By Kenneth Jukpor & Yusuf Odejobi
Nigeria exited the Maritime Organization for West and Central Africa (MOWCA) elections, amid controversies surrounding its first attempt to produce a Secretary-General since the organization was formed 45 years ago, a body which has seen Africa’s most populous country expend over $5million in the last decade, alone.
Experts have pointed out that there haven’t been any gains from such a relationship, especially when some of the member states do not support Nigeria at the strategic global bodies like the International Maritime Organization (IMO).
Most of the responses by maritime veterans in Nigeria shouldn’t be excused as mere sentiments because the intrigues and politicking that recently played out at MOWCA election shows an obvious divide among countries in the region, especially between the Anglophones and Francophone.
At the last MOWCA outing, Francophone countries strategized for the postponement and appointed an acting Secretary General to serve for one year. It is believed that by that time the Franchophones would have eligible candidates below 55 years, having presented over-aged candidates last week. Sadly, Nigeria’s candidate would be above 55 years by next year, but they seem to have forgotten that capacity for that position abounds in Nigeria.
The MOWCA General Assembly had noted the comment as presented by MOWCA secretariat in the annotated Agenda circulated a week before the Committee of Experts meeting, which confirmed that Nigeria is the only country that met the age eligibility criteria requirement that candidates must not exceed 55 years. The candidate nominated by Nigeria was 55 years as at when nominations closed in 2020 while the candidates of Guinea was 60 years old and that of Benin was 62 years old.
MOWCA has 14 French-speaking countries, they are; Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, and Togo. Only five are English speaking countries; they are The Gambia, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Others are three Portuguese speaking countries namely; Cabo Verde, Guinea-Bissau and Sao Tome & Principe; and one Spanish speaking country, Equatorial Guinea.
Out of the 14 members who are French speaking countries, two fielded candidates for the same position of Secretary General that Nigeria wanted to occupy. Aside that, some of them saw Nigeria’s effort to occupy the MOWCA Secretary General position as a plan to dominate the region, so they schemed a fierce gang-up.
While there have been wide criticisms that Nigeria’s failure at regional and global treaties is attributable to the propensity to send government officials without technical capacity as representatives, the last MOWCA outing saw a commendable trend as the team was led by the former Secretary-General of Abuja Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Port State Control for West and Central African Region, Barr. (Mrs.) Mfon Usoro. The 5-member team also included the immediate-past Executive Secretary of Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC), Mr. Hassan Bello and the legal adviser to the Ministry of Transportation. The Minister of Transportation was ably represented by Dr. (Mrs.) Magdalene Ajani, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry,who exhibited good sense of leadership in coordination.
In a bid to get details of what transpired at the event in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, MMS Plus engaged one of the delegates who preferred anonymity.
An insider’s account: “On the last day when we were supposed to read the report of the committee of experts, MOWCA changed their word to say that none of the candidates met the qualifications. Member states that were not in the meeting were informed to come on Saturday, the day of the election. Those that did not come for the meeting, the francophone countries were called to come to add to their numbers.
“The Minister from the Gambia spoke extensively about the need to follow the rules. Addressing the delegates from Guinea and Benin, he asked if they didn’t have young men in Guinea and Benin. The Ghanaian representative also spoke strongly about that. Subsequently, they asked the two countries to leave the meeting so that the ministers could do some consultations, Nigeria and Guinea left.
“Although this meeting was scheduled to last for 20 minutes, it took them up to 2 hours. Eventually, they called us back but they were not unable to reach a consensus.
“The Benin candidate had dropped earlier; they just came to vote for Guinea when they came on that Friday. They had not been at the meeting, so, the contest was between Nigeria and Guinea. When they couldn’t reach a consensus on Saturday, the Ministers suggested we have an election so “Nigeria raised the issue that the Guinean candidate wasn’t qualified by age. We said we don’t mind an election if they had no qualified candidate but in this instance, it was MOWCA’s rule. Going by the maximum age of 55, there was only one qualified candidate and it would mean illegality to go ahead with an election when the rule shows that there’s only one qualified candidate.
