© 2019 - International Centre for Investigative Reporting
INVESTIGATION: Ministry of Justice fingered in a foreign vessel’s continuing evasion of forfeiture judgment
By Shakirudeen BANKOLE
NIGERIAN government has once again failed to explain the reason why a foreign oil vessel, MT Anuket Emerald, with International Maritime Organisation Registration Number 9393644, earlier convicted of oil bunkering in Nigeria by Justice Ibrahim Buba of the Federal High Court, has continued to evade justice.
The Panama Flag-flying ship, crewed by three Russians, three Ukrainians, Eight Filipinos, and one Georgian, was said to have violated Section 19 (6) of the Miscellaneous Offences Act Cap M17, Law of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004, an offence punishable under Section 17 of same Act, and it has been duly convicted and forfeited to the Federal Government of Nigeria in June 10, 2015.
According to EFCC investigation, its conviction followed the offences committed by the ship on February 27, 2015, and its owners: Combe Shipping Limited, Monjasa DMCC, and Glencore Energy UK Limited, among others.
The judgment reportedly was subject to the incontrovertible evidence presented at the hearings and proved beyond reasonable doubts by the Prosecution Counsel, Rotimi Oyedepo, defence counsel, Babajide Koku, EFCC’s Senior Detective Superintendent, Abdullahi Alaya and the captain of the tanker, Artur Pakhladzhian.
The ship, whose crewmen were each bailed the tune of N750 million because of their inability to provide Nigerian sureties, also lost it Appeal on January 15, last year, when Justice Garuba Haruna of the Federal Court of Appeal, Lagos Division, upheld their conviction and the forfeiture of their vessel by Justice Buba.
Names of the crewmen, according to the court charge sheets, are Artur Pakhladzhia, Sergo Abbgarian, Vasily Shkundich, Vitaliy Bilour, Hlarion Regipor, Laguta Oleksiy and Cadavis Gerarado.
Others are Kretov Andry, Badurian Benjamin, Chepikov Olksan, Naranjo Antero, Patro Christian, Alcayde Joel and Caratiquit Beyan.
But instead of facing the wrath of the law, by being impounded and forfeited to the government of Nigeria, as ordered by both courts, Anuket Emerald appears to sail in freedom.
Usually, when a foreign ship is accused of whatever criminal offence, as it is in MT Anuket Emerald’s case and pronounced convicted and or forfeited through a judgment of the court of competent jurisdiction, the law, according to the investigation, takes effect immediately.
This means, the Nigerian Navy, through a notice from the Ministry of Justice, would swing into action, impound the vessel, take possession or transfer it to either the Nigeria Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Nigeria Port Authority, Shippers’ Council or the Special Presidential Investigation Panel on Recovery of Public Property (SPIP), as the case may be.
Its content is also supposed to have been taken over by the Nigeria National Petroleum Commission (NNPC).
But MT Anuket Emerald’s case appears to be an exception, as the ship has been spotted twice, docked in Elegushi Beach, a private resort in Lekki, Lagos State, engaging in a yet another suspicious transaction.
As earlier reported by The ICIR, the Panama-flagged Ship was again sighted at Elegushi beach on Friday, April 19, carrying out some trans-loading operation.
At the distance of about 100meters, the vessel was seen being sucked off through six different pumping hoses, offloading its 1.5million tonnage content into waiting petrol tankers.
Most of the tankers were branded NIP Oil.
This reporter observed that the suspicious activities around the ship are being protected by the personnel of the Nigerian Navy, the agency mandated by the law to enforce the court judgment. The naval men were supported by the Elegushi special security operatives as well as members of Oodua People’s Congress (OPC).
Findings revealed that the ship’s operation may not only constitute economic sabotage; it also comes at a huge ecological cost to the environment as a huge measure of black oil were seen being discharged into the waters, thereby polluting the lagoon and endangering the marine lives in it.
On the stretch of about half of the beach shoreline, oil spillage, covering about as long as 12 fits in-between the waves and the shoreline was conspicuously seen.
Special factory rocks used to barricade the dangerous spots for picnic swimmers have all been darkened by the spillage.
Unsuspecting picnickers who dived into the water soon withdrew, angrily, when they notice oil stain on their bodies.
“Yes, I know the water is oily; too bad. But I have to swim. I travelled all the way to Lagos for the Easter Holiday and more particularly to enjoy the beach life here in Elegushi,” said Daniel, one of the frustrated picnickers sighted at the beach during this reporter’s visit.
