The shipping community can but hope that President Buhari (the new incoming Nigerian President) has the public sector maritime security providers in his sights when he starts his campaign against “waste and corruption”. The confused relationship between the various law enforcement agencies and the Nigerian Navy, nuanced as it is with internal power struggles, is simply making the protection of vessels and crew fraught with uncertainty. That confusion is undoubtedly being exploited by some Private Maritime Security Companies (“PMSC”) who face a further squeeze on income as a result of the collapse of the oil prices, which has reduced the need for slow steaming in the Indian Ocean and therefore the need for armed guards. This article seeks to give vessel operators some guidance on what good practice is when operating in and around Nigerian waters.

There are three law enforcement entities that are responsible for the provision of maritime security. The Nigerian Maritime Police have jurisdiction up to the fairway buoy and in internal waters. The Nigerian Navy are responsible for policing and protecting the waters beyond that and out to the 200 mile limit of the Economic Zone. The third organisation is the Nigerian Maritime Safety Agency (“NIMASA”) which is responsible for the implementation of the ISPS Code but also provides physical security to a number of offshore oil terminals. All have been quick to spot the commercial opportunity that the protection of vessels trading in Nigerian waters. This is of particular relevance to tankers calling at the facilities between the Foscardos, Calabar and Bonny Rivers where the myriad of creeks provide perfect cover for the gang or gangs that have been attacking ships off Qua Ibon in recent months. That increase of activity had been predicted in the run up to the election. The outgoing President’s power base was in the Niger Delta regions and whether his going will lead to a further deterioration in the security situation and a greater threat to commercial shipping remains to be seen.

Some European PMSCs reacted to the fall off of Somali piracy by focussing on West Africa and many have tried to offer their services in Nigeria with mixed success. The main model they have adopted is to use local naval or police on board as an armed guard presence often with an unarmed PMSC liaison officer who provides a degree of coordination acting as a security consultant to the master. The same model is followed in places like Togo and Benin and indeed suggested amendments to GUARDCON were suggested to allow for that with liability underwriters seemingly happy to take on the risks involved. Some in the industry were concerned about the quality of those guards being put on board. There remains no way to confirm the training or weapon handling standards at all, with some companies making the mistake of using their websites to promise that they were responsible for training the Nigerian personnel on board. A “mistake” because that presumption of control has contributed in part to the fierce backlash from NIMASA that has been seen since the beginning of the year and which has led to the detention of PMSC personnel and delays to vessels.

Indeed NIMASA went further and in February they issued an edict that seemed to suggest that they would also arrest Nigerian Naval personnel found on board providing armed protection. For ship owners there is the very real risk that having any security personnel on board of whatever nationality for the purposes of protection could give rise to a risk of action being taken against the vessel. Even if that action has no judicial backing it is a risk that a tanker operator can ill afford to take particularly if voyage chartered to a capricious jurisdiction such as India.

The situation is further confused by PMSCs who appear to have an MOU issued by local commanders giving permission to embark forces on third party ships. However, the MOU system is in fact a capacity building exercise by the Nigerian Navy. Strict compliance with the MOU requires the PMSC to buy a patrol-craft that it then effectively donates to the Navy. It must be capable of carrying a weapons system and be of a standard that it passes a Naval inspection. It becomes part of the Naval fleet. In other words the “third party ship” referred to in the MOU must be one owned by the PMSC. The patrol boat is then manned with Naval Personnel sometimes augmented by the PMSCs own staff. If the MOU system is followed correctly then it keeps all Naval personnel off commercial shipping. This is not generally understood by owners or their insurers.

Given the risk to the crew in having Naval personnel on board (as seen in the recent reported incident on the Kalamos where the Chief officer was tragically shot) it is probably much safer to use patrol boats but they come at a cost. Further, there is still a risk that if an owner attempts to berth at or near a terminal guarded by a NIMASA craft then they will not be able to have any dedicated patrol boat remain with them. It will be forced to stand off a mile or so, which at night, in a high risk area may offer no protection at all.

It was anticipated that about six such MOUs were to be issued whereas the actual number is said to be more than forty. It is inevitable that NIMASA would see its own interests threatened and that action would be taken. It is important that vessel owners are aware of this.

Finally, a quick word about the Ghana based Maritime Trade Information Sharing Centre (“MTISC”) that has become the single point of contact for all vessels trading to the area. They are encouraged to report on entering and leaving what is a voluntary reporting area and then every 24 hours. It is now receiving about 250 reports a day and building a good intelligence picture but unlike MSCHOA which coordinates the transits in the High Risk Area off Somalia, it has no response capability. It maybe able to warn ships of a problem or possible threat but there is no coordinated naval coalition that can be deployed to assist. That in turn raises some interesting questions over the use of a citadel.

Owners must be wary of the offerings of PMSCs in Nigeria and have a thorough understanding of the legal regime in which they are operating. No doubt local armed personnel are the cheapest option but they may come at a price.

Source: Tanker Shipping & Trade April/May 2015

For further information please contact Partner Stephen Askins.