National carrier project will fail because members of the steering committee don’t know anything about international shipping – Alao

Capt. Tajudeen Alao is among the third generation of Master Mariners produced by Nigeria. He worked with the Nigerian Navy, the defunct Nigerian National Shipping Line (NNSL), the Office of the Government Inspector of Shipping and the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA). In this interview with Jite Eriabie, he speaks on his career and on some issues affecting the maritime sector in Nigeria.

Excerpts:

 

Can you give us some more insight into who you are?

I am simply TajudeenAlao. I am down to earth and was born and bred in Epe. I schooled partly in Epe and Lagos for primary and secondary education and in Ibadan. I had a bit of stint in the Air Force, Navy, Ministry of Agriculture, Ibadan, then finally at the Nigerian National Shipping Line (NNSL) as a cadet in 1974 and so within 18 months, I changed career five times, but the love of the sea made me to stay put in shipping. Maybe I would have moved on as well. I was among the third set of cadet corps sent to go for training on NNSL’s platform. We were five in number, so we did our time in NNSL and twice, also worked in Nigeria Green Line during my holiday period;I also worked at YinkaFolawinyo briefly and at Haastrup Line as General Manager Operations.

In 1992 before NNSL was liquidated in 1995, I worked in Trans Marine as Director of Operations, I was Director of Investment from 1994 to 1999. I later moved on to set up a maritime consultancy business before joining Federal Ministry of Transport 2001 – office of the Government Inspector of Shipping (GIS) under Engineer OluAkinsoji as one of the pioneer staff and eventually we merged with National Maritime Authority in December 2002, which transformed into NIMASA in 2006. I finally retired from NIMASA in 2015. So my life from 1974 to has been all about maritime.

 

How did your romance with the sea start?

You know at Epe then, we used to pull canoe form Ebute Chief up to Ikolisa then trek to OkeIgun, IbejuLekki. Epealso had a boatyard.

 

What happened to the boatyard and what happened to the water transportation in Lagos?

To be candid with you there was no road from Epe to Lagos at the time. You had to come to Ijebu Ode and take all these roads that comes out now from Imota to Lagos. The road between Epe and Itoki was started in 1967.

Makurdi and Epe had boatyards, and I believe the oil boom destroyed the foundation. You know; people looking at different direction and construction all over the place. So Ebute Chief is no longer Ebute Chief, Epe waterfront was abandoned.

 

You are among the third set of NNSL cadets and that was in the good old days of NNSL. Can you give us an insight into what it was like?

Life was good. Everything was programmed. You were treated like officers each time you went to school. They had big training programs for NPA cadets, for Inland waterway cadets and for National Line cadets. There was time for school, time for sea time experience and time to go on leave. Everything was programmed.

 

What in your opinion led to the demise of NNSL in 1995?

Basically, Nigeria is not a maritime nation. If Nigeria were to be a maritime nation even though we have a long coastal area, we could have leveraged on that. For instance, except for Sao Tome and Principe there are no islands in the Atlantic Ocean unlike in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. So you could not see movement even in the coastal trade we are doing.  We are not doing coastal shipping; we are doing oil and gas. You know, I tried to do a trade between Port Harcourt and Lagos, big problem. It was urea for Flour Mills, to discharge in their factory because it was banned, it was a big problem.

 

Were you using a barge?   

It was a big boat. A 60,000 MT and it was going to carry 10,000MT. NPA, Customs, NIMASA – they don’t understand and we don’t have that kind of bulk carrier in Nigeria. It was going to lift 10,000 tonnes to Lagos, a business of less than 10 days but it took a long time and even when it came to Lagos, they said it could not discharge.

 

Why?

Customs wanted duty to be paid on the cargo.

 

On coastal trade?

Even people in NIMASA, they said they must charge daily rate. So by nature, we are not a maritime people. Government attention is not focused on that. We had piracy for how many years, fishing industry issues from 300 trawlers to 80, and 50 to 40 trawlers. We could not have at least 100 patrol boats in our waters, with our money to secure our means of livelihood. It is just lip service. If not for the last regime that tried a bit, piracy was terrible. The navy will say they are there but they are not there and same with the air force. In fact, you cannot go up to 200 miles in the American coast without you being picked you. So we are not serious. When the airplanes were having accidents, you saw how the aviation industry reacted. Ships have been having accidents, what is the reaction of the government? Even the marine board, nobody was ready to take it serious. Government itself is not doing what it should do as long as the maritime industry is concerned.

 

Where lays the problem. Is it government’s failure?

It is the government.

 

But government has agencies in the maritime industry. You have NIMASA, NPA and Shippers Council?

