The Nigerian navy has sacked and demoted two admirals for their role in the disappearance of a tanker vessel which had been arrested for transporting 11,000 tonnes of stolen crude oil.
The ruling, announced by a court martial on Wednesday, confirmed long-held suspiscions that some of Nigeria's top military commanders are personally involved in "bunkering" - the theft of crude oil in the Niger delta for sale to tankers waiting offshore.
Oil company officials estimate that the racket, conducted by heavily armed gangs, creams off up to 10 percent of Nigeria's oil production of nearly 2.5 million barrels per day.
The two-month court martial in Lagos ruled that Rear Admirals Francis Agbiti and Samuel Kolawole should be demoted to the rank of commodore and dismissed from the navy for their negligence in allowing the arrested tanker African Pride to escape from navy custody in Lagos harbour in August 2004.
A third defendant, Rear Admiral Antonio Bob-Manuel, was found innocent of all charges.
The African Pride had been intercepted on the high seas on 8 October 2003 near Royal Dutch Shell's Forcados oil export terminal and was found to have taken on board 11,000 tonnes of crude oil without authorisation.
Its 13-man Russian crew was arrested and is still awaiting trial by a Lagos court.
Rear Admiral Joseph Ajayi, the president of the court martial, said Agbiti and Kolawole had failed in their duty to protect Nigeria's oil wealth, the source of more than 90 percent of the country's export earnings.
“No matter how painful, we shall be failing in our responsibility if the appropriate punishment is not meted out,” he said in the court martial's final ruling.
The two senior officers appear to have got off lightly without being sent to jail.
All the same, the court martial's verdict constituted a harsh indictment of the navy itself.
For the first time ever, it provided official confirmation of long-held suspicions that top navy officers were deeply involved in bunkering.
Military prosecutors said Agbiti had attempted to release the African Pride on the very day it was seized. The tanker's cargo of crude oil was illegally transfered to another ship three weeks later, while the vessel remained in navy custody.
Court papers showed that Kolawole had allowed Russians officials to visit the ship without authorization and that he later ensured there was no guard on board the ship when it disappeared around 10 August 2004.
Prosecutors further alleged that Agbiti and Kolawole were responsible for the "simultaneous alteration, destruction and removal of documents" following the ship's disappearance.
Two junior navy officers, Jonathan Ihejiawu and Suleiman Atan, told the court-martial they were paid 250,000 naira each (US$1,850) by one Lieutenant Commander Mohammed Abubakar on 31 October 2003, to escort the MT African Pride from Lagos harbour to the high seas where its cargo was transferred to a waiting ship and replaced by sea water.
The two junior officers said Abubakar had told them the payment was from the "Big Boys" in the navy.
Multinational oil companies have repeatedly expressed concern about the activities of sophisticated criminal gangs that illegally tap crude oil from pipelines in the mangrove swamps and creeks of the Niger Delta, where most of Nigeria's oil is produced.
Government and industry officials say the crude is loaded onto barges and other smaller vessels for transfer to sea-going tankers waiting offshore. It is then sold on the world market.
Funds from the illegal trade have helped keep the 70,000 sq km delta awash with weapons in the hands of ethnically-based militia groups and criminal gangs. These frequently disrupt oil production activities and kidnap oilmen to press their demands for jobs and other local benefits.
One of the most powerful militia leaders, Moujahid Dokubo-Asari, has openly admitted arming his Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force through the illegal sale of crude oil.
Last September he sent world oil prices soaring to record levels of more than US$50 per barrel by threatening to attack foreign oil workers in the delta. International traders took seriously his threat to shut down exports by Africa's largest oil producer.
Besides triggering the court martial of three senior navy officers, the disappearance of the African Pride gave rise to a parliamentary investigation.
Testimony to this inquiry has suggested that the overall head of the navy may himself have been involved in bunkering.
Navy Captain Peter Duke, who was formerly in charge of guarding arrested ships, told the inquiry committee that Vice Admiral Samuel Afolayan, the chief of staff of the navy, had forced him to release another ship seized for dealing illegally in crude oil, the Molab Trader.
Afolayan denied the accusations. He accused Duke of wanting to collect big scalps after being found guilty of falsifying documents and negligence of duty in a recent court martial.
Other witnesses to the parliamentary inquiry questioned the real name of the African Pride. Captain Joe Aikhomu, who arrested the ship, said documents recovered from its crew showed the ship's real name was the Jade.
According to Nigeria's maritime authority, two ships in its records bear the name African Pride. One is registered in Panama.
Police said investigations into the ship's disappearance were continuing. However, they declined to say whether the two disgraced rear admirals might face a second trial for their role in the affair in a civilian criminal court.
“We’re keeping an open mind, if we have evidence against them, we’ll charge them,” said a police spokesman who refused to give his name.