“The Minister’s representative read our financial statement and invited the other country to also read their financial statement that would show regularity, consistency in payments but they refused to read their own. We noted that even on financial statements we are qualified, but Guinea wasn’t. It would just be illegality and smuggling to allow Guinea partake in the election and once you start a leadership like that then it’s not good for the organization because every other thing would be done without regulatory compliance.
“As Nigeria walked away, we thought they were going to give it to Guinea, but what happened was that Ghana said if Nigeria is leaving, they’re also leaving MOWCA. Gambia also said they cannot afford to allow Nigeria to leave the organization. They said they’re not going to declare the remaining candidate because they had spoken and they agreed they didn’t meet the qualifications. So, there would be no voting. Subsequently, Ghana took over the chairmanship and maintained that the current Secretary General had to step aside because that tenure had elapsed. The Secretary-General pleaded for more time to stay for 60 days but this was declined because the member states said they can no longer work with him following the myriad of confusion in MOWCA. MOWCA has been inactive.
“So, in the final analysis, it shows that Nigeria is important, the fact that they did not give it to Guinea after we left shows that we did the right thing by insisting on following the rules and that our impact in the organization is so important that they cannot afford to ignore us.” The source, added.
It is also important to note that Nigeria was prepared for this outing as it wasn’t like a government or public service affair. Mfon Usoro and Hassan Bello are not in government anymore and Usoro led the negotiation for the committee of experts. With her experience at the Abuja MoU, most of the people there were people who knew her and they listened when she spoke. It takes someone respected and experienced to lead a team of experts like that.
According to the source,“We were respected, we were prepared, we read the rules of procedure back to back. So, when they spoke, we could easily situate it in the very section and situate the MOWCA experiences in other meetings. We gave them reasons why it is not good to have an indecorous election and stated that MOWCA has not taken off because of the problems during the elections. Member states followed sentiment and linguistic affinity even though there was no capacity. MOWCA is not working and it never worked. So, as delegates, we think Nigeria gained, we didn’t lose, and we gained respect.
“We read our financial statement, showing the dues we have been paying since 2010 every year. One of the things to determine whether a member is up to date, financially is to show the financial statement, we read ours out up till 2020. In fact, up to 2021, they said that we have not sent it and we didn’t want to send it until they finished this General Meeting. If we had sent it before the meeting, the Secretary General would have stayed to spend the money, so we kept it.
“Nigeria didn’t lose; there was no election because they were scared. We said we would report it to their President who is the current President of the African Union (AU). So, they said when we left, the DR Congo representative called the Guinean aside to discuss privately and when they came back they said they had consulted their President who said they should postpone the election. It was to save their faces because we said we would broadcast it to the whole world for everyone to know how some member states are happy to bend the rules and not follow the due process.
“They had lamented that Nigeria occupies too many positions in Africa, but that’s envy. It was so obvious. They cited the African Development Bank (AfDB), World Trade Organization (WTO), Gulf of Guinea Commission, and even a regional maritime bank that is still in concept. How could they use a bank that is yet to be established against Nigeria?
“Just before the election, they pushed us to do a resolution on the maritime bank, but we said we were not going to do that and they stepped it down. There was another thing they wanted Nigeria to do, it was to provide and pay for a permanent representative of MOWCA in the International Labour Organization (ILO) and we said we would not do that.
“Also, in future MOWCA has to look at the formula for payments among member states, we can’t continue to pay, for instance, we might pay $400,000 in a year while some other countries pay $10,000 or $20,000, and it has to be reworked.
“Most importantly, we have to commend Senator Gbemi Saraki because she was fully involved in this matter. She organized us and strategized all of this, it was really her assignment. Although she didn’t speak she was with us, following up with calls almost every hour and on WhatsApp. She was following up step by step, every day until midnight. All of this was her strategy including that if they pushed and didn’t support the rules we should pull out respectfully and keep our heads up,” said the source.
