No shortcuts in ship and port security

In 2004, when the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code was entered into force, ports in West and Central Africa eagerly declared their compliance with this set of measures. The ISPS Code, aimed at enhancing the security of ships and ports, was specifically developed ‘in response to the perceived threats to the maritime industry in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.’

Yet the United States Coast Guard said in a recent Port Security Advisory (PSA) that some of these ports are not properly implementing the measures set out by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). Are our ports circumventing international standards at a time when the Gulf of Guinea is increasingly becoming the most insecure maritime area in the world?

This question is being raised 10 years after the ISPS Code was entered into force, and at a time when the IMO is evaluating the application of its conventions. The ISPS Code provides a comprehensive set of rules, which draw on theSafety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention – the IMO principal convention that deals with maritime security and safety. The ISPS Code addresses threats against ports, ships, seafarers, cargo and the maritime industry in general.

More specifically, it is a response to sabotage, terrorism, piracy, theft, illegal fishing, stowaways and smuggling at sea. The code, like the SOLAS Convention, is binding for all 170 IMO member states that have ratified the convention.

When the ISPS Code was entered into force, the ports of the 20 coastal states of the Gulf of Guinea, like other ports around the world, showed keen interest in certifying their facilities as being in line with these standards. They appointed security officers – even though these officers were not knowledgeable on all aspects of the Code – and developed security plans with the support of independent experts, who were themselves learning the IMO new standards.

From the onset, there was optimism that the minimum requirements were being met. After this learning phase, it was necessary to establish effective and reliable security systems. To use a phrase from the IMO Secretariat, this step should have been ‘the end of the beginning’ of the process.

The United States Coast Guard has established itself as the de facto ratification agency to ensure the successful implementation of the ISPS Code. Indeed, the United States of America (USA) – who had initiated the Code – passed a law in 2002 (the Maritime Transportation Security Act) under which their officers undertake inspections in foreign ports.

Coastguard inspections also allow ship owners, shipping companies and insurers to get a global overview of port security. A port identified in a Port Security Advisory as not complying with the ISPS Code is considered to be on a ‘blacklist’ of unsecure ports. All ports, including those in the Gulf of Guinea, care about their image. They hold up the ISPS Code as a seal of good management, just as much as (or even more than) the standards of the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO).

Officially, the ports of the Gulf of Guinea are certified as complying with the ISPS Code because each government has delivered declarations of conformity. Whether they actually adhere to the provisions of the Code, and whether the United States Coast Guard grants credibility to their certifications, remains to be seen. Pirates and robbers frequently attack ships that have anchored, and stowaways have easy access to ships in dock.

The most recent Port Security Advisory, which was published on 15September 2014, classifies seven countries in West and Central Africa as dysfunctional. (A total of 16 countries are classified as dysfunctional worldwide.) They are Cameroon, C√¥te d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Nigeria and S√£o Tom√© and Pr√≠ncipe. The bulletin shows, however, that significant progress has been made in countries such as Nigeria, where several port facilities have passed the USA test.

This is particularly important for Nigeria, which is considered to be the epicentre of piracy and oil smuggling in the Gulf of Guinea. In contrast, it is a shame that C√¥te d’Ivoire, which was first put on the blacklist in June 2011, continues to be listed. Its maritime and port authorities seem to be making an effort: in particular, they have out-sourced security matters to a credible private company, which is setting up mechanisms such as continuous monitoring systems with surveillance cameras and patrols.

The countries of the region that are not fully implementing the Code should bear in mind that accidents in the maritime domain have tragic and irreversible consequences. The Senegalese tragedy of the sinking of the Joola is still fresh in peoples’ minds. On the night of 26 September 2002, the Joola – designed to carry no more than 550 people – sank off the coast of Gambia. The accident resulted in the death of 1 863 people. The Senegalese president at the time, Abdoulaye Wade, accused the ship’s management of negligence and consideredit the result of human error.

Today, Senegal seems to be learning from the tragedy by trying to clarify the responsibilities of various departments involved in the maritime field, and giving priority to security and safety measures.

It would be a shame if other countries were to wait until they experience tragic events like this to make maritime safety and security a priority. Authorities should take appropriate measures towards the permanent application of IMO standards. Training for the purpose of merely passing an inspection or audit can have dramatic consequences: in matters of safety and security, improvisation and cheating never pay off.

The Regional Economic Communities (RECs) should also play a key role. The Commission of the Economic Community of the States of West Africa (ECOWAS) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) should consider specific actions towards port safety and security when implementing their respective maritime strategies. For example, they should periodically assess the port security of their member states, and implement recommendations.

As indicated by the IMO Secretary-General Koji Sekimizu, IMO conventions will only have the expected effect if states and the maritime industry properly apply them. Countries of the Gulf of Guinea, with the support of the RECs, should effectively implement the provisions of the ISPS Code and be taken off the United States Coast Guard’s blacklist. The infamous sinking of the Joola is a constant reminder that maritime safety and security measures must be prioritised.

Barthelemy Blede, Senior Researcher, Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Division, ISS Dakar