The Secretary General, Abuja Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Port State Control, Captain Sunday Umoren in this exclusive interview with Maritime Today Online’ Shulammite ‘Foyeku, speaks on efforts by the Abuja MoU to achieve an effective port state control regime and improved procedures for port state control inspections. He also speaks on why Nigeria is leading in port state control implementation in the West and Central African region.
In your presentation at the just concluded workshop for heads of maritime administrations you stated that only 14 countries out of 22 in West and Central Africa conduct port state inspections on ships calling at their ports. Why are some member states yet to commence inspection?
Part of the commitment you make during your ascension into membership is the fact that you will conduct port state control inspections. So, nobody is exempted. It is a statutory requirement that every member state should conduct port state control inspections. But ensuring that such is carried out is usually the full responsibility of the maritime administration and that was the reason why we brought all of them for the workshop so that they can hear from others. It is not really a name and shame thing but to let them know that if other countries are doing it why can’t they be doing that too because doing it makes you a very responsible maritime administration and the reverse is always the case if you are not doing it.
So, the workshop is a way of encouraging them and also to seek to find out what challenges they have. We have also looked ahead at that by bringing out the mentor and mentee scheme. If it is because they don’t have qualified port state control officers, we can work with other member states to provide port state control officers. So, it is just that they have some challenges and now they have gone back home to review whatever situation they have at hand and come up with areas they feel we can support them.
In specific terms, what are these challenges?
The challenges could be lack of port state control officers because there are minimum qualifications for port state control officers. Secondly, it is just a commitment thing. If you don’t put any effort, you won’t get anything done because port state is actually not a revenue generating activity and it actually costs some money to get these things done. So, sometimes, probably they are not allocating enough resources towards the port state. For example, if you don’t really have a port but have an anchorage, you will need platforms to take your people out there. So, some of them may be struggling to have patrol boats. So, we are looking at getting some sort of support from some countries in getting some patrol boats for our member states, that is the next level we are looking at. It could also be administrative issues. So, for us, the next level now is to engage them individually to know what their problems are.
There are even some countries that conduct port state inspections but they are not sending their reports. There is a central depository that countries are expected to upload their report after conducting inspection. So even among the 14 nations, there are two that would pay for courier services to collect hard copies and bring them to us to upload into the system which is more like giving us extra work. You can imagine someone telling you that the internet is poor in his country. It is not a good thing to say because the rule of the game is conduct inspection, upload your report and then we do our summary from there.
What is the Abuja MoU doing to address this problem?
We are working with them to see how these issues can be addressed but for us, their failure to perform also affects our reputation. So, we have in the last report clearly told them that we won’t be doing that again. The principle is for them to upload their report once inspection is done. The report shouldn’t even be delayed because a vessel that has been inspected in the region should averagely not be inspected again within the next six months. So, if you don’t upload that report into the system and the vessel leaves your port to the next country, there is the possibility that the inspectors there will go on board to inspect the vessel and of course, the captain will complain that they have to get inspected at every port in your region. They could escalate that to IMO and that is not good for our reputation. So, we are doing everything possible flagging the issues at all our meetings and we have even sent out letters to them to clearly highlight what they have been doing wrong and we have also written to countries that are having very low inspection rate to up their game. So, we are not relenting, we are flagging it up at every occasion possible.
The report you presented at the workshop also showed that Nigeria dominated in inspection of ships with 634 exercises conducted representing 36 percent of the region’s total inspection activities in 2020. What is responsible for this?
Good management. We have management that is zoomed into complying with all laid down conventions. Nigeria also has the highest number of surveyors. There was a massive recruitment for surveyors who are all in the maritime safety department of NIMASA and the guys are working, they are professionals. It also has to do with the fact that we have a lot of ships coming to Nigeria. The management has also agreed, in fact it has always been one of the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) of successive NIMASA Director Generals to meet the targeted inspection ratio for the country. So, it is kudos for the country. I can also tell you that Nigeria is one of the countries that is standing out as a mentor to mentor other countries that are struggling with port state control, which is to say Nigeria is ready to send out their surveyors to those countries to also support them to start conducting inspection and the ones already conducting to meet their target. So, we are very proud of the Director General of NIMASA.
You stated that the MoU is considering installation of body cameras on port state control officers to address issues of transparency. How soon would this be implemented?
The issue of transparency is key because often when there are accusations, it is the master against the port state control officers and often the master seems to win the argument. So, the Australian Maritime Safety Agency has come up with body cameras and it is currently being tested and if it gets accepted, it will be presented to IMO because good intention is not going enough, it should be backed by the law. For instance, the guys on the tankers may say the body camera is not intrusively safe, so they cannot wear it and use it on board the tanker. So, by the time IMO will fully accept it, they will do what they call type approval and once that is accepted, it becomes a norm. So, we are waiting and watching it. We have also asked our member states to also look at the test run and I believe it will really become accepted once IMO signs off that it has met all the requirements.
Beyond the issue of integrity, what is the greatest challenge for PSC officers when conducting inspection on ships?
My first committee meeting, which was the last year’s committee meeting we had, there is a new agenda item we have introduced which is called updates from the frontline. We have a Watapp group for all the port state control officers to tell them to put forward their challenges. Because somehow, they may not be bold enough to bring out some of these challenges to their Director Generals or ministers. So that is why we ask them to send their challenges to us and we will bring them up at every meeting without mentioning the country. So far, what we have heard from the PSC officers is the issue of remuneration, the need for special insurance because of high exposure rate and the issue of being kitted and other issues of logistics.
