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Armed Guards Onboard Merchant Vessels: Legal or Illegal?

Armed Guards Onboard Merchant Vessels: Legal or Illegal?By Kenneth Jukpor

Majority of Africa’s raw materials and processed goods are transported by sea and the marine environment has panned out to be a sacrosanct mode of transport especially for the region with many import dependent nations.

However, shipping in Africa is threatened by the insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea. A situation which has forced Nigerian ship-owners and their colleagues in other African countries to buy into the idea of placing armed guards onboard merchant vessels and fishing trawlers.

Going by International Maritime Organization (IMO) standards, which is the global body regulating maritime affairs, the practice is illegal however the fear of pirates has seen ship owners and charterers continuously engage the services of armed security personnel ranging from recognized Naval officers to private security outfits as well as thugs which is common among Nigerian fishing trawlers. This development led to the debate as to whether the practice of bringing armed guards onboard such vessels is legal or illegal.

IMO explicitly discourages fire arms on vessels, although it allows Flag States decide whether or not armed guards will be allowed on board. If they are permitted, it is up to the Flag State to determine the conditions under which authorization will be granted.

Speaking with MMS Plus newspaper on the sidelines during the 2018 Lagos International Maritime Week, the former Chairman, IMO Legal Committee, Dr. Kofi Mbiah said; “the challenge with armed guards is that it hasn’t come in a vacuum, it has come because there is a problem and people are looking for ways to deal with that problem”

Dr. Kofi who is also a former President of Ghana Shippers Authority (GSA) noted that if Africa could address with the problem from the root cause, there would be no need for people to station armed guards on vessels.

“Nevertheless, as long as people feel that there is insecurity, they want to find ways by which they can protect themselves because trading must go on, commerce must go on, people would move goods from point A to point B. Imagine a situation where the oil generated from Nigeria isn’t able to be moved into the export market because of this problem? People must look for avenues to easily conduct their businesses”

Reacting to this issue also at the Lagos International Maritime Week, Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN), observed that in view of the circumstances, recourse must be had to the contextual situation necessitating the use of armed guards.

Malami, speaking through a representative, Mr. Abiodun Aikomo, Special Adviser to the President on Financial Crimes, said that the challenges the nation undergoes today was a reflection of Nigeria’s developmental challenges.

“Militancy and crude oil theft in the Niger Delta as well as insecurity on the mainland have all contributed to the malaise” he said.

 He posited that in view of the continuous insecurity on Nigerian territorial waters, we have arrived at a point where the issue of armed guards had to be considered. Malami maintained that while a state must have monopoly over the use of force in its domain, it was also important to safeguard the lives and properties of the citizens.

 He highlighted some areas which need to be addressed for the use of armed guards on board to gain acceptance in Nigeria.

These issues revolve around whether the armed guards will be contracted as individuals or as corporate bodies; who will determine their competence and conduct due diligence; what kind of weapons will they be issued with and who authorizes the use of force- which may or may not be stipulated in the contract employing the armed guards?

The AGF noted that while the Marine Police was in a position to assume the responsibility, there have also been cases where state security personnel deployed on vessels have refused to recognise that the Ship Master remains in command and retains overriding authority.

 “We also know that marine insurance firms tend to favour a knock for knock approach which stipulates that security companies cover losses suffered by their personnel, while ship owners assume liability for that which affect their crew”, Malami added strongly advising that ship owners contact their insurers before contracting armed guards in order to assess the potential impact on their insurance cover.

 In his contribution, Assistant Inspector General of Police, Marine Police Command, Alkali Baba Usman outlined challenges hindering the Force from conducting escorts for vessels requiring the service.

 These issues include absence of a legal framework outlining the operational scope of the Marine Police, overlapping roles of maritime security agencies, poor funding and gross inadequacy in terms of deploying personnel to the unit.

 Alkali called for interagency collaboration, capacity development though training; and development of specialized skills necessary for the roles expected of the Police. He appealed to NIMASA to develop guidelines for deployment of armed guards on merchant vessels as this would help delineate the responsibilities of the various maritime security agencies.

He lamented the practice where the navy arrest Marine Police personnel conducting vessel escort, owing to a ban imposed by the Chief of Naval Staff on such activities. He noted that such brazen interagency rivalry complicates conditions under which authorisation for armed guards on board could be granted.

On his part, the President of Ship Owners Association of Nigeria (SOAN), Engr. Greg Ogbeifun revealed that his vessels always had armed Naval personnel onboard to guarantee security.

“I have Balistic vessels used by International Oil Companies (IOCs) and at any point in time we have at least nine heavily armed Navy operatives onboard to enable us smoothly do the job. I’m sure it is legal because if it wasn’t legal the Navy wouldn’t get their men involved” Greg said.

Responding to a question on the financial burden of sponsoring armed guards onboard vessels Engr. Greg said; “I bear the cost as the ship owner, but I claim it back from somebody”

According to MMS Plus investigations, most seamen onboard fishing vessels in the country hire at least two armed thugs for security paying them with proceeds of their voyage (fishes and other aquatic products) to the tune of N1million that would have been added revenue for the fishing companies.

Stakeholders continue to express worry over the worsening security situation at the nation’s ports and maritime territories, a development that could trigger more turbulent times for economic activities with its consequent threat to lives and property.

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