By Alayaki Ganiyu
IT was always going to take strong political will and determination of one person to put an end to every act that stunts growth. Such willpower was found in abundance in one man, the man currently at the helm of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, NIMASA.
Dr Dakuku Peterside took a keen interest in NIMASA’s transformation after his appointment about three years ago. He never shirks a challenge when it comes to innovations and issues close to his heart. The issue of coastal and inland trade, popularly known as Cabotage, is one of such.
Virtually stakeholder and expert knew that the purpose for the promulgation of the Cabotage Act would not be realised if the issue of waivers was not decisively dealt with. But the challenge was the courage to deal with waivers.
The Cabotage Act in Nigeria is modelled on the Jones Act in America, which was promulgated in 1920 to regulate maritime commerce in the United States.
The Act requires that goods shipped between US ports are to be transported on ships that are built, owned and operated by US citizens or permanent residents.
So as early as the 1920s, the United States knew that the country’s indigenous maritime capacity would not grow if there was no law to protect its citizens. In fact, the Jones Act has tagged protectionist legislation before it was passed.
It, therefore, means there is no harm in protecting Nigerians through the cabotage regime. Precedents had been set since the early 19th century.
Interestingly, Nigerian stakeholders were ready to face the consequences, in order to reap the expected economic benefits, when the Act was passed in 2003. But somehow, the system began to find a lazy way out through the issue of waivers on the building, ownership and manning of ships after it was clear that there was no way waiver could be applied to the registration.
The waiver issue kept creeping into the cabotage regime and, perhaps most painfully, the level of unemployment in the country kept mounting, as Nigerians kept on losing vital job opportunities to foreigners. It was an unfortunate situation. Despite the enormous job opportunities, Nigerians were schemed out of petty employments onboard Nigerian vessels.
It was amazing that in most cases, Nigerians were the ones that came up with the excuses that there were no qualified Nigerians to take charge of some aspects of their ships.
However, seafarers kept lamenting that there were qualified Nigerians who were simply being denied job opportunities due to them.
The problem was never that the Cabotage Act was not properly crafted to suit the Nigerian environment. The Act attached exorbitant amounts on waiver requests to manning requirements to deter prospective applicants, namely ship-owners, shipping companies, and agents from making applications, as the Nigerian alternative would be cheaper.
To take care of teething troubles during the implementation of the cabotage law, applications for the highly skilled crew, such as captains, chief engineers, chief officers, and first mate, were made less expensive than those of second engineer, second mate, and cooks. This because it is common knowledge that the number of Nigerian skilled officers could not adequately cater for the shipping industry needs because of the volume of trade.
Volume of trade
But surprisingly, despite the measures put in place to grow cabotage, shipping companies tended to prefer the use of foreigners on their vessels to Nigerians, even for jobs like crew members as low as cleaners, not minding the cost. This was probably because the viability of the maritime sector made the cost of waivers infinitesimal in ratio to the expected profit. Nigerian maritime workers continued to demonstrate and ask what kind of foreigners could cook the Nigerian meals better at least to go to the simplest of all tasks on vessels.
Cabotage was, therefore, being dangerously preyed on by a master waiver predator, which was not going to leave its catch except it saw a master hunter. That hunter the regime found in Dakuku in 2016.
Sometime in 2017, NIMASA came up with a publication that it was temporarily going to suspend the issuance of waivers on the manning requirement under the Cabotage Act. Obviously, this was to test the waters. The effect of the publication was tremendous, as it led to a rapid increase in the number of Nigerians on board cabotage vessels.
The Dakuku-led maritime administration continued to source sea time for graduates of the Nigerian Seafarers Development Programme, NSDP, because it was also mentioned that the dearth of trained and certified seafarers was the reason waiver applicants could not get Nigerians to work on board. At that time, the NSDP programme, which was an interventionist programme floated by the Agency, was facing its own challenges of sea time training.
So the NIMASA management took the carefully crafted strategy that had answers to every stage of implementation to solve the waiver problem. In early 2018, Dakuku held a no holds barred meeting with the International Oil Companies, IOCs, and gave a warning that for any vessel working for them with a foreigner on board there should be a succession plan for a Nigerian to take over under the guidance and training of the experienced foreigner.
So as they were applying for a waiver they were coming with a trainee that will take over in the shortest time possible.
From then, it was evident that the biggest hurdle to Cabotage Act implementation had been scaled. So when recently the Agency called the stakeholders to announce that it had finally suspended waivers, especially on manning, indefinitely, the message obviously sank in. It was clear that there was no going back on the issue of Nigerians benefitting more from the industry.
It was the fulfilment of a crucial economic desire to free the maritime industry from the shackles of Cabotage waiver.
* Alayaki works as a PR Officer at NIMASA.