Speaking with the Nigerian delegates on the evening after the nation pulled out of MOWCA, the Minister of State for Transportation, Senator Gbemi Saraki said there was no need to be down or despondent.
Her words: “I know we’re down and despondent but please do not, even though we wanted to come home with the Secretary-General position but I think we did something that has been long coming. That is to place our country in its rightful place and position within the MOWCA.”
According to her, there were some signs indicating that some MOWCA member countries had a game-plan under their sleeves even with the change of leadership.
“We know that this Secretary-General also thought that he was the clever one but little did he know that Nigerians are determined and irritated with how they handled the organization. I’m sure this is not the outcome we wanted but I feel that it’s important I express my gratitude to everyone who took time out to fly to these various countries to speak, to write, to come to Abuja for various meetings, to discuss and to campaign everywhere. I must thank you all for that.
“We led a good team, we did the best we could. We have put Nigeria on the map, we got the respect of some of the countries especially the Gambia. I know the Minister for the Gambia came because of the visit when we went to the Gambia. Ghana has been incredible. Cameroon has also been supportive as well as the Niger Republic. We’ve made some tight friendship with some of these countries which I hope we can leverage on for future growth of the industry.
“I cannot honestly thank you enough for the hard work you’ve put in the last few days, I thank the experts who managed to keep things under control.
“To the candidates themselves, we’ll see what happens next and where this leads us, but most importantly it’s not over until it’s over. We’ve made our point. I wish you all a safe trip back home and I suggest you all get some sleep, eat and please don’t miss your flight or leave anything behind. We’ll do our usual postmortem and we’ll get ready for the IMO campaign,” She added.
Meanwhile, speaking with MMS Plus on the MOWCA development, a marine expert and former Director at the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Engr. Oliver Ogbuagu said it is a wake-up call not only in this case but in all other similar cases involving Nigeria at the regional and Sub-Regional levels.
“I hope the Federal Ministry of Transportation knows that MOWCA Secretary-General position is not necessarily for a civil-servant, but a maritime technocrat. Mr. Magnus Addicco of Ghana wasn’t from Ghana Civil Service but a practicing maritime technocrat. It’s a wake-up call and we must all support the Nigerian Minister and the government’s stand on this matter,” he said.
He recalled that in 2008, he was nominated alongside one Mrs. Bawa from the Ministry of Transportation for the post of Director, Technical of MOWCA.
“We were assessed and invited for the interview. The Ministry approved our travelling with tickets and estacode for the duration of the interview. NIMASA’s leadership at that time was not happy with my nomination which I didn’t know how it came about. I’m still owed the traveling allowances including the estacode to date. Anyway, Mrs. Bawa and I attended and I was adjudged first in the interview. However, the Chairman said because I could not speak French, they couldn’t take decision immediately until the Committee or the Council sat on whether the next person who was from Cote D’ Ivoire will be offered the position.
“I protested before them, saying that the organisation was a regional one and it was preposterous to suggest such. I was told that the Council will take final decision and inform my government. Meanwhile, the late Joshua Okpo, an Asstistant Director in Ministry of Transportation at the time who was to represent Nigeria at the interview panel, came two days after the interview. Very typical of Nigeria! If he was seated in the panel, Mrs. Bawa and I would have been protected from these Francophone cabals. I understood that the Ministry later protested but it was of no effect. All regional bodies Nigeria belongs to; ECOWAS, ILO, MOWCA, IMO, ICAO, Sea Bed Authority in Kingston Jamaica, treat us alike. I’m happy this Minister fires in all cylinders to protect Nigeria from these parasitic Francophone people. I, therefore, commend Hon. Rotimi Amaechi, Nigeria’s Minister of Transportation and the government for taking this current stand no matter whose ox is gored. Congratulations!”
