The 2020 World Seafarers day is a unique one that was celebrated in a controlled manner as a result of the COVID- 19 pandemic. The truth is that the world has changed in our time and it will no longer be the same. It will no longer be business as usual. While celebrating this great day, it is important to recall that it was at the 2016 edition of the Seafarers day that the decision to restructure the Maritime Academy was made. It is therefore absolutely necessary for the Management of institution to give an update to the Maritime Stakeholders on the voyage so far, it will also be recalled that the Academy was near collapse when the Minister of Transportation, Rt. Honourable Rotimi Amaechi set up the Interim Ministerial Committee (IMC) in January 2017 carry out an audit of the Academy and later mandated the IMC to conclude is task (September 2017 to March 2018. I was also a part of the later IMC and I continued with the implementation of our decisions and together with my present Management have taken the Academy to the next level. I must confess that without the intervention of the Honourable Minister, the Academy would have collapsed and probably shut down. It has been a herculean task of pulling the Academy out of the doldrums. It has not been easy for me because sometimes we unintentionally hurt people while doing the right things. These people can sometimes be resistant to change and as usual fight back. In fighting back, they deploy all dirty tactics to frustrate the us. Some go on social media in their efforts to blackmail, others have sympathisers even in the media and they keep telling stories that are not true to ridicule the leadership of the Academy. This is sad because there is no competition between us and no medals are to be won. In conclusion, such misadventures are unnecessary in the first place and is not worth the energy deployed.
We are quick to compare the Academy with its counterparts in Ghana and Egypt but we have forgot to stop and ask if they have the same challenges the Maritime Academy of Nigeria has? Do they have issues with funding? Do they experience the kind challenges the host community presents to the management (Hostile activities and occasional disruption of academic activities)? If they do not have those challenges then, they should be able to move faster and focus on training. Once upon a time in future, the Academy will come out of these challenges and the focus will be only training.
Currently, we have over seventy legal cases, which we inherited from the 2012/2016 era of the Academy. Most of these legal cases are set ups as certain persons connived with some of our staff in Bursary, Works, Stores and procurement to create phantom projects and facilitate payment which they all share the proceeds. We discovered this when we came on board and most of these cases are now with the anti-graft agencies while others are in court. So far, we have won almost all the cases and lost none so far.
Today, the Academy is well positioned to train. We do not have the perfect score yet. We are still doting the i’s and crossing the t’s. Cadets no longer use pamphlets; they all have textbooks given to each of them. We have the state-of-the art classrooms, we have one of the best auditoriums in Nigeria, the infrastructure in the Academy has improved, and training aids have been upgraded and acquired. Also, our simulators that cover the Nautical and Engineering schools are all ready waiting for international flights to resume and we shall have them here. We have paid for them. We were able to block loopholes and leakages, save money and paid for the simulators. With the robust support of the Minister and his staff at the Ministry, we have been able to manage well and done better than we would have done ordinarily.
The intake of cadets before was too loud. For example, you take 2000 people per stream, how do you expect to accommodate them in the hostels and classroom? We used to have about 18 people in a room meant for two people but we listened to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) when they came to Nigeria on our invitation and at the end of the day, instead of admitting 2,000 students, we take about 300. Two students are paired in each room, they all have laptops now and so, it was easy for them to migrate to the online programmes, which we started in March 2017 to cover up for their physical absence from the Academy.
On the issue of sea time. I think errors were made. The Academy admitted over trained 2,000 plus per stream and no one remembered that once upon a time in future that they would all graduate and need to go for seatime or in search of jobs. When the supply is greater than the demand, nothing works. We have corrected this by admitting about 300 cadets per stream. This will surely reduce the number of those graduating and also facilitate qualitative training not the quantitative one.
The Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) obviously had good intentions in establishing the National Seafarers Development Programme (NSDP) even though it had a few hiccups. The new NIMASA regime is doing its best to correct this. I have interacted with their Executive Director, Maritime Labour and Cabotage Services and I know the new management is focused. They may begin to train some people locally too. They have suggested that some of the NSDP candidates can be trained here in our Academy. We do not have the capacity to absorb all they want to train so; they will still train some abroad. When these cadets graduate and everything goes super well, there will still be a disconnect. That disconnect is the absence of a national carrier. This is important because nobody will give slots to your own cadets when they have their own problems to grapple with. We need national carriers. We have enough cargo. They carry gas from here; there are many things we export. We can bring up some laws that give us a percentage to carry some of our products out of this country to wherever they are needed. Our National carriers will not be idle. Nigerian Ship owners should be given the opportunities to carry out some of these tasks.
