Monday, January 14, 2008

Liberia's Maritime Commissioner Defends 2007 PerformanceI

The New VISION Newspaper in Monrovia conducted an interview with the Commissioner of the Bureau of Maritime. Maritime is one of the major sources of revenue in the Liberian economy. Since the public evaluation of officials in consideration of their performances during the year 2007, Maritime Commissioner's Bureau took issue with the NEW VISION, saying that the "poor" mark given Commissioner John Morlu was undeserving. Based on this the Managing Editor J. Moses Gray, Contributing Editor Bill Jarkloh and Senior Reporter Robert Jadoe visited the Bureau and quizzed the commissioner what was his achievements since in fact he did not satisfy with the grading. Below is the full text of the intervies.

New Vision: Mr. Commissioner, the NEW VISION has a policy of grading public officials for their annual performances, and the paper graded you “poor”. This should not be taken personal; it is just to ensure that those in public bureaucracy buckle up. Although there has been harsh reaction, we have visited you to know why you think Maritime does not deserve a failing mark in the year. Can you tell us your achievements?

Commissioner Morlu: On several occasion we have tried in every way possible to do what we can. We were given this mandate - being the fact we were appointed, we have reason that our appointment takes effect and obviously what we have done - since I came , not trying to down play my predecessor - I am trying to apply myself according to what I know best.

When I took over the Bureau of Maritime Affairs, there were certain things - based on what I know from the United States where I live most of my life that weren’t done. It is rather surprising that the way the operations of the Bureau of Maritime Affairs was handled. I did not quite understand it initially, but gradually I came to understand what was happening.

The way the building housing offices of the Bureau was handled was not healthy. As they say, a healthy nation is a productive nation, so first thing we did was to transform certain things in the operational aspect of the Bureau of Maritime Affairs.

First and foremost, the financial area was transformed. I asked employees of the Bureau how they get paid, and of course the overwhelming response was that at the end of the month the administration often encashed one check and paid the employees by cash [in envelops]. I thought that was ridiculous. So I said no to that kind of system. From where I come, everyone gets paid by check and everyone sign for their pay.

I immediately instituted the system of paying employees by checks at the Bureau. But I went beyond that by discussing with several banks , like in the United States , the employees’ salaries go directly to checkbooks or passbooks to the employees’ bank account and a notice is given to the employees that their money has been transferred and the employees can go to the bank for their salaries.

So I sat with LBDI and say look why can’t we do this as the way forward, since this is the new age of electronic banking. I told the LBDI since that it has the Bureau’s account, the bank can open accounts for each employee so that when the Bureau’s submit a check to the bank at the end of the month for workers’ pay, the bank can distribute it to the employees’ respective accounts. That has been working very well and the employees are pleased with that. Not only that the Bureau has open doors by so doing for the employees, it has also qualified them to take a loan if they have a business venture.

Beyond that, what will be my next mission? You can not have an operation without the proper equipment. So I think today, electronic equipment like computers which make the work easier and faster of course in the process educate the employees of contemporary office performance. I have embarked on computerizing the Bureau of Maritime Affairs with internet facilities. I also created a training section in the Bureau for capacity building of the employees to qualify them in computer training program.

For the employees of the Bureau to go outside to gain such training is expensive. So, if we can bring it home where they would use their lunch breaks or off hours to gain training it is an added value to them. We have done that well. And yes, you get information out of the computer, but some time some people want to see a document for research purposes and as well as get info on the Maritime industry.

There was also never a library in the Bureau of Maritime Affairs or in the maritime program from what I know. So we embarked on creating a library here. That means all IMO conventions, all protocols, all regulatory documents and operational documents as well will be made available for people to understand how the maritime operates, and to know what the industry is about. The employees have to be educated; they have to know what their functions are and apply themselves. So we created that as well and this is helping every body.

After the civil war, many international organizations shied away from Liberia because of our security level number three. The IMO which Liberia is the second largest ship registry member in the world, there were certain benefits that Liberia was not gaining during the war years; and because of the war, IMO did not have the opportunity to come into the country to assess for themselves, for any assistant to the program that we could benefit from under the Technical Corporation.

