The Anti-Piracy Bill 

 Recently, the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) broke the news that President Muhammadu Buhari had assented to the Suppression of Piracy and other Maritime Offences Bill, 2019, otherwise called ‘Anti-piracy Bill’.

In the words of NIMASA, the new law will herald a dramatic improvement in security on the country’s territorial waters and exclusive economic zone.

By its assent, the Anti-piracy Bill, gives effect to the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), 1982, and the International Convention on the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Navigation (SUA), 1988, and its Protocols.

According to NIMASA, besides addressing maritime insecurity, the new law, very importantly, fulfills the international requirement for standalone legislation on piracy, as against the approach of using the Maritime Operations Coordinating Board Amendment Bill to criminalise piracy.

It added that, “with the Suppression of Piracy and other Maritime Offences Act, Nigeria has officially become the first country in the West and Central African Sub-Region to promulgate a separate law against piracy, an important international requirement set by the IMO as part of measures to guarantee secure global shipping”.

Coincidentally, a few days after news of the signing into law of the anti-piracy bill broke; the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) released its half year report on global piracy. In the report, it noted that, seas around West Africa remain the world’s most dangerous.

According to the IMB, out of the 75 seafarers taken hostage onboard or kidnapped for ransom worldwide so far this year, 62 were captured in the Gulf of Guinea – off the coasts of Nigeria, Guinea, Togo, Benin and Cameroon. Nigeria is the most prominent player in the Gulf of Guinea.

It added that, out of the nine vessels fired upon worldwide, eight were off the coast of Nigeria. These attacks took place on average 65 nautical miles off the coast – meaning they are classified as acts of piracy.

The IMB however acknowledged a ray of hope in Nigeria’s fight against piracy; it noted that 21 incidents were recorded around Nigeria between January and June 2019, down from 31 in the same period of 2018. It commended the Nigerian navy for actively responding to reported incidents by dispatching patrol boats.

There is no doubt that, there has been a reduction in the frequency of attacks, especially from the days when Nigeria was equated with Somalia as piracy hot spots.

In one of the 2018 reports, it was affirmed that Nigerian pirates accounted for all 35 kidnapping of seafarers in the Gulf of Guinea in the first half of 2018. The report added that, Nigeria remains as the world’s epicentre for piracy activity.

According to the report, which also narrowed the source of attacks to two Niger Delta states of Rivers and Bayelsa:  “From January through June 2018, EOS recorded 34 Nigerian pirate attacks on merchant and fishing vessels in the Gulf of Guinea? These attacks resulted in the kidnap of 35 seafarers for ransom and the hijacking of several vessels”.

Local and international authorities in piracy are united that the main threat to safe navigation is still found off the restive Niger Delta, specifically on the approaches to ports and oil terminals in Rivers and Delta states. According to reports, “95% of attacks that were recorded in Nigerian waters occurred near Bonny Island, within 60 nautical miles of the shore. Pirates operating in these waters are noted for kidnapping of seafarers for ransom.

The above gives credence to the failure of the Federal Government to successfully rein-in the restive youths in the Niger Delta. There is a nexus between Niger Delta youths, militancy and piracy. 

Apart from the above, the fact that the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency has been helpless in the scourge of sea piracy is a low for the organisation.  All the alliances that it has so far had, have failed. It had aligned with the Navy, Air Force, and prior to that, it had one with Global West Vessels Specialists.

There is also the Secure Anchorage deal with some private organisations, in which ship owners who desire adequate security for their ships contract owners of the elite anchorages for protection. The Secure Anchorage arrangement is legal and enjoys the endorsement of both the Navy and NIMASA.

Now that the anti-piracy bill has been signed into law, can one safely say that our worries are now over? The answer is No!

By its enabling Act, it is the statutory responsibility of NIMASA to ensure safe and   secure water for ships, crew and cargo, the ad hoc arrangement with Navy or any institutions for that matter is just what it is – purely, ad hoc.

Nigeria should stop dancing around maritime security. There is only one option in the fight against maritime crimes, and that is the creation of Coast Guard or Maritime Security Agency (or whatever name it will be called). 

It is only when a separate agency is created (as it exists in other climes) to take charge of maritime security that the benefits of the new law can manifest.

Details of the anti-piracy bill reveal that, it has provision for different aspects of maritime crimes. Some of the significant provisions of the Act include: a distinct definition of piracy and other maritime offences/unlawful acts; punishment upon conviction for maritime crimes; restitution to owners of violated maritime assets or forfeiture of proceeds of maritime crime to the Federal Government.

It also has provision for the establishment of a Piracy and Maritime Offences Fund with prescribed sources of funding that will be utilised in the implementation of the Act.  

The new law also vests exclusive jurisdiction for the determination of matters under the Act on the Federal High Court. It empowers relevant authorities mentioned under the Act to seize vessels or aircraft used for maritime crimes anywhere in Nigeria and in international waters or in the jurisdiction of any country where the ship is reasonably believed to be a pirate-controlled ship or aircraft.

The Big Question is:  What master plan does NIMASA have to implement the new Anti-piracy Act. It is doubtful if it can effectively do this, if there is no shift from the previous approaches of an ad-hoc arrangement with Navy.

What about provision of platform and equipment? Rather than operate a new wine in an old skin, the new Act ought to be backed up with the creation of a separate implementing organ. It doesn’t matter if it’s carved out of NIMASA, there just needs to be a new thinking in the fight against maritime piracy.

No doubt, the Act is well-thought-out, the provisions are also deep, but like everything Nigeria, it may fail to achieve its aim, owing to poor implementation of the provisions.