Nigeria launches Deep Blue maritime security project

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President Muhammadu Buhari has officially launched Nigeria’s Integrated National Security and Waterways Protection Infrastructure programme, also known as the Deep Blue Project, which aims to combat maritime insecurity in Nigerian waters and the Gulf of Guinea.

In a ceremony in Lagos on 10 June, Buhari said, “Deep Blue is being launched to advance the security architecture and ensure greater enforcement action in Nigerian waters and beyond. This assemblage of security assets comes at a critical time when global attention is focused on piracy activity and the new dimensions it has taken in the Gulf of Guinea.

“Water represents over 80% of the transport environment of the global economy, and concerted efforts are therefore needed to address the anticipated security challenges. Therefore, the flag-off the Deep Blue Project marks an important milestone in this regard and our collective efforts to address security challenges in the form of piracy and militant crimes in Nigeria and the Gulf of Guinea.

“I am confident that the project, which provides a robust maritime security architecture, will enhance maritime domain awareness capability and improve law enforcement action, particularly in the prosecution of suspects under the Suppression of Piracy and other Maritime Offences Act which I signed into law in June 2019. This flag-off is an important step in the continuing shift in strategic action about regional maritime security,” Buhari said, noting that ten pirates have been prosecuted under the Act.

Buhari said Deep Blue, initiated in 2017, “will serve as a benchmark for member states in the Gulf of Guinea and other relevant stakeholders to further develop innovative strategies and align efforts with the subsisting framework to improve maritime security in the region. This project displays the concerted efforts to guarantee security and it is a demonstration of the government’s resolve to diversify the nation’s economy and harness Blue economy potential.”

Deep Blue will call on a wide variety of equipment, including two Special Mission Vessels (the DB Lagos and DB Abuja, built by Shipyard De Hoop in the Netherlands), three AW109 helicopters, 16 Proforce armoured vehicles, two Cessna Citation CJ3 maritime surveillance aircraft, 17 De Haas Maasluis DHM1050 interceptor boats, four Tekever AR3 unmanned aerial vehicles, a C4I (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Intelligence) Operations Centre and 600 personnel strong Maritime Security Unit (MSU). Prior to the launch, Deep Blue stakeholders including the Nigerian Navy, Air Force, Police and Department of State Services held an exercise to ensure all assets were ready for deployment.

The main goals of the project are to prevent illegal activities in Nigeria’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), enforce maritime regulations, enhance safety of lives at sea, and prevent illegal activities in the inland waterways.

The Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) has been tasked with running the $195 million Deep Blue Project along with the Nigerian military, Police, Department of State Services and other security agencies. NIMASA Director General Bashir Jamoh said “Without security of our seas, no meaningful seaborne trading or shipping economy can be possible. Securing our seas became a pressing mandate. Today marks the fulfilment of that mandate.”

“The Deep Blue Project is the first integrated maritime security strategy in West and Central Africa with the aim of combating cases of piracy, theft at sea and other crimes at sea,” he said.

NIMASA is working closely with international community to curtail criminality in the country’s exclusive economic zone. Jamoh said pirate attacks have reduced from mid-February this year, and urged shipping firms to review insurance to Nigeria.

Minister of Transportation Rotimi Ameachi expressed delight that the assets of the project have already been deployed to guarantee safety at Lagos Secure Anchorage Area (SAA) after private security outfits managing operations were banned.

Deep Blue welcomed by shipowners

The launch of Deep Blue was welcomed by international shipping association BIMCO, the International Chamber of Shipping, the International Association of Dry Cargo Shipowners (INTERCARGO), the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners (INTERTANKO) and the Oil Companies International Marine Forum (OCIMF).

In a joint statement, the Round Table of Shipowner Associations and OCIMF expressed their full support for the launch. “The multi-agency project will significantly increase maritime security in the region, an area blighted by piracy, armed robbery, and other maritime crimes,” with assets providing 24/7 cover for the region. These complement the Yaounde ICC (Interregional Coordination Centre) structure offering real capability to both Nigeria and the region.

