As Nigeria’s economy suffers recession following the drop in revenue earnings from oil and gas, stakeholders say this is the best time to explore the vast opportunities the maritime sector offers as an alternative. In this special interview, MRS MARGARET ORAKWUSI, notable maritime lawyer, ship owner and one-time president, Nigeria Trawler Owners Association (NITOA) advises among other things, that with a ‘listening’ Minister of Transportation now in charge, opportunities offered by the maritime sector to grow the economy must be utilized to the fullest. She spoke to IZUCHUKWU OZOEMENA. Excerpts.
Do you agree that Nigeria’s maritime industry is in comatose?
I don’t agree with that to a very large extent. By nature, I’m a positive person. Things have happened in the past. You learn from your mistakes and move forward. Nigeria is too big a country with a lot of resources - both human and natural - for us to associate with such a statement.
What should the present Transportation Minister do to achieve real difference in the maritime sector?
He’s doing a lot already. Probably, what he is doing is not being given the wide coverage it deserves. Maybe, he is a quiet operator like some of us. This is the first time a minister has come up to work with the private sector. One of the few things he did on assumption of office was to come up with committees predominantly made up of indigenous operators. One of the committees on which I served was to restructure NIMASA in a manner that it could perform her core statutory functions to enable us occupy our pride of place in the comity of maritime nations. There was another committee made up of indigenous operators for charting the development of a national fleet. I do know that the Honourable Minister has related with almost all the professional bodies in the industry. This is highly commendable. He has shown by what he’s done so far that he means business and that he is here to serve and develop the maritime sector.
There are strong fears that because of the inglorious ‘Nigerian factor’, the proposed national carrier would go the way of the defunct Nigerian National Shipping Line (NNSL).
I don’t know what your definition of the ‘Nigerian factor’ is. In this context, the ‘Nigerian factor’ is excellence because seasoned Nigerian professionals and indigenous ship owners, with the support of the federal government, are engaged constructively in developing the Nigerian Fleet. These are the industry operators and regulators with technical and commercial knowledge of shipping; very credible ladies and gentlemen. Right from day one, the private sector has been called: ‘sit down gentlemen, you know what the national fleet is all about; you know the industry better than any other person’. These seasoned ladies and gentlemen who are very credible professionals in the industry sat together to come up with a workable paper the minister is running with. So, I don’t think we should have any fears. Everything has been put together to make it successful.
Now that foreigners freely poach fishes in our territorial waters, what is the government doing to encourage the Nigerian Trawler Owners Association (NITOA) which you once headed to be in business?
I might as well point out that this problem of poaching is not unique to our country. When I gave a speech on maritime security in Tanzania, I discovered that it is common in African countries; the big vessels come in and poach our natural resources. I believe that we should also take the fight to them, the Europeans, Asians. Just the way the whole world came together against sea piracy, that’s exactly what I expect when it comes to poaching because they are stealing our resources. We cannot fight them because these are big vessels. I will repeat the call I’ve always made and this is that we should table it before the United Nations (UN). Industrial fishing is highly regulated. One shrimp can tell its whole history - where it was caught, the date, etc. It’s highly regulated. It is finding market to dispose of the products they have stolen from us. In the fishing industry, we see a downward slope graphically speaking. There was a time the Nigerian fleet was hitting almost 300 vessels. Then we started having piracy attacks. We were the first to raise the alarm. The government was in denial. We took the evidence to them: people are being killed; our resources are carted away. That was when the government had to realize that things like these were going on. I remember there was a period it was so rampant that in a day, we lost about 8 seasoned seamen. We called back to shore all the vessels fishing in Nigerian waters. That was when the navy stepped in.
But in my own context of the ‘Nigerian factor’, we just didn’t know who to trust because there was a time we were paying ransom money into Nigerian banks. You made the reports, nobody is coming forth; you give the details but the criminals are not being caught. I’ve had one of my vessels blown up. A lot of people in the industry have lost their vessels and crew. These are the causes of the decline we’re experiencing. Some people relocated operations to other countries. Meanwhile, we’re losing in employment and businesses to associated industries. There are auxiliary industries that benefit from our operations like packaging, rope industries; not to talk about the fish sellers. There was a time industrial fishing ranked very high in foreign exchange earnings for the country because most of our products were exported. These are the issues. But now, sea piracy is a bit controlled. Sea piracy attacks are similar to the militancy experienced in the Niger Delta because we also fall victims to the militants. Once there is no security, businesses cannot thrive. The pirates are always a step ahead of us. When they went regional, we also blew the alarm. What do we mean? You have the Nigerian pirates; they take your vessel from Nigeria and before you know it they’ve handed it to those in Ghana. These are the issues. But thank God there’s a regional effort to combat sea piracy.
