Nigeria ‘ban’ on armed ship guards throws industry into confusion - 09/07/2014

The IMO has asked Nigeria for clarity on its policies towards armed guards on ships. Andrej Pol/

Shipowners and private security left in legal limbo as Nigerian diplomat confirms private armed security guards are not allowed in high-risk region

SHIPOWNERS and private security firms have been left operating in a legal grey area after Nigeria appeared to ban the use of armed guards on board vessels, but failed to clarify previous agreements that license security firms to operate in the country.

Nigeria’s representative at the International Maritime Organization has unequivocally stated to Lloyd’s List that the use of armed security specialists on vessels in the country’s waters is not allowed.

But despite official requests from industry organisations including BIMCO, the Security Association for the Maritime Industry and the IMO itself, no clarification regarding the details of the policy has yet been forthcoming from the Nigerian government.

The ongoing uncertainty leaves shipping operators – including offshore operators and tanker owners servicing Nigeria’s economically crucial oil industry – in a position of not knowing what arrangements they can legally make in a part of the world where attacks on vessels are a growing menace.

The development also poses an obvious challenge to the business model of the relatively small number of private maritime security companies, such as Libertine Global Solutions and Port2Port, which offer armed guard services on ships through Nigerian affiliates.

The security situation for shipping in Nigeria meanwhile remains increasingly risky for operators and the Gulf of Guinea is already a listed area for hull war, piracy and related perils.

Bergen Risk Solutions, a Norwegian consultancy that advises on the region, has documented 20 attacks on ships in the Niger Delta area in the three months to the end of March, up from 13 in the final quarter of 2013. Worryingly, in nine of the attacks, crews were taken hostage.

In an email to Lloyd’s List, Ibrahim Olugbade, a London-based diplomat who forms part of Nigeria’s IMO delegation, seemed to leave little room for doubt on his government’s stance regarding the employment of armed guards to protect against the growing problem.

“It is clear that Nigeria does not allow the use of armed guards on board merchant ships,” he said.

“The Nigeria navy have their statutory role to protect the maritime domain of the nation, and ensure that the territorial waters are regularly patrolled and... all necessary assistance is provided to protect the maritime integrity of this domain.”

Freelance guarding

The policy is now being enforced by the Nigerian navy, which appears especially concerned to prevent the country’s marine police from providing their services on a freelance basis, shipping professionals in the country have told Lloyd’s List.

A maritime security specialist based in Lagos, who asked to remain anonymous, said that local naval and police forces sometimes undertake paid freelance guarding activity.

A second source also confirmed that this has happened, at least in the past, although the problem does appear to be diminishing, he added.

While the top brass disapprove, they do not always have sufficient assets to prevent abuses.

A directive from the Chief of Naval Staff in the last year has reiterated that naval personnel are only allowed to operate on naval vessels, and conversely are not authorised to operate on merchant vessels, he said.

While Nigeria’s marine police are empowered to work on rivers and within ports, they have been known to overstep these limits, leading to tensions with the navy that have on occasions spilled out into “blue on blue” clashes.

According to a circular issued by BIMCO, there have been reports of incidents in which policemen have opened fire on Nigerian naval vessels, believing they were pirates, and where seafarers have been killed or injured in the crossfire.

Giles Noakes, chief maritime security officer at BIMCO, said that shipowners trading in Nigeria should be aware that they are at risk of potentially significant liabilities and delays if they employ armed guards on ships who are sourced from the Nigerian military police.

“It would seem that the only legitimate method of acquiring armed security protection in the territorial waters and exclusive economic zone of Nigeria is by utilising the services of the Nigerian navy, although this seems to exclude armed guards on vessels,” he said.

One of the most prominent PMSCs active in Nigeria is British-owned Port2Port, which operates in the country through a locally incorporated affiliate.

Managing director Andrew Varney said that following incidents in which Nigerian naval personnel were injured, the Nigerian navy withdrew personnel from merchant vessels some two years ago.

However, they are still allowed to board protection vessels remote from the client vessels to provide escort duties. But this is inevitably expensive, capability is limited, and many owners would prefer guards to escort vessels.

The marine police started to plug the gap, at least in the distance between the fairway buoy and the limits of territorial waters, which are within its proper jurisdiction. This can only be exceeded in cases of “hot pursuit” of those suspected of criminal acts.

While this compromise was accepted in practice, the navy is unhappy with this outcome and wants to regain primacy as its capability improves.

While the current confusion over the legality of armed guards has left industry operators demanding clarity, Mr Varney insisted that a memorandum of understanding signed by the government continues to give dispensation to Nigerian-registered companies, including P2P’s affiliate, to provide security cover.

“We find ourselves in a situation that is very fluid and developing and I think [Capt Olugbade] may not be fully conversant with how things are evolving day to day, in terms of the Nigerian navy’s perception of this,” he said.

An IMO spokesperson confirmed to Lloyd’s List that Nigeria and other countries had been asked to provide further information on their policies towards armed guards on ships, but no response had yet been received.

“We would welcome clarity from all coastal states as to what is their position, so that merchant ships do not inadvertently fall foul of coastal state laws.”

in 07/07/2014