The Secretary-General, Abuja Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Port State Control, Captain Sunday Umoren, is a thoroughbred professional and one of the most respected Master Mariners in Nigeria. He is also an interviewer’s delight as he freely shares his thoughts on his areas of competence and on the services offered by the Abuja MoU, which is the body responsible for harmonizing port state control procedures and practices in West and Central African countries to eliminate the operation of substandard shipping within the region, thereby ensuring maritime safety, security, protection of marine environment from pollution and improving the working and living conditions of ship crew. In this interview with SHIPS & PORTS’ Tosin Aribisala – his first since assuming duties as Secretary-General – Umoren explained how his team plans to make the Abuja MoU one of the best in the world.
What are your achievements so far since assuming duties as Secretary-General of the Abuja MoU in January?
We met a very robust organization and our plans have been from the beginning, to build on the existing structure to move the Abuja MoU to the next level. We have really gained much momentum on communication and creating awareness amongst Members States to bring out the best from them. We have not had any meetings since 2019, which we can easily attribute to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. And since we came on board, we had the intercessional management working group meeting. We have also had the just concluded committee meeting that brought in members from all States signatory to the memorandum. And in terms of communication, we now have a form of platform whereby the Port State Control Officers could interact among themselves on a daily basis. We have drawn up some plans, which we would unveil soon. We have interacted with the embassies to also help in facilitating communication with our Member States. Discussions are close to maturity in respect to communication with States that are yet to be full members; I mean the four countries, which are the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Namibia, and Mauritania. We have established communication with them and we are progressing and hopefully, in no time, all the 22 countries that we have in the region would be full members of the Abuja MoU.
In the work plan you presented to stakeholders at the 11th Port State Control Committee meeting in Lagos in October, you stated that you were focusing on operational excellence that would catapult the MoU to the top quartile of the most performing MoUs in the world. Can you shed more light on this goal?
You know, the thing about life is that complacency should actually be eliminated in your life. Yes, we have achieved a lot, and I’ll not say we are far at the bottom. We have been working to make it better per circumstance. And that is the spirit by which we work to move to that topmost point. We are also looking at what other MoUs are doing to incorporate them into ours. We are focusing on operational excellence to be in that top quartile and that is the spirit we are carrying. We have done the benchmark with other MoUs. We have seen where they have the upper hand or what they are doing a little better than us and we are like, okay, and we are going to hit that mark.
What strategies are you putting in place to obtain ISO certification for the Abuja MoU?
You know in service, quality is quality. Quality service always stands out there. So, our aim is to have that quality service endorsed, seen by all. Yes, in terms of what we’ve done so far, as presented to the house members, we have had meetings with three or four service providers and we selected one that we are going to work with. We do have our road map already on how the ISO certificate can be actualized. ISO has certificated two to three MoUs and we are targeting to be the next one. We have set the motion already. I have been part of ISO certification in other organizations. So I know what it means right from the first day of coming in. We have actually started introducing the quality port management system in our day-to-day activities, so we strongly believe that by the next committee meeting, we would present the ISO certificate to the Member States.
What are you doing to introduce globally acceptable certificated courses for intending Port State Control Officers in the region?
Shipping is a very dynamic aspect of the maritime world, and that is why on a yearly basis, the Maritime Safety Committee deals with different regions, groups coming to the ports. And this shows that because you are qualified today, does not mean you are fully prepared for the changes that are coming. So, the issue of training cannot be overemphasized. Training is clearly highlighted as one of the things that every State should do. In the audit, we want to see the scale of training that your Port State Control Officers are exposed to. Currently, no maritime training institution in our region is offering training on Port State Control. We usually have training courses from International Maritime Organization (IMO) and sometimes, sponsored by other MoUs. We are going to send messages to the maritime training institutions that offer foreign courses for them to collaborate with Abuja MoU to start offering such courses. Within us, we have started developing the syllabus. When we have the responses from the training institutions, we will now sit down and fine tune whether it is going to be a one-week program, two weeks program, or one month. So we are looking at that because we understand the challenges of sending Port State Control Officers to Italy for Port State Control courses. So if we have it in the region, I believe it would definitely help us to have more of our Port State Control Officers trained and retrained. Meanwhile, Port State Control has to do with inspection of foreign vessels coming to your port. The maritime institution should be the one that offers foreign-going licenses. In Nigeria, we have Maritime Academy of Nigeria (MAN), Oron, In Ghana, we have Regional Maritime University, Ivory Coast has its own. So, what we will eventually get from the Member States is what we are going to work with.
How financially committed are Member States to the Abuja MoU?
Yes, we have some challenges with respect to members not paying up their dues but we’ve been very lucky that within the period I came in, some of them have actually made part payment. It is all about engagement. We look at engaging them. They made a commitment during the last committee meeting that henceforth; they would be up to date in their payment. So, that is fine. And we are very grateful to the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) and the Federal Ministry of Transportation in Nigeria as the host nation for all the financial support they have been giving to us which has actually kept us going. But like I said, Member States are willing to come on board, trusting and hoping that the story is going to be different by next year.
Some Member States have not domesticated major conventions of the Memorandum. How are you addressing this?
We have 15 major conventions at Abuja MoU as approved to be bidding for the inspection of vessels coming into our countries. The first is the International Convention on Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), next is the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973, as modified by the Protocol of 1978 related thereto, (MARPOL), among others and the current one that was just added is the wreck removal. So, we have 15 conventions and as it has been clearly highlighted, if you have not domesticated any of those conventions, you don’t have any moral justification to inspect a vessel against such. This is because until it becomes a law in your country, you can’t really enforce it and that is why we are engaging our member states to encourage them to domestic all the 15 conventions so that when your Port State Control Officers visit a vessel, they would go in there to do the full spectrum of Port State Control inspection as expected from our region.
