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By John Helmer, Moscow

Russian government relations with Nigeria have collapsed after negotiations have failed to free from five months of detention the Russian fleet tender vessel, Myre Seadiver, and its 15-man Russian crew. They have been charged with arms smuggling. The case is now viewed in Moscow as a repeat of the African Pride case, when the Russian crew of a small Greek-owned oil tanker were jailed in Nigeria between 2003 and 2005 over charges of oil smuggling. In both cases, according to Moscow sources, corrupt officers of the Nigerian Navy manipulated local court-ordered arrests of Russian crewmen to extract bribes and other concessions from the Kremlin.

In the Myre Seadiver case, sources close to the affair claim Nigerian Navy officers operate a lucrative protection scheme for oil tankers and other vessels loading at Nigerian ports or transiting through Nigerian coastal waters. Myre Seadiver, owned and operated by the Moscow-based ship security group called Moran Security, has been targeted, the sources say, because Nigerian Navy officers view it as an interloper in their sideline business. Apparently more powerful than Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs and Justice Ministries, with which the Russian Ambassador and Foreign Ministry have been negotiating, the Navy officers are said to want maximum publicity for the case, and thus protracted detention of the crew, as a way of warning other security companies out of the area. Plus compensation for the law violations, port and prison services rendered.

“It is not difficult to find countries, groups and peoples who despise Nigerians in cases like these,” says an international shipping source in London. “In that, Russians are not unique. I suspect the fact that they may not have paid enough to the Nigerian Port Authority in advance had something to do with it. When we were shipping to Nigeria we were not allowed to have guns on board. As substitutes we had to hire ten “Bowmen” with bows and arrows to patrol our decks while at the berth. It cost $150 a day. I asked the head bowman what he did when he wasn’t a Bowman. He smiled and said, ‘Sah, when I am not a Bowman I am a pirate’. Nothing has changed.”

On Monday a federal court in Lagos agreed to fix a trial date of April 10 for 16 Russians accused of arms violations. Nine are mariners; six are security and arms professionals. The master of the Myre Seadiver has been charged separately for unlawful entry into Nigerian waters without the appropriate clearances and declarations of his cargo. He and the 15-man crew have been released from prison on the surety of the Russian ambassador, and are living in the Embassy compound. The court also ordered the release of the vessel on payment of a $500,000 bond. Moran sources say they have yet to go on board, and suspect the Myre Seadiver has been stripped of its valuables.

Of 315 deadweight tonnes, the Myre Seadiver was built in 1965 and operated as a tender for offshore oil and gas-drilling operations by Norwegian companies. It was bought by Moran in 2012, reflagged in the Cook Islands, requipped and armoured, and renamed.

Nigerian press reports claim the vessel was intercepted by a Nigerian Navy patrol outside Lagos port on October 19. The Navy then claims it ordered the vessel into its Beecroft base, near Lagos. Moran Security says the arrest of the crew and vessel took place four weeks after the ship had first berthed at Lagos, and after the vessel had left its anchorage, and was moving through the Lagos Roadstead enroute to international waters.

According to Moran Security spokesman Alexei Maximov, the vessel had been working on contract to provide security support for Russian merchantmen and oil tankers operating in pirate-infested waters. Before its October misadventure, it had started from Kaliningrad’s Baltiysk port in June, and worked for several weeks in the Gulf of Aden. It then proceeded south through the Indian Ocean, calling at Djibouti and at Toliara, Madagascar, where there were no problems with the onboard weapons or the declarations. The vessel then sailed round the Cape of Good Hope, and proceeded northward up the Atlantic.

“Naturally, the entry into the port of Lagos was pre-negotiated and coordinated with the local marine appointed agent,” Maximov told Fairplay. “To the agent was provided all the information, including the small number of weapons that were on board. That is, all of this was declared officially by an authorized agent. From the agent was provided written confirmation that the [vessel] entry complied with regulations of the Nigerian Navy. Then the vessel berthed there for four weeks, and no complaints were filed to us. Especially because we were at anchor in the port of Lagos, conducted bunkerage of the vessel, change of crew, repairs. But on the 19th [of October] the Navy arrived and began to announce different versions of why they want to arrest us.”

Speaking days later, Maximov said there were “already four versions that they announced. This suggests there is nothing in terms of law. The ship is detained, not arrested. To our embassy the Nigerian side told all four versions. We are actively working through the Foreign Ministry and through the embassy and demand the immediate release of the ship and crew. All the weapons were there to ensure the safety of Russian vessels we serve. Plus, given the nature of the weapons, they are not for attack. All claims on the Nigerian side are ridiculous.”

