Nigeria Releases “Oil Theft” VLCC Heroic Idun After Plea Bargain
The Norwegian-owned VLCC Heroic Idun, which had been detained in Nigeria for 10 months over allegations of oil theft, has been released after its owner fulfilled the conditions of a plea bargain agreement. The Nigerian Navy announced the official release and handing over of the VLCC.
Last August, Heroic Idun was detained after an alleged unauthorized entry into Nigerian waters with intent to lift crude oil (under charter to BP). On August 8, the tanker arrived as scheduled to take on cargo from the CNOOC-operated Akpo offshore FPSO. As she waited, Heroic Idun was approached by the Nigerian Navy vessel Gongola. Fearing that the patrol boat was actually a pirate vessel, the tanker fled into Equatorial Guinea’s waters and reported an attempted act of piracy to the IMB's reporting center.
In response, Nigeria requested Equatorial Guinean authorities to hold the VLCC on charges of oil theft. Guinean authorities took possession of the ship and held it until November, when they transferred it to the custody of the Nigerian Navy where prosecutors charged its crew with conspiracy to commit a maritime offense, false pretense to be victims of a maritime offense, and attempting to deal with crude oil within the Nigeria Exclusive Economic Zone without lawful authority.
While it released the Heroic Idun, the Navy reiterated its claim (which has been widely dismissed by the shipping industry and its representative bodies) that the tanker and its 26 foreign crew entered Nigeria’s waters unlawfully.
The ship and its crew were prosecuted under the Suppression of Piracy and Other Maritime Offences (SPOMO) Act, 2019. It is the latest incident in which Nigerian authorities have used the law to prosecute foreign nationals rather than Nigerian pirate gangs, which were the intended target of the legislation and remain underpoliced.
Part of the plea bargain conditions included paying a conviction fine of N5 million ($10,841) as penalty for the charge and an astonishing $15 million as restitution to Nigeria. The owner was also compelled to make a forced apology to the government of Nigeria on the website of Lloyd’s List, a condition which has been met.
Local officials took particular offense to the Heroic Idun's decision to report the Gongola as a pirate vessel. However, the Nigerian Navy's attempt to correct the record may have lent Heroic Idun's initial report credence, as the outcome had many characteristics of a pirate kidnap-for-ransom attack: The agency took the crew to the Niger River Delta against their will, held them for months, and promised to detain them indefinitely until the shipowner paid an exceptionally large sum.
Other tanker crews could end up in similar circumstances, held by either pirates or Nigerian authorities. Capt. Mohammed Adamu, Commanding Officer of Forward Operating Base Bonny, said that Nigerian authorities are determined to enhance energy security governance and that it "will not fail to bring to book those whose operations infringe on the provisions of the SPOMO Act and all maritime laws and conventions."
As a possible deterrent, Heroic Idun's flag state (the U.S.-administered Marshall Islands) has brought a case against Nigeria with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, alleging that the detention was unlawful.
The Heroic Idun's detention coincided with the onset of the Nigerian presidential election cycle. The rampant oil theft found in the Niger Delta littorals was among the top issues of the election, and the seizure of a Norwegian-operated, British-chartered VLCC at a terminal 75 nm offshore was portrayed as a major success against inland oil theft during the campaign. The Niger Delta oil theft problem is decades old and has proven exceptionally resistant to suppression, due in part to corrupt sponsorship by political and military elites.