By Yusuf Odejobi
Engr. Olu Akinsoji is a maritime expert and former Pioneer Alternate Permanent Representative of Nigeria to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), London. He is also a former Rector of the Maritime Academy of Nigeria (MAN), Oron and former Director-General, Office of Government Inspector of Ships.
In this exclusive interview with MMS Plus newspaper, he bares his mind on how Nigeria can solve the pertinent challenges facing Nigerian seafarers, ranging from piracy to training and employment opportunities.
The world celebrated Seafarers’ Day recently; what does the future hold for Nigerian seafarers amidst the numerous challenges in the nation’s maritime space?
Sea-time is one of the biggest challenges for Nigerian seafarers, but everything revolves around the institutional framework that exists in the country. All the arms of seafaring are independent from one another. The training is independent, the Ministry of Transport is independent, and Nigerian Maritime Administration a Safety Agency (NIMASA) is independent, ship owners are also struggling, so there is really no coordination.
There is a missing gap in the sector that yearns for coordination. Every nation that I know that has gone through development in the maritime sector always had a body that coordinates all the arms responsible for good operation of ships and particularly when it comes to the human element but Nigeria seems to want to handle the matter without going through the fundamental issues.
Ordinarily the ship owners, training institutions and the agency that is responsible for the certification of seafarers should have a body where the three of them meet on a regular basis so that the ship owners will say their needs and the qualities of training that is required for their ships. The government will understand the needs of the ship owners and the training institutions will also fall in line with regards to the training needs.
The requirements for certification will be spread out to the training institutions; the requirements of government quality and the ship owners’ requirements in terms of quantity and quality but we don’t have that body in Nigeria. So, all of them are independent and everyone is begging each other to do what is entrusted. I’ve said this for more than 20 years but here we are. Every arm is struggling; the ship owners will blame the quality of training, the institutions do not know what the ship owners really want, the certification also is not getting the required interpretation of international standards.
If we don’t get the foundation right, we might not get the harmonized system where everyone will be satisfied. We’ll keep preaching for a board to be constituted, I used to call it different names but its main objective is to coordinate all the needs responsible for successful training of seafarers. That is the major issue.
Another problem is having Nigerian owned vessels. In Nigeria, we generate a lot of cargo so we just need to find a way of owning ships like every other nation that has developed its maritime sector or we will continue to have the gaps that ship owning is creating. If we have a gap it cannot be filled by magic or wishful thinking, but if we own ships we can develop our insurance sector, our management capacity, seafaring, shipyards and repair yards, our ship registration will be strong and we’ll have respect among the committee of shipping nations.
However, if we just generate cargoes for other countries to ship into our country, it’s as if we don’t know what we’re doing. He who owns the sea owns the world power; if you don’t fly your own flag in the oceans of the world then you’re an underdog. These are things the government should be focused on, you cannot be a big person when you can’t do little things. If we take little things for granted, then definitely we can’t do the big ones successfully.
What’s your opinion about the Deep Blue project and to what extent would be the impact in the Nigerian maritime sector and the global shipping community?
The Deep blue project is a gigantic one. It’s a high profile project but I think the fundamental issue is that we have a good foundation of security and safety in the coastal areas. Flying aircrafts and drones, arresting people, mobilizing speed-boats and mother ships etc, to me the world will embrace and applaud us because we’re buying all these equipment from them but the important thing is that we need to address the fundamental institutional base.
We’re going to arrest people that are sea pirates and robbers. Do we have a solid instrument and procedure to prosecute them and liquidate their spoils and discourage them from doing it again? What is the root cause of these individuals going into sea piracy and robbery? Who are the people that are responsible for these acts? Where do they come from? Where do they take their spoils? When they finish their illicit businesses on sea they come back to shore, how do we handle this? Is the institutional instrument reliable to handle the matter?
These are issues that look very simple but they’re complex in a way and they’re municipal in nature. We need good understanding as a sovereign nation to handle this. We must have a good law and structure to implement and interpret the law. We must be able to test and enforce it. We need to train the people that are going to interpret and implement it also. I know some few people have been arrested in the past but how far do they go in prosecuting them? Who are the lawyers involved? Are they trained? Even the law that was made could not be copied correctly for the unlawful acts against ships, it was not properly edited and proofread. The objective should be to stop piracy so we need to really look at the objective and focus on how we go about it to make it a success.
If we spend money on all these equipment such as the Deep Blue assets, we’ll still rely and come back to the fundamental issues like the fact that people need to be self aware, to be knowledgeable, to be responsible and law abiding citizens etc. These are Nigerians that are connected and related to the coastal areas, if we’re not able to carry them along and make them understand the benefits or consequences of the Deep Blue project, then what we’re doing is a waste. If they’re trained to be a coast guard they’ll not be involved in sea piracy to destroy what they’re supposed to guide.
You find coast guards in England, all the villages along the coast have coast guards who are proud that they protect their area and when you’re proud of protecting your area, you’ll go against people that want to destroy it. So, we need to have an orientation that is well sponsored and cared for along the coast where these people are emerging from. Once we’re able to do that, we won’t find people that will get themselves involved in sea robbery and piracy.
It’s not easy to be a sea pirate, they go into a lot of planning, they borrow money to hire boats and take a lot of risk to commit such crime; but the truth is that they don’t want to do this and sometimes, they don’t have alternatives. They have not been shown that there are better alternatives that can lead to a better future. So, I think we should be more humble in handling our matters; we need to have a lot of passion, patriotism and commitment for our country. We need to look at ourselves and say that we want to do it for ourselves by ourselves. It’s not only money that does everything.
How can Nigeria achieve the removal of war risk insurance on ships heading to our shores?
Since we have spent a lot of money on infrastructure to keep our waters safe, we can start advocating for the removal of war risk insurance. However, the war risk toga is not as if the globe hates us, we’re good friends because of the economic provision we offer to world trade. We’re an important link but it’s the hostility they face along the territorial waters they’re trying to prepare themselves for. If they want to take a risk against armed robbery or sea piracy then they must charge for the risk.
Nevertheless, if we’re able to utilize this Deep Blue project in a way that the suppression of crime is achieved, they will consider taking away the war risk on cargoes and ships. It has been there for a very long time. It used to be a hidden charge on Nigerian cargoes, it’s just recently that it came to light. I’ve always said that these are hidden charges that importers and exporters don’t know about and the agencies are not efficient enough to understand it but now they’ve come out and it is time to end it.
There are also concerns that if the war risk charge is removed, it will be inserted somewhere else. The only way the global shipping bigwigs can be happy to trade with us is when we have a serene environment that is friendly. By the laws of the United Nation, these are innocent vessels, they’re supposed to be peaceful, they’re not supposed to encounter any problems but there are so many problems around us; ships come in and we’re not able to provide them water, sometime they have to buy water, we can’t supply bunker, there’s delay in Customs releasing them, they spend more time at the port unnecessarily, agencies asking for documents that don’t really count, many officials boarding a vessel as if they are all from different countries.
With the current ICT innovations, one official can board a vessel and all the documents required are available online whereby all agencies can access and extract what they need. They don’t have to physically meet the ship captains and distract them. We need to make a friendly environment for merchant ships to come visit us. They don’t have to be afraid when approaching our waters and they don’t have to start tightening their security etc. When they put extra charges on our cargoes they have justification for it. We just need to address the fundamental issues and place a good foundation to shipping development and interaction with other nations. We also need to consider seriously participating in the carriage of goods. It’s very shameful and painful that we generate a lot of cargoes but we don’t fly our own flag on the seas.