I intervened and of course the Secretary General of IMO and the president of Liberia and I met in London where we discussed all the issues pertaining to Liberia . The Secretary General of the IMO told me that we can not come to Liberia to do any assessment or whatsoever because of the level three security aspect. I wrote Mr. Alan Doss formal SRSG to grant this special dispensation for them to come in, or otherwise we would not gain whatever benefit that should come to Liberia . I went through Vice President Joseph Boakai who called on him, and we were able to break that impasse, which means IMO personnel will come to Liberia to do a particular assessment; and for that period of time, they must have a prior notice so that the security aspect on them can be lifted. When they get to Liberia they are under the supervision of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), which the Bureau of Maritime Affairs agreed to.

This means that Liberia will benefit from several consultants from the IMO assessment of the Liberia Marie Training Institute because any course offer must meet the IMO mandatory requirements to be accepted. For example, let us take the training of seafarers. If we can train them, but can not certificate them under the IMO require courses obviously ship owners will not employ them. The Bureau of Maritime is trying its best for Liberians seafarers to be employed not only on board Liberia vessels but other vessels that are plying the oceans of the World.

The IMO have what we called a designed form which guards ships coming to our harbor and what sort of form they need, as well as how long do the ships stay in the harbor. The Bureau of Maritime Affairs had the facilitation workshop for a week and IMO sent two representatives. The workshop comprised of stakeholders including National Port Authorities, Ministry of Commerce, and Ministry Finance, Customs and all of the agencies involved with maritime and the NPA.

New Vision: Mr. Commissioner, what’s the problem with the Maritime Institute?

Commissioner Morlu: The problem we have with the Maritime Institute in Margibi County is the road. But we are working on that and this is why we have a meeting scheduled with the Ministry of Public Works. I met with President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and explained how best we can go forward with this project. She asked me to cooperate with the Ministry of Public Works with which we have had two meetings concerning the road leading to the Maritime Institute in Marshall , Margibi County .

The issue of the road has caused some delay and it is difficult to get any material there. Our best bet is to do the critical parts of the road; even when the rainy season comes, the road will be pasable for us to continue the renovation process of the Maritime Institute.

New Vision: Has money been given to the Public Works Ministry for the road?

Commissioner Morlu: No! No money has been given to Ministry of Public Works for the road. But Public Works has come up with an estimate of what it will cost, and the Bureau is studying that. To do the 14 miles stretch, it was estimated at US$806,000.00 and government has been asked by the Bureau to assist.

New Vision: But talking about the curriculum of the Maritime Institute, has it been upgraded to meet today’s reality and the IMO standard?

Commissioner Morlu: There has been some up-grading of the Institute. And that was not only the up-grading of the curriculum of the maritime institute. Due to the years of war and if we go by what is required for enrolment at the Institute, it requires high school graduates to go to the institute. But the Global Maritime Transportation School of Merchant Maritime Academy in the USA did the assessment and said due to the lack of capacity building and the fact that the Liberian children have been out of school for a long time, the standard should be brought to eight grade level; it will be gradually improved.

That is part of the change that was suggested at the Bureau of Maritime Affairs; if the Bureau sticks to high school graduate as requirement for enrolment at the institute, how many people are going to be trained there?

New Vision: The Maritime program was one of the highest contributors to the national revenue. Has the situation change and why?

Commissioner Morlu: Since the inception of this program in 1948, the highest Liberia ever reached in term of tonnage was in the 1970s before the coup. After the coup, ship owners started to run from the Liberia registry. But it was held together. In 1999 the Government of Liberia signed an agreement with LISCR the new agent of the program after ITC in 2000. Today I can proudly tell you that the total number of ships registered now have exceeded that of the 1970s, when the ITC was handling Liberia ’s Maritime Program. The program had a ship registry of 2,617 in the 1970s, and as we speak today the total number of ships in our registry stands at 2,665 vessels, a gross ton of 82.2 million and a net ton on which revenue is paid to the Government of Liberia is 44 million tons.

Revenue paid to government in 2006 from the maritime tonnage was US$10.1million and US$3.3 for the corporate. But for 2007, what has come to the government is a combined Total about US$13.1million,which has been transferred to the government through the central bank which stands for both tonnage and corporate registry is US$13.159 million. For the tonnage Tax, what went to government in 2007 is US$9,161,452 and the corporate fees is US$3,833,517 and an excess over revenue from ship owners in the tone of US$150,000 was also transferred to government. Fees for name change amounted to US$14,440.

