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Monica Nkechi Mbanefo

Rewriting Women into Maritime History

This article was written for the Rewriting Women into Maritime inititative by Mariana Noceti, Principal Programme Assistant, at the International Maritime Organization.


Monica Nkechi Mbanefo


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Monica Nkechi Mbanefo, cover of Lawyer, 2016.

Family has played a very important role in Monica Mbanefo's life. Her father believed in the value of education for all seven of his children, the girl as well as the boys. He always said that “education is an everlasting meal ticket. Give your children money and they can spend it in a day. Give them education and it will last for ever”. 

Following her law studies at the University of lfe, now Obafemi Awolowo University, Ms. Mbanefo was called to the Nigerian Bar as a Solicitor and Advocate of the Supreme Court of Nigeria in 1973. Subsequently, she joined the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Justice as a State Council and worked in various capacities, including legislative drafting, civil litigation, mercantile law, labour relations and industrial law, maritime and transport law. 

This sort of law "rotation" allowed her to develop her knowledge of law as it related to shipping and was what first peaked her interest in the sector. 

Her curiosity for the International Maritime Organization (IMO) specifically sparked off at the World Maritime Day celebration in Lagos, in 1979. She remembers the theme very clearly, “Safer Shipping and Cleaner Oceans”. 

Between 1984 and 1990, Ms. Mbanefo represented the Nigerian Government in a variety of IMO meetings, as well as meetings of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). 

During this time, she was also responsible for drafting the National Shipping Policy Act 1987, which set up the National Maritime Authority of Nigeria. Following this historical event, she was selected as one of the inaugural Directors of the Board of the Authority.  The first and only woman on the Board, which may be described as the first of many trailblazing positions in Ms. Mbanefo's career. 

When asked about the maritime sector when she was first starting out, Ms. Mbanefo states that the perception in those times was that the seas and matters relating thereto were regarded as a man's domain and no place for a woman.  IMO being an agency concerned with maritime safety, security and marine environmental protection, it naturally followed that its activities had, until the recent past, been dominated by men. 

There was a significant breach of tradition when she became the first woman to be hired at the directorate level in IMO in December of 1990, joining the Secretariat as Senior Deputy Director and Head of the Legal Office. She recalls the moment when she collected the form to apply for the vacancy and being advised against applying by a very senior African officer, because she had too many "disadvantages" against her: firstly, that she was a black African and more seriously that she was a woman. All the senior staff of the organization at the time were men, the women were mainly secretaries and the highest women were the very few senior translators. 

Ms. Mbanefo also mentions that when she visited the Secretariat to sign her employment papers, work in the Organization came to a standstill. The staff, on learning about her arrival, filled the corridors to see the woman who had broken the taboo. She recalls that the women were particularly happy about what they saw as new hope for them in the Organization. They arranged a welcome party for her, to which they invited then Secretary-General, Mr. William O’Neil. The President of the IMO women’s group, in her address, thanked Mr. O'Neil for the honour done to women by appointing her to such a high position in the organization, to which Mr. O'Neil replied:“I did not appoint Ms. Mbanefo because she is a woman. I appointed her because she was the best candidate”, recounts Ms. Mbanefo. There was thunderous applause.  

During her tenure as Head of the Legal Office, one of Ms. Mbanefo's proudest career moments was the opportunity to address the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, in September 1995, on behalf of the IMO. Ms. Mbanefo's presentation was awarded "best address of the day", and concluded with the following words: 

"What IMO is trying to achieve is an environment for change and growth within the maritime sector, where women can fulfil their full potential. IMO therefore undertakes to demonstrate the same zeal and commitment to the fulfilment of the platform for action adopted by this conference." (Full speech can be found here 

In 1999, she was appointed as Director of the Conference Division, once again the first woman to break through this glass ceiling.  

During her employment at IMO, Ms. Mbanefo credits Secretary-General O'Neil as one of her greatest mentors, as well as Captain Jimmy Martin, who encouraged her to join the Organization in the first place.  

In 2003 Ms. Mbanefo also became the first woman to run for the position of Secretary-General, running with the full backing of the African Union. 


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