But unlike Daniel, many other people won’t take such a risk.
“Who will go to Elegushi Beach again? God forbid! That beach that has been taken over by black oil,” said Miss Chidinma Nwapka, a Pharmacist and a one-time regular visitor to the resort until the Anuket Emerald birthed at beach disposing of its toxic content.
Bad business for beach traders
Nwakpa’s discomfort is shared by many others, including business owners’ at the beach, who are said to be operating under stringent conditions.
“We have complained to the authority about the oil spillage by the ship. But they didn’t take any action,” said one of the stall owners, who pleaded anonymity because of possible backlash.
“As you can see, this is Friday, Good Friday of Easter. On a good day, everywhere is supposed to have been taken over by picnickers, and we are supposed to be in good business.
“But beach lovers appeared to have all deserted us because of the activities of that ship that contaminate the water and ruin our businesses,” the business owner continued, pointing at Anuket Emerald Vessel, some 100 meters away as he vented his frustration.
As this reporter explores the beach, he called the attention of one of the commercial photographers at the beach to give him some photo shots, in an attempt to capture the image of the vessel, using it as a photo background.
As this was being done, a lanky, oil-soaked Hausa man came rushing, shooing them off.
“Please leave this place. Don’t put me in trouble,” he warned.
“Put you in trouble! How,” this reporter probed.
“See, the (Nigerian) Navy gave me instruction to make sure that nobody takes the photo of this ship or the offloading activities going on here,” he explained, begging us to leave.
The explanation that our reporter is a picnicker who just wants to enjoy himself and have a variety of beachside photos fell on the deaf ears.
“That is how they have been doing since January,” the photographer, who identified himself as Jamiu Adedeji, found his voice, accusing the Nigerian Navy of overzealousness.
“If they catch me photo shooting you near the ship, they will arrest me, arrest you and cease my camera,” Jamiu warned this reporter.
But the Nigerian Navy authorities has exonerated itself of any wrongdoing. Rather it said all enquiries should be directed to the Ministry of Justice, which it claims is supervising the operation.
Speaking with The ICIR on phone, the Director of Information for the Nigerian Navy, Commodore Suleman Dahun, who acknowledged that he was aware of the operation of MT Anuket Emerald in Elgushi Beach, explained that the Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami (SAN) is not only in charge of the operation, but expressly ordered the Navy to secure it.
“Actually, the whole process is driven by the Federal Ministry of Justice. The evacuation of the product in the vessel, to be specific, is being conducted by the Federal Ministry of Justice. The Navy’s responsibility is to ensure the physical security of the vessel, making sure it is not stolen or ambushed,” Dahun said.
The reporter asked whether the naval spokesman is aware of the conviction and forfeiture judgment on the said vessel, he said “yes, we are aware of it. And like I have said before, our role on it is restricted to ensuring the physical security of the vessel; nothing more nothing less.
“The evacuation of the content is being supervised by the Federal Ministry of Justice,” Dahun insisted.
Not satisfied, the reporter further asked whether the evacuation of the ship at Elegushi is preparatory to the enforcement of the court judgment, the Navy PRO’s response was less revealing this time.
“It would be better to seek more clarifications from the Ministry of Justice if you want to know more about the whole issue.
“What I know and been reliably informed is this simple fact that we [the Nigerian Navy] are responsible for the security of the vessel. Any legal or another dimension to it should be referred to the Ministry of Justice,” he added.
But there are mounting questions surrounding the legality of the operation of MT Anuket at Elegushi beach. Why has the ship remained on Elegushi Beach, a private resort in Lagos for the past five months? Why is its content being evacuated secretly and to where is it taken to? Why carrying out such operation in a private beach? Is the operation preparatory to the final forfeiture of the ship? How long does it take to impound a forfeited foreign ship and the process? These are questions yet to be answered by the concerned authorities.
On May 3 and 5, the reporter attempted to follow the trucks to their destination where they off-load the oil, but it turned out that the truck departs the beach only at night, making the surveillance difficult. One of the trailers is branded Total Oil, and the other branded IVECO.
The Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami (SAN), was contacted for an interview in order to verify the Navy’s claims on his ministry’s involvement, but no response was provided.
Calls, text and WhatsApp messages sent to his personal GSM were all ignored.
When contacted, Spokesman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the agency that investigated and led the prosecution of the convicted ship, Tony Orilade, was not forthcoming about the MT Anuket Emerald Ship. He told The ICIR that he was not familiar with the matter but asked for time to make proper findings and get back.
