By Olutunde Oladimeji
IN the next few days, President Muhammadu Buhari, will commission NNS UNITY, the newly acquired Offshore Patrol Craft, OPV, from China. This is the second China-built OPV to join its sister OPV, NNS CENTENARY earlier commissioned. Both of them are expected to join the fight against all forms of illegalities in the national offshore oil and gas installations.
The remarkable thing about the forthcoming commissioning ceremony is that, along with the China-built OPV, Mr. President will also commission several home-designed-and-built ships, boats and other crafts by the Naval Dockyard Limited in Victoria Island and Naval Shipyard Limited, Port Harcourt.
In my forthcoming book titled Wisdom of the Admirals, there is abundant evidence of how the prescient thoughts and proposals by the admirals of old could make the nation self-reliant in ship building and other maritime arts, if acted upon.
That the Nigerian Navy is now in a position to build some class of ships for protecting the nation’s territorial waters has not happened by accident. The founding admirals and their friends foresaw the needs to be able to, build, maintain, repair and refit ships in this dockyard.
In the 60 years since the inception of the Nigerian Navy, we have acquired ships from many ship-building nations. The early ships came by transfer from the United Kingdom.
Subsequently, the going gets easier. In the 70s, Nigeria started acquiring ships for the National Shipping Lines. The period also coincided with the Festac 77 fever when Nigeria lavishly hosted the Black World.
The Nigerian National Shipping Lines which started operations with four second-hand vessels in 1959 had increased its fleet to 15 vessels by 1971. Additional 19 Combo vessels were ordered, with the first of the new ships delivered in 1976/77.
This was a time when Nigeria seemed to be on the move to becoming a sea power in military terms, and maritime power in international trade. The Nigerian Navy ordered many capital ships, a missile-capable frigate, corvettes, fast attack craft, mine-countermeasure vessels (MCMVs), and landing ships, among others. These ships were acquired from the UK, Germany, France, Italy and other foreign shipyards. But something was out of sync.
By the time these ships were delivered, logistics nightmare had been created, especially in terms of maintenance, repairs and refit facilities. This is where the ownership and effective operation of dockyards, which the founding admirals, in their wisdom, foresaw way back in 1964, come in.
Today, the Nigerian Navy seems to have found an ingenious way to minimise the negative impact of the current recession on its operations by looking inward to renew its fleet through local shipbuilding in its dockyard.
And in doing so, the Navy hopes to serve the needs of the nation and ultimately reach out to West and Central African navies, maritime organisations, as well as oil and gas industries with the products of research and development at its Naval Dockyards in Lagos and Port Harcourt.
The story of the NN vision to design and build home-grown ships and crafts started many years ago. When the founding admirals acquired the Naval Dockyard over 50 years ago as a strategic asset from Elder Dempster Shipping Lines, they were guided by five strategic considerations:
1) That a well-equipped, well-funded and well-managed dockyard is one of the essential ingredients of an effective navy, through regular maintenance, repairs, refit and fabricating of some spare parts;
2) That the Navy needs to build small patrol craft and boats required in large numbers, to protect the nation’s maritime assets, with the possibility of marketing them to navies in the sub-region;
3) That the Navy and the nation should work towards self-reliance in shipbuilding in view of disappointments sometimes experienced from Nigeria’s traditional suppliers in times of critical needs;
4) That in times of cash-crunch as the nation is experiencing now, the Navy will be spared the problems of availability, affordability and maintainability by having home-built platforms;
5)That the growing cooperation among African navies, necessitated by the need to fight common enemies like sea pirates, poachers, crude oil thieves as well as numerous illegalities at sea require standard patrol craft now being designed and built by the Naval Dockyard;
To realise the five strategic objectives, the Federal Government, through the Ministry of Defence, embarked on a massive development of the Naval Dockyard at Wilmot Point, Victoria Island, Lagos and the acquisition of a Naval Shipyard in Port Harcourt.
The result is that from 1990s, the Dockyard and the Shipyard in Port Harcourt, which have been organised into Limited Liability Companies, started to do for ships with defects what hospitals do for people who are ill.
Today, the Naval Dockyard Limited has transformed from ship maintenance to ship building. The first of its home-grown technology, a Seaward Defence Boat,SDB, NNS ANDONI, was commissioned in 2012.
A sister ship of ANDONI class, already named NNS KARADUWA is expected to be commissioned towards the end of November 2016 by President Buhari.
At the same ceremony where the ingenuity of the Nigerian Naval Dockyard Limited and the Nigerian Naval Shipyard Port Harcourt, would be acknowledged, the new Offshore Patrol Craft, NNS UNITY, recently acquired in China will also be commissioned.
Also to be commissioned is the ocean-going tug, NNS CDR E UGWU built by the Naval Shipyard Limited, Port Harcourt. The Naval Shipyard Limited had earlier built a ferry NNS SAOKA LAFIA.
While we celebrate the modest achievements represented by the expected commissioning ceremony, the government and people of Nigeria should remember that in spite of the many security challenges on land, the sea will continue to be Nigeria’s centre of gravity for a very long time to come.
We should see the sea area we occupy in national survival terms. Whether you call it the South Atlantic, the Gulf of Guinea, or our immediate territorial waters and EEZ.
This is a challenge to the executive and legislative arms of government and to the Navy itself. Government should devote more resources to meet the short and long term needs of the Navy.