On Monday, November 14th, 2022, the Nigerian media was abuzz with news of the arrest and arraignment of the crew of the vessel MT Heroic Idun. This development came at a time when Nigeria was facing economic challenges and a declining economy, partially due to oil theft and the activities of suspected foreign and local economic saboteurs hindering the country from fully benefiting from its natural resources.
The Federal Ministry of Justice announced that the 27 crew members of the MT Heroic Idun were arraigned at the Federal High Court Five in Port Harcourt, the capital of Rivers State. The Nigerian Navy revealed that the vessel had attempted to load Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) at the Akpo Oil Terminal without proper authorization.
The alleged offences committed by the vessel included attempting to deal in export crude oil without a license or authorization, entering a restricted zone around an oilfield without permission, and falsely accusing a Nigerian Navy Ship of piracy on international maritime reporting platforms. These actions violated several laws, including the Suppression of Piracy and Other Maritime Offences (SPOMO) Act of 2019.
The SPOMO Act is a significant legislation in Nigeria that gives effect to the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation 1988 and its protocols. This act serves to combat piracy, unlawful acts at sea, and other maritime offences within Nigeria’s jurisdiction.
In addition to the SPOMO Act, the vessel is also alleged to have violated Nigeria’s Exclusive Economic Zone regulations, the Suppression of Piracy and Other Maritime Offences Act, Nigeria’s Miscellaneous Act, and other associated national and international laws. These violations include false accusations against a Nigerian Navy Ship, failure to comply with lawful instructions from Maritime Law Authorities and violations of customs and immigration laws related to the operations of the Akpo Oil Terminal within Nigeria’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
After nine months of incarceration in April 2023, the Federal Government decided to discontinue the prosecution and investigation of the vessel, its owners, charterers, and crew. This decision was made after the owner of Vessel perfected a plea bargain, which was granted in line with Section 270(5)(a) of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015.
The Doctrine of Hot Pursuit
Hot pursuit is the right of a coastal state to continue, outside its territorial sea, contiguous zone, or certain adjacent areas, the pursuit of a foreign vessel that has violated its laws and regulations while in its internal waters or territorial sea, contiguous zone, or certain adjacent areas. The pursuit must, however, have started as soon as the violation occurred and not been aborted.
The main goal of the right of hot pursuit is to prevent vessels that have broken the laws of a coastal state from sailing off into open waters. By virtue of the theory, a coastal state effectively has the right to chase, seize, and accompany the offending ship back to its port. The concept achieves a balance between the principles of open seas navigation and coastal nations’ interests in the effective management and defence of their maritime zones.
The freedom of free navigation, which is intended to safeguard innocent vessels, cannot be used as a cover by a foreign vessel to carry out nefarious purposes. Therefore, the concept aims to prevent conflicts between sovereign states in order to maintain public order. The right of hot pursuit is only used against vessels that have broken the rules of a coastal state, notwithstanding the fact that it interferes with the principle of freedom of navigation.
Examining Nigeria’s actions in the repatriation and arraignment of the MT Heroic Idun, it is crucial to note the relevance of the doctrine of hot pursuit. The doctrine of hot pursuit allows a coastal state to pursue and capture a foreign vessel that has violated its laws and regulations within its internal waters, territorial sea, contiguous zone, or certain adjacent areas.
COMBATING OIL THEFT
As part of the efforts to secure Nigeria’s Maritime space, on the 11th of July 2023, the Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited (NNPC) made another significant announcement regarding the interception of a suspicious vessel by Messrs. Tantita Security Services, a private security contractor engaged by the NNPC. The vessel, MT Tura II, was discovered to be carrying a cargo of crude oil. It is owned by Holab Maritime Services Limited, a Nigerian registered company with the registration number RC813311. The vessel was en route to Cameroon with the illicit cargo on board when it was apprehended.
The vessel was captured with the captain and crew members still on board. Preliminary investigations conducted by the NNPC revealed that the crude oil cargo on board was illegally sourced from an offshore well jacket in Ondo State, Nigeria. At the time of the arrest, neither the vessel nor the crude oil cargo had valid documentation or authorization.
Further investigations conducted at the NNPC Limited command and control centre shed light on the vessel’s discreet operations over the past 12 years. Its last reported location was at Tin Can Port in July 2011. The details of the arrest and the outcomes of the investigations were promptly escalated to the appropriate government authorities. Consequently, a decision was made to destroy the vessel as a strong warning and deterrent to all those involved in such illegal activities.
It is important to state that the illegal trade of stolen crude oil not only inflicts significant economic losses on Nigeria and legitimate stakeholders in the oil industry but also perpetuates a cycle of corruption, environmental devastation, and social instability. However, the idea of hastily destroying arrested vessels seems counterproductive. It fails to address the root causes of the issue and neglects the potential for investigations, legal actions, and intelligence gathering. Instead of resorting to a short-term solution, a more comprehensive approach involving collaboration among law enforcement agencies, regulatory agencies, and international partners would be more effective in addressing the multifaceted problems caused by the illegal trade of stolen crude oil.
Research has indicated that the Nigerian Maritime industry has the potential to generate annual revenue of over $100bn for the country if properly harnessed. To achieve this, it is essential for the government to mandate the relevant security agencies to put an end to the rampant smuggling activities currently plaguing the nation. By issuing necessary aggressive directives to the relevant security agencies, the government can effectively curb revenue leakages and maximize the revenue potential of the Maritime space. Such actions will contribute to the economic growth and development of Nigeria, further solidifying the government’s commitment to the welfare and prosperity of its people.
- Nigerian Navy. “MT Heroic Idun Crew Arraigned in Port Harcourt.” Nigerian Navy, 15 Nov. 2022, www.navy.mil.ng/mt-heroic-idun-crew-arraigned-in-port-harcourt/.
- Okon, Emeka N. “Nigerian Navy Arrests MT Heroic Idun for Illegal Oil Bunkering.” The Guardian Nigeria, 14 Nov. 2022, www.guardian.ng/news/nigerian-navy-arrests-mt-heroic-idun-for-illegal-oil-bunkering/.
- “Suppression of Piracy and Other Maritime Offences Act 2019.” National Assembly of Nigeria, www.nassnig.gov.ng/acts/suppression-of-piracy-and-other-maritime-offences-act-2019/.
- United Nations. “United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.” United Nations, www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/unclos_e.pdf