Last December, a speed boat with five passengers going to Oron in Akwa Ibom State from Calabar, Cross River State, was hijacked by pirates on the high sea and taken to one of the creeks. Not too long ago, another speed boat with 14 passengers, likewise going to Oron from Calabar, was also hijacked by suspected pirates. Among those still in captivity as at the time of writing this piece are a naval officer and a University of Calabar lecturer. Naturally, every time these boats are hijacked, negotiation commences, and this often ends up in payment of ransoms. Although reports have it that about four people have been released, the rest are still with their captors, waiting for government action. In this latest case, an official of the Speed Boat Drivers’ Union at the Safe Journey Beach in Calabar, who preferred to be anonymous, lamented the poor cover from security agencies on the Calabar-Oron maritime route.
The official also claimed that his union spends at least N155, 000 monthly on security. The official said: “Piracy on the route has been rampant. For instance, in December 2021, a boat with five passengers was hijacked. A few of the passengers individually paid ransoms of N200, 000 before they were released. “We protested and the protest took us to the police and navy headquarters in the state.
It was as a result of the protests and stoppage of boat operations that the two authorities decided to station their gunboats in the Calabar waters, while the naval police stationed theirs on the Akwa Ibom end of the waters to deter militants and pirates,” the source disclosed. He added: “We support the security agencies in our own small way. We have been doing this in the hope that our boats and passengers would be safe on the waters. “We are suspecting that the attraction of the sea pirates seems to be the speed boat engines which have a second-hand price of over N5 million. When they carry out a hijack like this, we would normally contribute, say N250, 000 to secure the release of the boat and its engine but they will never release our boat and engine.
They will collect our money, collect the ransom and still will not give us back our boats. “We appeal that the attention of security officials be focused towards this direction, even though we are not scared.” Commenting, the Police Public Relatetions Officer, SP Irene Ugbo confirmed that the remaining victims were still being held. She said: “The victims are still with the abductors,” adding that efforts are being made to rescue them. The pirates allegedly threatened to kill the victims if they failed to pay the N36m ransom demand. In recent times, activities along the Calabar/ Oron waterways have heightened due to the patronage it gets from the public.
The perpetually dilapidated road called Calabar/Itu highway has become so nerveracking that a journey which is supposed to take about one hour from Calabar to Uyo now drags to over seven hours during the dry season and even longer during the rainy season. It is also important to recall that in the past, water policing by the marine wing of the Nigerian Police Force was effective and efficient as pirates were kept at bay and the Nigerian Navy were left to concentrate on its statutory responsibility of protecting the country’s shorelines. Again, worthy of recall is the fact that activities of pirates along the Calabar waterway were negligible, if indeed, they occurred. And because there were so many ferries and speed boats along that route, accidents were few and far between and where they occurred, rescue was prompt. However, the narrative has since changed with insecurity, fuelled by drug addiction and cultism, have combined to muzzle youthful brains and force them to sign a pact with the devil. Currently, the situation on the Calabar waterways is unpredictable as anything can happen to users of that once secured route.
It is difficult to estimate how much Nigerians have lost to pirates on that route, but a security source put it in the hundreds of millions of naira. Why many people throng to the beach every day is because the route is short and takes between 30-45 minutes to get to Oron, from where they can choose their final destinations. Given the fact that the Calabar/Itu road has remained perpetually in the budget with various governments often “sympathizing” with the people but doing little or nothing to ameliorate their sufferings, the sea route remains the best alternative now, and perhaps, still for a long time to come. This is the reason why governments at all levels should do everything to secure the waterways in the interest of the public. The situation is more compelling now that security in the country leaves much to be desired.
The country cannot afford to lose highly trained personnel whose services we still need to pirates, or any other non-state actors as that could spell doom for the various facets of the economy. It is even surprising to know that there is a naval gunboat stationed along the area noted for pirates’ activities. How these hoodlums continue to operate with impunity remains a puzzle. It is also important for the governments of Cross River and Akwa Ibom to come together and support both the Navy and the Police to keep eternal vigil on waterways. Additionally, authorities of the National Inland Waterways (NIWA) should collaborate effectively with security agencies to provide water tight security on that route. Having accepted the fact that inland wa-terways are under its purview, NIWA has a huge responsibility to tackle this menace, using its facilities as well as supporting security agencies to reduce, if not totally exterminate, this threat.
Reacting Permanent Secretary, State Security Office, Mr. Alfred Mboto said: “Currently, there is heavy deployment of Navy, Marine Police and Operation Delta Safe along the Calabar waterways and the security challenges have reduced drastically. “The state government is spending so much on security and appeals to the public to give out information on any threat whether on land or on the waterways so that security agents can nip it in the bud.” On his own part, Governor Ben Ayade’s Chief Press Secretary, Christian Ita said: “Protection of waterways is within the exclusive purview of the Federal Government through the Nigerian Navy. Having said this, the state government has in recent times given robust support to the Navy in terms of procurement of hardware like boats and so on.
“Also, the government has created a department for the security of the waterways. This department is headed by a former militant leader of the Bakassi Strike force. The reason is because of his knowledge of the terrain. “Again, don’t forget that the specific waterway straddles two states. So as Cross River is assisting the navy, I want to believe that Akwa Ibom is doing the same.” One only hopes that very soon the impact of these efforts will be felt and commuters and boat operators will shortly be able to ply the waterways without fearing for their lives or boats.