COLUMN | Heroic Idun seafarers acquitted in Nigeria – Sing Hallelujah! [Offshore Accounts]

COLUMN | Heroic Idun seafarers acquitted in Nigeria – Sing Hallelujah! [Offshore Accounts]

We were going to do a deep dive into corruption in Venezuela and Congo this week, but on Friday, finally, some good news from Abuja. Stop the press!

The lengthy and unjust saga of the crew of the 300,000DWT very large crude carrier (VLCC) Heroic Idun, detained in Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea since August last year, appears to be reaching a positive conclusion. Last Friday, a Nigerian court approved a plea bargain with the owners and their insurers, Gard, which will permit the 26 seafarers employed by ship manager OSM to leave Nigeria later this month, acquitted of all charges.

Freeing the seafarers after eight months of unjust detention in Malabo and Port Harcourt, numerous court adjournments, and the threat of prison is great news. We hope that they are soon reunited in their home countries with their loved ones and families, and that they are not too traumatised by being treated as legal hostages by the dysfunctional Nigerian legal system.

Heroic Idun<em>'s crew holding up the Philippine, Indian, and Sri Lankan flags shortly after they were detained (Photo: All India Seafarers Union)</em>
Heroic Idun's crew holding up the Philippine, Indian, and Sri Lankan flags shortly after they were detained (Photo: All India Seafarers Union)

The owners of the tanker, Idun Maritime, a subsidiary of Norway's Ray Car Carriers, pleaded guilty to a single maritime offence, that of entering sovereign Nigerian waters unlawfully, and agreed to pay a fine of NGN5 million (around US$11,000). Additionally, and this is where the classic, murky Nigerian politics kick in, the plea agreement allowed for the recovery of costs by the Nigerian Navy associated with the detention of the vessel.

These "costs" (and I use the "air quotes" deliberately) are believed to run into the millions of dollars, the navy claims. Of course, because they have not been published in public by the court, nobody in Nigeria will likely know exactly what was paid and why, or where the funds will eventually end up once they are received by the honest and hard-working naval officers of the Gulf of Guinea's most potent maritime force. We shall save our opinions on the Nigerian Navy officers involved in this case until after the tanker and its crew are safely out of Nigeria.

Whom can we thank?

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

The Heroic Idun arrest has once again highlighted how seafarers are used as pawns in multi-million dollar claims by littoral states; badly treated by shoddy legal systems that wrongfully criminalise them on trumped up charges. The case had been delayed and adjourned several times for no good reason, and Nigerian Navy spokesman Commodore Adedotun Ayo-Vaughan refused to concede that the process was probably flawed.

Ahead of the seafarers' release, the Nigerian press laid the groundwork for it last week. Vanguard newspaper cited a confidential source who said there has been "a push for out-of-court settlement by the ambassadors of the various countries of the detained crew members of the ship." Thank you to Vanguard and The Guardian of Lagos for creating a more favourable public atmosphere in which the case should be heard and the plea bargain negotiated.

Sixteen of the seafarers detained on Heroic Idun were Indian nationals, including the master, another eight were Sri Lankan citizens, one other sailor was Filipino, and the chief engineer was a Polish national. The vessel was Marshall Islands registry. Well done to the diplomats involved in pressuring the Nigerian authorities and reminding them that the country cannot detain seafarers unjustly. Thank you, High Commissioner of India to Nigeria, Shri Abhay Thakur, and your ambassadorial peers.

Great work, Isaac Jolapamo and Tajudeen Alao

<em>Isaac Jolapamo (extreme right) at an event hosted by the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, November 4, 2020 (Photo: NIMASA)</em>
Isaac Jolapamo (extreme right) at an event hosted by the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, November 4, 2020 (Photo: NIMASA)

Thanks are also due to the former President of the Nigerian Indigenous Shipowners Association, Isaac Jolapamo, who spoke out in the local press about the continued detention of the tanker and the dangers it posed to Nigeria's reputation. He correctly highlighted that Nigeria could and should have simply requested a bond from the owners' insurers to permit the vessel to depart and continue trading, as happens in most other countries in cases like this.

