COLUMN | Action for the Heroic Idun crew: Nigeria should fire its corrupt naval leadership, Modi should grow a backbone, and Abuja should free the detained crew now! [Offshore Accounts]

COLUMN | Action for the Heroic Idun crew: Nigeria should fire its corrupt naval leadership, Modi should grow a backbone, and Abuja should free the detained crew now! [Offshore Accounts]

A reader once criticised this column as "a bit ranty". He should close his browser now and avert his eyes. This week's column is not going to be a bit ranty; it is going to be a lot ranty.

Not about Vroon's banks selling its fleet of offshore supply vessels, not about CNOOC buying four jack-up rigs from a Chinese shipyard, and not about the British windfall tax impacting North Sea investment.

I am angry – and you should be angry also – about the fate of the 26 crew of Heroic Idun, a 2020-built Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC) sailing under the Marshall Islands flag.

These seafarers from India, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Poland are currently detained in Nigeria, awaiting trial on absurd charges. They have been detained for nearly three months in Nigeria, and before that, they were detained for nearly three months without charge in that paragon of international justice, Equatorial Guinea.

During the period in Equatorial Guinea, the crew were denied consular access or lawyers, and 15 of them were locked up without food or water in a detention centre as part of a campaign to compel them to sail the vessel back to Nigeria. They were needed to sail the ship because the Nigerians and the Equatorial Guineans themselves lacked the expertise to operate and navigate a VLCC safely.

"The treatment received by the crew shows a blatant disregard for basic human rights and international law," commented Rolf Thore Roppestad, the CEO of Norwegian insurer Gard. "They have been held for more than 80 days, without any charges and without any legal representation locally to protect their interests. The situation is, quite frankly, outrageous."

What happened?

<em>The tanker</em> Hunter Idun<em>, later renamed</em> Heroic Idun<em>, in 2021 (Photo: Z.)</em>
The tanker Hunter Idun, later renamed Heroic Idun, in 2021 (Photo: Z.)

The facts of the case are not disputed. The tanker, which had its AIS in operation, was approached by an unknown vessel at night (local time) on August 7, 2022, as it approached the deepwater Akpo oilfield operated by TotalEnergies 200 kilometres from Port Harcourt. It was there to load crude oil legitimately purchased by its charterer, BP. The terminal operator, TotalEnergies, was expecting to discharge oil to the VLCC via a deepwater buoy located two kilometres away from the field's floating production, storage and offloading (FPSO) vessel.

The intercepting boat demanded that the tanker stop and allow personnel to board. The personnel claimed to be from the Nigerian Navy. This vessel did not have its AIS switched on.

Nigerian Navy or pirates?

<em>Some of the detained crew of </em>Heroic Idun<em> (Photo: All India Seafarers' Union)</em>
Some of the detained crew of Heroic Idun (Photo: All India Seafarers' Union)

The master of Heroic Idun was concerned by the lack of positive identification of the interceptor. He consulted with Inchcape Shipping, the vessel's agents in Nigeria, which could not confirm that this was a legitimate navy patrol. The tanker captain believed that this could be a pirate attack, in an area notorious for hostage taking and piracy.

Following Best Management Practice in such circumstances, the master sent the crew to the vessel's citadel for safety, and took the advice of war risk insurers DNK and the shore managers OSM to get his ship out of Nigerian waters at full speed. A mayday was given, and this alerted the flag state and the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre to the possible attack. The tanker managed to make it to international waters and evaded its pursuer.

The Nigerian Navy claims that this had been a legitimate inspection by its fast patrol boat NNS Gongola and that Heroic Idun had raised a false piracy alarm. The navy said that the tanker had been trying to steal oil, and indeed, many sources in Nigeria have falsely claimed that Heroic Idun was loaded with Nigerian oil when it fled. It wasn't.

