Nigeria’s Navy and the Battle for Economic Survival

Keeping watch: a Nigerian Navy vessel patrols the rivers and creeks of southern Nigeria for illegal refineries and oil runners. Image: Rey T Byhre / Alamy

With the West African state facing economic difficulties and a range of threats from criminals and violent actors, the Nigerian Navy has stepped up to protect the country’s maritime security.

Since its return to democracy in 1999, which marked the beginning of its Fourth Republic, Nigeria has been threatened by violent non-state actors (VNSAs) across its six geopolitical zones. These include Boko Haram and its breakaway faction, the Islamic State in West Africa Province, in the North East region; armed bandits recently designated as terrorists active in the North Central and North West regions; and the continued threat posed by Ansaru’s re-emergence. Other threats to the homeland include piracy and militancy in the South South region (popularly known as the Niger Delta region); the Eastern Security Network, the paramilitary wing of the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra, in the South East region; and the continued threat from kidnappers, cultists and other organised criminal gangs in the country’s South West region. Combined, the activities of these VNSAs have led to the deaths of thousands and the destruction of many properties. This is in addition to the displacement of several million people, both internally and across Nigeria’s neighbouring states.

Beyond these domestic challenges, insecurity in the Lake Chad Basin and Sahel regions and its spill-over into the littoral states is having dire consequences for regional peace and security in West Africa. Ghana’s current insolvency issues and other security-related challenges in West Africa, including recent incidents of democratic backsliding, mean that Nigeria remains dutybound to rise to the occasion as the regional hegemon that it is. Two critical factors determine a regional hegemon’s posture: its military might and its economic clout. In recent times, Nigeria has, however, been significantly constrained economically owing to its rising debt profile, causing it to incur high debt servicing costs. Hence, there is an urgent need to use its military might to guarantee its economic survival. The Nigerian Navy has stepped up to the plate in this regard in a most decisive manner.

Since its establishment in 1956, the Nigerian Navy has continued to play a significant role in fostering peace and security and protecting Nigeria’s territorial integrity, particularly with regards to defending the country’s maritime domain as part of its constitutional mandate. This has involved protecting Nigeria’s maritime environment from multifaceted threats including piracy; militancy; oil thefts; illegal oil bunkering; and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, most of which take place in coastal waters. The Nigerian Navy has recorded several successes in this regard, including the recovery of stolen oil. Doing so efficiently and effectively has required the Nigerian Navy to work closely with other components of the Nigerian Armed Forces, security agencies, maritime stakeholders, ministries and departments and other agencies.

Efforts geared towards protecting Nigeria's maritime environment from economic crime are a critical component of its national security

The Nigerian Navy no doubt remains a formidable force among navies in Africa and across the world. Constituting three Naval Operations Commands – the Western, Eastern and Central Commands – the Nigerian Navy has evolved over time, making it better placed to handle maritime crisis management, while ensuring Nigeria’s maritime security and countering other threats emanating from its adjacent maritime areas. This has included the acquisition and introduction of modern state-of-the art platforms to enable the Navy to secure Nigeria’s maritime domain. These efforts have yielded significant results along the country’s coastline and in the Gulf of Guinea, such as the delisting of Nigeria from the list of piracy-prone countries by the International Maritime Bureau – a significant feat.

Covering a maritime domain of around 84,000 square nautical miles, the Nigerian Navy has conducted several operations that have contributed in no small measure to the country’s maritime security. Some recent examples include Operation Delta Safe, which resulted in the closure of over 216 illegal refining sites between May and August 2022 alone. It is pertinent to note that Nigeria loses an estimated $26.3 billion annually to piracy and sea robbery. Therefore, efforts geared towards protecting its maritime environment from economic crime cannot be overemphasised as a critical component of its national security. In April 2022, Nigeria’s current Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Awwal Zubairu Gambo, who was appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari in January 2021, activated Operation Dakatar Da Barawo, which is intended to bring a complete end to all forms of illegal activity in the country’s maritime domain. So far, the Nigerian Navy has recorded significant progress on this operation. The navy’s bases, which comprise the Pathfinder, Delta, Jubilee, Soroh and Lugard, as well as the Forward Operating Bases Fomoso, Eskravos, Igbokoda and Bonny and the Naval Outpost Onisha, have all been actively involved in this all-important operation. Between April and October 2022, the operation restricted economic criminals’ freedom of action and prevented well over N30 billion in oil thefts.

These efforts have also been complemented by the deployment of state-of-the-art technology such as the Navy’s Falcon Eye surveillance system, which was inaugurated in July 2021. This has made it possible for the Nigerian Navy to be prepared to effectively combat all forms of maritime crime within its area of jurisdiction. Ensuring the protection of Nigeria’s maritime domain remains paramount to the country’s economic survival, considering that Nigeria’s hydrocarbon resources – which account for 55% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 95% of its export earnings, thereby constituting about 70% of the government’s revenue – are mostly located in this area. The Falcon Eye Surveillance system has prevented the theft of over three billion barrels of Nigeria’s crude oil in the last four years. Bringing an end to maritime-related crimes also helps to improve the lives and livelihoods of those communities most affected by these illegal activities.

The Nigerian Navy's efforts to safeguard Nigeria’s maritime security environment will go a long way towards fostering economic recovery

The Nigerian Navy has also prioritised local development as part of its efforts to ensure that it can project the naval power required to meet the challenges of the 21st century. An example of this is the recent introduction of the Nigerian Navy ship KADA. As part of efforts to consolidate the gains made, the current Chief of Naval Staff has embarked on regular operational visits, affording him the opportunity to witness the situation on the ground and to examine the state of the navy’s operational equipment, while also boosting the morale of its frontline personnel across various operational theatres where the navy is deployed. During one such visit to the Baga naval base in Lake Chad, the Chief of Naval Staff, while encouraging the troops, reiterated that achieving the strategic objectives of the mission were 'in line with my vision and mission for the Nigerian Navy'. Such a display of leadership from the Naval High Command is central to achieving a battle-winning strategy that will ultimately culminate in degrading, dismantling and defeating the enemy in maritime warfare.

Furthermore, Nigeria’s geostrategic role in fostering regional peace and security has meant confronting threats to its national security and to its vital interests – particularly within its immediate neighbourhood, such as in the Lake Chad Basin region. Doing so has also required making use of the Navy’s elite Special Operations Forces (SOFs). Created in 2006, the Nigerian Navy’s elite Special Boat Service – which is unmatched among SOFs in Africa, with some of the most sophisticated equipment and highly trained military personnel – has contributed immensely to maritime security and foiling terrorist attacks against the homeland since its establishment. It has also played a significant role in combatting economic criminals in the oil-rich Niger Delta region, while disrupting their ability to stage attacks effectively.

As the Nigerian Navy intensifies its efforts to safeguard Nigeria’s maritime security environment and to guarantee Nigeria’s economic survival, its contributions will go a long way towards fostering economic recovery. This is in addition to helping Nigeria take up its rightful place as a regional hegemon that is capable of providing geostrategic leadership in West Africa during these turbulent times. The stakes could not be higher.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Fola Aina

Associate Fellow; International security analyst and researcher

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