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Maritime History #5:  Abuja MoU’s strategic approach to improving port state control in West and Central Africa

This edition of Maritime History looks at the workings of Abuja MoU for efficient port state control regime within the region. Secretary-General of the Abuja MoU, Captain Sunday Umoren, gives great insights.

When 16 Countries represented by their Maritime Authorities converged in Abuja Nigeria, on 22nd October 1999, to sign the Memorandum of Understanding on Port State Control for West and Central African Region (Abuja MoU), the essence was to streamline ship inspection regime for effectiveness within the region, along the lines of established global standards.  Today, 24 years after, the Abuja MoU has continued to develop strategies for improving its operation and one of these is the establishment of a mentor-mentee approach to enable all member countries work in a strong network with regards to capacity required to be on the same page.

The 20 full members of the Memorandum comprise of Angola, Benin, Cape Verde, Cameroon, Congo, Cote D’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Nigeria, Sao Tome & Principe, Republic of Equatorial Guinea, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and Togo.

The transcript 

Kindly speak to the mentor-mentee framework created by the Abuja MoU for capacity development to ensure effective port state control regime in the sub-region

The mentor-mentee scheme is a capacity-building, capacity development and the sustenance of capacity within the Abuja MoU region. If you recall, the mandate of the MoU regime is to ensure that no substandard ship trades within the region and that we should provide that safety net for the maritime environment within the region by harmonizing the inspection regime. So, when you talk about harmonization, it is more of a level-playing field, it is more of equal standards existing within the region. So, we realized that there were a bit of disparity between the performances of different countries and other countries within the region. For us to really actualize the commission, we decided to come up with the mentor-mentee scheme to which the countries that  are doing well were selected as mentors both French-speaking and English-speaking countries  and the ones that were struggling were taken as mentees. Ours was to bring them together either on either secondment; that is, you bring the Port State Control officers either from the mentee country to the mentoring country or you take an instructor from a mentoring country to a mentee country to spend some time with the mentee country.

Which model is more robust; taking a mentor to a mentee country or if you have to move the mentees to the mentoring country, considering the availability of facilities?

Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. If you look at volume of reach, the volume of reach would be much if you take a mentor to a mentee country because then you can have 30 people to mentor. But, the downside to that is that you have only one or two people you are taking there. But if you bring in port state control officers from a mentee country to the mentoring country, there  would be a limit to how many people you can bring, probably because of cost, you take maybe about five to six people, who would be exposed to about 10 mentors. For us, we always go for the best in terms of cost-effectiveness. The other aspect again is that in bringing the mentees into the mentoring country, you also hope on ‘train-the-trainer’ strategy, that the few people brought in for the training would go back to train the others. But there is a downside to it, because not everybody can be teachers. Some people are better students than they are teachers. They could come in, get all you need to teach them, but in terms of disseminating it to others they would struggle to get it right. So, we will look at both ways. We took this first one as the first stage; bring the few here for mentoring. The next phase would be get two mentors from Nigeria to Sierra Leone, spend some time with them and oversee their performance. It is a capacity-building approach to upping our games. Every region and every country is supposed to inspect at least 15 per cent of foreign ships calling at their country.

What was the experience like training the Sierra Leonean port state control officers?

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has several conventions, and even the International Labour Organisation(ILO)has one which we have taken in. We have selected the relevant instruments for port state, which we call relevant instruments. Currently we have 16 relevant instruments; they are conventions that would guide inspections onboard a vessel. For you to have a complete spectrum of inspection, the Port State Control officer should be conversant with all the relevant conventions. So, the syllabus that was agreed, covers the 16 relevant instruments, which the NIMASA Port State Control officers took them through, before moving them onboard the vessel.

The current  agreement we are going to sign with the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA), which is under the European Union (EU) covers what they call ‘role check’, it is a quick reference guide which they would give us because for every deficiency you point out, you just must link it to a convention. Sometimes, it takes so much time to scan through to say this is not right and which is the best fit with respect to a convention? The ‘role check’ would give that quick guidance. So, they were taken through the 16 relevant instruments. We had very positive feedback from the mentees and they requested that they would want more of their staff to be exposed to the training, other countries to be exposed to it too, because their eyes were open to this. In terms of volume, Nigeria has a lot of ships coming in; types and classes of vessels visiting Nigeria, so they were exposed to the inspection and operations of such vessels.


