Aftermath SAA, wait for Deep Blue security take-off lingers

In January 2021, President Muhammadu Buhari cancelled the Secure Anchorage Area (SAA) maritime security contract operated by a private firm, Ocean Marine Solutions Limited (OMSL). However, one month after the SAA cancellation, a similar or even bigger platform is yet to be launched, leaving Nigerian waters vulnerable, writes TOLA ADENUBI. Excerpts.

Since 2007, the Ocean Marine Solutions Limited (OMSL) has been providing vital static asset protection to the oil and gas industry and much-needed escort and mobile services for commercial vessels transiting through Nigerian waters of Lagos, Warri and Port Harcourt, including to some extent the Gulf of Guinea (GoG). Until January 2021, the firm was rendering these services in a location off the coast of Lagos, named the Secure Anchorage Area (SAA).

With a fleet of 42 purpose-built and Nigerian Navy (NN) approved offshore patrol boats, OMSL was able to win the confidence of very large foreign shipping lines, and within a matter of time, the SAA became the preferred destination for vessels hoping to discharge cargoes at any Nigerian ports without any security threat or attack. The company’s operation centres in Port Harcourt, Warri and Lagos were managed by trained security specialists, both local and expatriate, who have extensive experience in the maritime security sector. These centres, manned 24/7 by OMS watch-keepers were equipped with dedicated Automatic Identification System (AIS) technology, VHF, HF and Satellite systems which ensured communications and continuous situational awareness of all maritime operations and assets within the SAA, thereby leading to more vessels abandoning the Lagos Anchorage Area for the SAA.

While piracy and other maritime crimes went unabated in other locations along Nigeria’s waters, the SAA provided security from all these vices for vessels coming to Nigerian ports, albeit at a very huge cost.

 

SAA in murky waters

The contract, however, ran into murky waters when the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) raised the alarm that the OMSL, a private company, was collecting government fees (about $2000 each) from vessels to render all the above-mentioned services.

The ding-dong between the Federal Ministry of Transport backed NPA and the OMSL would linger for over a year due to the silence of the Presidency on the matter. While the news of the need for the cancellation of the SAA lingered all through 2020, the OMSL continued operations unperturbed largely due to a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Nigerian Navy.

The SAA contract would later self-implode in early 2021 when allegations of corruption and financial misappropriation were levelled against the Chairman of the company, Captain Hosa Okunbor by his estranged business partner, Dr Tunde Ayeni.

With Dr Tunde Ayeni dragging the OMSL Chairman to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) for alleged mismanagement, stealing and diversion of funds from OMSL, the Presidency had to wade in and the contract became officially cancelled on  January 21, 2021.

 

Vulnerable waters

With SAA dismantled, the vital static asset protection to the oil and gas industry and much-needed escort and mobile services for commercial vessels also went with it, thereby raising fears among vessel owners over the safety of Nigeria’s territorial waters. In the words of a shipping agent who wouldn’t want his name in print due to the nature of the issue, “We expected that before the SAA would be dismantled, the government would have put in place something similar or even bigger to assure ship owners of their safety.

“While the SAA lasted, international commercial ships preferred the area because of the assurances of safety. We all know that the GoG is one of, if not, the most dangerous area for vessels navigating international waters. That is why we all expected that the government would immediately launch a similar security platform to assure visiting vessels that all is well within Nigeria’s waterways.

“However, it’s a month since the SAA was dismantled, the whole place looks unmanned. The escort services that commercial vessels used to enjoy at the SAA are gone, and many ships have started dropping anchor at neighbouring ports of Cotonou and Lome out of fear that their safety might not be guaranteed once they enter Nigerian waters.

“We know that the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) has a similar initiative called the Deep Blue project. Why this has not been launched remains a mystery to some of us giving the volatile nature of the Nigerian waters.”

 

Deep Blue delay

For maritime stakeholders, the delay in launching the Deep Blue project one month after the SAA was dismantled by the Presidency might encourage perpetrators of maritime crimes and piracy to unleash terror on ships unhindered. In the words of Mr Leke Gbenga Oyewole, a former Presidential Aide who was also a Director of a former maritime security platform,  Global West Vessel Specialist Limited: “the SAA ought not to have been dismantled since authorities knew the Deep Blue was not ready for launch.

“The maritime area is the area where we have our oil and gas projects located. Our ports are also domiciled in our maritime area. It’s an area that generates so much revenue for the government. It’s quite unfortunate that such a very important area is being handled with levity. Since the SAA was discontinued, the Deep Blue project has for whatever reason refused to take-off. This is wrong. We are sending the wrong signal to the international community. This was the same way the Global West initiative was abandoned.

“With the Deep Blue project yet to take off, the insurance risk premium on cargoes coming towards Nigerian waters will soon go up. That is the dilemma that will soon confront Nigerians. How can you dismantle a working maritime security project when you are not ready to launch an alternative platform? In this country, we are fond of putting the cart before the Ox. Yes, the SAA was seen to be exploitative, but you don’t throw away a bird already in hand when you don’t have another replacement ready.

“The Nigerian Navy is poorly funded, that is why the government allowed private firms to provide platforms for the Navy to tackle maritime insecurity. Now, a working platform has been dismantled even when the replacement is not ready for take-off. Is this the way to go?

“I thought by now, we would have put in place a national maritime strategy that will not only run for this government but successive governments.  We attempted to do that in 2011 when we were in government. We had a maritime retreat and Mr President was there himself and all heads of agencies were there. At the end of that retreat, we came out with a blueprint and wanted to build on that, but somehow, some elements, due to selfish agenda frustrated the blueprint.

“If the Global West project was not discarded in 2011, by now, the government would have taken over all the ships used for that project. That was the arrangement, that after 10 years; the government will take over all the assets of the Global West project. But where are the Global West vessels today? They are wasting away somewhere, abandoned.”

Also speaking on the matter, a maritime security expert, Dr Segun Musa wondered what was delaying the take-off of the Deep Blue project.

“I don’t know what is still delaying the Deep Blue project take-off. I have listened to the NIMASA DG talk about various assets of the project that have arrived in the country. With SAA dismantled, why has the project not taken off? Delaying the take-off of this project might send the wrong signal to foreign vessels coming to our ports in terms of security. These ships, which used to berth at the SAA, now have no secured area to berth because we all know the state of funding of our Navy. This might lead to an increase in insurance premium on Nigerian bound cargoes, and it is the end-users of those cargoes that will bear the consequences,” Dr Segun Musa told the Nigerian Tribune exclusively.

Among the Deep Blue assets waiting to be deployed are DB Lagos and DB Abuja, two multipurpose security surveillance vessels acquired by the Federal Government through the Integrated National security and waterways protection infrastructures project otherwise called Deep Blue Project. Both vessels are 2019 built especially for this project. Also expected to be deployed are eight Fast Interceptor attack boats, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (Drones), Hybrid multipurpose surveillance vessels, helicopters, special aircraft, Fast interceptor surveillance boats among others.

The Deep Blue Project is a $195 million project of the Federal Government of Nigeria put together to provide comprehensive maritime security within the Nigerian maritime domain and Gulf of Guinea.

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