The need for training and retraining of PSC officers was emphasized at the workshop. What measures is your office putting in place to address this issue considering the fact that there isn’t any maritime training institution for PSC in the region?
We have taken a great stride in writing to the maritime training institutions that are offering foreign going sea educations that we are ready to collaborate with them to run a programme for port state control officers and so far, one of the institutions in Ivory Coast have contacted us that they are ready to get us onboard in the project. So, we are open to the maritime training institutions to draw up a programme for such. But for now, between last year and now since I took over, we have at least arranged three trainings. We got foreign experts and we have worked with Lloyds Maritime University for training for our port state control officers. We have worked with IMO and they have given us some technical support in doing training for them. We also have one that will be coming up very soon, which is on remote inspections. We have an almost complete arrangement with the America Bureau of Shipping (ABS) for the conduct of the training for PSC officers. Of course, the primary responsible party are the maritime institutions but we are not really waiting for them, we are pushing it from our own side too so that whatever weaknesses they have there, we will plug the holes from our own side.
Some member states have not ratified and domesticated some relevant instruments of the IMO. What are you doing to address this?
Ratification is very important. You ratify and then domesticate it by making the convention your local rule. The key thing is that you can’t enforce compliance on any convention that you have not domesticated because it is in the process of domesticating the convention that you clearly will highlight penalties. You can’t penalize somebody for something that is not a law in your land. So, again what we do is advocacy. We actually have a table where at every meeting we see the countries that have ratified and domesticated a particular convention and it is publicized so every member states actually sees it. Now, most of the countries have started engaging us like the Cameroun maritime authority called us to carry out sensitization on MLC 2006, and we spent a week in Cameroon to sensitize the ministry and maritime administration and the labour union on MLC. So, hopefully, they are going to ratify and domesticate it in their country. So, we are engaging them through advocacy, highlighting the need to get it done. Now we have 16 conventions that we have approved and our inspection regime is based on those 16 conventions. So you can’t send a port state control officer on board if a country has only ratified five conventions. Clearance from the 16 convention is actually that which makes a ship to be seaworthy. So, if you don’t audit a vessel based on a particular one, then the assessment is incomplete. That is where we are at the moment and we will continue to flag it for them to ratify and domesticate those conventions.
In the area of detention of vessels, the report you presented indicated that there is a low detention rate in the number of vessels detained from the Abuja MoU with only 2 recorded in 2020 when compared to other MoUs with very high detention rate. What could be responsible for this?
I won’t be specific with respect to the reason but I will just lay bare generally what analysis on low detention rate means. First on the soft side, low detention means no vessel was found to have committed offences that are detainable. However, that’s also still debatable. Is it possible for you to inspect 200 ships and none has defaulted? The outcome of inspections is different. One could be fix it before you go and the second one could be fix it at the next port you are going to, while the third one could be fix it within one month’s time bound. Detainable ones means that the vessel has been adjudged by the port state control officer that this vessel cannot go out to sea without exposing the crew, putting the environment at risk and being a nuisance to other vessels. So, where any contravention is found, that vessel is detained and if it takes the shipowner one month to fix it, that is left to him but the vessel cannot sail out until that is cleared. At the same time, it could also be that the inspectors are too lenient but we need to prove it.
What are some remarkable milestones that the Abuja MoU has recorded since your assumption of office as Secretary General?
Communications among the port state control officers have greatly been improved. We now have a common platform. In time past, if a vessel was to be apprehended or an errant vessel was noticed, one administration will write to the Director General of the other administration and often before the letter gets to the port state control officers, the vessel has gone. But now, at an instant, such messages are put on our platform and all the port state control officers are aware of such vessels. We also have what we call data agreement with all the countries that have maritime domain awareness, which is to say Nigeria has a C4i and if there is any vessel that needs to be tracked, at a call, they will do the analysis of the vessel, So, at any point in time we are monitoring vessels in our waterways. We have also conducted training. There is what we call CIC- Concentrated Inspection Campaign- which is being carried out every three months. In time past, the inspection will just go do their inspection but now we have started having pre-CIC training. Last year was on ship stability so we made sure that there was a training on ship stability for all the port state control officers in our region before the commencement of CIC.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 wasn’t very helpful. For the past two years before I \came in they were not having meetings but immediately I came in, we started having committee meetings. So, we have actualized a lot. We are almost concluding our ISO certification and hopefully in the next one or two months, we will be certified. We have also looked at the internal running of the MoUs. So, we have managed to achieve a lot and one of the biggest achievements was the recent workshop for heads of maritime administrations. The spirit of the MoU is harmonization and you can’t harmonise if you don’t interact so now that the DGs know themselves they can easily contact each other. The Gambia administration is already discussing with Maritime Academy of Nigeria ORON and institute of oceanography on collaboration. So, we are just starting. We are looking at greater and higher achievements in the near future.
Are member states living up to their financial obligations to the MoU?
It has not been very good but when I came in, I said that money will not keep us from working. Within what we have, we will do our best. The training that we had; we have conducted them even with the lean budget we have. We are very appreciative of the DG NIMASA who has been very supportive. The Federal Ministry of Transport has been excellent in supporting us. With the financial support we get from them, we are getting things done. Our target is not just to be at the bottom of the performing MoUs but to be at the top quarter that when you mention the four most top performing MoUs, Abuja MoU will be mentioned.
Would you say you’re satisfied with the level of commitment and cooperation from member states to the MoU?
Yes, we had a clear commitment from all the DGs and those that were not doing well gave commitment to start working on it. But it is not enough to give commitment. We are looking at tracking those commitments later. So, for all the recommendations that were made, we now have them in a project schedule that we will be monitoring them.