•Detained at sea without pay since October, sailors on board seized ship want to go home
Cosmas Omegoh; and Gloria Ikegbule
Nine crewmembers on board two Nigerian-flagged vessels detained at sea since October last year are in dire straits.
Concerned friends of the men – who are seamen themselves – have raised the alarm over the plight of the seafarers, pleading that they urgently needed help. They alleged that, for more than six months, the sailors have been detained aboard MT United Trader and MT United Ventures, surviving on a little food and water.
The vessels, our correspondent gathered, are being detained on the orders of Justice R.M. Aikawa of the Federal High Court, Ikoyi, Lagos. The order was issued on October 20, 2017.
It was further learnt that an organisation, Honey Rivers Nigeria Limited, had approached the court pleading for the detention of the ships for failure of their owner, Great Nigeria Tankers (GNT), to pay some amount of money to the plaintiff. A warrant of arrest and detention of the vessels at Lagos Anchorage was issued to the Nigerian Navy in that respect.
But the Federal High Court, in a letter dated December 13, 2017, authorised the release of the crew. The letter, which was signed by the Deputy Registrar/Admiralty Marshal Sub, A. A Tahir, was entitled “Re: Request for assistance to secure the vessel ‘MT United Trader.’” The letter was addressed to the Chief of Naval Staff, Abuja, with copies sent to the Flag Officer Commanding, Western Naval Command, Apapa, and the Commanding Officer, NNS Beecroft, Apapa.
The letter read in part: “In respect of this, and your cooperation, which this court has always relied on, I urge you to allow the following crew: Ilu Usman, Adewale Yaya, Wasiu Ashma, Friday Luck, Chinonso Iheanacho, Joseph Michael, O. Olawopowpo, Temitope Odeh, Goodwill Owoicho and Solomon to be granted permission to disembark from the vessel, MT United Trader, premised on the fact that there is no food and or necessaries on board the vessel and other safety-related matters.”
Daily Sun learnt that the affected seamen had been starving and in grave need of basic necessities of life; their salaries had been unpaid for months. And they couldn’t be allowed to go home to see their families even in the interim, not even when one of the seamen’s wives put to bed last year.
From the Lagos Anchorage, where the vessels are being detained, the agonising voices of the crew ring out through the restless waves, laden with emotions, pleading to be allowed to go home.
Usman, a second engineer, in a telephone conversation said: “Our condition here is critical. There are seven of us aboard MT United Vessel and two others on MT United Trader. The rest left before the Navy was sent to detain the ships.
“We drink, cook and bathe with rainwater. We use firewood to cook when we see food; we hardly eat twice daily. From time to time, we contribute whatever money sent to us by our friends to buy food. There are some naval personnel who are here on 24-hour guard duty. Sometimes they pity us and share their food with us; sometimes, we get food from friends. Sometimes we buy food on credit, hoping to pay back someday, when our salaries are paid.
“For us to receive calls, we send our phones to nearby ships to charge our batteries. We have boat boys who come around the anchorage to help us charge our phones, as we have been without power supply for months. Even some food items such as vegetable, meat and fish that were brought to us the other time perished and we threw them away.
“I’m married, with six kids. My wife gave birth to a baby boy last December 4, but up till now I have not seen the baby.
“I even learnt that my kids have been out of school since last term and hardly have food to eat. Each time I call them they are always asking when I would come back to pay their school fees. Life for us here is miserable. We’re dying slowly.”
Unhappy with the way the seamen are being treated, their friends, a group of concerned mariners, recently spoke on the seamen’s plight.
Speaking during a recent encounter, their spokesman, Mr. Basil Dike, an engineer, expressed sadness over their colleagues’ matter.
“Our concern is about the sufferings of the crew. If they are receiving their salaries, if they are being fed, if they have water, food and power, we won’t have issues to complain about. The vessel can be there, as long as the crew is not maltreated.
“When a ship is detained, the first thing is for the court to get a sheriff to take charge of the vessel. His job is to liaise with NIMASA, or whoever is involved, to ensure that the crew is properly catered for before the case is disposed off or they sell the seized vessel, as the case may be. If the sheriff uses the Navy or Marine Police to guard the vessel, there is no problem. What should be paramount is the welfare of the crew.
“We are managers in charge of eight ships. Sometime ago, we had a related issue. While the investigation was on, the welfare of the crew was taken care of – giving them food and salaries. They put the Navy on board, but nobody was molested.
“We have a dictum in this profession that ‘injury to one is injury to all.’ If not that someone called to tell us about our friends’ plight, we could not have known. That is how many people suffer and die in Nigeria just like that,” he said.
He said he had called on NIMASA to intervene but regretted that the effort had been futile: “I tried to reach out to NIMASA since last December. I visited the district office and met the district surveyor. He said that the matter had been giving them some problem. It is something the public must hear about.”
Dike further said: “In November, when they started having this issue, some of them abandoned the ship and left eight others behind. Those who left abandoned their salaries to look for opportunities elsewhere. Unfortunately for the ones left behind, they were asked to wait. Then the Navy came on board and said those who stayed behind should not go. And now they are trapped.
“In the marine industry, it is the crew first in anything: their food, water and wages. No one plays with these needs. That is what the maritime labour convention says.
“The security of the crew is paramount. If anything happens, they must not be abandoned. There must be someone to repatriate them in case of death; there must be someone to pay their compensation. So, the crew’s welfare is very paramount; that is why we expect NIMASA to act.
“As long as they are human beings, it is the crew first and not the cargo or ship. Even if you are a foreign vessel and, on approaching another country, you are in distress, you just call their ports authority, telling them that you are distressed. You see them rushing, bringing food. They know that they will get back their money.”
In his response, NIMASA’s director of public relations, Mr. Isichie Osamgbi, described the issue as a purely military matter.
“It is a matter being handled by the Navy. It is the FOC, Western Naval Command, that is in charge of the area. And so NIMASA has no hand in all of that.
“If two individuals or organisations are engaged in a business and are having a challenge, they let the police into it. In that case, it is a matter the police should be handling and not NIMASA. NIMASA should not have any hand in it. Our job is purely marine administration. That is why I say that the matter is a military operation,” he said.
He added that he was unaware that some crew members were detained aboard the said vessels.
Initially, the base officer of the naval vessel, NNS Beecroft, Lt. Commander Charles Brinemigha, admitted that the two vessels were detained. He said: “Ordinarily, when we arrest a vessel, we hand it over to the EFCC or the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps or the police or the DSS because we don’t have the legal power to prosecute. The agencies only seek the assistance of our men to keep the crew on board.
“But we don’t just arrest a ship and let the crew go away just like that. It is their ship; if we let them go, the ship may sink or drift ashore. So we keep the crew on board pending when investigations are concluded.”
But when he was later reminded that the release of the crewmen was directed by the court, he said he would get back to the correspondent. He, however, never got back until press time.