The arms on board have been reported in the local court as 14 AK-47 rifles with 3,643 rounds of ammunition, as well as 20 Benelli MR1 rifles with 4,955 rounds of ammunition. Because of piracy at sea, and the operation of anti-government guerrilla groups in the south and north of the country, the Nigerian authorities are suspicious of arms which may be sold by visiting seamen to local gunrunners and gangs. A maritime industry report with Nigerian sources claimed immediately after the October arrest that the arms on board were too small a lot to be an arms trafficking operation, but too big for the purpose of the vessel’s protection.

The Navy intervention at Lagos came a week after gunmen took another vessel, the Bourbon Liberty 249 and 6 of its Russian crew hostage. The vessel was operating as a tugboat for tankers off Bonny Island, 350 kilometres south of Lagos; it was owned by the French Groupe Bourbon S.A. The attack and kidnapping took place on October 15, and in the initial confusion, 8 members of the crew managed to escape. Six Russians and an Estonian member of the crew were taken hostage; they included the master. The Nigerian government publicly blamed secessionists in the Niger Delta area for the attack.

On November 11, the Bourbon Liberty 249 and its crew were released, according to an announcement from the Estonian Foreign Minister, Urmas Paet. He didn’t say whether a ransom had been paid. The role of the French company and the Russian authorities in the outcome remains unclear.

In Lagos, however, the Nigerian Navy hung on to its prisoners. At the end of October, a Russian Embassy spokesman said: “Right now we are working with the relevant Nigerian authorities to ensure that the ship will soon be released. This, according to our estimates, is a case of an unfortunate misunderstanding.”

On December 21 Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, spoke by telephone to his Nigerian counterpart, Olugbenga Ashiru. The public version of the call was that Lavrov warned Nigeria of consequences if it continued to detain the Russians. The ministry in Moscow also reported that it had received assurances from Ashiru that the crew would be released quickly. A press statement from the embassy in Lagos, issued on January 9, 2013, revealed that the Nigerian undertaking to Lavrov had been that “after hearing the testimonies and finalizing ‘legal formalities’ [the] Russian sailors may leave Nigeria without any obstruction. We expect that this time our Nigerian partners will keep their pledges and will immediately release all Russian sailors without additional prerequisites and further delays.”

On January 7, the Navy turned the Russians over to the Lagos police.

The hint in the Embassy release was that the Russian government does not believe the Nigerian government is capable of enforcing its nominal authority or is trusted to keep its word. The two-year story of the imprisonment of the 13 Russians and a Georgian member of the crew of the African Pride is one reason. In that case, the vessel had been detained in an operation by Nigerian security forces against other Nigerians involved in a crude oil smuggling scam. The vessel owner and captain, plus the vessel and its cargo, were allowed to escape; the crew were then imprisoned on trumped-up charges, as a combination of ransom and bribes were demanded.

A commando operation was one of the options considered in Moscow to rescue the Russians from prison after the Nigerian ambassador, a former general, his intelligence deputy, and others in office in Lagos and Abuja were judged unreliable. The Russian mariners were finally released in December 2005, after a local court sentenced them to time served. In parallel, cash was paid by a Russian state oil company to the Nigerian government, purportedly for rights to an offshore oil exploration concession.

There have been subsequent attacks and kidnappings of Russians in Nigeria. The record is so full, and the sentiment towards the Nigerian government so negative, that Gazprom has refused to proceed with a major project in the country. President Dmitry Medvedev made a brief stop in the country in June 2009, but nothing materialized of the undertakings signed then. In November 2010, Nigerians attacked the Sovcomflot oil tanker, NS Spirit, off Lagos; four of the Russian crew were wounded, one seriously. Such episodes reinforced the assessment on the part of Russian fleet operators that they were better off hiring their own security rather than paying bribes to Nigerian pirates in uniform. The seizure of the Myre Seadiver, its professional security men, and their arms is the new stage in the extortion racket.

Russian sources, who were involved in planning a military operation to break the African Pride crew out of prison in 2005, warn that Nigerian officials are so weak and unreliable, that, were Russian spetznaz to prepare operations, the Nigerian military would give them away, and lead them into ambush. The bloody outcome of a British commando rescue operation for British and Italian hostages held in a northern Nigerian location a year ago is a reminder to the Kremlin of the foolhardiness of military operations in the country.