It’s the direction, the pendulum. For example, the leadership says the judiciary is corrupt. You can see the body language. So if the leadership’s body language says this, then everybody will follow. Between me and you, what we were doing before was oil brokerage, it was not shipping. One naira per liter, they were making money from marketing oil and not shipping. That is why the cabotage law never worked because the government is not serious.  What you don’t have, you can’t give. We don’t have money to buy the ships, so that law should be flexible. The law says the ships must be built in Nigeria, how many ships have we built? What have we done to make sure that we are building? You create a business district where you allow these people come with completely knocked down (CKD) parts and then they assemble. The only company assembling is gone. Ships are built in modules. So it is not a big deal to build these ships.  Look, Turkey did it, they had a big tourist site which they turned into a shipyard and they are building ships.

 

But apart from government’s inaction, what about the stakeholders? Would you say that they have been pushy enough in getting government attention to matters that affect the maritime industry?

People like me do not have the leverage.

 

But you do. You are a senior citizen of Nigeria, a master mariner, well educated and a former senior government official.

You know we have the shipbuilding and ship acquisition fund.  The ship acquisition money was given to people. What about the shipbuilding fund? How many marine engineers applied for that money? In what way did the government say look, this fund, 40 percent shipbuilding, 30 percent maritime education, 30 percent ship acquisition? But what do we have today? Nothing. The money was just there. Somebody just came, and used the money without control and this money is not government money. And this three percent money is not government money. You can quote me.

 

But government has converted it?

They saw it as cash cow and they hijacked it. Even the old National Maritime Authority (NMA) was not government idea but government hijacked it. It was Raymond Dokpesi, Joe Elegbele and Captain Sunmola was the secretary. Raymond was supposed to be the first Managing Director of NMA in 1987, he even held a party which he themed “Bye-bye to Poverty” at NAMACO building.

 

Why bye-bye to poverty?

He thought maybe money has come because based on the calculation that if you have 3000 ships coming to Nigeria and they pay USD30,000, that would be a lot of money. People saw big money. But General Babangida said what! They wanted to get approval from government in the nature of the Police Trust Fund and that was how government hijacked it and NMA (now known as NIMASA) became a government agency. The same thing happened to the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN).

 

I think the same thing happened to Cabotgae Vessel Financing Fund (CVFF)?

Yes.

 

Do you see these hijacks that you mentioned as a problem?

Yes, those who plan coup must be part of the government; otherwise the vision will be destroyed. The guy they appointed to run NMA was not part of the original plan. So, definitely they will derail. There was a time people went to late Admiral Mike Akhigbe, former Chief of General Staff and said sir, please make me a board member and he said no, you are not a maritime person, and the person said is it not to share dollars? Akhigbe had the powers but he didn’t do that because he wanted maritime players in those positions because he was a seaman.

 

Which government, especially under this democracy will you say understood shipping and gave it, it pride of place?    

Obasanjo’s  regime.Look, OjoMaduweke was committed and the President was committed.

 

It was during that regime that we had port reform, Cabotage law, NIMASA and others.

Yes. In fact, the dream was for NMA to be like NNPC. Up till now, is NIMASA expanding? No.

 

You worked in very senior position in Ministry of Transport and at NIMASA when it was established.With the kind of revelations we are hearing about NIMASA, how do you feel?

I feel terrible. It has never happened like that before. Everything follows regulations and due process. People have ways of covering their tracks but this one was just terrible.

 

Is this an indication that the agency has truly lost focus?

Yes! The agency lost total focus in all sincerity. Look we drove all the ships that were anchored offshore to Cotonou, we even chartered plane to show people that the ships are there illegally, and they are stealing oil. You must create a safe haven for ships when they are not engaged where they stay, when they want to come and get supplies, do repairs. Ship chandlers today have no jobs, ship repair yards have no jobs, even the seafarers too. Those ships are laid up in Warri and Port Harcourt. You cannot say you want revenue when the ships are not working. What did NIMASA do, they said marine pollution paper, oil record book, is now N50,000. It should not be more than N1,000. It should even be given out free. The charge book which is a statutory document for people to record sea time now cost N20,000. Is that the way to generate revenue? It is wrong. Let me tell you, before you increase tariff, it is a committee of the Federal Ministry of Transport that must approve it and it must be gazetted. You just on your own increase tariff, cost of survey, and cost of oil record books, so people are not happy and are not ready to do renewal and they don’t have jobs anyway and you are asking them for more. That is where NIMASA derailed. For NPA, the port concession assisted them but NIMASA, revenue, revenue; bring more money, overcharge people.

 

What is your opinion on RotimiAmaechi as Minister of Transport, he has been there now for over a year.

As a person, I dislike loud-mouthed people. You know maritime is knowledge and technology driven, so you must do your homework, you must surround yourself with the right people. You cannot come with a stereotype mind, the steam will cool down and it is cooling down now then you know the true colour of the water. This Global West job in principle was perfect.

 

The one awarded to Tompolo’s company?

Yes. It followed due process. It was a no cure, no pay kind of contract.

