Ending Exploitation of Nigerian Seafarers


Eromosele Abiodun urges the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency to properly implement the cabotage policy and put an end to the exploitation of Nigerian seafarers

About 90 per cent of world trade is carried out by the shipping industry today. The world fleet of over 50,000 merchant ships is registered in over 150 nations and manned by over a million seafarers of virtually every nationality. It is a known fact that more than 90 per cent of the world trade is carried by ships and these ships are manned and operated by seafarers. Hence, it can be safely said that 90 per cent of mankind’s needs are being served by directly or indirectly by seafarers.

Experts believe that with the recent advancement in technology wherein ships are gradually moving towards being unmanned, this could be deemed as a threat to the seafaring profession. While it might affect the profession in some way, leading practitioners are optimistic that the years of theoretical knowledge, practical applications, and experience at sea can never be replaced by a machine or a controller sitting in an air conditioned office a few kilometres from home.

The sea and winds, they argued, do not always follow the predicted patterns, adding that the human angle to shipping will always be invaluable. They added that the expertise gained over the years trumps any new challenges to the profession making the seafarer is indispensable.

Nigeria is a country that is richly endowed with a lot of maritime potential, yet, while seaborne trade continues to expand, and the shipping industry is considered a highly efficient mode of transport, corruption has become one of the industry’s biggest challenges in Nigeria. Concession to foreigners in employment, waivers, bribery, Social extortion by officials, even of small amounts, is powerful because small delays have very high costs.

In Nigeria, the shipping industry provides jobs for thousands of foreigners while little could be said for Nigerian nationals. However, as critical as seafarers are to the nation, the practitioners are often treated shabbily by ship owners who mostly the employers of seafarers.

Cabotage Act to the Rescue?
Nigeria made attempt to salvage the situation when in 2003, it enacted the Cabotage Act, which came into operation in 2004. The major objectives that were intended to be achieved with the implementation of the Act include restriction of the use of foreign vessels in domestic coastal trade and the promotion of the development of indigenous tonnage with the aim to protecting and empowering Nigerians, especially the entrepreneurs who are engaged in the maritime enterprises to become masters in the trade. The Cabotage Act 2003, defines cabotage as “the carriage of goods or passengers by vessels from one place in Nigeria or above Nigerian waters to any other place in Nigeria or above Nigerian waters, either directly or via a place outside Nigeria and that includes the carriage of goods in relation to the exploration, exploitation or transportation of mineral or non-living natural resources of Nigeria in or under Nigerian waters.”

The purport of the Act is that all economic activities including carriage (whether of passengers or cargo) within Nigeria’s coastal waters should be indigenised and reserved for Nigerians. Also, since most of the activities carried out in the sector relate to shipping services, it is implied that for Nigerians to participate in the coastal trade, they must own vessels which apart from being Nigerian built, must be registered and crewed by Nigerians. Though the past three years has seen a high implementation of the cabotage law in the area of ships staff being Nigerians there is still a lot to be done as only few ships are complying, in spite of the government rhetoric that waivers are being denied for junior officers.

“There are still a high number of ships and companies not complying, they go as far as bringing in crew through Lome in any sister ship and once they get to Lagos they are dispatched to the vessels they are assigned by speed boat and when these vessels get to port they officials of bribes to NIMASA officials to overlook the law. Sadly enough, high ranking officials of NIMASA, are aware of such deals that makes the companies untouchable. The Nigerian government has not been successful in its bid to assure the needed development of indigenous participation in the sector,” said a seafarer who does not want his name in print.

Job Scarcity for Seafarers
According to him, “Why spend billions of naira on training youths and keeping them unemployed, why give out waivers when most Nigerian seafarers are out of job. The waiver principle is based on either of three reasons i.e. non-availability, reciprocity or bilateral agreements reached between two states. And only applicable (waivers) for the top senior positions of captain, chief officer, chief engineer and second engineer and which will be in time phased out totally. The conditions for the grant of waivers are expressly stated and provided for in the Act to prevent situations whereby grant of waivers will be used to circumvent the noble objectives of the Act.