Early this month messages from the imprisoned Russian crew began to appear in the Russian press. Deprived of clean water and sanitary conditions, at least one of the crew has come down with malaria. One wrote home: “These guys understand only force, fear only force, respect only force. In Russia don’t we have that?”

That is a sore point for the Russian Navy. According to Mikhail Voitenko, a maritime columnist who is a frequent critic of the Putin administration: “I do not understand why the situation in Syria is in our national interest, and the lawlessness and violence that prevails in the Gulf of Guinea and Nigeria, are not relevant when you consider that our people and our companies are working there. Why to the coast of Syria has been sent almost the entire navy of Russia, and to the shores of Nigeria cannot be sent at least one BOD [anti-submarine designation] or BDK [landing ship]? The Gulf of Guinea countries only understand force.”

Supplying a Russian Navy patrol of this area is problematic, because the nearest basing ports are not established for the purpose. They include Cape Verde, in the North Atlantic, which was used by the Russian Navy in the interception of the pirated lumber carrier Arctic Sea in 2009; it is 1,628 nautical miles to the north.

Alternatives for fueling for a Russian Navy operation in the Gulf of Guinea include Tartus, on the Syrian Mediterranean coast, at a distance of 5,283 nm. Cuba is closer, but still 4,620 nm away. The Seychelles, off the east African coast in the Indian Ocean, has been identified as a base of interest by Russian Navy officers, but the distance to the west African coast is 3,196 nm. If the Russian Navy wanted to despatch a squadron from a home port to cover Sovcomflot tankers moving down the African coast, or LUKoil employees working on drilling platforms in the Gulf of Guinea, the sailing distance from Kaliningrad to Lagos is 5,634 nm.

Getting tough in Africa is not what Foreign Minister Lavrov can do, at least not over the telephone. Lavrov made a tour of Africa early this month, avoiding Nigeria. Next month President Vladimir Putin will visit several African states; Nigeria won’t be one of them. Lavrov’s only show of toughness in west Africa came early this month when he was employed by Oleg Deripaska to press the Guinean president, Alpha Conde, to drop liability and compensation claims against United Company Rusal.

A source close to the case explains that what is happening in Lagos is a combination of racketeering on the part of the Nigerian Navy and commercial competition for “protection services” in the African waters of the Atlantic. “Here there is an obvious lack of respect for the Russian authorities on the part of Nigeria. Plus perhaps some third force is intervening — I do not know from which countries, perhaps of some western ones. As far as I know, for example, British companies are operating successfully in the area of the Gulf of Guinea. The local Navy I see as the main instigator of the action. It indulges in smuggling of hydrocarbon resources in the region and itself provides security services in the area of the Gulf of Guinea. In this situation, to them it isn’t profitable if a company is present to supervise independently the security situation, and ensure the protection of ships. Because then the [Nigerian] would be deprived of revenue.”

The source confirms the “bowman racket”. “The [Nigerian] Navy offers armed guards for quite serious money in the territorial waters of this country. I guess that for this reason [the problem] has arisen with the Nigerian Navy. Previously, Russian mariners [and their Nigerian agents] have reached agreements with the Nigerian Navy. Meetings have been held with the local admiral, and there were no objections…” The charges filed in court against the master and crew are “just nonsense”.

Moran Security concedes that the Nigerians have put themselves in a bind after four months of purported investigations and detention of the crew. The evidence of the required permits and authorizations are in the hands of the company and the embassy. The evidence of the Lagos port stay of the Myre Seadiver, before it was intercepted on its way out of Nigerian waters, is in the Nigerian prosecutor’s hands. Contradiction and conflict between the Lagos police, the federal prosecutors, and the Navy are also obvious. “The authorities will have to go back on their word,” says a Russian company source. “They have no evidence, no facts, nothing but a series of violations of their own laws by those [Nigerians] who have been told what to say.”

A Myre Seadiver spokesman says: “Tactically we are pleased that the crew members are now in good conditions at the embassy, but strategically the situation is not clear. The measures of restraint have been modified, but the charge remains [a serious one for which the prosecutors are demanding] life imprisonment.”

Strategically, according to a high-level Russian source, the solution has to be at the highest political level of the two governments, where the vested interests of the Nigerian Navy can be overcome. “The issue here is in the political arena. Here there is nothing about bribes. Here the Russian authorities should show a tough stance on this issue and with all possible measures to demand back the sailors.”