What are your expectations with respect to inspection region now that you have started this mentoring programme? 

The best would have been move all their port state control officers to Nigeria, get them to go through this, because for them it may be their own dream. Yes, you may desire to take it that way and it may be the best option, but the financial implication is quite high; look at the cost of flying them, and housing them in Nigeria. But thanks to the DG of NIMASA for absorbing aspects of the costs involved in the programme. That really helped. With respect to satisfaction, the greatest satisfaction was kick-starting the process. It has been planned out, we were ready to kick-start the project. Thankfully, the DG of NIMASA gave the support to take off. It was a project under consideration. This was shared in the International Maritime Organisation; the meetings we had, triple I committee meetings. In a recently concluded forum we had for all the Secretary Generals of the MoUs, all the MoUs gave thumbs up to it; Indian Ocean said they were starting it  Caribbean MoU and Black Sea MoU, they are all ready to kick-start it. So for once, we have taken the lead. So, it is something you look back and say yes, it is our brainchild. We are happy because the MoU regime is like a family; whatever Paris MoU is doing, if it is good they would gladly share it with others. In that meeting, we all shared the initiatives we had for all to follow. We also had initiatives for Port Authorities, which they are all very happy to latch on to. We haven’t had inaugural session yet, but we are looking forward to any country with Nigerian Ports Authority or Sierra Leonean Ports Authority for us to kick-start. We ate ready to start a workshop for ports authorities. So, it is a good feeling if your brainchild comes to fruition and accepted by all.


How would you compare your achievements of 2022 and that of 2023 thus far, with respect to port state control performance?

That is quite interesting, because like we discuss in our meetings, it is good to bring in innovative ideas. But the worst thing that would happen to you would be that you brought in an innovation and you then you got stuck and you never brought in more. In fact, in our meetings there is that session we call ‘Business Enhancement Session’ for all the staff to come with whatever ideas they have. We have also taken it our committee meetings, because it is a family. So, the 22 countries when we meet also, there is a session for anybody to bring up any innovative idea to the table and we will run with it. We will not take the credit, we will pass it straight to whoever originated it, but make it work. So, they are had been a lot of progress. 2022 is gone and 2023 I can tell you we are upping the game. If you look at our mission and our vision, it is clearly to be in the top quartile of top performing MoUs and we are aiming at that

And that is going to be a pacesetter. You are going to be up with innovative ideas that other MoUs would emulate and follow and that gives you a good feeling. We want to move away from the idea that Africa we are always taking. We want to be giving out, and that is our aim. We are not going to rest on our oars until we get to the top and be the topmost MoU.


What areas still need more attention to get to the desired point, like training of Maritime Administration CEOs to duly understand their roles to support the MoU operations? 

The thing about life is that yes the father may train his child to a level, but when the child wants to come and lecture the father, it would be like “I am your father and what do you want to tell me”. We had looked at that and we knew we needed to educate policy makers. It is not just enough working on the port state control officers who ate out there as field workers. They need to have the support of the police makers for the effectiveness of the MoU regime. Yes, I am the Secretary General with the full support of the ministers of Blue Economy, and Transportation. But there is a limit to how much you can impress things on them. So we said we all must listen to IMO.

So, we engaged the IMO to have a workshop for the entire Director Generals in 2022 and we have pressed on again to say there need to be a follow-up session and it has been approved to have a follow up workshop in 2024 for the policy makers. If you have that sorted, the training for the Port State Control officers would be an easy thing, because they were a lot of commitment made in the first meeting. In the second meeting by next year, all the ministers would now tell the IMO, this you said we should do, this is how much we have done. So, we are going to set up a tracker to be monitoring their performances to ensure these things are being done, because everybody must be involved. If you don’t get the support of the policy makers you are wasting your time. We also have update from the field. Port State Control officers write to on the challenges they have. W say look, bring up your challenges, we are not going to mention your country. But in our committee meeting we would bring them up as updates from the fields, these are the issues the fieldworkers are having, tackle them, and it has been effective.

