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Navy vows to arrest fleeing owners of ‘abandoned’ vessels

fadd eze onyekpere

The Nigerian Navy has vowed to fish out, arrest, and prosecute fleeing owners of abandoned sea-going vessels arrested for alleged illegal oil bunkering activities.

This is as the Navy insisted that a vessel, ‘MV Cecelia’, set ablaze by its operatives in Rivers State recently was involved in oil theft.

This came over 48 hours after the owner of the vessel (MV Cecelia), Chief Jasper Ako, who is the Managing Director of ‘Soljas Limited’, an oil and gas firm based in Port Harcourt denied culpability in any illicit oil deal.

Chief Ako, while briefing newsmen through his counsel, Augustine Okekudo, in Port Harcourt last Friday said contrary to the claims of the Niger Navy Ship, Pathfinder whose personnel destroyed the vessel, the boat is not a work boat, but an aluminum high-speed crew facility as clearly stated in the NIMASA document.

He further said the boat has a 45, 000 litres capacity, not 350, 000 as alleged by the Navy, saying it was shocking that they later destroyed the vessel within a week of its arrest without investigation.

He stated, “The boat is in the Nigerian Navy Memorandum of Understanding as a security boat. The Navy even came to inspect and clear the boat two months ago.”

But the Navy explained that though the vessel had not been put in use for two years, it was being used as a storage tank for illegally refined products, describing the allegations by the owner as unfounded.

This was contained in a statement titled, ‘Unfounded allegation by the alleged owner of merchant vessel Cecelia’ and signed by the Director of Information, Nigerian Navy, AO Ayo-Vaughan, and made available to our correspondent.

The statement read, “The attention of the Nigerian Navy and Operation Delts Safe has been drawn to the spurious and baseless allegations by the alleged owner of Merchant Vessel MV Cecelia who recently claimed that their vessel was seized and burnt by the NN.

“For the avoidance of doubt and to set the records straight, MV Cecelis has been a vessel of interest and was being tracked for allegations of oil theft.

“The vessel was arrested on 15 August 2023 with products suspected to be illegally refined Automated Gas Oil (Diesel) at Meco Jetty in Port Harcourt, Rivers State following an operation by the Naval Component of OPDS.

“However, the owners of the vessel remained at large. Subsequently, the sample of the products onboard the vessel was taken for laboratory analysis and it was discovered to be illicit AGO. Pertinently, the owners of the vessel were at large and did not present themselves to witness the test in line with extant procedure.”

The NN spokesman said the behaviour of the alleged owner is not surprising, as “it has been the practice among oil thieves.”

Continuing, he said, “In some cases where vessels involved in oil theft are arrested, the owners abscond leaving the NN to bear the cost of keeping and sustaining the vessels.

“This has cost the nation huge sums of money and has constituted serious national security problems. Most of the vessels either sink alongside the jetty or within the channel constituting serious navigational hazards.

“These abandoned vessels have been the major reason why the International Maritime Organization in the past, declared the nation’s ports/waterways as the most unsafe ports in the region.

“The public is to note that MV Cecelia has not been operational and has been alongside for about two years. At the time of the arrest, the vessel was laden with about 250,000 litres of illicit AGO.

“So far three suspects have been arrested and have made useful statements while the alleged owners remained at large.

“Additionally, the vessel has no NNPCL or any other regulatory approval to serve as an AGO storage facility. This fact is clearly known to the NN and OPDS as all approved storage facilities are usually communicated to Naval Headquarters by relevant agencies for monitoring.

“It is important to note that the intelligence revealed that illegally refined products are received onboard MV Cecelia for storage. One of the suspects revealed that they usually bring illegally refined AGO in ‘Cotonou’ (large wooden) boats and Geepee tanks and offload into MV Cecelia pending when it will be sold to unsuspecting members of the public.

“It is unfortunate that this practice has been on without being detected until the recent re-invigorated intelligence-led operations by OPDS and the NN.”

He added, “The arrest of MV Cecelia is therefore a milestone achievement in the renewed drive to rid the Niger Delta of the illicit crime of oil theft.

“Accordingly, the NN and OPDS will not be hindered by the usual antics of the oil thieves. These sometimes include the owners claiming ignorance of the use of their vessels for illegalities.

“The NN and OPDS remain law abiding and will continue to carry out their statutory roles of fighting oil theft including the destruction of platforms used to carry out the illegalities in line with extant Presidential directives.

“The general public should be informed that the NN and OPDS are on the lookout to arrest the criminals who conduct these crimes and abandon their vessels.”