By Milcah Tanimu
The Nigerian Navy has declared its intent to apprehend and bring to justice the owners of deserted maritime vessels suspected of engaging in illicit oil bunkering activities.
This commitment was articulated by the Navy in an official statement issued on Monday, signed by its spokesperson, AO Ayo-Vaughan. The statement was in response to Chief Jasper Ako, the proprietor of the recently destroyed vessel (MV Cecelia).
The owners of the Marine Vessel (MV) Cecelia Imo, which was recently destroyed by the Military Joint Task Force of Operation Delta Safe (OPDS), accused the Nigerian Navy of precipitate and malevolent actions.
Soljas Limited, the owners of the vessel, refuted allegations of unauthorized dealings or the storage of illegally refined Automotive Gas Oil (AGO), commonly known as diesel. This stands in contradiction to the Nigerian Navy’s assertions.
The Navy has countered, explaining that the vessel had remained inactive for two years but had been repurposed as a storage tank for unlawfully refined petroleum products. The owner’s accusations were dismissed as unsubstantiated.
“To dispel any uncertainties and establish the truth, MV Cecelia has been under scrutiny due to suspicions of oil theft,” clarified Ayo-Vaughan. “The vessel was apprehended on August 15, 2023, along with products believed to be illicitly refined Automated Gas Oil (Diesel) at Meco Jetty in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. The operation was executed by the Naval Component of OPDS.”
The Navy spokesperson further emphasized that the vessel’s owners were evading authorities and had not participated in the sample analysis, a requisite procedure for such cases.
Ayo-Vaughan pointed out that in instances of vessels seized for oil theft, owners often escape, leaving the Navy with the financial burden of maintaining and sustaining the vessels. This has incurred substantial costs for Nigeria and exacerbated national security concerns as these abandoned vessels frequently pose navigational hazards.
Ayo-Vaughan also indicated that these derelict vessels were the principal factor behind the International Maritime Organization’s previous classification of Nigeria’s ports and waterways as the most hazardous in the region.
He underscored that MV Cecelia had been non-operational for approximately two years, and during the arrest, the vessel was carrying approximately 250,000 liters of illegal AGO.
The Navy spokesperson disclosed that three suspects have been detained and have provided valuable information, but the alleged owners remain at large.
Additionally, Ayo-Vaughan stressed that MV Cecelia lacked the necessary regulatory approvals to function as an AGO storage facility. He highlighted that all authorized storage facilities are typically communicated to Naval Headquarters for monitoring by pertinent agencies.
“The intelligence has revealed that unlawfully refined products are loaded onto MV Cecelia for storage,” he stated. “One of the suspects disclosed that these products are usually transported in ‘Cotonou’ boats and Geepee tanks and then transferred to MV Cecelia for subsequent sale to unsuspecting members of the public.”
Ayo-Vaughan lamented the practice’s longstanding occurrence, remaining undetected until the recent intelligence-led efforts by OPDS and the Navy.