Why Nigeria Isn’t Ready For An Open Ship Registry – Akinsoji

Why Nigeria Isn't Ready For An Open Ship Registry – Akinsoji
Engr. Akinsoji
By Kenneth Jukpor

Engr. Olu Akinsoji is a former Rector of Maritime Academy of Nigeria (MAN) Oron and also a former Alternate Representative of Nigeria at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) Council. In this exclusive interview with MMS Plus, he bares his mind on a myriad of issues concerning maritime administration, maritime safety, seafarers’ development and other shipping issues. Excerpts:

As part of efforts to get employment for Nigerian seafarers, the National Seafarers Welfare Board (NSWB) Nigeria has suggested the development of a framework to get them onboard ships that call at the nation’s ports. How do you rate this and what strategies could be used to secure training and employment for Nigerian seafarers?

This problem of getting seatime experience and employment opportunities for seafarers has been a recurring issue. Shipping is a commercial venture and whoever intends to be on a ship must be relevant to the safety and other operations of the ship. Otherwise, the ship owner or whoever manages the ship would have to be paid to have such seafarers onboard. The ship owner also has to be careful so the additional seafarer doesn’t get in the way of those with responsibilities on the ship.

These are crucial issues but such arrangement would depend on the policy of the shipping company. You can’t change the policy of a shipping company because it is trading on your territorial waters. It’s an international community and no nation has the right to impose seafarers on vessels visiting the country. Similarly, you can’t make laws for ships visiting your nation when such laws aren’t recognized by the international community.

How about indigenous ship owners, can the nation get them place seafarers onboard their vessels?

There is already so much pressure on indigenous ship owners. We should be mindful that if we put too much pressure on Nigerian ship owners, they can opt to register their ships elsewhere. If they opt to register their ships in other countries, you can’t stop them from trading.

What Nigeria can do is to create incentives that are attractive so ship owners will consider doing what you want them to do. If ship owners, whether foreign or indigenous, find that there are benefits that interest them, they would willingly take Nigerian seafarers. So, I think Nigeria should look out for incentives to develop.

We should also work towards improving our integrity and reliability to keep agreements for as long as the parties adhere to the other end of the bargain. One of the challenges in Nigeria is that we can agree on something, but after the change of an administration, the new team ignores or revokes the policy. This isn’t good for shipping because the sector thrives on long term planning.

The environment has to be conducive for such an agreement to work. Despite the good intentions of such initiative, I don’t think we have that good environment to support this. Don’t forget also that Nigeria is in a competitive trade and the foreign ships know that if they are flexible enough to train the nation’s seafarers we have the population and intelligent people to take over seafaring profession globally. The international community is aware of this and we can’t expect them to assist us in taking away the trade they also have interest in.

Nigeria needs to have a well thought-out strategy to develop seafarers and not just assume that the availability of cargoes would be the solution.

Can you give insight into some of these incentives that could appeal to foreign and indigenous ship owners to place Nigerian seafarers onboard their vessels?

One of the incentives could be to allow a foreign ship not pay Customs duty if it would be registered in the country. If it is indigenous, there should be concession of duties on the ship. You can lift the initial cost on indigenous ship owners via Customs duties. This way, the ship owner isn’t overtaxed while establishing his enterprise. If you tax somebody so much for buying a ship that he intends to register in your country, aren’t you pushing him to do the registration in another country where it is free?

There are several countries that are free and you can register within two hours or maximum of 24 hours. You won’t pay Customs duties under such arrangements. You can get a contract to lift cargoes, buy a ship within one week and carry the cargoes. These are incentives that could attract ship owners.

Another incentive that could appeal to ship owners is to give them tax rebate equivalent to the cost of placing the cadets onboard ships. The nation should see this as an investment because that seafarer that has been trained and employed has been removed from the poverty line. Besides, the seafarer has been positioned to earn foreign exchange and contribute to the nation’s economic growth. We have been short-sighted over this because we refuse to waive Customs duties.

For instance, you can waive Customs duties worth N15million on a ship and tax the investor on the company opened in Nigeria and the cargoes. With this strategy, you can recoup that N15million within five years. You would have created an enabling environment that led to the establishing of a company in the country for another 25 years, employing Nigerians and creating opportunities in the nation.

Countries that understand shipping don’t find it difficult to roll out these incentives because they see the big picture and know that it is sensible. In Nigeria, it is impossible to convince Customs or the policy makers at the presidency not to collect duties on a ship. How do you move forward in a system where no one wants to look at the big picture?

The immediate past Director General of NIMASA, Dr. Dakuku Peterside initiated plans to get Nigeria operate an open registry alongside the closed registry as part of efforts to encourage foreign ship registration. Liberia is operating an open registry and getting commendable results, do you share such perspective?

It is a giant ambition. We haven’t been able to maintain an efficient closed registry. We ought to master a closed registry before attempting an open one. An open registry entails complex procedures and processes. You need to have large connection and power to have an open registry because you would need a competent representative to certify ships in every shipping nation. It is difficult to think of this without understanding the fundamental principles such as; competent surveyors and companies for certification of ships and manning. All member states in shipping must recognize and appreciate the level of surveyors in the trade.

