Rigid Inflatable Boats : RIBS and Inflatables
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African Armageddon
By: A Northwest Ribster
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My latest adventure, or should I say mis-adventure, involved rib patrol boats and gunboats mixed in a heady concoction of deceit, death, corruption and desolation. It's a story that's still going around and around in my head, and hopefully by setting out my thoughts it will help me come to terms with what must be my experience of a lifetime.

It all started out, as I guess many of these things do, by a phone call with the offer of some offshore oil support work operating some 35-40 miles offshore in the Gulf of Guinea. A planned one month stint during our winter months, in the warmth of Africa away from the cold and damp of blighty, and some good remuneration to boot!

Little was I to know that I was to become witness to the reality of life in the third world, between the haves and the have nots in what was in truth a division between life and death. As my story unfolds you will hear about a culture of deceit and corruption at the highest levels in government and military, why each and every white European carries a bounty of $2m on his head and the reasons why a militant organisation claims justification for piracy and murder.

Black gold, the oil that the west has an insatiable desire for, is the catalyst for a dreadfully greedy and violent part of Africa, Nigeria.

Day 1. Tuesday 11th March 2008
An exciting and early start to catch my flight from Manchester to Heathrow, before catching the daily BA flight to Lagos. I was met at the airport by a representative from my new employer, a UK Security Consultancy employing some 80 personnel. The job was to be the captain of an ex MOD Spitfire Class 24m, RTTL (Rescue and Target Towing Launch). It was one of two vessels recently acquired by the company with another two on the way. These vessels had been previously used by the RAF & Royal Navy for target towing in support of military exercises.

This was a great opportunity for me to gain valuable experience in a vessel somewhat larger than the 11m Humber Rib, which I worked on the wind farms, and the survey vessels in the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.

I arrived early evening in Lagos, to be met by the company’s shore based project manager and driven to the Lagos Motorboat Club. Lagos, a city built for 3 million inhabitants but which supports 8 million, was vastly overcrowded with poverty around every corner. The city is the economic and financial capital of Nigeria and the second most populous in Africa after Cairo. It's a huge metropolis which originated on islands separated by creeks that fringe the southwest mouth of Lagos Lagoon, protected from the Atlantic Ocean by long sand spits.

From the Motorboat Club I was ferried out to Apapa Island to rendezvous with the boat, meet up with the crew, have a few beers and a BBQ in the + 30c heat, at what was now 9:30pm.

Day 2. Wednesday 12th March 2008
Day break and familiarisation with the boat was conducted by the chief engineer, an ex South African Navy engineering officer. Then a briefing from the two company liaison officers on board, again South African, both from a security background. My first mate was Nigerian as was our assistant engineer, also our chief cook and bottle washer
was a Nigerian. A total company complement of 7 persons, comprising three Nigerians, three South Africans and me, the only Brit!

Offshore and onshore oil installations are heavily guarded by security organisations, due to the aggressive militant operations carried out by MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta). These militants have been engaging the military in regular battles in the creeks of the Bonny River since the Nigerian government decided to heighten operations in the region to halt rising cases of kidnapping of foreign oil workers, who carry a $2m bounty on their heads, and the murder of fellow Nigerians seen to be co-operating with the oil companies, as they have no value.

Nigeria relies on oil and gas exports for more than 90 per cent of its annual foreign earnings, but has been collecting dwindling revenue because of the destruction of oil production facilities and its infrastructure by the activities of the militants in the region which is currently at an all time high.

The Plan
Our task was to patrol an offshore oil installation in the Gulf of Guinea. Prior to this we were to rendezvous with the Nigerian Navy. Our sail plan involved leaving Lagos taking an offshore passage through the Bights of Benin and Biafra across the Gulf of Guinea, some one and a half days motoring (350nm) to arrive at Port Harcourt.

Our rendezvous point was the onshore LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) Plant terminal on Bonny Island. At this location our vessel was to be fitted out with four 12.7mm heavy calibre machine guns, two on the fly bridge with the second two astern, some light machine guns and a detachment of eight Nigerian marines with personal weapons, before proceeding to take up station offshore.

