Juliana Taiwo-Obalonye, Abuja
Mrs. Mfon Ekong Usoro, is the Secretary General of the Memorandum of Understanding on Port State Control for West and Central African Region. She is also the pioneer Director-General and Chief Executive Officer of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, NIMASA. In this interview, Mfon Usoro, who turned 60 recently, spoke on embracing her new age, being NIMASA CEO, and how marrying her childhood sweetheart, contributed to her attaining her numerous career goals.
Congratulations on your turning 60 but you look younger than your age. What are your secrets?
There is no secret. The glory goes to Jehovah God. I can’t claim to have contributed to the quality of my skin if that is what you refer to. That is 100 percent hereditary; from my mum. All I do is regular intensive walkouts and healthy eating habits. I am truly grateful to God for where and how I am today.
You are a woman of many parts – wife, lawyer, an administrator, maritime expert and others. How have you been able to manage these different shades of your life without friction?
You forgot to mention daughter and sister. My mum, by God’s grace is alive and I have siblings. How do I manage? First, I stand on the strength of women who have walked the path before me, so I know it is doable. I guess it starts from knowing who you are and what you want to become, then develop a strategy towards achieving the path one has chosen for one’s self.
I was very open with Paul, my husband before we married and after marriage with respect to my vision of myself through life. He knew as a boyfriend that this lady is quite ambitious and hardworking. He committed to support my dreams, which he has done beyond expectations throughout our life together and still very much my rock on whatever I choose to do. Paul is a very hardworking person, extraordinarily intelligent and ambitious so we are similar and that makes it easy I suppose, for him to appreciate the reason I push myself to climb the next step.
That is not to say it is a piece of cake to combine all these roles successfully. We put in our best to navigate the terrain, overcome difficulties, stay focused and carry on.
Let’s look at your time as pioneer DG/CEO of NIMASA. How did you receive the news of your appointment as the agency’s boss?
That happened so long ago. I was in Abuja on a day return trip to follow up on the bill owed to Paul Usoro & Co for drafting the NIMASA Bill which by the way remains outstanding. I met with the then Permanent Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Transportation. He informed me that we needed to see the Minister, he then led me and another gentleman to the Minister’s office. Dr Sekibo, the Minister of Transportation at the time informed us that the President has approved my appointment as the DG of NIMASA. My immediate response was, may I call and speak with my husband first please? He said you’d better be fast. I left his office, spoke with Paul on my way to the airport. The news was in the air before my flight landed in Lagos. It was then I realized that a meeting I had with the Minister a couple of months prior where he said he knew about me by reputation and engaged me in a long conversation about the transportation industry generally unbeknown to me may have been a job interview. That is all there is to that. I was not a politician, had no godfather, just an expert in my field and was pleased to have been recognized by a total stranger.
You said that Paul Usoro & Co’s professional fees for producing NIMASA Bill remains outstanding. What has happened to the outstanding fee, any hope of getting paid at all?
For full disclosure, intention to pay the professional fees was expressed. The Ministry approved payment but sent instructions to NIMASA to pay after I had become the Director General. My husband directed that I could not process that bill because his firm would be the beneficiary so the Ministry’s approval remained in the file, was never processed.
Since the circumstance has changed, is PUC and the Ministry likely to revisit the matter?
May be. A debt remains a debt.
What were the challenges that you were confronted with in NIMASA?
I enjoyed the work, the commitment of and rapport with staff. I was not equipped for the politics of public office nor inclined to acquire that set of skills. The challenge I experienced was external interference.
What is your current job as Secretary General of the Memorandum of Understanding on Port State Control for West and Central African Region (Abuja MoU) all about?
The Memorandum of Understanding on Port State Control for West and Central African Region (Abuja MoU) – is an Inter-Governmental Organization operating under a cooperative agreement with the International Maritime Organization with full diplomatic status. The Abuja MoU comprises 22 member States whose territory crosses the Atlantic ocean from Mauritania to South Africa.
The organization has transformed from being a non-performing MoU to a performing and highly regarded regional port State Control organization with active participation of increased number of member States.
Through uniform trainings, member States have achieved a high level of harmonization in standards and procedures used for the inspections, monitoring and enforcement of compliance with IMO and ILO maritime related conventions, codes and regulations by ships calling at ports in the region. Member States appreciate that the sea does not observe national boundaries, which means pollution hazards caused by a substandard ship in the waters of one member State will affect the neighbouring States and that regional cooperation offers the best solution.
Having ramped up the inspection rate conducted by better trained port State inspectors on visiting vessels, records indicate a reduction in the use of sub-standard vessels. Owners make efforts to maintain the vessels in seaworthy and safe conditions to avoid detention.
Secondly, the region is a contiguous trading zone. If a visiting ship is detained in one port due to deficiencies detected by port State control officers until the deficiencies are rectified, it delays the contractual date of the ship’s arrival at subsequent ports which impacts negatively on the entire logistics chain. The immediate effect of non-compliance is reputational risk of our region, high insurance premium, high freight rate, shortage of supply in the market and high cost of goods etc. We have been successful in creating awareness on the linkage between regulatory compliance and economic development including availability of commodities at affordable cost. Working together, and application of uniform inspection and reporting procedures, submission of outcomes on a standardized form that are fed into our automated information system has helped tremendously in reducing avoidable delays and unnecessary boarding of vessels for inspection. Inspection officers accept and adopt the inspection results on a ship already inspected by another member State within a specified period.
