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Amaechi, maritime security and its unending controversies

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By Uche Nnachukwu

Minister of Transportation Rotimi Amaechi loves controversy. Days after his spat with the National Assembly over controversial clauses ceding Nigeria’s sovereignty to China in the $500 billion loan to construct the Lagos Ibadan railway, the minister is apparently not done with stoking fresh fires.  After Tuesday’s appearance before the House of Representatives Committee on Treaties and Agreements, he was on Friday back on a national television delving into another matter – this time the nation’s maritime sector.

Answering questions during the programme, the minister stated that the Secure Anchorage Area (SAA) contract being operated by Ocean Marine Security Limited (OMSL) in full collaboration with the Nigerian Navy in Lagos is “laced with fraud”.

He stated further that the chairman of OMSL, Captain Well Hosa Okunbo, did not have the approval of the Federal Government to operate what he described as the so-called secure anchorage area.

“What security was he providing?”; he asked the programme anchor person. “He charges each vessel on the waters $2,500 then after that $1,500 every day. He doesn’t pay back that money to the Federal Government.

“He makes $17million from that activity. Who approved it? Nobody! So as Minister for Transport, I said no; we can provide that security. $195 million was approved by the Federal Government to a company that is training Nigerians that will take over the waterways and take care of the security, then Okunbo is now saying no- no, I must do it, he can’t. I wonder why our personal interest will override national interest. I wonder what kind of country we belong to,” Amaechi had said on the programme.

He then challenged the OMSL chairman to come forward with the approval letter from the Federal Government to provide maritime security on the nation’s waterways.

Stakeholders in the maritime industry are still at a loss as to why at a time the clamour for local content is the vogue, especially in the oil and gas sector, the minister would be routing for an Israeli company – Messrs. HLSI Security Systems and Technologies to take charge of our territorial waterways.

Before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the minister had revealed that the Israeli company was yet to begin execution of the $195 million security contract it got from the Nigeria Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) to secure the nation’s maritime domain. He also said that the platforms and equipment meant for use under the contract were still being manufactured, adding that it would take some time to have the platforms delivered. He however hinted the Nigeria Navy, Air Force and other agents that would man the platforms under the contract were being trained.

Interestingly, the $195 million maritime security contract was signed off by the Federal Executive Council in December 2017 for provision of three helicopters, three airplanes, three big battle-ready ships, 12 vessels and 20 amphibious cars to aid security of Nigeria’s waterways.

In January 2018, the House of Representatives had criticised the management of NIMASA for awarding the contract to HLSI, saying it was a breach of internal security and defiance of the local content law.

In May 2018, President Muhammadu Buhari instructed Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, via a memo, to terminate the contract. In addition, the National Security Adviser and the Nigerian Intelligence Agency were mandated to investigate how the contractor obtained security clearance without an end-user certificate.

Also, the president ordered HLSI to supply equipment to the tune of the $50 million upfront payment it received from Nigeria. However, a new twist would emerge in August 2019 when the Federal Government, through the Ministry of Transportation, reinstated the contract. Amaechi, who announced the reinstatement, promised that the equipment to be used by the firm would arrive the nation’s waters before December 2019.

In the effort to justify the $195m maritime security contract, Amaechi had told journalists at an Abuja forum that importers were paying war risk surcharges for vessels to berth at Port Harcourt, Calabar and Warri Ports as a result of piracy and activity of militants.

The battle for the takeover of the SAA is certainly not new; what is becoming worrisome is the minister’s decision not to hearken to words of wisdom. For instance, a joint committee of the Senate on the Navy, Marine transport and Finance, in October 2019, investigated claims of illegality of the operations of OMSL at the SAA of Lagos sea came out with a report offering useful suggestions on how to advance the sector.

The committee, after its investigation, recommended among others: “That Ocean Marine Solution Limited (OMSL) should be commended for its genuine national interests in investing over $400 million in security at the Secured Anchorage Area (SAA) in particular and the Nigerian waterways in general by providing the needed platforms and logistics for the Nigerian Navy to effectively perform 24/7/365 patrol operations as well as to provide the required protection for vessels waiting to berth at the Lagos ports.”

On alleged defrauding of the nation, the committee specifically noted: “That since no fraud is found in the operations of the OMSL and is operating at no cost to government, OMSL should be allowed to continue its operation at the SAA until such a time when a better and more cost effective system is put in place by the government.

“That the Nigerian Navy should be properly funded to enable it procure needed vessels to clear the over one hundred and fifty (150) vessels deficit to enable them carry out their constitutional responsibilities without over depending on Private Maritime Logistics Support Companies (PMLSC).”

Ports users have long argued that the SAA is saving ships about $225,000 on each call at Lagos ports. National President of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), Increase Uche, recently told journalists that contrary to claims that the SAA is leading to increase in cost of shipping and security of ships at the SAA by the Navy, using platforms provided by OMS Limited, it is helping multinational shipping lines to save a whopping $225,000 on a journey to Lagos ports.

Said he: “We don’t want to go back to the old order. We are asking the Federal Government to look critically into this issue so that the SAA is not dismantled.

“As freight forwarders, we are major port users of shipping services, moving cargoes across seas to Nigeria. We are comfortable with the service and we urge the Federal Government to let the SAA be so that multinational shipping lines can continue to patronise our seaports,” he said.

Uche added: “To us the practitioners, what we are advocating is that government should look at the issue critically. If the NPA is agitating that such measures should be terminated, let us look at it holistically and ensure that the government is not being short-changed.”

There is no doubting the fact that the minister and the agencies of his ministry are not satisfied with the decision of the joint senate committee that investigated the allegations levelled against OMSL. Hence, the battle to terminate the contract it entered with the Navy continues to take priority even when there are indications the nation will suffer for it.

  • Nnachukwu, a maritime analyst, writes from Abuja.

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