How is the Abuja MoU implementing and enforcing the Port State Control Act, which is an important safety net to eliminate the operation of sub-standard ships.
Remember, the Act stated clearly what Port State Control is meant to achieve. So, who is doing that for you? Port State Control Officers do it. So, first, training; ensuring that you have qualified and skilled Port State Control Officers to enforce that. You see, IMO makes conventions; the enforcement is actually left to the hands of the Flag States. So, by this committee meeting, we actually engage Member States to impress on them the need to push more on enforcement. We know that it is practically impossible unless probably you have very fewer ships coming into your country, probably like 10 ships, then you’ll be able to inspect all of them. But a country like Nigeria that has a lot of offshore activities, a lot of ships coming, that would be difficult. So, we have set a minimum target that every country should aim at inspecting at least 15 percent of vessels that call at their ports. Other MoUs have something higher. But as I’ve said, we have countries with a lot of activities within the Exclusive Economic Zone, which struggle to meet that percentage, because it is demanding in terms of logistics. In fact, sometimes, you have to fly to where the vessel is. So, looking at that engagement, we also encourage them to have more Port State Control Officers because the more you have; the easier it is for you to meet up with the number.
How close are West and Central African countries to global standards in terms of port state control?
The way shipping is run, it either you are in or you are not in. And the truth of the matter is that as long you comply with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) minimum standards, you are fully compliant. And so, we have few ships that have worn out, that have not met that standard; they’ve been detained. Yes, we have a few ships from the Abuja MoU region that go outside our region but are detained for non-compliance. In our region as well, we have also detained vessels from other MoU regions. So the bottom line is, yes the net is so tight that, no substandard vessel can slip through. If you escape here, you’ll be caught in another place and if we have any of such vessels in our system, we flag it to other MoUs and if they also have any vessel of such, they also flag it to us. So, it is a close nit network that you can’t really slip through.
How do you monitor officers with respect to bribery and corruption?
The issue of compromise is very hard. It undermines the objectives and effectiveness of the Port State Control Officers and I stand to tell you that Abuja MoU is the first MoU that has engaged the Maritime Anti-Corruption Network (MACN) to make a presentation to the committee. They made a presentation during this last meeting we had. We happened to be the first MoU that has done that. What does that tell you? It shows we have zero tolerance for corruption. So, by so doing, the presentation was made to all our Port State Control Officers that transparency is the major issue in the world. And in fact, the last review for the region and whole world was presented and the report would also be sent to all Member States. So, clearly, it tells that there is absolutely zero tolerance for corruption. And when an activity is reported, and the ship owner is not satisfied with the response from the country that he probably had an issue with, they can now escalate it to the Abuja MoU. We also have our own port processes on how to address such reports and so it would be investigated to a conclusive end and then passed on to the Flag State for necessary penalty to be meted on the defaulting officers, and the ultimate is delisting the Port State Control Officer. So, we are very strong regarding the objective delivery of the Port State Control Officers.
In 2019, Abuja MoU Member States carried out 2,696 inspections on 2,091 ships but 21 of these ships were detained for deficiency. What is the yardstick to determine the fitness of a ship?
The outcome of the inspection is what would inform the judgment of the Port State Control Officer. The structure is well organized. The guidelines are always there to guide the officer. So, there are some deficiencies that can be fixed while a ship owner is far from the port, and there are others that you are given the chance to fix before you leave the port. So, the convention is more about every aspect of environmental protection. A vessel that comes in would be subjected to such screening. Fire safety, radio communications, life-saving appliances, are some of what the Port State Control Officer would look at to make his decision. Code 30 in the memorandum is detention. Detention means this vessel is not safe to be put to sea. So, the ship is not seaworthy. It means it is risky to the crew on board; it would also be risky to the environment, and to other vessels. This is because while coming to the port, a sea unworthy vessel can block your way. It means no ship can come to your port again. So, the objective is clearly to ensure that no sea unworthy vessel is allowed to sail.
What are the probable deficiencies of a ship?
As I have said, anything that would unduly expose the crew. In an emergency, the vessel should have the capability of protecting all the crew sailing and disembarking from the vessel. So, the life safety appliances should be in top shape. Take, for example, the lifeboat. This is a major escape route for the crew when there is an emergency especially when it requires that the ship be abandoned. If the Port State Control Officer discovers that the lifeboat is not safe, then, it is a serious deficiency. Such a vessel cannot go to sea. And the fire fighting equipment, there is portable fire fighting equipment for small fires. We also have what we call total flooring when there’s a need to save the vessel. If those fire fighting equipment don’t work, so what does it mean? It means the vessel cannot actually fight even the smallest fire on board. Likewise, the steering gear, which is used to steer the vessel if it is malfunctioning, you see leakages all over the place, such a vessel can never be sent out there. If you have your rudder not working as well, you can’t launch such a ship for sailing. The ships suffering from all these deficiencies should not be allowed to go out there.
Also, if a vessel is overloaded, the reserve buoyancy that would help the vessel to stay afloat is compromised. However, upon all these, the Port State Control Officer can be challenged if the guy is going against the convention, he can be asked to show what is proving to be an anti-conventional practice in the manual. So, if it is there, the officer should be able to say, article so and so, in the convention established what I am instructing you to do. If the ship owner is not satisfied, he can still escalate it to the Flag State, and then, they can still move it up to us for us to investigate it.
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