Still on sea piracy, there’s a lot of lacuna in what we are doing. People talk about navy presence and marine police. As an operator, what I’d really want to see is a dedicated, well-trained force to provide security and safety on the sea. In other countries they call them coast guard. It is very important. I remember an example; recently, a plane crashed into the river in New York. If that had happened here, who would have come to the rescue? That is one of the functions of the coast guard. They are not on any special duty; it is full- time duty. It is their duty to protect the waters and give us confidence, knowing someone is out there always to arrest any illegal act. There should be continuous patrol and surveillance on our waters.
When you talk about diversification of the economy, I sincerely believe that maritime is the alternative to oil. Maritime is at the heart of commerce in this country. Maritime is a place where different professionals have a big bite: engineers, lawyers, shippers, sailors, importers/exporters, ship-builders, etc. It is open to large employment. So, it has to be properly structured.
The present minister appears to have a listening ear to operators. Has (NITOA) made any presentations to him on what to do to revive the fishing sector?
We talk about increasing the national fleet. Part of the national fleet is the trawlers. The minister has recognized the need to increase our fleet. He’s doing something about that by giving us the necessary cooperation. I call him ‘action minister' because that’s what we have in the industry. We acknowledge that he would rather have something done today than to procrastinate. He has value for time which he has introduced to all of us.
Some Nigerian Ship-owners Association (NISA) chieftains say they were excluded from negotiations with PIL of Singapore on the proposed national fleet. Is it correct?
Barr. Mrs Orakwusi
That cannot be correct. NISA acting president was actually a member of that delegation. It’s not hearsay because I was part of that delegation. NISA was fully represented. If I may add, NISA made a lot of contributions, not just the presence of their acting president.
I don’t understand why anyone would be against development of the national fleet. We are an import-dependent country; we are talking about diversification of the economy. We’re talking about agriculture and exports. If you’re growing cargos for export, what does that tell you? It means the future is bright. For the maritime sector, do we now wait, just the way we sell our crude on free-on-board (FOB)? Export will also be on FOB? No! By the time we see the massive cargo generated through agriculture, we in Nigeria will be positioned to carry the cargo. That’s why the agencies should maintain our infrastructure. I see a bright future for the country. We may not be relying on oil. Let it dry up because it has made us a lazy people. When you talk about the resources of a nation, you consider the human resources. This is what we have been exporting to other nations. We talk about mining which is a hot cake; it’s going to be the in-thing now. About 80% of fish products consumed in Nigeria are cheap imports. Are you proud as a Nigerian to hear that?
Many stakeholders believe that Nigeria’s dream in ship-building was quashed with the sale of Nigerdock. Do you agree?
I don’t really think so. What is happening to your steel industry? Are you going to be importing steel? Do you know the high cost of steel? A lot of things come together when you talk of ship-building. It’s not just having a ship yard; the ship yard needs materials. All this talk that we should have everything in the shipyard before constructing a vessel is not true. I’ve had a vessel built in two continents. So, you don’t really have to construct all parts of a vessel in one country. What is happening now is you have to know where your strength lies; you become an expert where your strength lies. It becomes cheaper to go where you get the components. But my question remains what is happening to our steel industry? We need a lot of auxiliary industries to be ongoing. Nigerdock can be revived. According to the minister, it is not just wanting to increase the Nigerian fleet; he’s also talking about the infrastructural development because there have to be shipyards, good jetties very well run. All these are quietly going on at the same time.
NPA’s Marina waterfront quayside is collapsing. The floating dock and other facilities at the Continental Shipyard are abandoned for years by the same NPA. As a strong voice in the system, what’s your take on this?
