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Some unpatriotic people are feeding fat on using foreign vessels to lift our crude, Bolaji Akinola

By Uzoma Egwu

Fifty years on, the nation’s maritime industry has played a pivotal role in the development of Nigeria’s economy. Recently, Ports and Habours caught up with the unassuming and youthful Chief Executive Officer of Ships & Ports Communication Company Limited who spoke on several issues affecting the industry and proffer solutions on ways of improving the sector.
Excerpts:

Bolaji

Why is it difficult for Nigerian owned vessels to lift crude oil and what does that mean to you?

I must say that it means poor and irresponsible leadership. It means a lack of focus and commitment. It means a terrible and pathetic waste of opportunities to grow our people and our economy. No wonder Nigerians don’t call it oil boom, they call it oil doom because we are not adding any value. We are like a trader nation. It is pathetic.

Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) has always blamed the exclusion of Nigerians on lack of capacity. After drilling oil since 1956, is it not worrisome that Nigeria does not have such capacity?

Which capacity? I think some unpatriotic people are feeding fat on using foreign vessels (to lift our crude) and they are afraid that if Nigerians come, they will not have it so good any longer.

If there is lack of capacity, don’t you build capacity? Lack of capacity for over 50 years? How long does it take to build capacity? Does it take eternity? Common movement of products by Nigerian shipping companies on our own territorial waters is being frustrated by a certain cabal. So what are we talking about? You know our greatest problem in the country is that we place self above nation. Nothing will work with an attitude like that.

I remember a couple of years ago, members of the Indigenous Shipowners Association of  Nigeria came together to form a N1 billion shipping company which they called ISAN Shipping Company. The idea was to use that platform to begin to lift the nation’s crude. But what happened? NNPC frustrated it by rushing to partner with some foreign firms to form some funny sounding shipping companies. Can you see what I am talking about?

Why in your opinion is Nigeria’s case different, when one considers the fact that Angola uses eight of its indigenous vessels to lift its crude, knowing that the country had survived a protracted war and Angola was said to have taken the Nigerian policy to use in their oil operations?

Entrenched selfish interest, lack of patriotism and greed by people in power; that is the simple answer. But overall, I believe it is being penny_wise and pound_foolish because if we grow our economy, we will distribute wealth to our people and everybody will be happy.

But look at what is happening in Nigeria today; the rich sleep with one eye open because a good number of people are poor. So even the wealthy cannot enjoy their wealth. It is short_sightedness.

The Transport Minister, Yusuf Suleiman sometime ago insinuated that the National Seafarers Development Programme (NSDP) may have failed due to the low number of people embarking on the programme since it commenced and he felt there was need to review the funding pattern. With the number that has gone for training in the last two years, do you think we cannot train up to 5,000 in the next 10 years?

I am quite surprised at the attitude of the state governments towards the NSDP because I was fully a part of it from the onset. The NSDP is a very good idea but I wonder why most of them have refused to play their part especially considering the enthusiasm with which we were received at the states during the sensitisation campaign.

Maybe Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) needs to fully educate them some more about it. They probably don’t fully understand the concept and advantages of the programme. NIMASA can use the platform of the governor’s forum to reach the state governors to educate them about NSDP.

I think if they are made to appreciate the importance of the programme, they will buy into it.of NMA now NIMASA? Merit, simple and short. But you and I know that merit has been sacrificed on the altar of political considerations. People who manage to find themselves in there come in as a result of intrigues and power tussle and at the behest of one godfather or the other. And this is supposed to be an agency made up of professionals.

At the end of the day, every successive management team at the then NMA now NIMASA, rather than concentrate on shipping development and boosting local tonnage, end up junketing about trying desperately to remain in office.
So how do you expect to grow the maritime industry under a situation like that?

It is most unfortunate. I agree with you that we should now be talking of consolidation and even exporting our expertise to other countries but you cannot consolidate on what you have refused to develop.

You are the CEO of a shipping communication company. With your years of experience in the sector, how easy will it be for Nigerians to fully enjoy the benefit in the maritime sector considering the many individual interests involved that do not care about what is good for the nation?

It is as easy as ABC if we are willing to get it right. It is not rocket science. What is the role of NIMASA? Flag state control to ensure that Nigerian flagged vessels are in class; port state control to ensure that vessels calling at our ports meet required safety standards; wreck removal; marine environment management which implies removing debris and preventing pollution, acceding to relevant conventions etc; and then most importantly, the development of local tonnage.

What is the big deal here? This is what I really don’t get. If these cardinal objectives of the maritime administration are faithfully implemented, we will fully unleash the potentials of the maritime sector within two years. Like I said, it is not rocket science.

Imagine if we faithfully implement Cabotage law and stop passing buck over it. That way, the indigenous ship owners will have jobs, they will employ Nigerians, they will eventually have enough money to replace their ships with new ones and even buy more ships because the demand for coastal shipping services will expand. And what is there in implementing the Cabotage law? No Nigerian vessel should be allowed to sit idle on Nigerian waters while foreign vessels have a field day on our waters. Period.

Movement of petroleum products and other goods within our territorial waters; that is from Lagos to Warri, to Calabar, to Onne, to Port Harcourt etc., must be done by ships owned and crewed by Nigerians. Let us start from there and see what will happen within a year. There will be an explosion of wealth I tell you.

Look, forget about whether the vessel is 50 years old or not. In as much as it can move from one place to the other without endangering persons and cargo, it is good enough for now. When these guys make enough money, within months you’ll begin to see new vessels all over and before you know it, they will even begin to buy ocean-going vessels. Gradually, after two years, Nigerian shipping firms will be able to fully lift the nation’s crude.

All we need is some level of patriotism and political will to do it. The cargo we talk about here are even government cargo and cargo owned by Nigerians. So what is the big deal in making Nigerians carry it and helping them to do it right?
Your company has been in the forefront of encouraging Nigerians to venture into the maritime sector, which is full of opportunities without charging fees for your efforts. Why are you doing that and how do you get to finance such since you are not a charity organisation?

Our belief in the potentials of the shipping sector keeps us going. We are also quite passionate about what we do. At Ships & Ports, what we do is not just a job; we see it as a calling. I have very hardworking, experienced and dedicated people who share the same belief with me.

Our company also has tremendous goodwill in the sector so we leverage on that to get support from operators and government agencies for the annual shipping career summit and even the monthly Ships & Ports career guide.
What kind of response are you getting from Nigerians when you educate them on opportunities in the sector? Are you satisfied with the response?

Yes we are satisfied but we always want to improve on what we have. Through the annual shipping career summit and through the quarterly Ships & Ports career guide, we have people who have gone into freight forwarding, ship chandling, maritime law, seafaring and so on.

We also have people who have started one form of small business or the other. I met a young man recently at a function in Lagos and he told me that he now works in a shipping firm in Lagos. He said he secured the job after learning about the shipping sector at the 2nd Annual Shipping Career Summit held at the National Women Centre in Abuja in 2007. He was very excited to see me and he was very grateful to our firm for launching him into the shipping sector.

A man told me he resigned from NITEL to start ship chandling shortly after attending our career summit at MUSON Centre in Lagos. One of our resource persons also told me of some kids she helped to travel to Malta to study maritime law shortly after they attended our career summit.

Recently, we inaugurated the Ships & Ports Investment Club with an initial membership of over 30 people. So the idea is working and the objectives are being achieved but you know we keep striving to make it better.


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