“Before granting any waiver application, the Minister must be satisfied that the requirement requested to be waived is not available locally .NIMASA spent billions in the National Seafarers Development Programme (NSDP) training young Nigerians in the fields of marine engineering and nautical science in other to be productive and relevant in the industry, yet most of the positions are occupied by foreigners. After some months of implementing the law the country is gradually going back to status quo bribing for waivers for the junior officers though. This creates bottlenecks and unemployment for Nigerians. How are the waivers still being issued for junior rank positions, in the maritime industry, whereas we have thousands of Nigerians, qualified and looking for the same job?
“Except for captains and chief engineers, Nigeria has enough manpower to handle the maritime sector. And the trainee positions are reserved specially for foreigners. I am of the belief that the provision of the waiver system is the one which hinders the effective implementation of the cabotage policy. The discretionary power granted to the minister in the Act is one that can be subjected to abuse.”

He added that cargo clearing process in Nigeria’s sea ports which includes the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), numerous stakeholders across several jurisdictions fuels corruption.

“This creates huge opportunities for corruption such as facilitation payments, one of the biggest problems by shipping companies in Nigeria. All the agencies, including NIMASA, Immigration and Custom are more interested in bribes being given by ship captains,” he stated.

Pay Discrepancy
“The pay discrepancy is another area NIMASA as an organisation has failed to protect the citizen’s right. As a sailor, I work averagely 10 hours a day, a very high risk job, and can be called at any time for emergency. I am away from my family for months. I don’t have access to phones, internet but the only thing the NIMASA officials consider is that you are earning more than they are in the office.

Foreign companies bring payment structure they want to implement but because of the gifts they receive they don’t ask questions of the companies payment structure. I have seen where an Oiler (an Indian national) collecting $1800 monthly salary, and “a Nigerian national same job, same position, same licence, with more experience with a monthly take home of $361. In fact, the Indian was collecting $300 more than my salary where as I am his boss. A foreigner of the same rank with me gets a salary of $2700, same job, same hours, and I am more experienced than he is. I once showed a NIMASA official our contracts, but he was more interested in munching on the snacks they were served and bribes they were hoping to collect than on my plight. Although that goes to all the agencies in the port who are more interested in their pockets than jobs,”he added.

Way Out
On what should be done to ensure seafarers welfare, he said the provision of the Cabotage Act is clear as regards its intention is to promote indigenous participation in domestic coastal trade and also promote the development of indigenous tonnage.

“The challenges which are preventing the Act from achieving this intention have been highlighted. It is therefore the writer’s intention to make recommendations which will go a long way in aiding the development of the local maritime industry. On the issue of grant of waivers, the criteria listed for its grant are elastic and can be easily abused by corrupt officials.

“To this end, it is important that the minister, in exercising this discretionary power, exercise extreme care and ensure that all applications brought before him are screened carefully by checking available registers so as to be sure that Nigerian vessels or seafarers are actually not available to fill the required vacancies for which waiver has been applied. It is necessary that this is done so as not to render the cabotage policy ineffective,” he said.

NIMASA, he said, should begin to live up to its responsibilities of being a regulatory and enforcement agency.

“The agency should be fully resourced with competent staff who are properly trained. Also, comprehensive and transparent monitoring systems should be put into place so as to achieve an effective compliance with the Cabotage Act. Urgent steps should be taken to further develop the Maritime Academy of Nigeria, Oron, by injecting funds into it so that it can live up to its duties of training Nigerians, in all cadres of maritime manpower so that they would be effective in manning the operating vessels used in the cabotage regime. Also, a situation whereby foreign vessels would continue to dominate the local market should be discouraged.

“Finally, the criminal liability provided for in the Act should be reversed as that stiffer penalties will be meted out to offenders. It is felt that only where the punishment is stiffer, that the companies will see the necessity of complying with the provisions of the law. Setting up a hotline line where seafarer will report directly to NIMASA anonymously of vessels not complying with the law,” he said.

He added: “There is no doubt that the Cabotage policy if properly implemented will on the long run be a boost to the Nigerian shipping industry and economy in general. To this end therefore, the success of the law depends on everyone i.e. the government and the private sector inclusive. The private sector should look into avenues where it can adequately and effectively participate without assistance from the government.

“The government should also ensure that an enabling environment where investments will thrive is assured. Also the public should continue to act as a watchdog so as to prevent a situation where unscrupulous elements will prevent the law from achieving its objective of improving the maritime industry.”