From its very inception, the Deep Blue Project has generated high-voltage controversies from toxic geopolitics to the choice of foreign contractors. The most contentious, however, is a seemingly elastic procurement exercise; now mistaken for a bazaar, it has attracted the interests of security contractors from at least 22 overseas countries, including South Korea.
In 2017 the Federal Ministry of Transportation, on behalf of the Nigerian government, entered into a contract known as the ‘Deep Blue’ contract of $195.3 million, about N87 billion, with a foreign private company, HLS International, for the supply of security and surveillance equipment and systems.
HLSI Security Systems and Technologies Limited is an Israeli firm whose core services are listed to include homeland security; border control and security; maritime security; seaport control and security; aviation security; airport control and security; pipeline and facility security and monitoring as well as all forms of surveillance.
Besides the Deep Blue Project, HLSI was also to establish the Integrated National Coastal Surveillance and Waterways Protection Solutions, with command and control of infrastructure in the nation’s territorial waters. It was also gathered that in addition to the contract sum of $195,300,000, the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) agreed to pay the sum of $19,530,000 to HLSI as ‘Management Training Consideration,’ while according to Appendix 4 of the agreement, both sums would be paid in monthly installments over a period of 36 months from July 2017 to June 2020.
In June 2021 the Deep Blue Project took delivery of sea assets that included two Special Mission Vessels and 17 Fast Interceptor Boats. Exactly a year later, in June 2022, two unmanned aircraft system, 9 interceptor patrol boats and 10 armoured vehicles were added.
The main objective of the deep blue project is to secure Nigerian waters up to the Gulf of Guinea. The project has three categories of platforms to tackle maritime security on land, sea, and air.
The land assets include the Command, Control, Communication, Computer, and Intelligence Centre (C4i) for intelligence gathering and data collection; 16 armoured vehicles for coastal patrol; and 600 specially trained troops for interdiction, known as Maritime Security Unit.
The air assets comprised of two Special Mission Aircraft for surveillance of the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ); three Special Mission Helicopters for search and rescue operations; and four Unmanned Aerial Vehicles amongst others.
NIMASA said the various acquisitions would be deployed in the fight against piracy, sea robbery, oil theft, kidnapping, illegal fishing activities and other maritime security challenges.
Beginning with petitions from civil groups that the contract was fraught with sharp practices, the Deep Blue Project attracted parliamentary outcry regarding the grave national security implications of ceding the patrol of waterways, a statutory duty of the Navy, to a private foreign firm; an arrangement seen as posing a great threat to national sovereignty and security.
BUSINESS LEAKS further gathered that the payment of about N87 billion to the Israeli firm to secure and survey Nigeria’s coastal waterways is astronomically higher than the annual capital expenditure budget of the Nigerian Navy, which was N27.2 billion in 2019; N20 billion in 2020; N26 billion in 2021 and N27 billion in 2022. But more disturbing was an allegation that HLS International purchased security surveillance equipment outside the original contract, extracting more funds from NIMASA. BUSINESS LEAKS specifically gathered that some of the security equipment is such that requires NIMASA to procure military bunkers.
From HLS International to Blue Octagon
The large-scale procurement opportunities offered by the project made Deep Blue a catnip that attracted and pitted foreign and local interests alike against one another. From faraway South Korea Mr Choi Jong-Kun, first Vice Minister, Foreign Affairs, visited Nigeria in August 202 to express his country’s interest in collaborating with Nigeria on the project as ”We are interested in finding ways to secure the Gulf of Guinea, as Korea has strong fishery and maritime presence there.”
Two years into the project, the Nigeria’s House of Representatives opened an investigation in November 2019 into how Deep Blue Project contract was awarded. The House said the National Assembly never approved the project or consented to finance it. There were also accusations that HLSI was being supplied through the backdoor from China and Eastern Europe. The bigger problem however for HLSI was mounting pressure from shadowy turf players within the military and parliamentary circles, disaffected that they were shut out in a massive quasi-military project. They soon played the national security card; highlighting the threat to national sovereignty of allowing HLSI, a foreign firm, to patrol and control the nation’s territorial waters for three years under contractual agreement with NIMASA.
The national security threat was meant to be the coup de grace but the Israelis quickly preempted total cancellation by swiftly getting the Deep Blue agreement rejigged. A new arrangement was installed that brought in another Israeli company, Blue Octagon, to take charge of procurement as the new contractor. Under the new conditions, HLSI only provides training and equipment, while the Nigerian Navy, the Nigerian Police, the Nigerian Army and the Department of State Services, will jointly run the equipment.
BUSINESS LEAKS gathered that Blue Octagon is a sister company to HLSI. In fact Blue Octagon is a company set up after Deep Blue by senior figures with links to HLSI.
HLSI had won the contract through its subsidiary HLSI Security Systems and Technologies owned by the Israeli Mitrelli Group, a multi-purpose multinational. Until 2012 Mitrelli went by the name LR Group, founded by former Israeli Air Force pilots who made their fortune in Angola in the 1990s during that country’s civil war.
The killer fact tying together Blue Octagon and HLSI is a man called Haim Ben Noon, a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Israeli Defence Forces who concurrently is the director of international development at both Blue Octagon and HLSI. Elsewhere, HLSI has had problems with authorities in Haiti where in 2015 it secured a $49 million contract to secure Haiti’s maritime, land and air borders for ten years. In 2016 a member of Haiti’s Parliament accused HLSI of receiving an illegal transfer of $20 million. HLSI is an offshore company registered in Seychelles and owned by five companies in the British Virgin Islands.