<em>The Nigerian Navy fast patrol boat NNS </em>Shiroro<em>, a sister vessel of NNS </em>Gongola <em>(Photo: OCEA)</em>
The Nigerian Navy fast patrol boat NNS Shiroro, a sister vessel of NNS Gongola (Photo: OCEA)

The navy failed to explain why Gongola did not have its AIS turned on, perhaps because it was broken or had been "lost in service". The navy could not explain why it had not notified Heroic Idun's agent or the terminal managers about the plan to board the tanker, or why its supposedly fast boat was outrun by a super tanker.

At a press conference in Abuja, navy Chief of Policy and Plans Rear Admiral Saidu Garba even stated that it was not a crime for vessels to come into Nigerian waters ahead of time without clearance, pending same from authorities.

Equatorial Guinea's government collects US$2 million for flag violation

Heroic Idun was arrested by the navy of Equatorial Guinea and detained on August 12, 2022, for alleged illegal entry into that country's waters. The VLCC was forced to sail to the anchorage in Malabo, where it was held for nearly three months. The Norwegian owners paid a fine of US$2 million at the end of September for the supposed crime of failing to fly the flag of Equatorial Guinea. The fine was paid against a promise of release of the vessel and its crew by the local authorities.

Well, guess what. The Equatorial Guinea government reneged on the deal and cut a deal with Nigeria instead. The government pocketed US$2 million from the owners and then broke its own promise.

Recall that Equatorial Guinea is the country where the president's son, also the Vice President since 2016, has been convicted of money laundering and stealing US$150 million of state funds, whilst living the high life in Europe (here).

If Mickey Mouse had a government, he would put the capital in Malabo.

Nigerian heroes take back Heroic Idun

The Equatorial Guinean authorities compelled the tanker to sail back to Nigerian waters with the Nigerian Navy accompanying it at gunpoint on November 11, 2022. The Nigerian Navy summoned the local media to make them look as macho as possible when the vessel returned, and so navy personnel paraded the crew in front of the cameras. "Ovieteme George did a solid cinematic job reporting this," as one Nigerian commentator put it.

Perhaps the ground breaking Arise TV reporter could have asked himself why the Nigerian Navy vessel he boarded to accompany Heroic Idun back to Nigeria, Ikenne, was sailing under the flag of St Vincent and Grenadines. This was one of six quite fast patrol boats commissioned by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in 2021. One cannot guess why a Nigerian Navy vessel is flagged to a foreign registry.

The background to Heroic Idun case would be absurd if it were not for the fact that 26 innocent men are now languishing in detention on board their vessel, restricted to the accommodation spaces and suffering from tropical illness, including malaria. The Polish chief engineer was taken out of hospital and coerced to sail the vessel back to Nigeria.

Impunity for local thieves

Meanwhile, pompous Nigerian Navy officials make misleading and untruthful statements on national television, defending their incompetence and trying to blame the tanker's crew and the shipowners. They are blaming anyone but themselves, in fact.

This is a country where the locally owned FPSO Trinity Spirit exploded last year, killing ten crewmembers and spilling thousands of barrels of oil. How many people have been arrested for that act of culpable manslaughter?

You guessed it right: nobody.

This is a country where the former minister received millions of dollars of bribes from Glencore and stole millions of dollars of oil revenues but remains at large. As we reported, her husband is a retired admiral in the Nigerian Navy.

This is a country where the National President of Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria, Festus Osifo, told the Nigerian Senate Committee investigating oil theft that personnel of the Nigerian Army and Navy deployed to the Niger Delta bribed their way to be posted there so they could benefit from the massive stealing.

It's an international conspiracy against the Nigerian Navy!

Instead, a navy spokesman told This Day Live that the service was aware of "international media campaigns being planned and executed and sponsored by the vessel's owners/agents, in a bid to muddy the waters and to make false claims of human rights violations against the Nigerian government."

Count me in! Game on.

You don't need an international conspiracy to muddy the waters when you have even the normally staid International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) calling for the release of the seafarers.

