Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The 'new' ferries are 27 years old

First published in January 2014 about the "Aljamdu" and "Kansala" ferries.


Faced with a persistent problem of ferrying passengers, cars, commercial trucks and animals across the north and south banks of the country divided in half by the River Gambia, resulting in huge economic cost to the economy, the government of Yaya Jammeh decided to enter into a joint venture with a Greek company to purchase "a fleet of new ferries", according to State House's own website, "that will take over service at the Banjul - Barra crossing."

The joint venture between government and a Greek firm named Gallia Holdings Ltd. purchased two ferries eventually christened "Aljamdu" and "Kansala" at a total cost of Euro 6,345,000 which, in today's exchange is approx. $ 8.7 million.  The two vessels were commissioned on 23rd July 2011 to coincide with the 17th anniversary of when Yaya Jammeh seized power unconstitutionally from a democratically-elected government of Sir Dawda Jawara.  The operation of the ferries were entrusted to the Greek company that also has a controlling shares of 55% of the venture.

It became evident soon after the vessels' arrival that there was trouble.   The vessels' size and type were inappropriate.  The roll on, roll off, vessels were incompatible with the existing ramps, suggesting that the vessels were not suitable for the purposes for which they were intended.  For instance, the entire front end of one of the vessels broke off and sank at sea off Barra in January last year, and the other has been mooring at the port facilities in Banjul or at the TransGambia crossing up-river.

Apart from their occasional use during "Dialogue with The People's Tour" by Jammeh, these vessels, which cost the joint venture $ 8.7 million, have never been operated commercially since their arrival in The Gambia. Operationally, one would consider them to have been effectively mothballed.  As a consequence, the smaller class ferries, "Johe" and "Kanilai", dubbed locally as the "floating coffins" continue to ply irregularly, and so ever dangerously across the 7 nautical miles, putting Gambian lives at risk with every journey.  Until issues surrounding the "Aljamdu" and "Kansala" are resolved, the Banjul-Barra crossing will continue to pose a threat to life for those condemned to using unsafe ferries.

For those unfamiliar with international maritime protocol, every vessel manufactured in a member state of the International Maritime Organization has an identification number.  In the case of "Aljamdu" and "Kansala", a curious occurrence was discovered, both vessels shared a single ID number : IMO 8881577.   According to Lloyd's Intelligence Report, both vessels were built in January 1987. So to refer to these vessels as new by Jammeh is incorrect.  At least one or both vessels were registered in the Marshall Islands, presumably by the new venture company under a different name.  While the beneficial owner or owners is/are unlisted, the registered owner is listed as Contess Navigations Inc. in the Marshall Island.  For our purposes, what we need to know is that the vessels are 27 years old, and are registered Marshall Island.  However, the registration of one of them was later transferred to Sierra Leone.                                                                                                                                      
Maritime records cast further doubt on the physical and structural integrity of one of the vessels which showed it was involved in a collision with another vessel in the northern Aegean Sea on the 13 March 2001 resulting in hull damage (holed, cracks, structural failure).  In the same accident with 'Thassos V'  which occured in dense fog, the starboard bow and hatchway suffered minor damage with one person injured.

How the two vessels could share one identification number was puzzling enough for us to reach out to expert marine engineer who has been following Gambian affairs and particularly Gambian Ports Authority's (GPA) ferry operations.  His explanation was that the "'Kansala' was registered from 3 May 2011 to 4th May 2013, and 'Aljamdu' was registered from 5th May 2013 to present.  From  2011 - 2013, "Aljamdu" was registered in Sierra Leone, and from 5th of May 2013 to date the registration has been moved to Panama.  After extensive scrutiny of ownership records, "Kansala's" identity has now been established as the former "Sopia P" with an IMO number 8421248.  The last recorded beneficial owner and Commercially operator of "Sophia P" now called "Kansala" was one Mr. Alexandros Boufis of Spetses, Greece.

Meanwhile, we will continue our scrutiny in order to shed more light about the ownership of these vessels and what happens particularly to the 45% government portion of the joint venture. Meanwhile, the continued lack of regular ferry service between Barra and the capital city of Banjul, is causing major disruptions to the economy and the the lives of ordinary Gambians.

Before the diplomatic break-up, Taiwan had procured replacement engines, propulsion and steering systems for the two smaller class ferries "Johe" and Kanilai" to put them back in service but there's still no visible improvement.  Is it possible that the $1.5 million worth of replacement parts have been diverted and sold instead?  The Gambia Ports Authority operations are inefficient, its management corrupt and has become bankrupt as a result.  Meanwhile, hundreds of passengers and vehicles remain stranded on both sides of the river - another glaring failure of an incompetent and very corrupt regime.