According to the statement presented by the Nigerian delegation at the 15th General Assembly of MOWCA:”The General Assembly would recall that Nigeria in her goodwill message emphasized that it is crucial to operate MOWCA as a rule-based organization with respect to the rule of law and compliance with its rules of procedures and other constitutive documents.Nigeria is deeply saddened to observe the lack of adherence to the language and intent of the Rules of Procedure regarding the eligibility of candidates nominated for the position of the Secretary General of MOWCA. Quite apart from the financial status criteria which Nigeria has dutifully fulfilled for over 40 years and with confirmed records of its consistent annual payment of financial contributions to MOWCA during the relevant period for consideration of eligibility being from the last General Assembly 2011 till date, which total amount close to Five Million Dollars ($5,000,000) in the last 10 years.”
The committee of experts noted the apparent willingness of some member States to consider for elections candidates who knowingly contravened the age criteria having exceeded the maximum age limit by more than 5 years in the case of Guinea and 7 years by Benin, does not portend well for the reputation and operation of MOWCA as a rule-based organization.
They further observed that not a single citizen of Nigeria has ever been employed in MOWCA, and that this is the first time that Nigeria has contested for the position of the Secretary General of the organization even though it is an uncontested fact that it is essentially the contributions of Nigeria that has sustained the Organization over the years.
Consequently, they added that Nigeria would not be a party to illegality and flouting of laid down rules. Those who come to equity must come with clean hands. Sadly that is clearly not the case here this evening.
“With due respect to the Chairman of MOWCA and member States present at this meeting, Nigeria must now excuse itself from any further participation in this General Assembly. Nigeria will notify all relevant organizations including His Excellency the current President of the African Union of this unfortunate incident that has been allowed to occur in the historic city of Kinshasa and during his Presidency of the African Union,” the speech noted.
However, the Director, Press and Public Relations at the Federal Ministry of Transportation, Eric Ojiekwe, on the instruction of Minister of Transportation, said in a statement issued in Abuja, last week that ‘Nigeria’s delegation to the MOWCA election expressed sadness at the outcome of the meeting, given Nigeria’s ardent and consistent support for MOWCA and its activities over the years.
“Nigeria as a nation must take a stand against the promotion of illegality, disrespect for the rule of law and contravention of the rules regarding election of the Secretary-General of MOWCA. She (Nigeria) has contributed more than five million dollars in the past 10 years with the organization not employing a single Nigerian,” Ojiekwe said.
On his part, the President of Youngship Nigeria, Mr. Shuaibu Usman stated that the unfortunate incident at MOWCA show be regard as a big win for Nigeria.
“The issue around MOWCA and the nation’s exit isn’t a maritime-related issue but an issue hinged on international politics, diplomacy and sovereignty. As maritime professionals, if we are to look at the happenings in MOWCA, similar practices have taken place and the results have been the same. So, it is a call for Nigeria to reflect and look at its obligations within the international community and how it can position itself for a greater benefit,” he said.
Usman also called on strategic organisations and agencies in the sector like the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) to put in more efforts in the bid have more professionals handling maritime issues at regional or global terrains.
“We have to look at the benefit of MOWCA, based on MOWCA’s history till the present day. It is very strategic and important for the members state from Central and Western Africa to have this platform but what have they done with it? It is of particular interest and importance for Nigeria to be a huge and important maritime nation with a great potential coupled with opportunities from the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) that will unlock the potentials of the blue economy and other subsectors within shipping. I think that is important for Nigeria to reflect on this when it looks at MOWCA,” he said.
He, however, observed that there was a need for Nigeria to reflect on how the nation participated in international assignments and its representatives articulate the country’s positions whenever they go for global or regional functions.
Meanwhile, Usman argued that Nigeria’s worry shouldn’t be about the position as much as the more serious matter of ensuring the key deliverables be achieved by member states.
According to him, the Abuja MoU, proposed Maritime Development Bank, and other maritime regional policies should be frequently reviewed and agreements enforced, to ensure such associations are beneficial to the nation as well as other countries in the group.
However, contrary to reports in some quarters that Nigeria exited MOWCA following the bipolar politicking that ensued, the delegates have confirmed that there was no such development and was never contemplated. Nigeria only staged a walk-out in protest.