"This unacceptable detention of the Heroic Idun crew must be resolved as quickly as possible," ICS Secretary General Guy Platten said. "It is essential that this situation is de-escalated, and that the seafarers and ship are released."

Jokers to the left of me, the Nigerian Navy to the right

The full dysfunction of the Nigerian state is on display in the Heroic Idun case. One of the charges is that the crew made a "forceful pretence to become victims of maritime offence in order to resist arrest by the Nigerian Navy Ship Gongola." Really???

You couldn't parody the video of the Nigerian Navy spokespeople saying that the Heroic Idun crew are "guilty of falsely accusing a Nigerian navy vessel of piracy" in a press hearing, thus breaching the "Suppression of Piracy and other miscellaneous offences act", whilst the Foreign Ministry spokesman seeks to reassure people that Nigeria is a "responsible member of the international community."

On January 11, the case was again deferred at the Federal High Court in Port Harcourt due to the absence of the defendants in court. Yes, the Nigerian state is so inept that it couldn't actually manage to transfer the crewmembers from the ship to the court house on time for the trial. So, the poor crew continue to be detained onboard with the next hearing deferred to February, when Nigeria will have a presidential election.

Political football, innocent victims

This case is a political football. There are all sorts of interests in the Nigerian Navy to save face. There are all sorts of political incentives for the government to be seen to be cracking down on oil theft and using Heroic Idun as a scapegoat for other more serious crimes. Comments on social media, such as "special thanks to the Labour Party presidential candidate, Peter Obi for shining the spotlight on this scourge when others kept mute," show that nobody wants to be lenient, in case they are accused of corruption or complicity.

This is because, under Nigerian political logic, why would anyone release the crew unless they had accepted a huge bribe and been part of the conspiracy?

Reminder: Where is the crime occurring?

The facts of the case are clear. Heroic Idun is 335 metres long with the capacity to carry two million barrels of oil. At the time of its detention, it was not carrying any cargo whatsoever, so any claims that it was smuggling crude or stealing oil are nonsense.

The VLCC was sub-chartered by BP from Trafigura when it arrived at TotalEnergies' Akpo offshore terminal in Nigerian waters in the Gulf of Guinea. It is managed by OSM Management, one of the biggest names in the industry (and one that just announced its merger with Thome in Singapore last week). These are all large and serious companies, and the ship's agency was Inchcape Shipping, again a major name in international agency. The vessel is insured by Gard, which appears to be doing more than most to fight for the release of the crew and the vessel.

The oil theft is not happening in Nigeria in brand-new VLCCs with foreign crew at Total or Chevron's deepwater terminals. It is happening in the onshore Niger Delta where pipelines and storage facilities are routinely sabotaged and looted by criminal gangs, whilst the law enforcement authorities turn a blind eye and even take a share of the proceeds.

We have previously highlighted the blatant and brazen nature of oil theft in Nigeria. MPs have stood up in parliament and denounced the navy leadership for participating in the theft and receiving the proceeds of the crime.

Continuing to detain the crew of Heroic Idun on trumped-up charges makes Nigeria look ridiculous. The country's government should be cracking down on corruption within its own ranks rather than scapegoating foreigner seafarers who had legitimate reason to be afraid of a pirate attack.

What can you do?

  1. Press International Registries for action

If you are a shipowner with a Marshall Islands-flagged vessel, or if you are considering flagging vessels under this "open register", you should be raising your concern with the registry. The Marshall Islands registry is managed by a private business, International Registries, headquartered in Virginia, USA. Its president is William Gallagher, and the company is owned by its senior employees, he has said on the record (here). Demand to know what the Marshall Islands is doing to release the vessel and its seafarers. Suggest that the flag state ramp up its diplomatic efforts. If you see Mr Gallagher in person, ask him what he himself and his private money-making organisation are doing to resolve the crisis. After all, Mr Gallagher says he spends 50 per cent of his time "engaging with industry stakeholders either in face-to-face meetings, attending conferences, or speaking."