"It is only in Nigeria that vessels are detained while the case is going on," Mr Jolapamo told Vanguard. "Detaining the vessel is tying peoples' investment down. Detention is no more in vogue. It is only in Nigeria that you can keep peoples' vessels for three years."

Only in Nigeria, indeed.

Thank you, sir, for stating this plain truth, and reminding the online xenophobics that holding crewmembers as hostages is not how a responsible nation should behave these days.

Gratitude is also due to the president of the National Association of Master Mariners, Captain Tajudeen Alao, who publicly argued that seafarers should not be punished for offenses of which they are not guilty. :

"We are players in the international market," Captain Alao told journalist Godwin Oritse, "and there is a general agreement by International Labour Organisation and International Maritime Organisation that seafarers shouldn't be punished for such crimes. They are not the owners of the vessels, they should go for the owners, they should not look at seafarers as criminals… they can track the cargo instead of punishing seafarers and discouraging seafarers from going to the sea, which is not good.

"By now, Nigeria should have put up a standard procedure to handle this kind of matter."

Our thoughts exactly.

Outside Nigeria, the maritime community has pulled together. Credit to Maria Dixon of ISM Shipping Solutions in the UK for tirelessly highlighting this case almost every day on social media in her "VLCC Heroic Idun: The Diaries" series of posts. Ms Dixon kept the case in the spotlight throughout and reached a large audience both in Nigeria and overseas with her patient reminders on social media that without seafarers, there is no shipping and ultimately no shopping for consumers around the world. Well done, Maria!

Credit must also go to Gard and all the work behind the scenes that the P&I clubs perform on behalf of shipowners and seafarers in cases like this. The International Group of Protection and Indemnity Clubs performs sterling work in the industry as the insurance of last resort in major pollution claims and in the event of vessel detentions.

Thanks also to Tradewinds for their editorial policy of keeping their coverage of the Heroic Idun case free to all, outside the paywall. Cases like this rely on the wider maritime community keeping a focus on the plight of the seafarers involved so that they are not forgotten, and that that the authorities involved are reminded of their responsibilities and that they cannot treat seafarers that way.

Never again?

Let's hope that there are no more surprises in this long and bitter case. We pray that the seafarers of Heroic Idun are soon home, that the vessel is released, and that the Nigerian Navy will never again ride roughshod over the rights of seafarers.

Nigeria is Africa's most populous nation. To be treated as a serious regional power, it needs to act responsibly and to reign in efforts by officials and military officers to extract fines and "costs" for spurious claims. Reform starts at the top. We are reminded of the quote by Nigerian poet Nkwachukwu Ogbuagu: "There are legislators elsewhere in the world. There are legislooters in Nigeria."

That needs to change. Never again should there be a case like that of Heroic Idun.

What exactly happened?

As we highlighted in January, the facts of the case were never 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 neared the deepwater Akpo oilfield operated by TotalEnergies 200 kilometres from Port Harcourt. Heroic Idun was there to load crude oil legitimately purchased by its charterer, BP. The terminal operator, TotalEnergies, was expecting to discharge oil to the VLCC.

The intercepting boat demanded that the tanker stop and allow personnel to board. The personnel on it claimed to be from the Nigerian Navy, but this vessel did not have its AIS switched on. The master of Heroic Idun was concerned by the lack of positive identification of the interceptor in an area notorious for piracy. 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 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 steam 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 its way to international waters and evaded its pursuers but was promptly arrested by the Equatorial Guinean navy. The crew were later transferred to a squalid immigration detention facility, and then they and the ship were forcibly repatriated to Nigeria with a naval escort.

Upon arrival off Bonny, the Heroic Idun sailors were detained on board on charges of unlawful entrance into the Akpo oil field, raising false piracy alarm to avoid arrest, and attempting to lift crude oil without clearance. Then their case was repeatedly adjourned and deferred by Nigeria's failing court system, before the plea bargain agreement on April 28.

Background Reading

If you are not familiar with the shocking case of the tanker Hebei Spirit, which was at anchor when it was hit by a barge in South Korea in 2007, the summary here is worth your time.

The depressing case of the Seaman Guard Ohio in India is here.

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Baird Maritime / Work Boat World