In May 2020 the Deep Blue Project received two Cessna aircraft configured for ISR operations, two special mission vessels, 17 RHIBs, four drones, 16 armoured vehicles, and two Agusta A-109 helicopters.
Two months earlier, NIMASA had taken delivery of two special mission vessels built in the Netherlands. Both were launched by Shipyard De Hoop in Foxhol, the Netherlands, on 1 July 2019. Sea trials of the vessels named DB Abuja (457) were completed towards the end of October, with the DB Lagos (459) following the next month.
DB Abuja and DB Lagos will help NIMASA curb illegal fishing, terrorism, oil theft, illegal immigration, smuggling and piracy, as well as conduct search and rescue. As part of the Deep Blue Project, a command, control, computer communication, and information (C4I) centre was launched in August 2019 at the NIMASA base in Kirikiri, Lagos.
In December 2020 Portuguese company, Tekever, delivered several shipborne AR3 NET RAY unmanned Aerial System to the Nigeria Navy as part of the Deep Blue Project in collaboration with NIMASA.
The Tekever AR3 UAS were partially disassembled and shipped in several crates. Tekever’s AR3 is a shipborne surveillance UAS which can support multiple types of land and maritime mission including; ISTAR, pollution monitoring, border protection, communication relay, and infrastructure surveillance. It can be launched and retrieved from small vessels, providing an easily deployable range extender for maritime platforms.
Experts say that because of its endurance of more than 10 hours, AR3 is a perfect fit to support both maritime and medium-range land missions.
Three months later in March 2021, the Integrated National Security and Waterways Protection Infrastructure (the other name for the Deep Blue Project), received an AW109 helicopter from Italian company Leonardo S.p.A. It was just the first. Nigeria ordered three AW109 helicopters, as well as two special mission vessels, 17 fast interceptor boats, two Cessna Citation CJ3 special mission aircraft, four unmanned aerial vehicles and 16 armoured vehicles, delivered at different times.
According to experts, the AW109 helicopter can be configured for a range of missions, including search and rescue, law enforcement, air ambulance, coast guard, border patrol and surveillance.
BUSINESS LEAKS learnt that Nigerian Air Force is a major user of Leonardo’s AW109 helicopter, having in December 2018, placed an order for six which can be armed with heavy machine gun pods and 70 mm rocket launchers. The helicopters are used against jihadists in the North East of the country.
In early 2019 Birds Aerosystems quietly secured a contract with Nigeria for the Deep Blue Project. Birds Aerosystems, a leading developer of Airborne Missile Protection Systems (AMPS) and Airborne Surveillance, Information and Observation (ASIO) announced in January of that year that it will supply two special mission aircraft equipped with its advanced maritime patrol sensor and integrated with a Mission Management System (MSIS) to an African customer. Birds at the time declined to mention the client. In 2020 however, reports emerged in the defence procurement circle that the unnamed African client was Nigeria, with NIMASA confirming the contract later on.
According to Birds Aerosystems, this special mission aircraft will share operational picture with ASIO mission management stations installed on the customers’ naval Ships and HQ command, ensuring that all operating teams share a unified, real-time situational awareness picture.
BIRD’s MSIS is said to have the added appeal of being able to reduce mission crew workload by display and operation of important aspects of the mission at any given time, enabling the crew to efficiently complete detection and classification of only the relevant targets.
One of the visible onshore players in the Deep Blue Project is Nigerian-based Proforce Defence which was awarded a contract to supply light armoured vehicles to NIMASA under its ongoing Deep Blue Project.
Proforce Defence has already delivered since May 2022 the first batch of 16 armoured personnel carrier to the Nigerian government, these will help the Nigerian government beef up security on the Niger Delta region, and will be used to patrol volatile areas in the same region.
Proforce Defence is Nigeria’s leading developer of armoured vehicles, small patrol boats as well as overhauling of assorted armoured vehicles. One of the company’s successful product is the Ara Mine resistant and ambush protected vehicle. Proforce also produces the PF2 light armoured vehicle, and the improvised armoured combat vehicle (a reinforced Hilux truck).
BUSINESS LEAKS gathered that Proforce vehicles are sold to the Nigerian Army and have been exported to Rwanda, Central Africa Republic and South Sudan where they have been used by United Nations troops. In June 2019 the company won a contract to supply 20 Ara mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles to neighbouring Chad.
A Nigerian by name Adetokunbo Ogundeyin is Proforce’s director. He is also the head of O’la-Kleen Holdings. The holding company started out providing cleaning services to scores of big companies in Nigeria but gradually diversified into several sectors including automotive and construction. Subsidiaries under O’la-Kleen conglomerate include Sun Metal Industries, WMO Gadgets which makes helmets and bullet-proof vests; and Deto Shipyards, makers of patrol boats.
As part of the Deep Blue mega project, Dutch shipbuilder De Haas Maassluis in May 2020 delivered ten DHM1050 rigid-hull inflatable boats (RHIB) meant to improve the intervention capacity of the Nigerian Navy and NIMASA.
With a top speed of 60 knots (110km/h), the boats were designed in collaboration with Estonian company Baltic Workboats and are fitted with Yamaha engines.
In July 2022 the project received three Corrubia patrol boats from the Italian firm Eligroup. The delivery was part of consolation prizes given to Italy’s defence players after losing out on the Deep Blue contract to the Israelis.
BUSINESS LEAKS gathered that a leading Italian firm Leonardo had long hoped it will get the contract but it went to HLSI. The other consolation to the Italians was the two Agusta AW 109 helicopters supplied by Leonardo.
This investigation was carried out under the Collaborative Media Engagement for Development Inclusivity and Accountability Project of the WSCIJ, with funding from the MacArthur Foundation.