The origin of the Nigerian Navy could be traced to the colonial marine Department of the Royal Navy. This Department was established in 1887 as a quasi-military organization combining the duties of the present day Nigerian Ports Authority, the Inland Water Ways and the modern day Navy.
Elements of the Marine Department took part in military operations against the Germans in Cameroun during the First World War between 1914–1918. However, the colonial administration did not consider it necessary to establish a proper navy, as they considered it the duty of the Royal Navy to give naval protection to Nigeria and that the Maritime Department was adequate to look after security of the ports and coastal approaches as well as provide harbour services for Royal Navy ships on West African patrols. This was the situation until the end of the Second World War in 1945.
After the war, the colonial administration preferred that emphasis be placed on port-related duties for Marine Department. A proposal was then made to establish the Nigerian Ports Authority. The officers of the Marine Department who were Royal Navy Reserve officers did not give up on the idea of a navy and continue to press for the establishment of a naval force. For instance, Captain Skutil, who was the first officer to head the Nigerian Navy Defence Force (NNDF) from 1956, was known to be a very strong believer in a Nigerian Navy. The late Rear Admiral Nelson Soroh, a one time Chief of the Naval Staff, said of Captain Skutil: “But for his enthusiasm, the NN would not have been established.” Their efforts eventually led to the 1956 policy statement by the Government for the establishment of a Nigerian Naval Force (Sessional paper No.6 of 1956).
On 1 June 1956, the NNDF commenced operations with eleven assorted ships and craft comprising 2 survey vessels (PETREL and PATHFINDER), 2 training boats (DIGNITY and NYMPH), one patrol craft (CHALLENGER), 3 VIP boats (VALIANT and FRANCES with her Launch), one tug (TROJAN) and one general purpose launch (JADE).
Similarly, on 1 August 1956, the first naval legislation was passed by the House of Representatives and was assented to on 5 September 1956 by Sir James Robertson, the Governor General. It was called the Nigerian Navy Ordinance.
The NNDF as a result of the legislation was designated the Royal Nigerian Navy. In 1963, when Nigeria became a republic, the prefix “Royal” was dropped and the name became Nigerian Navy (NN). The Ordinance that set up the NN had several limitations, the principal one among them was the limitation placed on the Navy to patrol only 3 nautical miles, which was the limit of the territorial waters. The shortcomings were corrected by the post independence Navy Act of 1964. This Act removed the principal limitation of the NN to the country’s territorial waters. In these early years, the NN had only a few patrol boats but has now grown significantly into a multi-mission maritime arm of the Nigerian Armed Forces with various wartime and peacetime roles.
The 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the Armed Forces Act CAP A20 accordingly charged the NN with the defence of Nigeria by sea. Other roles include enforcing and assisting in coordinating the enforcement of all customs, immigration, bunkering, fishery protection and pollution laws (coastguard duties), including enforcement of all national and international maritime laws ascribed to or acceded to by Nigeria. The Armed Forces Act similarly charged the NN to enforce and assist in coordinating the enforcement of all national and international maritime laws ascribed or acceded to by Nigeria. Other duties include making of charts and coordinating national hydrographic surveys as well as promoting, coordinating and enforcing safety regulations in the territorial waters and the EEZ of Nigeria.
The aforementioned roles cover the full spectrum of military, policing and diplomatic functions of a modern navy. Performing these roles also presented implications for the efficiency and effectiveness of the NN as they entail an inherent linkage and synergy between the NN, the sister Services and other relevant national maritime agencies in its contributions to the protection of law and order especially during the Nigerian Civil War.
The NN performed various operations for the country, especially, after the abortive Aburi Talks of January 1967. It continuously policed Nigerian territorial waters to enforce the Federal Military Government’s order banning shipping in the Eastern part of the country. This action by the NN effectively blocked the Atlantic seabed and made it impossible for large-scale importation of much-needed arms and ammunition by the secessionists. It is also noteworthy to mention the various amphibious landings, such as the Bonny landing of July 1967, which was hailed as the first of its kind by any third world country. The Bonny landing was followed by the Delta Ports amphibious operations which took place about mid September 1967 to recapture the ports of Warri, Koko and Sapele from the “Biafrans”. Another major operation was mounted to liberate Calabar by November 1967 followed by the amphibious landing of the 3rd Marine Commandos at a beach-head in Oron to capture the mainland of Cross River State. Besides these joint amphibious operations, naval ships especially NNS NIGERIA (now OBUMA) provided much needed logistics support by shipping arms and ammunition, providing casualty evacuation and carrying troops for reinforcement. For instance, when the situation at Bonny during the landing became very critical, it was the timely arrival of NNS NIGERIA with troops’ reinforcement on 05 January 1967 that saved an ugly situation for the Federal Government. In his commendation message to Capt Soroh, the then Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, wrote:
“…You have got all the right to feel proud, happy and contented with the result of the recent combined operations at Bonny which was your responsibility to see come off successfully. The Army Commander has sent me a signal saying how nobly well the Navy did in conveying landing and support fire role which the Navy gave to the Army at the operations in Bonny.”
One of the first lessons learnt was that no coastal state can ignore the importance of a strong and well-equipped Navy to protect the territorial integrity of a nation. Secondly, the Navy realized that it needed to acquire bigger ships with better endurance, weapons systems and communication equipment.
The end of the civil war coincided with an increase in revenue accruing to the Federal Government from the sales of crude oil. Therefore, the NN high command took steps to take decisions based on the lessons learnt from the civil war. It immediately started planning for acquisition of ships to showcase a credible presence in the West African sub region especially and to protect its offshore resources in a comprehensive manner. The Federal Government of Nigeria therefore approved the ‘Contingency Plan for the Protection of Offshore Installations’. Many warships were acquired under the Plan and these included NNS ARADU, ERINOMI, ENYIMIRI, AMBE, OFIOM and 2 squadrons of missile-carrying Fast Attack Craft (FAC-M). In 1982, the NN Flotilla was split into the Western and Eastern Fleets with headquarters in Lagos and Calabar respectively. The naval bases equally grew in number over the years. They include the pioneer base at Apapa, which was developed in 1961 followed by the one in Calabar. In 1975, a base named NNS AKASO was opened in Borikiri, Port Harcourt. This was then followed by more bases in Warri, Sapele and Port Harcourt to give the Navy an idea about its present structure.