The Day’s Events
We had a Lagos pilot booked for 5pm so we took the opportunity to do final provisions and a fuel top up during the day. Our 24m patrol vessel was powered by twin 1,000hp engines. At 4pm, eight Nigerian Navy marines arrived and boarded as our guards during the passage. For security reasons the vessel was flying the Nigerian flag.

At 5pm with no sign of the pilot we cast off to wait in the middle channel for the pilot, which was not uncommon. The harbour entrance was quite formidable with watercraft dashing here, there and everywhere. A hundred ships were also at anchor just outside the harbour entrance. I was very pleased to see the pilot cutter arrive and I welcomed aboard the pilot. After the formalities and documentation stamping etc. I asked to set the throttles forward to commence our passage. The pilot was immediately alarmed and requested our vessel to stop so that he could get off!

It became apparent that his job was only the paperwork and that we had to take ourselves out of the harbour and through the buoyage system to the fairway. On disembarking the pilot turned to me and pointedly asked did I have anything for him! He got short shrift from me, on this, my first introduction to the pre-requisite 'backhander'. At 6pm we successfully cleared the fairway buoy.

Day 3. Thursday 13th March 2008
Steady motoring at 8 knots in a pleasantly rolling (no big waves) F2 all the way. We experienced some small delay due to the prevailing Guinea current across the Bight of Biafra on our way to Port Harcourt, the capital city of Rivers State (the oil capital of Nigeria).

Day 4. Friday 14 March 2008
Arrived at the entrance to the Bonny River channel just after noon, 12:15pm. The Nigerian marine’s lieutenant was quickly on his mobile phone to the local naval base to confirm our arrival and to take instructions on our meeting point. The Lagos marines were due to disembark and fly back to their home base in Lagos, their job done.

For some unapparent reason the guns could not be transported to the LNG jetty. We should continue to the jetty and wait for two patrol boats (gunboats) from the Nigerian Marines NNS Pathfinder group who would escort us to the Naval Base where the armaments would be fitted and the replacement detachment of Marines would board. As a civilian crew we were reliant on the Marines to handle all weaponry onboard.

One of the patrol boats, an 8-9m RIB, with five crew met us in mid channel to lead us to the jetty where the other patrol boat was refuelling. It was then decided that we would continue up the Bonny River led by the first patrol boat with the second boat following up once fully refuelled. It wasn't long before we were joined by the second patrol boat as we continued up the Bonny River, part of the Niger Delta. We were now well off our charts but with one patrol boat back and one front we pressed forward up river
passing creeks at every twist and turn of this inhospitable river. Ship wrecks strewn the river bank which added to our sense of foreboding, but were in the hands of the Nigerian Navy so we should be alright!

Expecting to come upon a navy base at anytime it transpired that we had to go some 35 miles inland, through jungle waterways as well as open waters. At one stage I had to pass the helm over to my Nigerian number two while the white faced crew had to sit below the parapet because of the presence of militant hot spots. Some 6hrs later as
nightfall befell us at 7pm we were rafted inside the navy base.

The base commander and an intelligence officer came aboard for 2hrs of questioning. The Lagos marines remained onboard and we all eventually bedded down for the night.

Day 5. Saturday 15th March 2008
It was still expected that the armaments would be fitted at the navy base and the Lagos marines dismissed in order to catch their flight back to their home base. However a second intelligence officer returned and asked the same set of questions that were asked of us from the evening before. As our previous answers were still attached to this latest question list it was just a matter of copying out our yesterday answers. What was that all about? Information was very lacking and in the end nothing happened.

Day 6. Sunday 16th March 2008
Standoff. Still nothing happened.

Day 7. Monday 17th March 2008
St Patrick’s day and not a Guinness in sight! The Lagos marines were becoming quite agitated and angry as they should have been flown home the previous Saturday. Their guard duties became non existent, sleeping most of the time. From this time on we set-up our own 4hr bridge night watches.