“It is the hope of the industry organisations that Deep Blue, coordinated with other navies and programmes through the mechanism of the Gulf of Guinea (GOG) – Maritime Collaboration Forum/SHADE, will seriously impact on the ability of pirate groups to prey on merchant shipping,” the organisations said.

Guy Platten, International Chamber of Shipping Secretary General said, “The Deep Blue Project can be a game-changer in the fight against piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, and we congratulate Nigeria in launching the project despite the significant difficulties presented by COVID. We look forward to continuing our close cooperation with NIMASA and the Nigerian Navy to realise our shared vision of a region free from the threat of piracy and armed robbery.”

David Loosley, BIMCO Secretary General, said “Deep Blue becoming operational represents a significant opportunity to expand law and order at sea in cooperation with international forces in the area. We look forward to seeing Nigeria make the best of these assets to the benefit of Nigeria, it’s citizens and economy, and of course the seafarers from all over the world going about their daily business in the Gulf of Guinea.”

Katharina Stanzel, Managing Director of INTERTANKO, said: “INTERTANKO believes that the launch of the Deep Blue Project is a tangible demonstration that the tide has turned against the scourge of piracy. This project has the potential to greatly contribute to seafarers being once again able to carry out their duties without fear for their safety.”

Kostas Gkonis, Secretary General of INTERCARGO, said “on behalf of the dry bulk shipping sector, we very much anticipate that the Deep Blue Project will make a significant impact in reducing piracy and armed robbery, protecting seafarers, ships, and the essential trade that serves the peoples of countries in the region.”

Rising piracy

The Gulf of Guinea and Nigeria in particular has seen ongoing attacks against vessels and multiple kidnappings. The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reported that the Gulf of Guinea accounted for 43% of all reported piracy incidents in the first three months of 2021 and 40 crew kidnapped.

“Pirates operating in the Gulf of Guinea are well equipped to attack further away from shorelines and are unafraid of violent action against innocent crews. It is critical for seafarers to stay remain cautious and vigilant when transiting Gulf of Guinea waters,” International Maritime Bureau director Michael Howlett said earlier this year.

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) said the number of incidents of maritime crime and piracy in the Gulf of Guinea increased to 90 in 2020, up by 20 compared to 2019, with a total of 112 crew members reported kidnapped or missing. This was a significant proportion of the 226 incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships occurred or attempted in 2020 globally. Dozens of incidents have been reported in the West Africa region this year, according to the IMO.

Solutions needed on land

Ahead of the Deep Blue launch, maritime risk analysis company Dryad Global said that, determining the success of the Deep Blue Project is not a simple process. “Whilst the majority of incidents now occur beyond Nigerian waters, pirates themselves continue to originate almost exclusively from within Nigeria. For the DBP to be able to claim success, Nigeria must achieve more than simply driving piracy into neighbouring waters, it must ensure that the current areas of the southern Niger Delta that are allowing Nigerian pirates the freedom of movement to mount and sustain complex kidnap for ransom operations are themselves secured and further still, the conditions within those areas that drive individuals towards piracy are addressed accordingly.”

Whilst any attempts to improve maritime security offshore Nigeria is welcome, the maritime risk company said, “it is also the case that the largely military approach to counter-piracy that dominates much of the DBP, risks ignoring the complex interrelationship of socio-economic and governmental factors that drive piracy and maritime crime. Hence why the conventional wisdom in counter-piracy discourse states that the roots of piracy should ultimately be addressed onshore. Land-based counter-piracy approaches can involve programmes which focus on capacity building for law enforcement and policing, or a development model, focussing on preventive programs or alternative livelihood projects.”

Dryad added that “real success in addressing piracy throughout the Gulf of Guinea will likely only be realised when littoral states effectively and collectively respond to the onshore and offshore drivers of piracy, whilst strengthening regional frameworks and providing a system of collectivised security.”