Right now, Nigeria hasn’t reached that level and we don’t have a plan that is transparently seen by the international community. A clear, coherent and transparent plan can lead us into the journey of establishing an open registry; but we don’t have it at the moment. So, who is going to invest in such a cloudy journey? No ship owner would be interested in it.

We need to come down from our high pedestal and do the elementary things that would win us the confidence of other people. It starts with having a plan that is easy to follow and provides all facilities required. People should be able to look at this plan and measure your progress without having to ask you questions. They would assess you by your actions and achievements in line with your plan. Shipping isn’t a secret matter; there are open stats that reflect people’s experience and perception.

Shipping is dynamic and people can wake up and plan based on confidence in existing polices. In Nigeria, it is difficult to do that because some people carry cargoes and realize while the cargo is in transit, a new law or condition is introduced that wasn’t in their plan. Nigerians have flexibility in being able to maneuver their ways and foreigners have learnt to do same by imputing the additional cost into their services.

There have been conflicting reports about the availability of seafarers in the country. Do we have surplus seafarers or a shortage in Nigeria?

We can never have surplus seafarers because this is good business. I don’t think we have enough seafarers because there is shortage of seafarers all around the world. If Nigeria trains seafarers very well using the appropriate channels and collaboration with top global ship management companies we are likely going to have employment for those trained. The difficult part is to train these professionals efficiently so that they meet the global best standards. This requires seatime experience on ocean going vessels which is the biggest challenge.

You stressed the importance of planning earlier. NIMASA has a new management, what advice do you have for the new team led by Dr. Bashir Jamoh as Director General?

The problems at NIMASA are numerous and they accumulated over the years. We can’t expect a particular regime to resolve them. Some of the issues started when NIMASA was formed. It was my office that was merged with NMA to establish the maritime safety administration known as NIMASA. They moved my office to join NMA and it became safety administration. Since the onset, there has been too much emphasis on labour but that is a wrong direction. We have done a bit of writing to point out this flaw but they have been ignored.

The appointment of those in charge at NIMASA is political and these appointees are given this wrong impression and they run the organization with it. The complexities of NIMASA are not so technical but administrative. Imagine bringing dock labour to NIMASA, it is an anomaly to me because the factor that determines the performance of Nigerian ports is the labour at the ports. Since Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) exists, why remove their labour which represents the indices for their performance. Now, we have placed the burden on another agency that has nothing to do with labour at ports.

The core function of the safety of ships has been destroyed by giving NIMASA the responsibility that belongs to another agency. People who rise to the managerial level in NPA must have been trained in port operations and are better placed to manage dock labour. After training in cargo handling, those in NPA should rise up with the administrative capacity to manage dock labour but  the function is domiciled in another agency. In my opinion, that arrangement is flawed and it doesn’t augur well for the maritime future of the nation.

Another issue is that we have lowered the capacity of the nation’s presence on a ship to ascertain whether that ship is safe or not. The pertinent issue at NIMASA has become ensuring that the ship pays Cabotage dues and other levies. The agency is more concerned about enforcing payment of levies than actual safety and standards.

One would expect that the district relationship with other ports and dealings with ships would prioritize safety first. This is what should depict the country’s competence in maritime safety and other nations in the maritime domain look out for this. When they see that Nigeria’s priority is only the levies, we lose the capability that should have earned us respect. This is the disposition other nations have about Nigeria when it comes to maritime administration and it also affects our level of seriousness on this function.

The seriousness of this function was what brought in a lot of manpower into NMA. Many people who were employed as surveyors during NMA seem to be irrelevant with the principles of maritime safety administration today. These are the people that matter at the agency because they can give NIMASA its momentum and respectability in the comity of nations, yet their role is downplayed.

Some years ago, a new Chief Executive at NIMASA laid off all the surveyors. Some of my colleagues in IMO had to put pressure on Nigeria because without surveyors it means there was no maritime safety in the country. Without maritime safety, ships could come to your country but with a radio system that would assist them in case they have problems. Such scenario would mean that NIMASA really didn’t exist and Nigeria wasn’t a shipping nation. They immediately reversed that decision and brought in surveyors, but that incident showed the mindset at the agency and this mindset is still lingering.

Are there other issues that require reappraisal at NIMASA?

Departments have been set up in NIMASA in a way that doesn’t reflect an understanding of shipping. You put Cabotage somewhere and Shipping Development in another place. What is the difference between these departments? It is just the name. We have been materialistic in our mindsets and that is why such development could occur.

Since Cabotage has some money to collect and shipping development has its revenue to collect, they were unbundled into two departments. This also shows lack of trust in the fact that one arm can generate funds that would be spent joyfully on other areas relevant to the development of the system. This is an anomaly that the Director General has no control over, yet it could affect his performance. Dr. Jamoh is a good man who has knowledge about the system, but how would he manage a bad structure?

He is constrained by the difficult system to manage and can only thrive to finish his tenure successfully. NIMASA is awkwardly structured to hinder good management. You don’t have good presence of strong administrative capacity in the districts and you are saddled with the onus of piracy.

You must be strong in safety administration to reduce kidnapping, ship wrecks and other challenges. Your districts must be strong in these functions, but NIMASA’s districts are only strong in going to ships to collect levies. A new man is at the helm to manage this system; what level of success do you expect from him?

I’m not happy about the situation at the agency but there isn’t much we can do other than talk about the issues. I hope that we can stumble and do things the right way someday.

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