Note on Nigerian Navy response: The Nigerian Navy publishes a website, but its news releases do not carry a contact name, physical address, email address or telephone number. The Navy’s contact page is blank. There is a Navy representative at the Nigerian High Commission in London, but a spokesman said that he is in Nigeria at present and will not return to London until next week. The spokesman refused to identify the Navy officer by name, provide contact details for him in Nigeria, or identify himself. Asked if there was any military representative at the High Commission who might respond to the Russian allegations about the conduct of the Navy in the Myre Seadiver case, a spokesman for the High Commission relayed the question to a person identifying himself as Mike. He refused to give his last name. He said he was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Nigerian Army, the Deputy Defense Adviser at the High Commission, and the “boss” there of the absent naval attaché. He agreed to take written questions on the Myre Seadiver case, and arrange with the Navy to respond. He too declined to give contact details for a spokesman for the Navy in Lagos. He provided an email address for the defence office at the High Commission, but refused to give a direct telephone number or telephone extension for it. Twelve questions were then submitted:

1. Is it correct that the Myre Seadiver’s agent filed papers in advance of the vessel’s arrival in Nigeria declaring the arms on board and received permission for them to remain on board during the vessel’s port stay?

2. Is it correct that the vessel Myre Seadiver berthed in Lagos, was refuelled, replenished, rotated crew, and underwent repairs for a period of about 21 days in port prior to October 19?

3. Is it correct that the Nigerian Navy apprehended the vessel in the Lagos roadstead on October 19, as the vessel was leaving Nigeria?

4. The Russian Embassy and Moran Security claim that four different versions were provided after October 19 as to why the vessel was ordered back into port and the crew detained. What are they?

5. If the Nigerian Navy and the Lagos court have correctly identified the arms on board as 14 AK-47 rifles with 3,643 rounds of ammunition, as well as 22 Benelli MR1 rifles with 4,955 rounds of ammunition, and if the Navy, police and prosecutor claim there is no advance filing of cargo disclosures and receipt of clearances, why has it taken the Navy more than four months of detention to bring the charges to court?

6. Is it correct, as Moran Security states, that the company’s representatives had meetings with an admiral of the Nigerian Navy and there were no objections to the arrival of the vessel in Lagos, nor to its cargo, nor to its 3-week stay at a port berth?

7. On December 21 Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, spoke by telephone to his Nigerian counterpart, Olugbenga Ashiru, and reported publicly that he had received assurances from Minister Ashiru that the Russian nationals would be released from arrest and allowed to return home without delay. That has not happened. Why was the Nigerian Foreign Minister unable to deliver on his assurances?

8. Is it correct that the Nigerian Navy offers for sale protective services for vessels while they are in Nigerian waters? What international shipping clients have received this protective service? What does it cost?

9. Is the Nigerian Navy aware that Moran Security, the Myre Seadiver and its crew are engaged in security contracts for the protection of Russian merchantmen and oil tankers transiting Nigerian waters?

10. Is it correct that Nigerian Navy offers of anti-piracy protective services are in competition, commercially, with security companies like Moran Security?

11. What protective services did the Nigerian Navy provide on or about November 21, 2010, when 12 armed Nigerians attacked and boarded the Novoship tanker, NS Spirit, wounding four Russian mariners?

12. How does the Nigerian Navy respond to the criticism by Russian officials that corrupt officers operate a protection racket and extort payments from mariners, Russian and other, by failing to protect from pirates, or by acting in league with pirates, or by arresting security men attempting to provide anti-piracy security for vessel companies?

Lieut-Col. Mike did not acknowledge receipt, and by the end of the day in London and in Lagos there had been no reply to the questions.

The London Diplomatic List, issued by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, gives the names of the following officers accredited at the Nigerian High Commission:

Maj. Gen. J.M. Ogidi m Defence Adviser
Capt. (NN) I.M. Albara m Deputy Defence Adviser (Navy)
Col. N. Isama m Deputy Defence Adviser (Finance)
Wg. Cdr S.A. Bukar m Deputy Defence Adviser (Air)
Lt. Col. O.M. Azuikpe m Deputy Defence Adviser (Library)

There is only one lieutenant-colonel, but it isn’t certain that Azuikpe is “Mike”, or why he should describe himself as the “boss” of the others.

Repeated telephone calls to the High Commission number to speak again with this officer were cut off by an automatic answering system at the switchboard.

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