As at the time of filing this report, he was yet to get back with his findings.
However, a senior official of the Commission who pleaded for anonymity said the matter is far beyond the EFCC. According to him, the Office of the Minister of Justice and Attorney of the Federation had instructed the anti-graft agency to hands off the matter.
“The man in charge of the case explained the politics involved so much so that the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation came up with a letter purported to be from the presidency instructing that we hand off the matter,” he said.
“The minister came up with a letter from the presidency that ought to be for a specific directive and now he is using it for the general directive.
“Once it happened that way, there’s nothing we can do, said the EFCC official who apparently was lamenting the tight corner the Commission has been boxed into by the Minister’s directive.
The EFCC source also noted that there has been an age-long rivalry between the Commission and the Office of the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation over the handling of high profile cases.
“It happened when Aodoaaka was the Minister, even when Adoke was the Minister and now it is repeating itself,” he lamented.
“They always don’t give the Commission free hand to work. That’s where we are.”
The Office of the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation has in recent past taken over high profile cases from both the EFCC and ICPC. Many of such cases have been settled out of court and a similar fate may be waiting for the MT Anuket Emerald Ship’s case.
Government officials stonewalling
The Nigerian Ports Authority’s Marina headquarters was also visited in the course of this investigation.
The NPA, which assumes the Landlord duty of all the nation’s seaports, in spite of whatever concessions that may be in place with private operators, was contacted to understand why the MT Anuket Emerald Ship chose to offload its content at a private beach, having been convicted and forfeited to the government of Nigeria.
Suwaid Isah Ali, Assistant General Manager, Corporate and Social Responsibility, Industry and Port Promotion of NPA, declined to give an answer.
Ali, who noted the inquisitions on Friday afternoon, April 26, promised to forward same to NPA central operating centre where all inbound-outbound Ships are being monitored; and get back to us.
According to him, “…we are working on your questionnaire and hopefully, we should be responding soon…”
He has not gotten back as at Monday, May 21, 2019.
Also, the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), the body responsible for the administration of the nation’s marine activities, including the safety and security of the waters, was contacted over the estranged vessel.
But the agency also appeared clueless on the matter, as it offered no scintilla of useful information on the inquisition.
Instead, its public relations officer, Isiche Osamgbi, who initially told this reporter that he would “check the data and revert” regarding questions sent to him on Thursday, April 24, never did as at Friday, May 21, 2019. He didn’t pick his calls afterwards.
Mr. Okoi Obla, Chairman, Presidential Special Investigation Committee on Public Property (SPIP) was contacted on phone by The ICIR on the matter and he promised to confirm same with the Ministry of Justice before getting back.
He has not got back as at the time of filling in this report. All the calls put through to him afterwards were also ignored.
As one of the partakers in the suspicious transaction, the Palace of the Oba of Elegushi, HRM, Oba Saheed Elegushi, when contacted, gave some “responses” that were never consistent with facts available.
According to the Personal Assistant to the King, Mr Temitope, “the ship in question had some technical issue, which resulted in the break [at the Beach]
“All the relevant agencies of the Federal Government are aware and making efforts to move it away…,” he said.
Meanwhile, a frontline Maritime Lawyer, Barrister Osuala Emmanuel Nwagbara has pleaded that it was in the interest of the public good for the government officials to educate Nigerians and be transparent accordingly on the status of the said ship.
Nwagbara, one of the maritime arbitrators in the country explained that “a ship is a chattel and like any other chattel, once it is forfeited, it becomes the property of the beneficial country.”
According to him, “It is very important to state that once a ship is forfeited, being a chattel, possession is immediately taken of it for the purpose of control. It would be unlawful to allow any person to trade with such a vessel on a commercial basis.”
Nwagbara added that “once a vessel is forfeited to a country, especially Nigeria in this case, the law allows two things to happen. One, the government may appropriate such vessel to public use such as deploying it to the Navy as a sovereign asset or for a specific public purpose.
“The other thing that may happen to a forfeited vessel is that it is sold through an open and transparent bidding process. Any person who buys such ship is free to put it to commercial use as the person deems fit.
Calling for further investigation into the matter, Nwagbara said his sense of curiosity was aroused by the report of the ship’s activities at Elegushi Beach, given “the fact that government does not engage ordinarily in the commercial distribution of petroleum products in such manner report.”
Meanwhile. many tankers are still being driven to Elegushi Beach almost on a daily basis to get a refill from MT Anuket Emerald, and the detail of the operation remains a secret.