Day 8. Tuesday 18th March 2008
Two company representatives arrived from Lagos, although not employed by our company they had some association with our operation. One an ex Nigerian Army Officer and the other an ex Nigerian Police Chief. They met with the base commander, returned to Lagos, and still nothing happened.

Day 9. Wednesday 19th March 2008
By this time we were under the distinct impression we were being detained. Even if we could take our vessel out of the navy base how would we navigate the river, miss the militants and go where? At best we would probably become one of the many 'hulks' rotting away on the bottom of the Bonny River.

Our days had passed waiting for something to happen, some news or some direction. We watched interestedly as each evening we saw the patrol boats refuel in a most basic way. Fifty gallon drums of gasoline were casually rolled down and pushed around the quay, a plastic pipe inserted and 'sucked' by a marine to draw up the fuel, and then
passed over the deck to the fuel tank fillers. The air was rank with vapour and the bilges probably sloshed around with gasoline.

Today one of the more friendly patrol boat skippers told us, "whatever you do don't sail this boat out!" as a means of being helpful, I guess.

Day 10. Thursday 20th March 2008
At 4:45am, a strange time, the Lagos marines were finally discharged from their ‘guard’ duties and allowed to fly back to their home base. They were replaced by two Pathfinder marines who stood at arms all the time.

The day started as they all normally do in this navy base. The patrol boats, all re-fuelled the evening before were made ready for patrol and loaded up with their 12.7 mm machine guns fore and aft, their AK47’s and the ammunition for the day’s patrols.

The navy’s Pathfinder group is responsible for the security of the Bonny River and its creeks in their fight against piracy, abduction and sabotage. It was very frightening each day when machine gun fire broke the jungle silence as test rounds zipped overhead and into the forests around the base, but I learned to watch for the powder dust cloud of the fired ammunition and knew the sound would follow. The patrol (gunboats) then disappeared up river and creeks and arrived back at base late afternoon. Some six ribs formed the squadron, five serviceable with one under repair.

Day 11. Friday 21st March 2008
Good Friday, although I’ve never known what was supposed to be good about it! Today was to be my apocalypse, my Armageddon however you would like to describe it.

Roused a little early by the morning watch, at 06:20, I brewed a cup of coffee and went on deck to look at the comings and goings of this morning’s Pathfinders patrol. Just 20 yards from me I watched the lead RIB skipper (our friendly marine who only a couple of days ago let us know it would be best to remain in the navy base) who was finalising his
preparations and crew for his next patrol. It was 6:45am now and I can still recall in slow motion how he checked over his shoulder to look at the outboards as he switched on the engine ignition.

In an instant I was looking at hell on earth! A wall of flame some 30ft high engulfed all the personnel on board the RIB. I could only make out shadows moving horrifically in the flames and no opportunity to help. One marine on fire, head to foot, appeared out of the holocaust, wearing heavy body armour and jumped into the river never to surface again.

" I watched in fright and awe as the first RIB and its personnel disintegrated before my very eyes."

Then the realisation that ordinance was exploding all around us and our vessel. Our crew, except the chief engineer who had bolted to the engine room to make ready to go, buried themselves behind the sand bags stacked at the stern of our vessel.

For 30 mins my head was full of the noise of exploding ordinance. I was concentrating on keeping the Nigerian crew calm, as they were clearly terrified. A break in the bangs, booms and zipping of bullets and a peer over the topsides. Almighty, not just one gunboat had gone up in flames, but one after another, after another. Five burning hulks came floating slowly past our vessel on the flood tide.

Now was the time to run ashore and run we did. We weaved our way passed spent heavy calibre shell casings praying that no more were on their deadly way. No time to look back now as we sought the shelter of the boats on the hardstanding. Another quarter of an hour was to pass before an all clear was declared.

I’ve never seen such devastation, but during the whole event it felt as though it was a film. Removal of the bodies was a gruesome task. Rather than being ‘charred’ as I expected, I found it very bizarre that the bodies were white, arms and legs rigid in the final death throes of the fire. That night myself and the three South Africans were accommodated ‘for our own safety’ in what was described as the officers hostel. The bars on the windows and doors, and us all sleeping together in the one room with a seven man guard really gave it away. We were never permitted to stray more than 100 yards from the ‘hostel’.

