The ghost ships of Lagos: how wrecks have become a haven for crime on Nigeria’s coastline
Two men in a motorised wooden canoe look around warily as they leave a towering shipwreck in a Lagos lagoon, with barrels of oil barely concealed under rags.
The rusting hulk of iron and peeling paint has been battered by the elements and is half submerged. Sprouts of green shoots on deck hint at how long it has been abandoned.
But on closer inspection, the wreck is a working storage facility for stolen or “bunkered” oil, as it is known in Nigeria.
Oladele, a 30-year-old who does not use his real name, has plied the waters on his boat since he was 15.
He says it’s not the only wreck that stores illegally imported oil, taken into port by huge tankers delivering petrol and gas, then sold in neighbouring Benin and Togo.
“Every ship does it. They will declare 10 tonnes but bring in 12,” he said. “We will store them in the tanks, deep inside the wrecks, then at night usually, it will be picked up.”
Middle men make US$80 to US$200 a trip for several years. “It’s big business,” he said.
Scores of shipwrecks in Lagos’ waterways, coastal waters and on the shores of its beaches have turned parts of its shoreline into a marine cemetery.
In Kiri-Kiri, the lagoon corridor, scores of wrecks and discarded ship scrap provide useful cover to hide illicit goods and barrels of oil and gas.
From there, the waters offer an easy route up the Lagos coast to Benin and beyond. Expensive scrap metal culled from unmanned wrecks can be sold for thousands of dollars.
Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil producer, churning out about 2 million barrels a day.
But a lack of fully functioning refineries means crude is exported, processed then imported for use.
Much of it is shipped through the narrow marine corridor into Lagos. Hundreds of ships wait for days on the horizon in the Gulf of Guinea to get into the port and unload their goods.
On the way in and out they pass skeletons of scuttled and abandoned ships, some of which capsized because of the effects of the wrecks on the tides.
Experts say the wrecks act as groynes, halting the flow of sand down shore and accelerating erosion.
There are also suspicions that amid lax marine laws, companies treat Lagos’ waters as a ship graveyard, avoiding the expense of properly disposing of old vessels.
Lack of regulation has also helped illicit activity thrive, turning the ghost ships into hideouts for sea criminals.
Small groups of former crew lounge on several of the wrecks, lodging in dim, unused cabins, keeping watch for anyone wanting to strip the ships of valuable scrap.
One crew member, who asked not to be identified, said he and three others worked shifts to stay in the cabin all day and night for 15 months since the ship capsized.
Copper and bronze and the brass from the ship’s propeller could be sold for as much as 20,000,000 naira (US$55,000), he said.
“People will come and steal valuables that are still here,” he said.
The Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, which polices the country’s waterways, says it is proactive in removing the probably hundreds of wrecks but admit removing them is expensive.
“Because removing them is so costly, neither the state government nor the federal government takes enough responsibility for their removal,” said Taibat Lawanson, a professor of urban planning at the University of Lagos (UNILAG).
Small groups of naval officials, some with uniformed T-shirts, others topless in the sun, bask on the upper decks of confiscated ships.
Tunji Adejumo, a landscape architect and ecologist at UNILAG, said the navy has become the main monitoring agency on the coastline.
“Yet even still, many of these shipping companies are able to avoid culpability for leaving their wrecks in the water,” he said. “These shipwrecks hurt the aesthetics of the coastline. They degrade over time, dumped there but rarely dealt with. And they have serious environmental effects.”
In Lighthouse Beach, a mostly quiet getaway lined by large beach houses, a wreck at the very end of the shore has been a landmark for visitors for years.
In parts of the waterways, scuba-diving and spearfishing capitalise on the wrecks aesthetics and the aquatic life it attracts.
Yet many of the wrecks, below sea level and invisible above it, present numerous dangers.
A 6pm curfew exists for commercial boats, which is imposed in part to prevent accidents.
White flags are hoisted on some of submerged wrecks to warn approaching craft but most have no visible warning signs, meaning riders have to remember where they are.
“It can be dangerous riding the boats at night,” said Oladele. “But the curfew also protects all these crazy activities that you would see if you travelled here after dark.”
Source: South China Morning Post