Cheta Nwanze, Lead Partner, SBM Intelligence

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Subjects of Interest

  • Fiscal Policy
  • Geopolitical Analysis
  • Governance
  • Politics

Nigeria’s maritime insecurity requires due attention 18 Mar 2022

On Monday, 4 October 2021, fishermen in Ibaka, a community in Mbo Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom State, banded together under the auspices of Watch Out Fishermen Cooperatives, and conducted a protest march at Ibaka Beach. They wanted to proceed to Uyo, the state capital, but in discouraging them from taking such an action, state and local government officials present told the protesters that the reason they were protesting was something that the state government had no power to control. So, they should direct their protest to the right quarters: Abuja.

Effiong Numah, the leader of the protesters, later told a stringer that despite the rising insecurity along the waterways, the state government and the security agencies had remained ‘deaf.’ According to him, as of the date of the protest, 10 members of the fishermen group had been kidnapped, and 23 of their boats had seen their engines stolen. One of the fishermen who was kidnapped was released only after a hefty ransom was paid. During the previous week, four fishermen were released after a ransom was paid, and the person who had gone to deliver the ransom was in his turn kidnapped. The total ransom paid was N46 million. Poor fishermen, having to raise that amount equivalent to $80,272.

Nigeria has many impediments to its growth and development, and many of them are self-inflicted. There are some countries who did not win the geography lottery and are thus ‘prisoners’ of their own geography, condemned and constrained by the bounded limitations of their location. On the other hand, Nigeria is a littoral state; as a state with coastlines, the sea provides important sources of revenue in terms of fishing and water transportation, as well as trade. Countries such as Niger Republic, Burkina Faso and Mali, have no access to the sea, and are thus dependent, for the bulk of their trade, on neighbours whose policies could easily change from one government to the next.

Nigeria cannot be said to belong in that category. Sea piracy, which has an often unacknowledged effect on Nigeria’s economic fortunes, is one of those challenges the country is failing to deal with decisively. The country’s maritime insecurity exists both on the internal and external waterways, and it is transnational, which means it is affecting our neighbours as well.

For the past half decade, Nigeria’s ballooning insecurity has affected all sectors of the economy and social life. The focus has been overwhelmingly on the Boko Haram insurgency in the Northeast and is increasingly shifting to rising terrorism in the Northwest and North-central regions. Armed robbery, kidnap for ransom, pastoral conflict, etc., is having a national spread. With maritime insecurity associated with water, Nigeria’s waterways have been added to the very many theatres of conflict. This addition has not occurred to the general public.

Today’s pirates are yesterday’s cultists. The Niger Delta region, which houses the country’s littoral areas, suffered from an insurgency that lasted from the mid-1990s until it fizzled out considerably with the Presidential Amnesty Programme of President Musa Yar’Adua in 2009. The programme was aimed at maintaining stability in the country’s oil sector. But with the Amnesty programme in abeyance, while incidents of attacks on oil pipelines have reduced, criminals in the region have taken their activities to the sea. The Gulf of Guinea, which covers all of West Africa’s coastal states, is currently the most dangerous sea route in the world, even more dangerous than the Persian Gulf and the horn of Africa. The International Maritime Bureau (IMB), a division of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), had said all Nigeria’s waters are risky, with several attacks unreported.

Our neighbouring countries blame Nigeria for the insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea. Last year, I attended the Moscow Security Conference and listened to Charles Mondjo, the defence minister of Congo Brazzaville, give what was to me the best presentation by any of the African delegates, on rising piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.

Mr. Mondjo said that the members of the Committee of Central African States had created the Kinshasa Protocol which divided the Gulf into two, with Zone A going to ECOWAS, and Zone B going to the CAS. The CAS, which has a lot of poor countries, had been doing a lot of their meetings and work to improve on security, because, according to him, they view the river system as a whole. Unfortunately, according to Mondjo, 80% of the challenges of the region come from one country – Nigeria – using data to substantiate his claims.

In July 2021, the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari admitted that the country loses an estimated $26.3 billion annually to piracy and other forms of criminality perpetuated on waterways. Sea piracy does not just involve attacks on big international vessels or cargo ships, but it also involves attacks on subsistence fishers who make a living off fishing. Incidences of this insecurity are rampant in Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa and Rivers states, with attacks leading to the theft of the engines used in speedboats, something so vital to the fishermen who have to go longer distances to fish because of environmental degradation. The direct effect of this is more unemployment, especially for water transporters who operate in the Port Harcourt – Degema sea route that has witnessed the most deadly incidents in recent times.

Efforts by the government have not successfully curbed the problem. Given its focus on appearances, the Integrated National Security and Waterways Protection Infrastructure (popularly known as the Deep Blue Project) has only served to move the problem away from our external waterways and has driven it inland. As of October 2021, the IMB reported that global piracy cases dropped to the lowest level since 1994. The Gulf of Guinea region recorded 28 incidents of piracy and armed robbery in the first nine months of 2021, in comparison to 46 for the same period in 2020, with the Nigerian area recording only four related cases for the same period. In the same period fishermen and water transport workers in Akwa Ibom, Delta, Bayelsa and Rivers saw a rise in the number of attacks, with the problem leading the Bayelsa State Government to declare a night-time curfew on the state’s inland waterways towards the end of last year.

There’s no one size fits all solution to the problem, but if there’s an outsized causative factor, it is unemployment. Creating employment opportunities for young people in the region will reduce the chance of ships getting derailed. Going forward, the government needs to begin to realise the importance of sea trade even as it chases rail development as part of its infrastructure drive. Sea transport could assuage shortages that land and rail transport can’t. 90% of global trade is transported via shipping. It is a mistake to ignore this vital trade route that made the developed countries what they are.

Water transport also generates eight times less emissions than trucks, and half the emissions from transporting freight by rail. The world’s top global economies understand the importance of maritime transport as a cheaper means of transporting cargoes, and Nigeria must begin to borrow a leaf from China’s Belt and Road Initiative, albeit on a domestic level first. To do so, the federal government must begin to own up to its navy’s mistakes and pay reparations to communities it has destroyed under the guise of chasing pirates, bunkerers and militants. It has to do everything to win the trust of these communities.

There’s no development without justice and the more justice is delayed, the more the resentment builds up which would lead to more confrontation against the state and its economy, and fostering insecurity.

Cheta Nwanze is Lead Partner at SBM Intelligence.