Day 12. Saturday 22nd March 2008

This was now the time (I felt) to make contact with the British High Commissioner. He was unavailable to make a visit as he had no driver, but would endeavour to make representations the following day.

Day 13. Sunday 23rd March 2008
The British High Commissioner turned up today. He was of very little help as his authority was not recognised by the naval base commander. Indeed he had other pressing matters later in the day, he had to get back in time to watch the football match.

Up to now the Marines had always kept their personal weapons with them. At one point after the Commissioner had left, a marine stood his rifle against the wall next to where I was sitting. He took some empty coke bottles into the kitchen. He was a friendly chap who I had known for a week or so and we got on well. At this point where despair was almost total, all that went through my mind was ‘pick up the rifle, kill him and run’. It
then dawned on me that yes, one would be dead and we could move to the door, but the guards who remained outside would mow us down before we got past the threshold. This thought stayed with me until the marine returned and reclaimed his weapon. This was the only time in my life when I have ever thought about and could possibly have killed a man for real.

Day 14. Monday 24th March 2008
Easter Monday, our deliverance day! I’m not religious but the significance of the hell of Good Friday and our release on Easter Monday was not lost on me.

We had been instructed by the company, through mobile phone calls, to show the marines how to operate our vessel the ‘Spitfire’ and all her idiosyncrasies. It was after this familiarisation with our vessel that I felt the most vulnerable. In effect they no longer needed us for anything to do with the vessel.

It appeared now that we had become a liability. With the tragic loss of the navy’s vessels and men on the Friday and a heightened risk of us ‘whites’ being kidnapped by the militants we became a genuine risk to their operations. Therefore at 4:30pm out of the blue, our associate the ex Nigerian Police Chief turned up at the naval base. After
some discussion and paperwork we were dispatched in two military vehicles, two armed guards in each, to Port Harcourt for a hotel room. The next morning we caught the first available flight out to Lagos. What a relief!

The following two weeks were spent in a Lagos hotel waiting to see if release orders would have any effect on us returning for the ship. This period allowed us to reflect, report and talk through the events of the previous fortnight. I think this helped me
hugely as I found it a relief to be able to talk about what I’d seen instead of coming straight back home and maybe keeping the death and destruction all bottled up.

The Nigerian Authorities did not release our patrol boat, so one month after arriving I was back on another British Airways flight back to blighty and the security of home.

We came to the conclusion that it was always the intention of the Nigerians to acquire our patrol vessel. Several representations had been made to our company for the purchase of our vessel during pre-planning discussions, which had been refused.

We felt the explosion incident was simply the accident waiting to happen. The militants (MEND) claimed it was of their doing when the extent of death and destruction finally became known. The militants and the authorities made denials, claims and counter
claims which resulted in widely inaccurate reporting of this incident across Africa and in the European press. Google: ‘ nigerian navy pathfinders’ to view several media reports of this incident.

This account, albeit with some detail and names omitted for obvious reasons, is to record the times, dates and casualty reports as accurately as possible from personnel who were there!

The Authorities
It is not unknown for deceit and corruption at the highest level to occur in this part of the world. Google: ‘vanishing oil tankers’ to get some of the background stories.

The Militants (MEND)
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta believe they are fighting corruption as the oil taxation revenues were originally imposed to ensure that education and health policies and programs were established for the good of
the nation. They are having a major impact on the reduction of revenues through piracy, sabotage of pipelines and oil production facilities, kidnapping and murder.

The BBC reported June 2008 that the Nigerian militants called a ceasefire. MEND says it wants to secure more autonomy and control over resources for the Niger Delta, but the conflict now is a complex web involving armed gangs, political corruption and criminal rackets. Recent reports suggest that MEND are still very active in the region.

July 2009

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Rigid Inflatable Boats : RIBS and Inflatables