Mr. Emmanuel Mayah is an International Journalist and Strategist. In this interview with Maritime TV, he expounds the various shades of Organised Crime in Nigeria with emphasis on the nation’s maritime sector.
Let’s start by getting to understand what Organised Crime is about.
MAYAH: Organised Crime is made up of two words ‘Organised’ and ‘Crime’. We know about crime which includes stealing, murder, rape, among others ills. When someone wants to kill another, he decides if the means would be a gun, poison, knife or other gadgets. When you have a group that decides to carry out what is called organised crime, it is a syndicate, racketeers, in an organised manner. Organised crimes are found in various fields of endeavour and every nation or continent. As the world get more sophisticated with the use of technology and automation, the activities of organised crime also gets more refined.
The key issues that are classified as organised crime in the maritime sector include; sea piracy, human trafficking, drug trafficking, shipment of wood and other products without due clarification is also organised crime.
One of your investigative stories was the Togo triangle and it was an award-winning piece. What led to that story?
MAYAH: When things happen most people aren’t trained to see beyond the surface. We had issues of oil theft in Nigeria and it became very serious because it was equated as a parallel industry bigger and larger than the oil industry of some countries. Real organised crime usually has some form of State support unlike petty criminals. Countries like Spain and Netherlands have been found to have issued licenses to pirates to steal things and bring the booty back. Organised crime is sometimes called transnational crime because the actors are in more than one country or the act is carried out in more than one country.
Togo triangle is a phenomenon because people didn’t know about it. It is a body of water triangulated by three countries; Nigeria, Benin Republic and Togo. This is an open illegal market where ships come from Ukraine, Russia, South Africa and other countries. Some are not so driven to come to the Niger Delta but they assure those in the Niger-Delta that they would buy their crude if they can bring it to the Togo triangle. The feature was about oil theft but I realised that there was a bigger story and that led me to investigate further and I actually visited the Togo triangle. Togo triangle was more or less like a jungle.
Nigerian government is spending huge resources to deal with piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. How can the nation get it right given that some nations are backing the pirates?
MAYAH: This is a big question and there is hardly a simply answer to it. Piracy was in Somalia, which became a failed state since 1991. There were several War Lords and factions that decided to go to the seas to hijack vessels for ransom. In Nigeria, the situation was also very serious until the former President Goodluck Jonathan made them a deal.
Today, the action is in the Togo triangle and the situation has dissipated in the Gulf of Guinea ran the pirates out of town. The peace in the region today is not as a result of the Nigerian government efforts or any other government intervention in the region. The peace is a result of the intervention of mercenaries from China, Russia, Ukraine, South Africa and other top nations who have ventured into illegal oil business and chased away the less organised dealers in the Togo triangle. These are the top guys in charge in the Togo triangle.
The smaller vessels are used to bring stolen oil from Nigeria to the mother vessels of foreign dealers in the Togo triangle. There is State support both from the foreign countries and the government of Togo. So, once in a while you would see the Togolese Navy do a little chase but it is just a make-up.
Security agencies are also compromised in Nigeria and other countries involved in this trade so they turn a blind eye. However, Nigeria has the highest stake because it is the nation’s oil that is being stolen and traded in the Togo triangle. The onus is on the Nigerian government to find a way to curb this illicit practice. If the illegal oil supply stops coming from Nigeria, there would be no Togo triangle.
There is also an oil crisis in Ghana in a community where oil was found and the nation advertised that it was an oil producing state without knowing that the oil wasn’t really in commercial quantity.
The destination of this illegal oil is refineries in Europe and United States of America (USA), yet they came not to patronise stolen oil from Nigeria or Somolia. Nigerian illegal oil dealers take the oil to Europe and claim it is coming from Ghana to beat the restriction on stolen oil from Nigeria. However, you can tell from the geographical properties of the oil if you truly want to ascertain where it is coming from.
Are you saying the government’s efforts with regards combating piracy would not yield commendable results until we weed out those involved in the oil theft and trading business?
MAYAH: There is so much talk about the Nigerian government fighting this. The question is – who are those who should be policing the environment? It is the Nigerian Navy and the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA). What happens when these agencies are compromised?
The only way to measure if this menace has stopped is when Togo triangle dries up. Recall that a Russian vessel was seized for oil theft in Nigeria and it was detained. However, we woke up one morning and we were told that the vessel was no longer carrying oil but water. People took out the oil and pumped in water. Did people sail all the way from Russia to take Nigerian Sea water? That ship also disappeared. The policing of Nigerian territorial waters can only be said to have been effective when there is no longer Nigerian oil to be traded in the Togo triangle. Beyond oil, there was also a vessel arrested for illegal fishing in Nigeria and the vessel escaped. It was later arrested in Liberia. So, it took a smaller country to effectively arrest a vessel that Nigeria couldn’t do. Are we saying that Nigeria has an inferior Navy to Liberia or do we lack the infrastructure to do surveillance?
One of your award winning stories centred on the importation of arms, has that illicit deal stopped today?
MAYAH: There are many underreported stories because people don’t look beyond the surface. There is a rising influx of drugs and arms and it happens because of State support. Neighbouring countries including Cameroon, Benin Republic and Togo are undermining the sovereignty of Nigeria.
