collecBob Yousuo Joseph, a marine engineer, is the National President of Nigeria Merchant Navy Officers and Water Transport Senior Staff Association (NMNOWTSSA). He speaks on the future of the Nigerian maritime industry as the new Lekki Deep Sea Port commences operation. PAUL OGBUOKIRI brings excerpts
You will clock three years in office this January as National President of the Nigeria Merchant Navy Officers and Water Transport Senior Staff Association (NMNOWTSSA). Can you speak on the journey so far?
The journey is not all that easy or rosy but I thank God that about 80 per cent of my campaign promises have been fulfilled. Most promises contained in my manifesto have been achieved, though not all but at least, 80 per cent. Again, we still have a year left for our administration to wind down. I believe that by the special grace of God, that before the end of my first tenure, I will be able to prove a point by accomplishing all my promises.
Remember how difficult it used to be for people to access our secretariat for enquiries about the union. It wasn’t a befitting place for us; the environment wasn’t it. And as I promised, I was able to take them out of that area within six months of my administration with the support and cooperation of my executives and secretariat staff.
Now, we are now at the hub of maritime activities with very specious and conducive office edifice applauded by our members, stakeholders and even the international community. Note that we are yet to get to the Promised Land as our expectations are quite high. As of today, we are by ITF affiliation obliged to care for the welfare and wellbeing of both Nigerian and international seafarers alike. We also intervene as well as proffer solutions to seafarers’ challenges.
It behooves us to see that seafarers from other countries are protected and taken good care of, whenever they find themselves in the line of duty within our territorial waters. Besides, we do visit prisons and correctional facilities where these local and foreign seafarers are detained for alleged offences for the sole aim of securing their freedom or release.
The NMNOWTSSA you know today is not the same union of four years ago as the issue of proliferation has reduced. We have gained more recognition as well as reputation. We are professional seafarers and not uniform wearing outfits despite the fact that we are a para-military outfit. A seafarer is a Merchant Navy and these are some of the things we have been educating and enlightening people about in the last three years and it is yielding positive results; hence issues of clashing with the Nigerian security agencies have been reduced to the nearest minimum. Issues of members being arrested are no longer in the news as a result of the aggressive campaign strategy to the public.
We are also working round the clock to get more members to be part of the union and you can see that many professional seafarers are embracing the association and they are proud of joining us because of our relevance. By the special grace of God also, we have been able to unionise more companies under my administration. Not only unionising them, we also assist in the collecJosephtive bargaining agreement that is being reviewed every two years. And I want to believe we have tried our best.
It was barely two months after you emerged as president of the union that the COVID-19 struck in 2020. How were you able to manage the situation with members?
We were able to manage the situation very well. Even the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown inclusive also brought us to the limelight because it made both the international community and our maritime stakeholders realise that our administration was worthy to deal with. At that time also, we were able to relate effectively with NIMASA and ITF on how to assist members and the seafarers across board.
Recall that palliatives were distributed to the union by these organisations and those items were used judiciously and we spread those items across to even non-members seafarers; we ensured that those that are in need got the palliatives.
Aside from the palliatives, we also carried out a sensitization programme for seafarers, whereby we made them understand the preventive and protective methods against COVID-19 while onboard ships. In summary, we were able to do the little we could and thank God that we did not record any case of death of a member during the pandemic. Our campaign also made Nigerian seafarers understand that the pandemic was real and can kill.
Because of the Coronavirus, we can state here that Nigerian seafarers were duly recognised globally and the Federal Government, thus, they became essential and frontline workers as at that time of the pandemic through our struggle and pressure. We thank NIMASA and the Federal Government. Though you cannot shy away from the fact that crew change was a major issue during the pandemic but above all, we give God the glory that we were able to come out stronger after the pandemic.
In view of the state of the Nigerian maritime industry today, what type of leader do you have in mind for Nigeria?
We are looking at a leader with listening ears. We need a leader, who will be current and innovative; who will be on ground and not someone who will believe more in advice; a conscious, intellectual and brave leader. The maritime industry needs a leader, who will appoint technocrats into offices and not all round politicians. Our new leader should be able to appoint a Transport Minister, who is grounded in the industry and not the other way around. In fact, with the present situation in our country, we must vote for a unifier with proven track records of sincerity and competency.
What is your projection for 2023 as the National President, NMNOWTSSA?
Our projection for 2023 is to ensure that the year puts a smile on the face of seafarers, mostly our members. Though the election might influence so many things, we feel this year will be great. I am an optimist and I want to believe that things that are yet to be achieved will be completed this time around by the special grace of God.
Can you tell us some of those things yet to be accomplished?
By His grace, this year, I want to unionise more companies, more CBAs for members. Therefore, our priority for the year is to ensure that we achieve this target. That’s number one. Number two is to increase our ITF membership. We will also work round the clock to get a befitting Guest House for the association and also see how we can reconcile with Trade Union Congress (TUC) in terms of affirmation fees. The TUC membership is very paramount for this year and we will achieve that this year. Again, we also need more vehicles for the national officers and secretariat staff.