What’s your reaction to the increasing cases of rape and gender based violence in the country and the response from the Federal and State Governments?
The rate and gravity of rape and violence against women is shocking. I wonder whether it is an upsurge or had always been there but not detected or spoken of. The pandemic is most worrisome. I don’t get to hear about the anti-rape efforts of all the first ladies possibly because of their respective media strategies, so I cannot assess their response. I want to believe that every woman with power and authority will employ the resources available to her to fight against rape and see to a reduction in violence against women. It is unthinkable that they will not do so.
How can we check this ugly trend?
Ideally, the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act (VAPPA), 2015, should be a federal legislation with general application in all the States of the Federation. Perhaps, we should revisit that position. If Nigerian men in position of power are sincere in their advocacy against rape and violence against women, they should push aside supposedly cultural and religious sentiments and get all the States to enact the law. It should not be seen as a fight for women activists only. It affects everyone, their daughters, sisters, mothers, nieces etc. Women should withdraw support for male politicians until they obtain a written commitment on practical actions that they will undertake in the anti-rape crusade. I strongly believe that if men buy into the struggle, the incidents will be effectively curbed.
The NGOs are doing incredibly well in advocacy and assistance to victims. More and better trainings to first responders including the police on how to handle rape incidents are needed. I have to admit that lawyers also do need to be trained on handling rape cases especially when representing the defendant. Attack on the victim results in emboldening the rapists and future rapists and suppresses reporting of rape incidents. Another group that requires training are faith and religious leaders. Some become complicit by covering the crime, persuading parents to not report cases to the police or to withdraw cases already reported.
Do we have laws in Nigeria to actually effectively deal with rape and gender based violence against women?
Yes. I just mentioned one. We also have the Penal Code and the Criminal Code. It is the implementation that we worry about not inadequacy of laws.
Is Nigeria moving in the right direction?
Well, in the sense of commitment to democracy, yes. I would say though that the country could have attained greater level of development than where we are currently.
What’s your advice for women ahead of 2023 general elections?
Stop being used by the male folk. Dancing and screaming at rallies should not be our portion any longer. Women should reject that role totally because they tend to be abandoned after the elections while men share the goodies amongst themselves.
Female politicians should make efforts to influence party policies particularly in the area of financing political campaigns and gender representation in elective offices and appointments. Women should use their votes to influence policies.
How was growing up like for you and did your parents influence your career choice?
I have been blessed with a very happy and sheltered life from birth till date. I tell my friends that my life story is relatively exciting and has followed the expected trajectory for a typical Nigerian girl born into a middle class family – get educated, marry, have children, pursue a career in that order. My childhood was fun and well provided for by my loving yet very strict parents. I was born in and grew up in Calabar, attended primary school, secondary school and university, all in Calabar until marriage took me away from the Canaan City. I thank God for life itself and good health.
I got married to my childhood love the year I completed my youth service and still very much in love with him. I would rate that as one of my major achievements – investing in and enjoying a loving romantic relationship in a marriage of 36 years and loading.
My parents did not influence my career path in the sense of choosing the courses I must read. They had faith in my ability to excel and gave me massive support always.
What lessons have you learnt in life?
Do not give up. Keep hope alive and stay the course. I followed a somewhat roundabout route to where I am today. My first degree was in sociology from the University of Calabar. Studying law had always been my dream but at the time, the University of Calabar did not offer a law degree and my parents did not approve of my attending a university outside Calabar. Marriage took me to Kaduna where we lived for several years. The plan to study law soon after marriage was interrupted for two reasons, the closest universities to Kaduna were Zaria and Jos and I was not enamored by any of those options. The second reason was starting a family.
Happily, I did eventually study law and started practice in my husband’s firm. While he educated himself on telecommunications law, he encouraged me to focus on an area of law where I could develop my skills. I was intrigued by the shipping cases we handled at the time and the possibilities it offered. That is how I zeroed in on maritime laws. Next step with Paul’s encouragement and support was to obtain an LLM in Maritime Laws. So, I became a maritime lawyer through practice experience and by academic qualification and later acquired skills in maritime administration.
I currently serve as the first female Secretary General of the Memorandum on Understanding for Port State Control for West and Central African Region. A diplomatic organization comprising 22 member States. Again, a recognition of expertise by a Minister I hardly knew – Alhaji Isa Bio. He called me rather late in the evening, said I am getting into a Ministerial meeting with Ministers of the sub-region in a few minutes and plan to submit your name as the nominee from Nigeria. The rest is history.
What life lessons can you share for the benefit of women?
You know it is not a one size fits all for gender issues. It is important for women to admit that there is gender inequality and that admitting same does not make us appear weak and denial of the systemic gender bias does not increase our chances of acceptability by the male folk where power is concentrated.
Women should make a determination on what they want and work towards it. It is helpful to invest in and have financial independence even where one does not have immediate need for personal funds.
Women should stop accommodating unflattering remarks made against fellow women especially against single ladies because being married does not make one better than the unmarried and be mindful that one may become single in future either by design or eventualities. Stronger together, we stand.
It is possible to have a successful career, be a mother and a wife. If a sister finds that a desirable goal, do not be deterred by the obstacles along the way, stay on course knowing that other women have walked the path and so can you.
For the young ladies, I am mindful that priorities have evolved. However, they may wish to accommodate some flexibility and note that career advancement and marriage are not mutually exclusive goals.
Where is your favourite holiday spot?
Adventure to the less trodden parts of the world and I have had quite some.