Retired Navy Captain Abel Ogah is a training expert for the Nigeria Navy. He is also currently the Director of the Merchant Navy Directorate in Lagos. In this Interview with Oluyinka Onigbinde, he speaks on some of the challenges facing seafarers as well as sundry maritime issues.
“The Maritime Labour Convention states that the wages of seafarers should be paid in dollars, but that’s not what is obtainable in Nigeria”
What are the challenges COVID 19 posed for seafarers during the peak of the pandemic?
A seafarer is a global professional that moves from place to place, which means a seafarer is more vulnerable to COVID 19, and because of that, the expectation is that the managers and leaders in the industry should have given them special attention because they are vulnerable, but from the observation, it caught everybody unaware. However, for a nation that values its maritime industry, one of the areas to concentrate on to counter the COVID 19 could have been the maritime sector. But you found out that our seafarers had a lot of issues including been stranded on the sea, because there have been no laid-down plan, no defined policy on how to manage issues like this, many of them had quite of lot of terrible challenges including been abandoned on sea for a very long time, because they didn’t know how to manage them or change crew.
What’s your take on the call for Global crew change?
The crew change issue came as a result of the problem seafarers had, if you are going to have crew change, even as a pilot there are schedule for person to go on duty, you don’t forsake or forget people who have gone for an operation, there should be management in such a way that no matter the challenge, the people are to change should go through the process of being checked medically and ensure that they are fit, and those who are taking over from them should also be checked, but the fear is that those who are sick have their own challenges and those who are supposed to take over from them are scared too to go onboard. Apart from that, the arrangement for other people to take over from them have been a very big challenge, when you don’t know your crew and you don’t even know how to manage your seafarers, how will you know how to change them and when to change them. The seafarers are actually like forgotten people and we have forgotten that they are doing a very great job as far as the economy is concerned.
What do you think is responsible for the high number of unemployed seafarers that we have in the country?
First is responsibility, the insincerity of the government, they tell a lot of lies, if you are training somebody and you don’t prepare where you are going to deploy the person, then you are creating problem; the people who are trained should collaborate effectively with people who are going to utilize them. You don’t just say my business is to train people, if you train them where are they going to work, there should be collaboration, you should know there is vacancy somewhere before you train them, so you don’t create an impression that you are training people and you don’t know how they are deployed. So you don’t just wake up one day and tell us you have trained 7,000 people, after the training what is next? You don’t just come up with lies that they have been employed, who employed them? Seafarers are supposed to be continuously monitored by their administrator; so you should know where a seafarer who is under you should be at any time. But our system does not make provision for census or headcount or recognize where the seafarers and you cannot say you are managing a person you don’t know how to manage. There is difference between political responsibility and professional responsibility, if you are politically inclined and you don’t have the knowledge about a profession and you are managing that profession politically, you cannot make progress.
Most of our professional bodies are politically managed, maritime industry is a professional specialization that people who are supposed to be managing the affairs should be people who have also received some reasonable training about what they are managing, if NIMASA is to function well to meet the demand of the maritime industry, then most of the people in NIMASA should have adequate knowledge of the maritime Industry. Including NPA; it should be the same thing they should be people who have adequate knowledge of the maritime industry.
So what we have now is that we have people who are managing what they don’t know, quite a number of them do not know what they are managing, it’s like telling a carpenter to go and carry out operation in the hospital you are just going to kill the person for nothing, maritime industry is a technological industry, there are quite a number of changes that have taken place between a very short time because of the lack of knowledge of what to do.
The Nigerian National Shipping Line has gone into extinction for over two decades now, and revival have been difficult, what do you make of it?
The extinction of the NNSL created a very serious lacuna, some of the people who have claimed to be in the industry before, based their knowledge on the past experiences, there has been no consistency, so when you are discussing with somebody who operated during the NNSL of so many years ago, the vessels of today are different from the vessel of three decades; even the construction and the system , the most disgraceful thing to a nation like this is for a maritime nation to be without a National fleet. It’s disgraceful and an embarrassment especially for a nation like Nigeria that is almost at the center of maritime activities; not of only Africa but of the world.
But, it is not all successful Maritime Nation have National Lines
Yes, I agree but what do they have, they have good maritime leadership, there is nothing preventing Nigeria from having ministry of Maritime Affairs, if we have Aviation Ministry why can’t we have maritime ministry and the lion share of our economy comes from the maritime industry, the volume of goods that comes by sea is so much compared to what comes by air and land. So if we can create a ministry dedicated for the maritime industry it will go a long way.
Is it true that Nigeria seafarers are unfairly treated compared to their foreign counterpart onboard vessels?
Definitely there is no doubt about that, the number one problem that must be addressed is that there is a global international wages for seafarers, if you are a seafarer in Nigeria, it is acceptable everywhere in the world as a seafarer and what does a seafarer do, it’s to either man the ship or assist in one way and that is why in the ministry, for instance if you are an officer in Nigeria Navy, when you go anywhere the rank you have is sustainable, but because seafarers is an international profession; the expectation is that what is sustainable in terms of wages in other countries should be applicable in Nigeria also. In fact, the Maritime Labour Convention states that the wages of seafarers should be paid in dollars, but that’s not what is obtainable in Nigeria.
But why is it so?
That is because there is bad leadership, there is leadership problem; we have three challenges facing us, leadership, management problem and indiscipline and all of these accumulated to the corruption we are talking about.
What’s your assessment of the maritime industry in the last three quarters of the year?
The beauty of tomorrow depends on today and the beauty of today depends on yesterday, it is a build up for today’s survival and today is a build up for tomorrow; when we have a continuo’s failure for a very long time, you cannot expect a good performance miraculously because things follow steadily.