We can also impose some laws on those vessels trading with us insisting that if they want to trade with Nigeria, then they should have a certain number of cadets on board, maybe two, three or five all the time and the owners of such vessels should get some concessions from the government. With that, our seafarers will get employment and it becomes a win-win.
IMPACT OF COVID-19
Remember that over 70% of the world is water and almost 80% of international trade is by sea because of the heavy-duty cargo. So, COVID-19 pandemic has impacted adversely on the maritime industry because with about 80% of trade has been put hold, and has affected everybody. An example is the Maritime Academy of Nigeria, since charity begins at home let talk about us before others. The simulators, recently acquired by the Academy are all stranded in India due to stoppages occasioned by the pandemic. We hope there will be a window for them to be shipped into Nigeria as soon as possible. The truth is that if care is not taken, most of the economies of the world will go into depression. There would be loss of Jobs. Some companies may collapse. The government has to come with plans to restart the economy and help shipping companies to get back on their feet with some support. There would be a redundancy period, which will be quite expensive and filled with uncertainties. It will be take a while for jobs to be regained. That maybe about 2 or 3 years later, so the question is, will they still be fit to continue with their jobs at that time? That is one of the adverse effects of COVID. If the ports are not fully operational, countries that depend on imports will soon start having shortages. There maybe a good side to the Pandemic saga. People will start looking inwards and begin to produce things they were not making locally before. For example, last year, which would have told Nigerians to produce sanitisers, ventilators or face masks? Who would have told us to start equipping our hospitals? Now, we do so because the Pandemic has challenged us. Things we thought we could never survive without, we have lived without them in the past three months. This means that when things return to normal, we may never return to them. The world has changed; the way we do business has changed too. This has affected the maritime sector. The Post COVID-19 era will be different from the world we were used to.
SEAFARERS STRANDED AT SEA
It could have been an oversight but we should not be reactionary in our future plans. We must be anticipatory. We should not let things happen before we start reacting. We must plan towards it even if it eventually does not happen. There is nothing wrong with NIMASA or NPA having some guesthouses not necessarily near the ports, where people can be quarantined in case of futures pandemics like this. We do not know when the next Pandemic will come; we do not even know when this one will end. It is important for us to always have a Plan B.
Instead of leaving people stranded at sea, they can bring them in and take them straight to the suggested guest houses to be quarantined. After the quarantine period, they can go home. Those going on board can also be taken there and after the quarantine period, they get on the buses, and head straight to the ships. The suggested guest houses can be use as regular hotels after the pandemic to generate revenue. Doing so, we won’t have any problems. Also, the Port Health Service needs to be properly trained to do their jobs. Shipowners and/or agents should also do their best to motivate and ensure the wellbeing of their seafarers who are stranded at sea. The welfare of seafarers must be improved upon as a way to encourage them to continually provide quality service.
SEXUAL HARASSMENT AND DISCRIMINATION OF FEMALES ON BOARD
The Maritime environment is not friendly to females but some females have lion hearts and have decided to ride the waves. Yes, they should also be protected and if there is any complaint by anyone, it should be properly investigated and anyone found guilty should be dealt with according to the provisions of international and local laws. People who abuse females should really be barred from boarding vessels.
DEPRESSION AND BREAKDOWNS ON BOARD SHIPS
A ship is a confined space. You look left, right and towards the horizon and all you just see is water. If people stay longer than necessary at sea, it is enough to cause depression in a few of them but one thing I know from personal experience that nobody suffers permanent depression for staying at sea. The excitement returns once you are back ashore. In my 32 years experience, I have not seen one person who suffered acute or permanent depression. People can get claustrophobic and this can cause disorientation. But there are ways to ease these tensions on board, some vessels have satellite phones and they allow the crew call their families. There are also satellite televisions on some vessels. Sailors usually travel with a lot of videos, others play games and this somehow keeps them happy and stabilises their moods as they do their jobs..
WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT FOR SEAFARERS & MARITIME STAKEHOLDERS
Seafarers know the challenges of job they signed up for, it is one of the hardest jobs in the world but the hope is that there will always be light at the end of the tunnel.
Among Maritime Stakeholders, there is need for more cooperation especially in this time of the Pandemic. We all have to stand together and ensure that all the guidelines to protect seafarers are in place. Shipowners should ensure that everything their personnel on board need are given to them. Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) guidelines should be strictly adhered to, no cutting of corners. With this, I think life will be better as we hope that the Pandemic will go away.
by The Nigerian Maritime News