In less than a year in office, a brand new operational vehicle was obtained. What was the magic?
It’s not magic or rocket science but the ability to understand the capacity of the stakeholders you are dealing with; their strengths and limitations. It’s not about ‘Party A’ has gotten this, so we must get ours. We requested and NIMASA gave us. So, the favour was at work for us. Every government has its own style of administration and NIMASA as an organisation, we must first understand what their functions are because we need to understand the functions of agencies before saying or deciding anything. We are directly under Maritime Labour and not NIMASA as a whole.
What is your rating of NIMASA’s performance last year in terms of operations? Did they meet up with your expectations?
I cannot say they met our expectations because if I say so, I am lying but I can say they are trying. NIMASA is trying to perform their duties but to me, it is not satisfactory; thus, they have not met my expectations. I know they are trying their best but their best may not be good enough for me or the association. If I say that they are good enough, have all the shipping companies complied? Most of them are not complying. Their enforcement is not up to 60 per cent. Many of the ship owners and manning agencies are not following the regulations. So, NIMASA should look into that area and make sure that enforcement is carried out and make sure ship owners comply with the regulations. They are doing their best but their best is not good enough.
World Seafarers Day colloquium and World Fishery Day celebration by the association seem to have come to stay. Are you going to continue by keeping the programme going every year?
They are here to stay and we are going to make them better every year. As you can see, the year before the last was not good enough but last year’s was better and this year’s will be better than last year’s edition. Like World Fishing Day, it is going to be an annual event. The World Fishing Day celebration by our association is the first of its kind in Africa.
Are you working with other sister unions to achieve a better working condition for your members?
Yes! We are working together. In fact, since I came in, our relationship has been getting better. The President General of Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria (MWUN) is a man that listens; we put heads together with other executives and we are working together. We have a harmonious relationship. That is why things are getting better in the industry. Our collaboration extended to Port Harcourt, where we had Nigeria Joint Seafarers Collaborating Unions between the Offshore Zonal Council and NIWA/Seamen branch of MWUN. They even visited NIMASA and fought for seafarers that have cases in court together.
You mentioned earlier that the disputes between the Navy and Police with your members have reduced drastically. How were you able to achieve this?
When I came in, I made sure I sensitized the seafarers and the general public on who is a seafarers and Merchant Navy. Merchant Navy is our name and the uniform is our right but who wears the uniform and how do you wear the uniform and where do you wear the uniform to? Even in developed countries, military men don’t wear uniforms and move around. But in the mentality of Nigerians, they feel that uniform is power and I made them understand that they cannot wear the uniform on the streets, intimidating people. Unfortunately, most of the people wearing the uniform are not Seafarers. The people arrested by police are not seafarers. A seafarer cannot wear uniforms and be parading on the streets. The uniform is necessary when you want to wear it to an occasion and identify yourself. Nobody can embarrass you but it is bad when you wear a uniform and want to compare yourself to the Navy; then, there will be a problem. But now that the Navy has seen the original, the fake group definitely had to move away. Most of them have seen and identified the original group.
If you are to advise the Federal Government, what is the best way for certified seafarers to get employed?
The first way to get employed is that we must have more Cabotage vessels because it is the only one that can give us guarantee and right to man the vessel from head to bottom because it is owned by Nigeria. We must also have bilateral agreements with other foreign flag vessels, so that when they come in, they will give our officers a quota to man. The most important thing is that our Cabotage should increase; Nigerians should buy more vessels because every day, seafarers are passing out from various institutions and they need jobs. So, I encourage the Federal Government and indigenous ship owners to buy more vessels to accommodate our up-coming seafarers for cadetship and employment. Other countries too need seafarers and if we equip our seafarers to have endorsement with other foreign flags, they can also go out to work in foreign flags because there are some Nigerians working with foreign flags even with Nigerian CoC. All they need is endorsement from other flags and states.
NIMASA recently sent some cadets abroad for training despite the indigenous maritime schools in Nigeria. Do you think this was necessary?
Yes, there is a need for foreign training and as much as there is a need for foreign training, there is a need for local training too. If you train and they have their cadetship done, they are going to be foreign going CoC holders. So, we must have both Foreign CoC and NCV. When NCV vessels come, Nigerian cadets will take over and those that went abroad will take charge of the bigger tankers.
So, there is a need for foreign training of cadets. I don’t have anything against it but when they finish, let them be sent for cadetship. Again, when they come back, they should be given requisite retraining to make them complete seafarers. They should help them so that they can go for their CoC and graduate within the normal period; not that they will keep them for years. Make sure that if you are sending 20, once they are coming back, you are sending them for cadetship; send them to the tankers and NLNG for training. Make sure they attain these training and give them a job and if you don’t have jobs for them, they have their CoC, they can move on. That is the most important thing.