There has been a significant shift in criminal activities along the Nigerian maritime landscape in recent years, with smugglers adapting to the evolving enforcement strategies of the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) and other maritime security agencies. Criminals have built syndicates that have dominated the waterways and open sea highlighting the impact of piracy and smuggling. Due to this, illegal activities have increased along waterways, posing a serious threat to maritime security and necessitating reevaluation of enforcement measures.
Smugglers have relocated their operations to the waterways because of intensified customs operations on land, according to investigations. Contraband goods en route to Nigeria now often follow a circuitous route, being shipped to neighbouring countries within the sub-region. These illicit cargoes are then transported at night or during the day on clandestine jetties scattered throughout Lagos waterways and other Niger Delta states.
Particularly worrying about these activities is the allegations of these smugglers being overlooked by corrupt influential figures in the military, government and diplomatic circles. These criminal syndicates, pirates etc are not only well organised but also heavily armed. The alleged corrupt alliance presents a serious challenge to the efforts of law enforcement agencies to combat these illegal acts.
Customs’ Battle on the High Seas
The Customs Area Controller, Federal Operations Unit (FOU) Zone A, Hussein Ejibunu, highlighted the gravity of the situation when, in June this year, a truckload of Indian Hemp was intercepted in the Lekki area of Lagos state. The contraband was offloaded from a boat originating from Ghana. However, in a brazen display of criminal sophistication, five out of the six trucks loaded with the smuggled goods managed to evade customs operatives in the darkened Lekki expanse. This highlights the continued efforts displayed by security operatives, however, there are loopholes in the execution of these operations.
Kidnappings and Localized Threats
The maritime challenges extend to local waters, with criminals often referred to as ‘pirates’ and operating within the Niger Delta and Lagos waterways. Kidnapping for ransom and attacks on local cruise ships are common, directly threatening the security of local communities in the region. Although there was a notable drop in maritime kidnapping activities as of October 2023 due to the rebound of oil prices amidst the Ukraine and Russia war, the threats persist.
Diverse Criminal Activities and Rising Threats
Recently, reports have shed light on the intricate web of smuggling routes, revealing that approximately 90% of Indian hemp in the country enters through the West African sub-region. This is facilitated by the substance’s legal status in many French-speaking countries within the region, providing smugglers with a seemingly seamless passage into Nigeria. The rise of smuggling is not limited to contraband. Criminal organizations use various methods to smuggle Premium Motor Spirit (PMS), also known as gasoline, into neighbouring countries. The porous nature of the nearly 800 km-long border has made it difficult to deal with the illegal movement of fuel, drugs, people and foreign goods.
OPERATION WATER GUARD: A Strategic Initiative
In response to the increasing maritime threats, OPERATION WATER GUARD by the Western Naval Command of the Nigerian Navy was initiated in the border areas of Benin Republic focusing on the waters of Badagry in Lagos and parts of Ogun state. The objective of the operation launched on 9 November 2023 is to make Nigerian waters and borders inaccessible to maritime pirates and smugglers. The operation uses intelligence-led research to supplement existing checkpoints and improve their oversight. The current increase in crime on maritime routes demands immediate and strategic response. Strengthening maritime security requires cooperation between different agencies. from Customs and the Navy to intelligence agencies. Shared intelligence and enhanced surveillance capabilities can help break the networks that facilitate these illegal activities.
Navigating Troubled Waters Amidst End of the Year Festivities
As Nigeria faces multifaceted maritime security challenges, there is a need for concerted and determined efforts to protect its waters. Ongoing security operations which are commendable initiatives, highlights the need for continued flexibility and cooperation between all security agencies. The approaching holiday season brings concerns about the possibility of a decline in security activities along waterways. According to trend analysis, concentrated efforts and deployment of security forces across different states are anticipated during festive periods on land, which could exacerbate the threat posed by criminal groups on the sea. As the country faces this critical alert, addressing the root causes and strengthening safety measures are essential for a safer maritime environment.