I think we can all agree there ‘s a huge problem.
We hear – from government officials and from industry executives – that billions of dollars are lost each year, in stolen cargo and stolen ships. Some senior Nigerian government officials have publicly estimated that the losses from crude oil theft alone amount to more than $7 billion annually. This is not just lost revenue that would otherwise enrich some faceless foreign corporation. This is revenue that could and should benefit the Nigerian people. And, yes, this is revenue that should reward vessel owners for their investment – and encourage them to invest more.
We all recognize that this is not a simple problem to address, but it has been addressed successfully – if not necessarily solved – in other parts of the world. On an operational level, there are lessons to be learned, by emulating what works elsewhere in the world. In East Africa, for example, piracy attacks are down significantly. What have they done to accomplish this? The International Maritime Organization credits, among other things, effective coordination and communication among those providing security in the Gulf of Aden. We have heard repeatedly that there is no effective collaboration mechanism for the various maritime actors in Nigeria, on both a strategic and tactical level. Intelligence about the location of ships conducting suspicious activities is not shared with those who could carry out operations to board and inspect the ships. This is a recipe for failure. When players on the same team don’t talk with each other, nothing productive can be accomplished.
In terms of ship operations, captains in the Gulf of Aden make their vessels less attractive targets, with physical enhancements such as razor wire on key access points, and with operational choices such as vessel speed. The IMO note d in 2011 that there had been no successful pirate boardings reported when the vessel was proceeding at over 18 knots. These practices and others in the IMO report have made a difference in East Africa, and can make a difference in West Africa.
Success in this endeavor will require a detailed strategy – including elements such as the anti-piracy best practices published by the International Maritime Organization. It will require naval assets -like the former U.S. Coast Guard cutter and six new fast patrol boats donated by our Coast Guard and Navy to the Nigerian Navy. It will require training in tactics that have been proven effective – and I am proud that members of the U.S. Coast Guard are delivering such training to members of your Navy’s Special Boat Service as we speak. It will require spending money – on vessels, on personnel, on fuel, and on maintenance. It will require on-going patrols in the inland waterways and off of Nigeria’s coast.
But more than anything else, in order to effect substantial and sustainable positive change to Nigeria’s maritime environment and the security thereof, there must be a manifest increase in political will: a frank recognition that there is a major challenge, and a willingness to do something (or things) about it. Many interlocutors have asserted to us that this is the biggest hurdle: the impetus to do things differently – transparently, effectively, in line with global best practice – has been lacking. Only the determination to truly do what it takes, to make the system work, can transform the Gulf of Guinea from a burgeoning hotbed of criminal activity into the safe, secure, and prosperous channel for maritime commerce that it ought to be.
Recognition that the maritime sector faces a serious security challenge is a crucial first step. Consistent implementation of that strategy is the equally crucial second step. I am confident that if Nigeria takes these step s, they will bring unprecedented growth and profitability to the Nigerian maritime sector.
Excerpts from remarks by Mr. Jeffrey Hawkins, Consul-General, United States (US) Embassy, Lagos, at the just-concluded 2013 edition of the annual Nigeria Maritime Expo (NIMAREX).
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