Look at the Benin port; it thrives on transshipment. The country has no business transshipping cargoes to a country that has almost eight seaports. The attraction of Nigeria importers was also caught because of the ease of doing business in Benin. Another issue is that Togo and Benin look at Nigeria’s import prohibition list and another Nigeria’s prohibited items enter their countries just to boost trade. I can’t imagine the USA prohibits something and Canada allows it with the final destination as US. The US wouldn’t accept such practice. Smuggling is a huge revenue earner for Benin and Togolese government. They allow rice, used clothing and cars because they are targeting Nigerian markets. Organised crime groups have taken advantage of porous Benin and Togo to bring arms and drugs to Nigeria via these countries.
Nigeria’s economy is struggling, yet Organised Crime costs huge losses. As parties to international protocols that should curb Organized Crime, what is expected of Nigeria?
MAYAH: Nigeria shouldn’t wait for international bodies to encourage or caution them. As a nation, we have a lot to lose. So, we shouldn’t wait for those conventions and protocols which were are signatory to, before we act.
On illegal fishing, the estimates in 2017 showed that Nigeria is losing $70million annually. This sum is lost to illegal fishing and poachers and the estimate is conservative. Nigeria should be at the forefront of enforcements and utilising these conventions in policing not only our territories, but other nations in the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) arrangement. Nigeria should throw in so much vigour into this fight because the nation is losing a lot. We should also be seen driving the process of collaboration and partnerships in the region against this menace.
Do you think the Nigerian government doesn’t know that the nation loses colossal sums to Organised Crime in the maritime sector?
MAYAH: There are several international and national bodies conducting research and studies on this menace and how best to address it. Nigeria hasn’t done such reports or studies. Sometime during the presidential administration of Goodluck Jonathan, he cried out to Europe and America to help the nation combat organised crime in the maritime sector and illicit trade in oil, fisheries and other aspects of trade. That demonstrated that the Nigerian government is aware of the huge sums the nation was losing from organised crime in shipping. The issue doesn’t only affect fisheries and crude oil; people also utilise organised crime to export wood from several places in Nigeria. Nigerian laws only permit the export of processed wood but these criminals export raw timber. These exports are sent to Europe, Asia and other locations without any value added.
Tax justice is also an area where you have written articles. Can you share your thoughts on this aspect?
MAYAH: Go to any market in Nigeria, I’m talking about open markets where you find women selling products like tomato and pepper. You would find that they are being subjected to heavy taxation. Similarly, as an employer when you pay your staff salaries, you pay payee and other levels of taxes. However, multinationals and big businesses in Nigeria find ways of evading tax payments.
Aside company tax; there are other taxes that should be paid. In the maritime sector, one of the ways companies evade tax is through palm oil smuggling. Palm oil has several byproducts that could be derived from it. This palm oil usually comes from Malaysia and you find maritime players import via mother vessels destined for the Nigerian market. They take these vessels to Cote D’Viore and rebrand the palm oil as though it is coming from Cote D’Viore and invoke the ECOWAS trade agreement of free movement of people and goods. These goods will get to Nigeria and the traders sell, make profits without paying a dime to the Nigerian government. The sharp practices in the maritime sector in import and export is because people don’t want to pay the necessary charges to the government.
I recall doing a research on closed ‘Form M’. It beats my imagination to find that one ‘Form M’ was cloned and used by 44 different companies to import goods into the country. How did that pass through the system of Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) undetected?
It is sad that in Nigeria ordinary people are forced to pay tax and pay excessively, especially among women already living below the poverty line; yet big businesses always find ways to evade taxes.
You stated earlier that Nigeria should be aware of neighbouring countries attempting to take advantage of our prohibition list. How can the nation deal with the emerging African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA)?
MAYAH: The truth is that Nigeria isn’t ready for AfCFTA and that was why we were reluctant to sign initially. However, we cannot say wait for us for 20 years to get ready. Things aren’t done that way.
There are several things that Nigeria needs to put in place before AfCFTA takes off. Some of them are also linked to organised crime. Organised crime isn’t just about pirates on the seas; it includes other sophisticated criminal activities also involving banks.
There is also something called State Capture. I have names but I don’t want to mention them. Let’s take an example of the Gupta family in South Africa. This family held President Jacob Zuma and made him to do their bidding. The same thing has been happening in Nigeria since the military regime. Under the regime of General Sani Abacha, it was very evident and things haven’t change. We know what the Lebanese, Indians and even Syrians are doing in this country. The procurement in Nigeria’s Ministry if Health is dictated by India. The story is similar in other Ministries, these influential families and nations influence fiscal policies. This issue of organised crime is a serious problem.
Do you agree with the position that introduction of coast guards would curb the menace of sea piracy in the nation?
MAYAH: To address this, let me cite the challenges in the North Eastern part of Nigeria where Boko Haram holds sway. The military claim that the guns and ammunition used by the terrorists are more sophisticated. The same situation may occur at the seas, if coast guards are deployed but not well equipped.
There was a particularly War Lord in the Niger-Delta who was getting gunboats from Norway. So, setting-up coast guard is good development but they have to be well equipped.
In order to deal with Organised Crime in the country, what do you suggest that the government begins to do immediately?
MAYAH: Since oil is the major revenue earner for the nation and the maritime sector is close with Customs generating N1trillion and other aspects of Maritime contributing colossal sums; the government has to protect the cash cow of the economy.
The maritime sector is a cash cow and other crucial sectors like energy, oil and gas and other sectors depend on this maritime sector to thrive. We can emulate the model of South Africa in policing the maritime space in the country. We need to acquire the tools especially with the emerging AfCFTA.