DG, NIMASA, Patrick Apobolokemi
The plan by the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) to create 250,000 vacancies in 2015 in the shipping industry has triggered hope for many Nigerian seamen who have over the years remained without employment, Francis Ugwoke reports
The projection of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) is that 250,000 jobs will be created for seafarers in the nation’s shipping industry by the year 2015. Such jobs are expected to come from improved indigenous capacity in shipping trade currently dominated by foreign multi-national agencies. Incidentally, the current situation in the shipping industry is that many seafarers are jobless. Those who are lucky to have jobs complain bitterly of poor remunerations apparently because indigenous operators are themselves handicapped as they suffer patronage notwithstanding the provision of the Cabotage Shipping Law that is expected to reserve coastal shipping for local operators.
A Tale of Woes for Seafarers
It has been a tale of woes for Nigerian seafarers since the collapse of the Nigerian National Shipping Line (NNSL), the only national carrier in the shipping industry. NNSL was liquidated in 1995 as the company could no longer pay its bills. Creditors had pounced on the ships belonging to NNSL, getting court orders to arrest the national carriers’ vessels on account of debts. Government had in response liquidated the company. This was a big blow to hundreds of seafarers who were working in over 20 ships owned by the company. Owing to the importance of having a national carrier, government had as a remedy floated the Nigerian Unity Line (NUL) that had only one ship, MV Abuja.
The ship was inherited from NNSL under cover. But NUL went the way of NNSL as the company could not again pay its bills. The only vessel, MV Abuja, which was brand new, could not be maintained. Shipyards were owed thousands of dollars over seaworthy maintenance costs. This again forced the management of NIMASA to recommend the liquidation of the company after years of shouldering the burden of the company in terms of staff salaries and maintenance of the vessel. This situation no doubt affected Nigerian seafarers in many ways. Those who were working lost their jobs, and it took the grace of God to get stipends as benefits. Some still claim they did not get all that was due to them.
The other problem is that indigenous shipping companies could hardly employ enough seafarers as some of them were out of date in terms of new developments in training of seafarers. Many of them need to get new training to be in line with international developments. Seasoned seafarers are expected to undergo the International Maritime Organsation Mandatory practical training. It is a two year programme under the Standards of Watchkeep Training Convention. With this, the seamen can work on board any vessel in the world.
Many of the local companies did not have vessels of their own, and had to rely on charter of foreign vessels. This affected the seafarers. In 2003, when Cabotage Law was introduced which made it mandatory for all ships operating in coastal waters to be crewed 100 percent by Nigerian seafarers, many had thought that this will address the unemployment situation of seafarers, but nothing changed.
Many local shipping companies were not getting contracts from Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and oil majors on allegation that they did not have reliable seaworthy vessels to carry wet cargoes. Members of the Indigenous Shipowners Association of Nigeria (ISAN) saw this allegation as untrue and deliberate to deny Nigerians the right to maximally benefit from Cabotage law. The shipowners made efforts to acquire new vessels. Some changed from single hull to double hull vessels, but have had difficulty benefiting from wet cargo contracts directly from NNPC and oil majors. This again impacted negatively on the fortunes of seafarers, as the calculation is that companies can only engage workers when there are more contracts to execute. Foreign vessels operating in Nigerian waters usually enjoy waivers to engage foreigners.
Protest by Seafarers
Apparently worried about what appears a bleak future, members of the Seamen branch of the Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria (MWUN) used the occasion of the World Maritime Day to protest over their poor conditions. The workers had accused the management of NIMASA of not doing enough to address their welfare issues. They accused NIMASA of maltreatment and deprivation. NIMASA as the apex maritime regulatory agency under its new Act has the statutory responsibility to organise seafarers, provide their training and organise the seafarers’ pooling system to enable them secure jobs. But on the occasion of World Maritime Day, the seafarers instead accused NIMASA of introducing programmes that have ended up making seamen lose their jobs.
The union also accused NIMASA of turning itself into a manning agent, and has been directly involved in providing crew to vessels, a development the seafarers said has rendered them redundant. The seamen lamented that the Seafarers Pool which is where the crew should be recruited, has been abandoned, alleging that the apex maritime agency has been patronising private pools which have links with its staff.
According to the Union, this has made many of them remain without jobs. Specifically, the Deputy President- General of the Union, Henry Odey and the Warri District Chairman of the union, Seamen branch, Goodlife. Okoro maintained that NIMASA has no statutory right to crew vessels. They said that all the agency is expected to do is to send such requests to the seafarers’ pools through the Maritime Workers’ Union.
To improve the welfare of seafarers, the National Seafarers’ Welfare Board of Nigeria was established about eight years ago. The board, a non-profit making and voluntary agency is charged with the role of improving on the welfare of seafarers in Nigeria. But the problem of the agency has been funding. The establishment of the Board was in fulfillment of the provisions of the International Labour Organisation Seafarers Welfare Convention 163 of 1987 and Seafarers’ Welfare Recommendation 173 of 1987. as well as the Consolidated Maritime Labour Convention 2006 Regulation. Chairman of the board, Mr Kunle Folarin, recently said that the board will do everything to improve the welfare of the seafarers. Noting the dangers that seafarers are exposed to, he said that the Board will adequately take care of seafarers physically and economically. He said that the board in order to improve the welfare of seafarers had conducted shipvisits on board international vessels and shipyards for training purposes.
A deputy director, Maritime Capacity building, NIMASA, Ibrahim Jubril, apparently realising the needs of the seafarers recently said the task of addressing the seafarers development should not be left to government alone. According to him, government alone cannot provide the funds needed to improve the working conditions of seafarers in the country. He identified NIMASA and few other agencies of having been the only ones shouldering the responsibility of funding seafarers board. He said that with this, it is difficult to arrive at the expected results, adding that the private sector was needed to assist in the funding of seafarers welfare.
Hope for Seafarers
In what will finally address the welfare issue of seafarers, the management of NIMASA has said that it has plans to address most of the needs of the seamen. These include creation of 250,000 jobs by 2015 and training programme for seafarers to enable them prepare for such jobs. Although details of how the jobs will be created are not very clear, expectations are that strengthening the cabotage shipping law with an amendment, in addition to giving out loans to indigenous shipping companies to acquire vessels will indeed grow indigenous capacity for more jobs. It is also expected that once there is the political will to get NNPC and oil majors to give wet cargo affreightment contract to indigenous operators will in turn trigger off the multiplier effect of more jobs for seafarers.
The Director-General of NIMASA, Patrick Apobolokemi, who was silent on this, however, disclosed during the Seafarers’ Day in Warri that the agency plans to “develop and empower Nigerian seamen such as the National Seafarers Development Program (NSDDP)” for a better future. The DG also said that NIMASA is planning to introduce an electronic pooling project in order to get “Nigerian seafarers registered, verified, placed onboard and developed anywhere in the world in line with global best practices”. Apobolokemi said that the process has been completed and will soon be made available to all seamen.
The agency has in recent time been involved in organising series of training programmes locally and overseas for seafarers to qualify them for jobs on board not just indigenous vessels but also international vessels.
The DG disclosed recently that the agency spent N1.65bn in training seafarers abroad. Such trainings, according to the DG, will expose the Nigerian seamen to latest skills required to gain employment on board vessels anywhere in the world.