People have asked the question why the tonnage is going up and the revenue is not. When we parted with ITC in 1999 and the new company came to being, Liberia lost a number of ships from over 2,000 vessels to 1698 vessels - most vessels left because of the war years and also because of the way we parted with ITC.

The Bureau of Maritime has been doing marketing; we have not only incurred loses, but we have also exceeded what Liberia had in the 1970s. Again, the question is: How come tonnage is going up and revenue is coming down. In the competitive world today, the maritime program is such that people feel that it is free money considering that once the ship owner can agree to fly its flag, it will gain revenue.

Because of the number countries of emerging in the maritime industry, it is no longer Liberia , Panama and those big ones that were into it before; even emerging countries now are getting into this ship registration. Ghana, Gambia, Sierra Leone are all attempting to get into the business, therefore the rate that Liberia was charging has gone down. Ship owners want to go to where they will pay the minimum. The ship owners are not going to remain with Liberia when Marshall Island, Panama and Bahamas are charging for example 20 to 10 cents per ton.

New Vision: But why is it Liberia is still making headways? Is it that there aren’t competitors in spite of the conflict situation?

Commissioner Morlu: More ships are flying Liberian flag because the Liberian regulatory bodies are very strict on what IMO requirements are, apart from the kind of service that we provide and the kind of safety aspect we demand from ship owners. Secondly the United States Coastguard heavily endorses the Liberian registry because of what the regulatory aspects are. Liberia ’s regulatory agencies are strictly in compliance with the IMO. Liberia has a very effective service and performance record while Liberia ’s registry meets up with IMO protocols and conventions as well as United Nations regulation for safety of life at sea. More ships in the Liberian registry do not have more than 20 to 25 years because of safety records.

New Vision: Talking about safety, what has happened to the lighthouses of Liberia? What is Maritime doing about them?

Commissioner Morlu: The Bureau of Maritime Affairs has embarked on the assessment of the various lighthouses at the four seaports in the country. Those lighthouses help to direct ships coming into our harbors, which makes it easier for navigation. We have taken pictures of the one at Ducor want to renovate it [displaying photographs of the lighthouse at Docur].

I just sent my people to Buchanan yesterday: we thought we have a lighthouse there, but the one in Buchanan does not exist. Therefore, a new one needs to be built. We have written the president, and she replied that the idea is good. She has given us the go ahead, but she asks that we work along with the NPA, county officials as well as the Liberia-Libyan holding company because they are the authorities of the Ducor Palace Hotel. Therefore we have to cooperate and collaborate with them.

New Vision:Another thing, Commissioner Morlu, are there any rescue centers at the ports you mentioned?

Commissioner Morlu: Well, there was a diplomatic convention in Vienna 2006 and the Secretary General felt that because of the distresses of ships, there should be five maritime rescue coordinating centers around Africa . For the west coast, Liberia was chosen to be the host; that was the meeting we had in April in Ghana - for us to put together multilateral agreement with specific role by the MRCC ( Maritime Rescue Coordinating Center)and the responsibilities of member countries.

We concluded that on the 9th of November, and we signed a multilateral agreement to put into effect starting from this year - we have to locate a place suitable for the site. I asked IMO again to give us an expert to tell us where in Liberia would be a suitable site. To set up the site we have to bring in the equipment to enable we receive signal. Beyond that, Liberia needs to have its own national rescue center(s) in the case of disaster. If there were disasters in Liberia , who brings in the various stakeholders to carryout rescue function? These are all the issues that we are working on.

New Vision: Liberia has a viably pronounced maritime program. How do you intend to celebrate this success of the program in our time?

Commissioner Morlu: The Bureau of Maritime will be hosting a board meeting in Liberia for the Regional Maritime University based in Accra, Ghana from the 25 to 28 of February. And at that meeting, I will become the Chairman of the Board , this year, Liberia should celebrate the 60th anniversary of the maritime program which started during President William V.S. Tubman’s administration. It will be appropriate if we can celebrate it during the anniversary of President Tubman because it was in his administration that the program was founded, and the former Secretary of State of the United States Mr. Stetinnus was a good friend who started the Liberia Corporation; then later became the Liberia maritime program.

New Vision: Thank you Mr. Commissioner, it is a pleasure being in your presence.

Commissioner Morlu: You are most welcome. My doors are always open for such interactions.