International Registries has been proudly profiting running flags of convenience for 75 years this year. You pay fees to it for its registration services. You are a customer. If the Heroic Idun crew are banged up in Nigeria for months and a US$100 million tanker can be detained for months at the whim of some idiotic official in Abuja whilst the authorities in Majuro stand around wringing their hands, don't be surprised, if, next time, it is your crew held hostage facing the barrel of an AK-47.

Mr Gallagher should disclose what his organisation is doing… and maybe spend some of the fat bonuses and dividends he collects from shipowners to assist in freeing the seafarers whose seaman's books he was happy to issue for a large fee.

  1. India should step up

This year, India becomes the world's most populous country, surpassing China. It is a nuclear power with aspirations to join the United Nations Security Council as a permanent member. We hear about India's inexorable economic rise all the time. There are an estimated 240,000 commercial seafarers in India. Maybe now is the time for India to stand up for its seafarers. I would hope that leading private shipowners like Great Eastern Shipping, Essar, and Varun are pushing the Ministry of External Affairs for action. Seafarers' rights matter to all seafarers and all shipowners.

So far, Delhi appears to be completely unable to exercise any diplomatic leverage to assist the 16 of its citizens who are detained. This is pathetic. Dr S. Jaishankar, the External Affairs Minister, needs to step up and act.

If you are an Indian, you should be reminding your government of its duties to assist its citizens abroad. Get on social media and demand action. Ask the BJP representatives on Twitter why they can't resolve this situation more quickly. Write to your MP. Again, it could be you. Prime Minister Narendra Modi should grow some balls and act like the great global statesman he pretends to be.

Of course, it will be hard for India to take the moral high ground after its appalling treatment of the seafarers and security personnel on the armory ship Seaman Guard Ohio. The 14 Estonians, 12 Indians, six Britons, and three Ukrainians that comprised the crew and security personnel were detained in prison in Chennai from 2013 to 2017 after their vessel was arrested by the authorities when it entered Indian territorial waters in a storm (here and here).

But that's in the past, and today India, Sri Lanka, Poland, and the Philippines should be acting together to protect their seafarers.

  1. Nigerians need to end their denial

If you follow the Heroic Idun case on social media, you see a lot of Nigerians saying things like, "As a country, we are trying to get it right with oil theft lately, but caution is needed from both sides as these are seafarers who left home for the good of country and service to humanity now incarcerated." Caution is not needed from both sides; justice is needed.

If you are Nigerian, you should be publicly disputing the misleading and untrue statements about this case that are appearing in the Nigeria press.

The tanker was empty and was not stealing crude–end of story. Nigerian officials may think it is smart and clever to use foreign nationals as hostages in their petty power games and domestic posturing, but it is not. Explain to your countrymen that oil theft is not usually conducted by 335-metre-long vessels on time charter to BP, and that the case against the seafarers makes Nigeria a laughing stock overseas.

Instead, Nigerians should be reforming their own house and holding crooked navy officers, crooked government officials, and thieving politicians–like former oil minister Diezani Alison-Madueke–to account.

President Buhari has been one of the worst leaders Nigeria has ever seen. The Heroic Idun detention is the symptom of a state that is broken. This February, the country has a chance to make a fresh start.

Perhaps 2023 could be the year that Nigeria finally gets a better government? If you are Nigerian, use your vote wisely.

Background Reading

Read Gard's statement, OSM's statement and BP's statement about the events described above.

Maria Dixon has been running a project called the Heroic Idun Diaries on Linkedin, with daily updates of the situation.

Captain Tom Joseph's excellent summary of the events is here.

Twitter's #heroicidun is worth following.

Coverage of Teodoro Nguema Obiang's immensely corrupt lifestyle, replete with yachts, Bugattis, a mansion in Malibu, and Michael Jackson memorabilia is here and here. Why not follow his Instagram here?

Our previous coverage of the many woes which bedevil Nigeria is here

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