The Nigerian Navy can arrest vessels suspected of involvement in oil theft or illegal bunkering. As a result, there is a risk that vessels which are not compliant with laws relating to the transportation of crude oil or petroleum products can be detained by the navy. The Federal High Court recently held that such detention should not be arbitrary or unjustified.


In MT Sapphire v the Nigerian Navy(1) the plaintiffs' vessel and some members of the crew were detained by the navy on suspicion of engaging in illegal operations. The crew were eventually released after seven months, but the vessel was not. There was no evidence supporting the arrest.

The plaintiffs brought an action for the enforcement of their fundamental rights and a declaration that the navy's acts were illegal. Relying on constitutional provisions, the plaintiffs contended that their rights to liberty, dignity and property had been contravened and sought the granting of relief.


The court agreed that the defendants had acted unlawfully and unconstitutionally in detaining the plaintiffs. While conceding the navy's power to investigate crimes, the court held that it does not have unfettered power to detain vessels beyond the period prescribed by law and stressed the need for government agencies to observe the due process of the law when performing their statutory duties. The judge further stated that the case:

"has glaringly brought to the fore once again the arrogant, brutal, callous and capricious manner our law enforcement agencies commonly adopt in the exercise of their functions to the utter consternation and embarrassment of any discerning and decent minds around. We are in a democracy and must do everything to enthroned and nurture democratic ethos for the good of our society."

The court therefore ordered the unconditional release of the vessel and awarded exemplary and aggravated damages against the navy.


The case was an undefended claim as the navy was unrepresented. Nonetheless, the court dealt with the substance of the facts and the judgment sets a precedent for shipowners and practitioners in similar situations where the navy has acted arbitrarily when detaining ships.

For further information on this topic please contact Emeka Akabogu at Akabogu & Associates by telephone (+234 1460 55550) or email ( The Akabogu & Associates website can be accessed at


(1) FHC/L/CS/658/2015.

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