The Secretary General, Abuja Memorandum of Understanding on Port State Control (Abuja MOU), Captain Sunday Umoren, in this interview with SHIPS & PORTS’ Abolanle Oluwatola, speaks on the challenges facing the inspection of vessels visiting ports in the West and Central African region.
How has the implementation of international conventions helped in controlling pollution in Nigeria?
The International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships, Ballast Water and Sediments is used to prevent the spread of harmful aquatic organisms and pathogens in ship ballast water from one region to the other. It helps to prevent the spread of invasive species as well as potentially harmful pathogens. Every water of every country has its own organism, some are neutral, not very harmful while others are very harmful. So, the bottom line is to ensure that you do not bring in your own organism transported from one port or from one region to the other, and with the consequences of a negative impact on the organisms that is, the fish we eat and the rest. And then what is ballast water? Every ship usually wants to have some sort of draft, some sort of displacement that sits into the water because the more you sit into the water, the more you can actually move and the more resistant you are to rough weather. And so it is usually not very comfortable to have your ship all coming out of water. You may need to take ballast water depending on your state of loading but you don’t have to bring the organisms from one port to the other. What we achieve by the implementation of this convention is that you do not move a negative organism from one region to the other. We actually inspect vessels against that compliance, that same principles, that same equipment that are required. And when our inspectors go on board the vessels based on the checklist we have, they will check to be sure that the vessel is fully compliant by not bringing in the harmful organisms from one port to the other. So it’s been quite effective and NIMASA in Nigeria – when we speak, we actually speak for 19 countries, but we take Nigeria as a case study – is also on its port state duty and is also on its flagship responsibility, ensuring full compliance to that.
What can be done to curtail oil spills by foreign vessels seeing that they dominate the Nigerian water?
This is clearly an effective Port State Control regime, which is about enforcement of the relevant regulations, the MARPOL (maritime polluction) regulations and conventions. Port State has critically looked at every aspect of pollution and so the effective inspection and enforcement is with respect to a number of vessels coming into your port. How many can you inspect? In every region, every MOU has what we call the minimum percentage number of vessels calling that should be inspected. For the Abuja MOU region, we have 15% set as a minimum target that you should inspect. We did not just stop at 15% because if we leave it at 15%, by stroke of luck, the 15% you inspect may actually be compliant. So what we have is the new inspection regime, which is a targeted system in the sense that it answers the question of the classes of vessels, types of vessels, category of vessels which are much more likely to cause pollution or default in the convention.For example, an old vessel above a certain age from 15 down, we use a scaling system. So, every class is given a weightage such that the ones with higher weightage are the high risk vessels that should be targeted, newer vessels are most likely to be very compliant. Vessels that have not been inspected for the last one year are most likely to be complacent or likely to expose the environment, and of course, vessels that have been blacklisted or that have poor Port State Control inspection report from other MOUs are most likely the key defaulters. So, out of the 15% you go through the new inspection regime, you select the ones that are most likely in terms of defaulting and prioritize your inspection. The 15% you prioritize are the ones you should really zoom in on and of course the rest can then come in. By so doing, you potentially remove the probability of a substandard vessel slipping through the cracks.
How can the issue of substandard ships be eradicated in the region?
We deal with the region but since we are in Nigeria; we can use Nigeria as a case study. This is because whatever is applicable to Nigeria is applicable to all the member states. The UNCLOS (The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) has responsibilities for port states, flag states and coastal states, so everybody has clearly defined responsibilities. Flag states is where the vessel is registered. So like Nigeria, every vessel flying Nigerian flag showing Lagos as the port of registry would have to go through stringent regulatory screening for it to be eventually registered. There are also inspection regimes, inspection standards being set up, annual inspections that are being carried out, some every two years, drydocking inspection. There are a lot of inspections being carried out. For Nigerian vessels, the Nigerian authorities through NIMASA constantly inspects these vessels because it’s a statutory responsibility. It is ingrained in the Merchant Shipping Act. This is the law of the land to inspect and penalize any vessel that is not compliant.
Your 2021 report reveals that only 55% of the Abuja MOU Member States are conducting port state inspection. What is the impact of this on the region?
