Shipping firm slams N200m suit on Nigerian Navy over detained vessel

An aggrieved company, Mercury Oil company, alongside four crew members, Folorunso Olayiwola, Joshua A. Arthur, Asabalahie O. Johnson and Wale Alade, have slammed a N200 million suit on the Nigerian Navy, over an alleged unlawful detention of its operational vessel named ‘MT Sapphire 1’.

Joined as co-respondents in the ensuing legal hostility are the Chief of Naval Staff and the Flag Officer Commanding, (FOC), Central Naval Command.

The company and other applicants in the fundamental enforcement suit filed before a Federal High Court in Lagos by a Lagos lawyer Barrister Norrison I. Quakers (SAN) in an affidavit in support of the suit deposed to by Adekunle Folorunsho, who is the Managing Director of Mercury Oil company, averred that sometime in February 2014, the vessel and its crew members were arrested by officers of the Nigerian Navy along the Brass Rivers, Bayelsa state, on suspicion of engaging in illegal operations.

Adekunle averred that after thorough investigation by the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps, (NSCDC), which is the body responsible for the investigation of the alleged illegal act, the applicants were cleared of any wrongdoing or illegal activities, and recommended that the applicants should be released but the said directives of NSCDC were not immediately obeyed and that the Nigerian Navy only obeyed in part by releasing the vessel’s crew members after seven months, and willfully refused, ignored and failed to comply with the said directive to release the vessel from February 2014 to date.

During the period of the arrest and detention, the vessel was loaded with over 280,000 litres of Automotive Gas Oil (AGO) but while in custody of the Nigerian Navy the AGO was illegally siphoned by the respondents leaving only the sludge remnant.

The deponent averred further that the continued detention of the vessel has resulted in the loss of over N200 million expected as revenue if the vessel was hired by companies in the oil and gas industry.

The deponent added that the company had been subjected to huge losses and financial hardship as a result of the theft, diversion and illegal removal of over one million litres of gasoline valued at N150 million from the vessel.

He said as at the time of arrest the loan facility used to procure the gasoline was obtained from two commercial banks, Diamond Bank and Fidelity Bank respectively, and that the credit facility has remained unpaid as a result of the unlawful arrest and detention of the applicants by the respondents, adding that the inability of Mercury Oil company to dispose of the cargo made it impossible to meet its financial obligation to the two banks.

The deponent stated further that the company’s Managing Director, Osita Onumonu, as a result of continued detention of the vessel by the Nigerian Navy, has had to sell his property in partial fulfillment to meet the obligation of the company to the two banks that advanced the credit facility to enable the company import petroleum aboard the vessel.

The deponent added that the company’s Managing Director is now daily living in fear and under the threats of the banks stripping him of his other properties to liquidate the company’s outstanding indebtedness.

Since the detention of the vessel by the respondents despite the directives of the NSCDC to release it, the vessel had not been able to fulfil the purpose for which it was purchased, therefore making it impossible for the company to liquidate its indebtedness to the banks and since the vessel is unmanned and no crew member is on board the vessel to work, manage and control it, it is incurring huge financial cost of repair if not immediately salvaged.

Folorunsho also stated that since the detention of the vessel, its crew have been deprived of source of livelihood with its rippling effects to themselves, families and loved ones.

Consequently, the applicants while claiming the sum of N200 million as exemplary and aggravated damages for the illegal act of the Nigerian Navy, are also seeking a court declaration that their arrest and detention without trial in court or tribunal established by law is an infraction of their rights to liberty, and that the willful refusal of the Nigerian Navy to obey the directive of the NSCDC to release the vessel having carried out its investigation, was an infraction on the constitutionally guaranteed rights of the vessel’s liberty and therefore unlawful, unconstitutional and illegal.

They are also seeking an order of the court compelling the Nigerian Navy to forthwith release the vessel unconditionally from its detention facility or any other place of custodial confinement.

The matter has been slated for hearing on 22 September.

Meanwhile, the applicants have filed an application before the court to hear the case during the long judicial vacation, on the ground that, if not the applicants will continue to suffer untold hardship, monumental and irreparable loss because of the continued detention of the vessel, adding that the business of Mercury Oil company which is on the brink of collapse will suffer a total collapse occasioned by the unjustifiable and unlawful detention of the vessel by the Nigerian Navy.

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