Even the port state control officers are very happy about that. We said look, we are going to protect you because we know that the hammer could be on you get if you become too vocal to bring up these issues. We would bring up these issues with your ministers and we are engaging them very well. Again, one of the things; for the region to be a complete safety net, you have to get all the countries to sign up as full members. Within this period I have been around, we have three member states that have signed up as full members. Just three days ago, Equatorial Guinea signed up as full member. Their Vice-President was there, the minister of transport was there to sign up. So, we still have two countries left and I have given it as a task to the Secretariat that next year we would get all the 22 countries signed up as full members. And of course getting them in is one thing and getting them to work is the big deal.


Kindly talk about a recent issue of alleged inspection failure by a member country under the Abuja MoU that was alleged to have granted a clean bill to a ship and the ship was shortly after detained in China for safety negligence

It is a wonderful case study. But, I am going to be as objective as I can be in looking at all the sides. Certain you cannot rule out. It is only God that would tell you the truth with respect to corruption. However, in our trainings, I can tell you, the same training the inspectors from China, in Pacific MoU, the same inspection trainings that other MoUs have, are the same kinds of inspections we pass to our Port State Control officers. So, the clear thing is, guided by the approved Code of Conduct, the Port State Control officer should be professional, should be objective in his assessment. He should always have one thing in mind that safety of life is guaranteed, the welfare of the crew is guaranteed, and the marine environment is protected. Some of the issues listed here are operational issues. It is a well-known fact that a new car driven out of the garage can actually develop problems one hour later, let alone a ship.

When you are dealing with operational issues, anything could crop up; 20 days is a long time. There had been cases that a vessel leaves a port and gets to a next port within a day and then operational issues could creep in. I am not saying the other aspect could not have been the case, but I just want us to have an open mind. Navigational lights, the light in our houses. You could come into your house, switch on the light tonight, wake up in the morning and try to switch it on again but the light is gone.  It is operational issues. Ventilators; your air conditioners having mechanical parts, any mechanical parts could actually get bad.

But, the thing about shipping is that on board the vessels, spare parts are being stored for crew to attend to critical instruments once there is a down time. There shouldn’t actually be a down time by reason of the preventive maintenance that they have on board. So, it is possible for a vessel that left with clean bill to actually get to the next port and there are issues. But again, if you look at the inspection regime, you have over 300 items to check during port state inspection.

Is it possible for you to have an oversight in one? It is actually possible in some cases. The Port State Control officer may not really have full time to go through all. We always highlight that whatever time you have; critical items should have high priority. So, that can also be a part of it. There are a lot of possibilities in these issues. But, I always ask myself that there is no way I will go on board a vessel and not pick up something. But then again, what do you pick?  When you look at what you call deficiencies, there are three/four levels of deficiencies you have onboard a vessel; some are fixed them now while I am there. Actually, the guy can just fix it. Once it is done, you tick it’s done. There are some, probably if the country where the inspection is being carried out does not have the capability to manage the issue, it could be ‘fix at the next port.’ There are some ‘fix within a certain period.’ Of course, the critical ones are ‘You can’t go. Detention; Code 30. You just must fix. So, those are the issues. Sometimes, the ‘fix now’ issues, the Port State control officer won’t even make any comment because it is been fixed, it has been cleared. Of course it is a good case study, which we would take. I will personally look at the report to clearly pick up the deficiencies that were picked up in China and compare to see whether they were critical things that probably could be due to oversight the port state control officer may have missed. But, it is something we would  bring up to our committee meeting or the training of port state control officers to highlight to them that “guys, you have to go by the code, leave nothing untouched, treat every aspect as critical in your assessment.” We actually tell them, “If you don’t have sufficient time to conduct an inspection, don’t conduct it.” Because once you conduct an inspection, within the region, the vessel can pass uninspected for the next six months. So, don’t give a blanket clearance for six months, when you didn’t have enough time to fully inspect the vessel. I will take this up as a case study. But, I am not defending the port state control officer. If I pick up this up, I will ask the port state control officer:  “tell me how you could have inspected a vessel without picking up something.”

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