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By John Helmer, Moscow

“I have always been fond of the West African proverb, ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick; and you will go far.’” That was Theodore Roosevelt in January 1900, when he was thinking of the Caribbean Sea, and when he was US Vice President. No one has ever found the evidence for its proverbial source; Roosevelt probably invented its origin in West Africa.

Current Nigerian policy for the Gulf of Guinea is also mostly invented, and is based on piracy and smuggling against which the Nigerian Navy wields a fake stick and says nothing at all. The case of the Myre Seadiver, a Russian security tender engaged to protect Russian oil tankers in the Gulf of Guinea, has exposed the duplicity of the Nigerian Navy, and also the weakness of the Nigerian government and the court system in protecting international vessels, their crews and owners from corrupt arrest and extortion.

Yesterday, at a hearing in Lagos, Judge James Tsoho delayed for the third time the trial of the 15-man Russian crew of the 541-tonne escort ship, the Myre Seadiver. Owned by Moran Security Group of Moscow, the vessel has been engaged in tanker security in the Gulf of Aden and was arrested on October 20 by the Nigerian Navy in Lagos harbour, as it prepared to leave for a Gulf of Guinea patrol. The ship was taken to a Navy dock where it is being held on a $500,000 bond. The crew were jailed until February, when they were released on bail to live at the Russian Embassy compound.

The Myre Seadiver had entered the port on September 19 with Navy permission after filing an inventory of small arms held on board. Eleven members of the arriving crew flew home and were replaced by a new crew which flew into Lagos with visas issued by the Nigerian Embassy in Moscow. Here is the story so far.

Tsoho was appointed to take over in the case after the previous judge, Okechukwu Okeke, failed to appear at the first trial date on April 9. Okeke then retired from the bench rather than appear at the second trial date of April 30. Although Nigerian prosecutors had said in court on April 30 that the 11 incoming crew would be released yesterday, Tsoho has refused, setting a new court hearing date of June 18.

The Russian government and Moran Security say the charges against the crew of arms smuggling and illegal entry have been trumped up. Nigerian sources say the Lagos court and the judge are under pressure not to allow a trial exposing the Navy’s involvement in selling security to foreign shipowners. The Kremlin has warned the Nigerian government to release the crew. A Russian source told Fairplay “the prosecution side can’t formulate their position towards the case. That’s why they are requesting postponement.”

Nigerian Navy officers and the Nigerian Ambassador in Moscow refuse to comment.

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