Nigeria’s ambitious new maritime security project must avoid old traps


President Muhammadu Buhari recently inaugurated a project designed to prevent illegal activities in Nigeria coastal waters and enforce maritime regulations. It also aims to prevent illegal activities on inland waterways.

Known as the Deep Blue Project, it was launched by the Federal Departments of Transport and Defense in 2017. It is implemented by the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Security Agency. Staff have been hired from the navy, army, air force, police, and the Department of State Services.

the $ 195 million project is said to be the first one integrated maritime security strategy for West and Central Africa. It is designed to combat piracy, sea theft and other crimes at sea in Nigerian waters and up to the Gulf of Guinea.

The Gulf encompasses more than 12 countries from Senegal to Angola. It is a strategic maritime domain with enormous natural resources and a critical route for international navigation.

But the region, and Nigeria in particular, has seen frequent vicious attacks on ships and multiple kidnappings of sailors for ransom by pirate gangs. The gangs have evolved in refinement. They also extended their attacks up to 200 nautical miles from shore.

Most studies, including mine, argue that the root of maritime insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea stems mainly from poor governance. Despite the endowment of vast natural resources, most states have some of the worst human development indices. These include environmental devastation, high unemployment rates and widespread poverty generated by corruption and poor governance.

I also discovered that the unsustainable practices of the oil companies destroyed traditional farming and fishing livelihood systems in coastal communities. It has forced some people to make desperate choices. With legitimate livelihood opportunities dwindling amidst wealth, some young people in the region are turning to crime for their survival.

The pervasive corruption among maritime security forces has left them unequipped to deal with security threats. The Deep Blue Project is obviously designed as a reactive intervention against piracy. Yet, successfully countering the evolving threat requires addressing enabling factors rather than simply reacting to events. It must also, crucially, include avoiding mistakes made in the past.

The importance of the project

Nigeria depends primarily on the export of oil through the Gulf of Guinea Maritime Corridor for a large part of its income and foreign exchange earnings. However, maritime threats cost him around $ 26.3 billion annually.

Nigeria too accounts 75% of crime in terms of incidents in the Gulf of Guinea, especially piracy. The International Maritime Bureau said 135 crew members were kidnapped from their ships around the world in 2020. The Gulf of Guinea accounted for more than 95%.

First three months of 2021, the Gulf of Guinea accounted for 43% of all reported piracy incidents and 40 kidnapped crews. Pirate gangs originate almost exclusively from Nigeria.

As a result, the global maritime community has consistently called for increased efforts to combat piracy and maritime insecurity in the region.

This has led to the adoption of a multitude of national, regional and international initiatives. There is also increasing deployment of naval forces by Denmark, France, Italy and the United States.

How far can the project go?

How far the project will go in deepening maritime security depends on several factors.

The first is whether the mistakes of the past are avoided. These have included:

  • an openly militarized response to the threat,

  • neglect of conduct or the enabling factors of crime,

  • lack of accountability mechanisms in response initiatives, and

  • poor appreciation of the dynamics of the criminal space in the broad sense.

Already, the largely military approach to the project has been critical. This means that the complex drivers of maritime insecurity, particularly piracy, are ignored. These include socio-economic, environmental and governance factors that allow piracy to escalate.

Much of the problem stems from state corruption, declining employment opportunities, empty maritime security forces and weak law enforcement. The opportunistic foreign, corporate or individual interests that subsequently emerge only increase and perpetuate crime.

A related factor is the interagency rivalry that has undermined multi-agency interventions in successive administrations. The multi-agency nature of the new project is very promising. But therein lies a common peril of Nigeria’s approach to security. Rivalry and the manifest mistrust among Nigerian agencies. This results in poor coordination, limited information sharing and suboptimal performance.

There are also concerns about strong internal mechanisms to ensure transparency and accountability. These are essential to the success of the project. Projects like this have in the past have served as a means for vested interests to embezzle or embezzle public funds. Politicians, government officials and business were involved.

The Olusegun Obasanjo administration was accused to spend between 300 and 400 million dollars in equipment to fight against maritime insecurity without anything to gain from it.

Likewise, the administration Goodluck Jonathan used the public-private partnership model. He engaged resources towards the acquisition of assets to combat maritime insecurity. But it was not sustainable.

These concerns are fundamental given that Nigerian Finance Minister Zainab Ahmed recently revealed that Nigeria will borrow $ 1.76 billion in domestic markets to finance the fight against insecurity. Thus, the lack of transparency may mean that the income generated by the project may not be used wisely.

A poor maintenance culture, such as in the aviation, energy, health and transportation industries, can also mean that recently acquired assets will shut down sooner than expected. These include:

  • land assets (a new intelligence center, 16 armored coastal patrol vehicles and 600 specially trained soldiers);

  • maritime assets (two special mission ships and 17 rapid interception boats);

  • air assets (two special mission aircraft for surveillance, three special mission helicopters and four unmanned aerial vehicles).

Another factor is the interface of the project with other regional initiatives to counter the vested interests that support piracy. Paying ransoms made hacking extremely lucrative. This has entrenched a network of interests of foreign and local state and non-state actors. Some global shipping companies and foreign players use cash and bypass local authorities in the region to negotiate directly with pirates.

While it costs a gang of pirates between $ 5,000 and $ 10,000 to mount an operation at sea, ransoms paid for the kidnapped crew typically range from $ 18,000 per person to $ 500,000.

Without the government’s commitment to address these factors, the project will only be an addition to maritime security initiatives in the troubled region.

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