It has created a negative impact because the port regime is a net. It is a net that should contain what should not allow substandard vessels to slip through. So if there is any country that is not conducting inspection, that tends to break the hedge, opens up the net for substandard vessels to slip through the system. Currently in 2022, we only had 14 countries of the 19 that are full members that have consistently been conducting inspections. So, we engage them. And we have also looked beyond that because Port State Control officers are the field workers. If the policy makers don’t support them and don’t enact laws that protect them, their effectiveness will be questionable.
We had a discussion with the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) last year and they actually conducted a training workshop for the Director Generals of all the maritime administrations in the region. And so that is getting the policymakers involved and securing their buy-in. Also, an agreement was reached with IMO that the training will be carried out every two years so by next year, we are looking at another training for the DGs to which we now will appraise to see the effectiveness of the training and the map on the ground. We are also planning to create a training for the Ministers of Transport. Hopefully, IMO will support us on that because that is when you actually have the whole gamut of policy makers involved.
What is the state of wreck removal in the region?
There is a convention known as the Nairobi International Convention on the Removal of Wrecks. If you wait until a vessel is wrecked, you’ve already lost it. So the key thing is how do you ensure that you don’t get into that situation? That is where we actually work with the maritime administration to ensure that at the end of the day, you will have less wreck and thus less money expended on wreck removal. And of course, the more wrecks you have in your water, the more dangerous your water is. These wrecks actually affect the safety of vessels. So that’s where we work together. We will not step into assessment based on how they are performing with respect to wreck removal but we will assure them that, yes, the foreign vessels coming in are compliant with the convention.
Can you tell us more about your mentor-mentee scheme?
The mentor-mentee scheme is actually the brainchild of Abuja MOU to which other MOU’s are looking at adopting. What do we mean by mentor-mentee scheme? It is more of a fact that you have two groups of people. A particular group, a particular set of maritime administrations are very proficient in port state control activities. They are meeting the target, they are inspecting very well while the other group is struggling, probably because of not having well-trained or exposed Port State Control officers. This means that they cannot really exercise the inspection to our satisfaction. So we try to bridge the gap by bringing this mentee to the mentor, link them up and allow them to probably have what we call on-the-job training, on-the-job exposure, and thus improve their knowledge and proficiency level. Currently, Nigeria and Sierra Leone are working on such. Nigeria is one of the countries selected as a mentor, and Sierra Leone had actually written – the documents are with NIMASA. Once it is signed off, the Sierra Leonean Port State Control officers will come in and be mentored by the Nigerian Port State Inspectors. So it is a system that most people have applauded. And once it kicks off, we have a procedure all ready now which will be signed off at the next committee meeting coming up either in September or October. Once it kicks off, it is really going to come up very big and very strong.
Ghana is also one of the mentors. South Africa is one, Senegal is one on the French side. Although Port State Control is typically an English program, but in Africa, we have also accepted the fact that French should also be considered as a working language. So we will match English to English, Anglo-Anglo and then Franco-Franco. We will match them together just for us to make it as effective as possible.
What are the challenges you encountered and how have you been able to surmount them?
Okay. Um, if we localize it to the Abuja MOU region, the major issue is communication. We are making strides to keep the Member States informed and also in pushing to get responses from them. We understand the fact that the Ministers and the DGs are quite busy but they should have a desk dedicated to Port State Control activities such that if we need them, we can easily get to them. There is also the issue of members’ commitments with respect to meeting the 15%. It saddens us that we are still struggling to meet the required minimum percentage. But yes, we are pushing them. We have conducted some analysis to see what the challenges are, to see what support we can give them from here. And then there is also the issue of Port State Control officers not being well trained and in fact, in the whole of this region, there is no maritime training institution offering any form of training for Port State Control officers. So we have also collaborated. We sent out messages to the few maritime training institutions to request that collaboration for us to develop specific training for Port State Control officers. It is a unique issue, and we need to tackle it because the nearest institution is in Italy. It means you have to send people to MCI in Italy to train Port State Control officers. How many of our countries will have that much money to be sending them there? But if we bring them to Nigeria, to Cote d’Ivoire, to Cameroon, to Ghana, at least it’s nearer, it will be cheaper.
Nigeria has started training. It has a training facility in NIMASA, MAN Oron is also there. So, we can work with them to get this thing done rather than the on and off training. So yes, there are some challenges and of course commitment in respect of payment of dues. But we are having strong support from Nigeria especially from NIMASA and the Ministry of Transportation. We will work with what we have but we will ensure that we push on to be in that top quartile of the performing MOUs in the world.
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