We’ve always called the attention of the agencies. For instance, there are so many blockages even on the way for vessels to enter. Some of them are so bad that accidents are just waiting to happen. From the Marina point, you can see a lot of sunken vessels. All these scraps are good money; we can turn them into all sorts of things. That actually is the duty of NIMASA. We can become a nation that receives scraps from other countries. There are some countries that it boosts their foreign exchange earnings. You know about the recession in the country. These are the things that will cost money but also earn income and create employment.
Tell us about your MORBOD Fisheries. Not much is heard about it lately.
You know I’m a quiet person. Morbod is still operational. What happened was that when the sea became unsafe for operation, I lost 5 crew men same day; one of my vessels was blown up. You know I have a thick skin. You don’t give it all up because you still look at people who earn monthly income based on your activities. That motivates you to keep going. There are two things that I love very much: that is fish trawling and my legal practice. I don’t think I can give up any one of them. We’re in business. It is that we don’t make noise for obvious reasons. We’ll be back to the country fully when the sea is very safe to fish or when the pirates forget us.
The Kirikiri fishing terminal: was it concessioned out or what? What’s the position now?
It wasn’t concessioned out. Rather, it was removed from concessioning for the purpose of having a dedicated fishing terminal. That’s how you grow an industry. For any country, even in West Africa, you must have a dedicated fishing area being that you don’t combine fishing with any other business like oil and gas, cement, etc, so as to avoid pollution. The European Union (EU) is very strict on that. My activities in Nigeria are being monitored by the EU for me to be able to export my products to Europe and America. Everything must be certified. Apart from that, why this is important is because we’re diversifying our economy, earning foreign exchange from our exports. Complying with EU regulations is not a matter of cutting corners; it’s a matter of doing the right thing at the right time for you to qualify. Those who want to export agricultural products, especially to Europe, must comply with their regulations. They will send their inspectors to inspect our vessels, medical reports of our people, etc, and certify them fit. They will now give you what we call EU Number.
Why the (dedicated) terminal is important is that for any serious industrial shipping nation, it is always cheaper to have it because it offers exclusive services to the fishing industry. For instance, all you need do as a new operator is to buy your vessel. That’s all. You already have a general terminal where you have workshops, carpentry, dry dock, fuel dump, cold rooms, processing plants and all that. But as a one-man operator, you have to provide all these things. It becomes very expensive to enter the industry. It becomes cumbersome on the part of government agencies to monitor the fishing activities. Seeing that, we made presentations to the government which the then president Obasanjo liked and formed a committee. That property was taken out of concessioning. We had already started talking about how to develop it into an international fishing terminal. He also said that the government would invest certain amount towards the realization of that. All of a sudden, we started hearing rumours that the place was being sold to some people. But the bottom-line is that our new minister has put a stop to further harassment of the fishing companies currently using Kirikiri Phase 2 probably for him to study many letters we sent. We have written to the Agriculture and Transportation ministers on the need to activate the terminal. Business people will bring their trawlers (to the terminal) and it is still there.
In 2015, the Ship-owners Association of Nigeria (SOAN) made a bold outing in Malta, Europe. Almost a year on, have the business dividends started coming to Nigeria?
In the Commonwealth countries, that was the first time that kind of thing took place. I’m so proud that Nigeria was eminently represented. A lot of discussions are still ongoing. Our presence has been made known to other operators in the Commonwealth and beyond and meetings have been going on. In fact, next week, Nigeria is going to be represented in one of the Commonwealth programmes in London led by SOAN. SOAN is just a new baby. But because of the foresight of our leaders in SOAN - that is why it is important that you get people who have great passion not just for their businesses but for the industry to be at the helm of affairs - that’s all we have been saying. I do commend Engr. Greg Ogbeifun and his team. I also highly commend the efforts and support of the Honourable Minister, Amaechi. He has been so supportive of the industry. They, the Commonwealth, also came to Nigeria led by Oliver Everret, the CEO, Commonwealth Business Forum); we’ve been rubbing minds together. What is very critical to us is finding jobs for our seamen and especially finding spaces for our trainees - giving them places where they can have the required sea time so that they can be employable. We have a youthful population. There’s scarcity of the type of labour we have in Europe; so, we sell to them. There should be meeting of efforts. It’s a good working relationship. It’s always good to cooperate with them.