By Izuchukwu Ozoemena
When in 1995 the Nigerian Shippers’ (NSC), in collaboration with the National Judicial Institute (NJI), berthed the Maritime Seminar for Judges (MSJ), the concept was to make it entirely a Nigerian affair. Essentially, the major objective of the biennial conference was to fill a gap noticed in the training process of judicial officers which was defective in the area of admiralty laws and matters so as to resolve the bottlenecks this has been creating in adjudicating maritime cases to enhance trade facilitation. Twenty three years down the line, the scope of the MSJ has become widened to include legal experts from other parts of Africa participating.
More than anything else, the massive presence of jurists and legal experts from the continent perhaps stands out the 2018 edition just ended in Abuja. The presence of justices, chief judges and other legal pundits from Ghana, Sierra Leone, Gambia, etc is a testimony to views canvassed at the conference that the MSJ was now assuming a sub-regional dimension and would, with time, become a platform to discuss ways to deepen the knowledge of admiralty laws by legal officers at the continental level.
As Justice Walter Onnoghen, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, succinctly expressed at the opening ceremony, “the objective of this seminar is to keep our judges abreast with the basic and contemporary skills and knowledge of the complex and dynamic subject of Admiralty Law and Practice as it affects the administration of justice. This is imperative as the adjudicatory duty of a judicial officer can only be performed optimally when he remains up-to-date with emerging trends in jurisprudence pertaining to this specialized area of law.”
Onnoghen cautioned that for the economic development of Nigeria and other countries in the sub-region to be possible, judicial officers involved in interpreting and resolving disputes arising from the maritime sector must be properly groomed in the nuances of the sector.
In support of the international dimension being introduced into the conference, the governing board chairman of the NSC, Mai Mala Buni, stressed that “the strategic links between maritime law and the economic development of our various countries cannot be overemphasized. There is no better forum than this where experts could come together to rub minds on how to better position the maritime sector to meet international standards and profitability”.
Exchanging views with Business & Maritime West Africa, director- general of the Ghana Chamber of Shipping, Dr. Kofi Mbiah, hailed Nigeria’s step in introducing the conference years back and supported the move to reach out to other maritime nations in Africa to be part of it. Maritime business, he stated, is international. Therefore, any efforts aimed at deepening the knowledge base of judicial officers in maritime matters to avail them the needed capacity to handle maritime cases must not be limited to one country. “Nigeria is on the right step.” He recommended the Nigerian model to every other maritime nation in Africa.
For Mrs. Jean Chiazor-Anishere, Lagos-based maritime lawyer and President, African Women in Maritime (WIMAFRICA), the involvement of jurists and legal officers outside Nigeria underlines the realization and appreciation of the nature of shipping as an international business. “It also means the appreciation of the need to promote the ease of doing business within the cross- border regions. Thus, the appreciation of the need to synchronize our laws which vides a speedy ratification and domestication of relevant conventions which will promote safety and security of cross-border trade while facilitating trade within the West African coast and cross-border regions.”
Speaking on the event, Lagos maritime lawyer, Barrister Osuala Nwagbara, referred to the large attendance of jurists and lawyers from neighbouring countries and acknowledged that it shows a widening acceptance within Africa and beyond of the seminar as a specialized flagship training programme for judicial officers in Maritime and Admiralty Law.
“We see academics, practising lawyers and judges versed in maritime and admiralty law coming together to discuss and examine extant, new and emerging issues on the topics carefully selected for discussion, and also taking a look at decided cases, making a critique of them with a view to guiding judges in their adjudicatory functions.”
He noted that the involvement of legal experts outside the shores of Nigeria shows the acceptance of Nigeria as a leading maritime nation in the West and Central Africa in the development of maritime and admiralty laws.
“It shows that more and more countries in this neighbourhood are beginning to appreciate that there is need to have laws and judicial decisions that are as close as possible in this special area of the law. He predicted that with the trend, there is hope for emergence - in not too distant future - of a common legal regime and legal procedures in the English- speaking West and Central African countries. He commended the Nigerian Shippers’ Council for this wonderful initiative.
NSC’s Executive Secretary and Chief Executive Officer, Mr. Hassan Bello, thanked all participants, especially the Chief Justices of Gambia, Ghana and Sierra Leone for taking part in the seminar which is aimed at moving the African maritime industry forward.
While thanking his colleagues on the 2018 MSJ committee for their diligence and sacrifice in making the outing a huge success, Hon. Justice A. A. Kafarati, a Judge of the Federal High Court, aligned with an important suggestion from a number of stakeholders, namely, to change the timing of the seminar from a biennial affair to an annual event. He acknowledged the need to expand the frontiers of participation to include countries in West Africa and even beyond.