The Niko Ivanka Affair-A Search for the Truth or a Search for Scapegoats?

The Daily Observer welcomes the admission of liability on the part of the National Port Authority (NPA) in the sunken Niko Ivanka affair which led to the loss of several lives but it insists that it goes further by paying compensatory damages to families and relatives of those who lost their lives at sea.

No admission of liability has yet come forth from neither the Ministry of Education nor WAEC authorities and the Liberia Maritime Authority (LiMA).

The Daily Observer as well as the public would question why a single individual has been identified as the culprit in this affair. According to the NPA the Pier Supervisor, Mr. George McCay, was the person who authorized the vessel to sail.

But hard questions remain unanswered. According to a former NPA worker (name withheld), before a vessel enters the breakwaters of the port, it has to undergo Customs/joint security and NPA inspection. Further the NPA Shore Captain takes control of the vessel to steer it, with the assistance of NPA tugboats, into the harbor and dock it alongside the pier.

Similarly, according to him, a vessel leaving the port is steered, with the assistance of NPA tugboats, out of the harbor beyond the breakwaters from where the captain of the vessel takes control of his ship. The Shore Captain then boards the tugboat for the return journey into the harbor.

This is a formal process which has a chain of authority which, according to the former Port worker, prevents a single individual, especially the Pier Superintendent, who is a lower ranked NPA official in the chain of authority/command. 

Further, according to the former Port worker, the NPA maintains a log of all vessels in the harbor indicating the time of arrival and departure. It also maintains a log of all vessels waiting to enter the harbor and at which time and the duration of stay.

If indeed there was an LiMA grounding order placed on the Niko Ivanka, could the NPA Pier Supervisor have unilaterally cleared the vessel for sailing? The answer is a big “NO” according to the former NPA worker. In his opinion, the Pier Supervisor, George McCay, is being scapegoated while those chiefly responsible go with impunity.

According to NPA spokesman Malcom Scott, Mr. McCay is being forwarded to court for prosecution. But this is not enough. Legally speaking, according to a leading lawyer, the NPA management as Principal must take responsibility for the action of its agent, George McCay. In this regard, it has the obligation to pay compensatory damages to relatives and families of those who lost their lives in the Niko Ivanka disaster.

And if the management proves recalcitrant, then families and relatives of the deceased should seek intervention through the courts according to the lawyer. He furthered that if need be, legal action should be taken against the Ministry of Education and the WAEC to have them pay compensatory damages to families and relatives of the deceased.

In the case of the WAEC, there is absolutely no justification it can provide for its fatally flawed decision to convey staff and examination materials virtually at the last minute by sea aboard a decrepit vessel that sank only two hours into a 36-hour journey. Clearly there were other available means including road and air transport.

More to this, it is a well-known fact that poor road conditions in rural Liberia during the rainy season hampers travel especially for small vehicles. However four-wheel drive vehicles can negotiate muddy roads especially when equipped with winches. 

The examination materials as well as staff could have been placed aboard such vehicles to travel to Harper, Maryland. Yet still, air transport was another available means in case road travel proved impossible. 

In the opinion of former MoE officials, it was not the lack of money that necessitated the decision to opt for sea travel because the WAEC is well resourced and could certainly more than afford to convey staff and examination materials by air or even by road.

From all indications, according to them, the ill-fated decision was motivated by greed. According to them, greedy and corrupt individuals were trying to make a break, to cut corners so to speak. But they did so at the risk and peril of innocent precious lives. 

The mother of a WAEC staff who lost his life in the incident told journalists that due to the anxiety that overcame her when she learned from her son that he was travelling to Harper by sea, she placed a call to the WAEC office questioning why WAEC was taking such risk at the height of the rainy season. According to her the WAEC official told her in a cavalier manner that “life itself is a risk”.

His response suggested that he was fully aware of the risks involved but out of greed he decided to go ahead with his decision and even threatened reprisals against staff who refused to take the assignment to travel by sea. That official should by now be facing a criminal investigation along with his superiors.

And the Ministry of Education should not be left out of this. This is a Ministry known for making policy pronouncements on which they later renege. The holding of high school graduation exercises before the release of official WAEC results was strictly prohibited by the MoE but only to later renege.

Had the MoE not been remiss, the WAEC office would not have taken such a fatally flawed decision. Therefore, it has to be held to account and to provide reasons why its oversight of the WAEC office was poor or nonexistent.

At this stage it remains unclear whether the investigation promised by the LiMA has been completed. If it has, then the public has a right to know. For all what it appears, Mr. George McCay is the convenient scapegoat and there is no telling how this saga is going to unwind.

This should be a search for the truth and not a search for scapegoats!