 

But they said it was abused, that on paper it looked good but they derailed along the line?

There were no bases for abuse, they owe the people. They did a pilot scheme during the tenure of Dr. Ade Dosumu for three months in Cotonou before it went to the Federal Executive Council. If they embezzled money, it is wrong but the contract was that of no cure, no pay.

 

Are you in essence saying that Amaechi is too loud to bring about meaningful development in the industry?   

Yes.

 

How about DakukuPeterside, do you have confidence in his ability to drive the NIMASA train effectively?

To be honest with you, leadership is very essential and when you are new in a place, it takes time to understand the way things are done. There must be an anatomy of shipping workshop for them to understand the maritime industry.

We want to see memo written, position paper written, people reading it and people coming over to explain, not people coming from the perception that NIMASA is corrupt and you don’t trust the people and the system. You don’t even know the condition under which they work. DakukuPeterside is there now and the staff has to be loyal to him, and that is how it was with the former administration. What they are doing now is taking those that are not qualified to IMO meetings and you know that if you don’t contribute to the sessions, how will they implement the laws and conventions back home?

 

The government is taking about floating a new national carrier, what is your stand on this?

I support it but there must be research and contributions from industry experts because a national carrier is a ship that goes all over the world. So the present committee members; 90 percent of them don’t know anything about international shipping. They don’t know how charter services are done, how agency services are done etc. You cannot supply boats to Mobil and say you want to do international shipping. People like Captain Emmanuel Iheanacho have done it before with two ships and went all over the world, it is not easy out there. So what type of ship, where is the cargo? We went to PIL, those who know about charter party; Engineer Chidi, Okoye, even Captain Biu, they are not in the committee and they are still alive.

You cannot build something on nothing. I worked in Iran, I interacted with them on the need to take Nigerian cadets and I met with Captain Cosmos, director of commercials. He said I should go and put it in writing. I told him this is a government to government issue that they will not take women, they don’t mind whether you are a Christian or Muslim but we didn’t take advantage. Iran was at war. How many years and they were still able to keep their economy because they had their ships. We went to Vancouver for three months, we will go to Australia, carry iron ore in Brazil. Their ships were going to Europe, they were able to keep and maintain their country with the economic blockade with the ships they had. Their planes were not going anywhere but their ships were going all over the world. We are not going to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia or Iran; we are going to PIL – a businessman. The British people who started National Line also started Kuwait and Saudi national lines.  That is why our NNSL ship colourswas the same with theirs. National carrier is a good thing but bad approach. NNLG worked, it trained so many people up to masters but those ships were not registered in Nigeria because the money was from abroad even though they had Nigerian names.

 

You mentioned earlier that all the vessels owned by Nigerians are all lying idle on the waters, seafarers have no jobs to do and vessels have no jobs. What is responsible for this idleness despite the huge volume of trade they can be engaged in within our waterways?

You know before the Cabotage regime, oil companies made provisions for Nigerians. People like Omatseye, Captain Alaba, and others got contracts from Mobil but they couldn’t buy ships, they couldn’t raise the money but they gave them two years contracts. So the oil industry was giving our people opportunities. The Local Content Act has identified all those areas and it says 40 percent of any offshore operation is logistics. How much percentage is the marine component? The marine component must be tabled for NIMASA and our people who want to partake can now, not somebody that has not been in the business because if you take loan and  buy a ship, the ship will last for 20 to 30 years and you have a contract of two to five years. After the contract, what do you do with the ship? For instance, you say you want to take cadets; we took 5000 cadets, where are they going to work? Forget about sea time. Where? If you say every year 200 cadets, in five years you have so many but no, you just send 2500 cadets to Philippines.

 

Are you saying that the National Seafarers Development Programme of NIMASA has failed?   

Yes. It was overblown; it was used to siphon money and was not necessary. The money spent should have been channeled to MAN, Oron. If there is no ship, where will the cadets work? MAN, Oron was setup for the purpose. The amount of money we had was enough to upgrade Oron.

 

You are a Master Mariner and a very senior member of the Master Mariners association. A lot of people have also blamed the Master Mariners because they are at the peak of the industry; you are expected to provide leadership and guidance to the industry and even to government on issues concerning the industry. But a lot of people believe you guys have failed in providing that leadership and that you have operated more as a closed association, rather than one that was opened up to contributing ideas and that is why the association itself has people who are ageing, that it is difficult to even see young people in the Master Mariners association?

I disagree with you because this argument has always been there. It is like saying Nigerians produce generals and that they did not encourage others to come in. It is a feat that you cannot attain overnight. It is a process. Anybody can forge papers and say he is a master mariner but the experience that makes you a commander of the waves will not be there. For example, somebody is from anchorage to Ibafon, to load cargo in Ibafon and stay outside for three to six months. How does he gather the experiences that will toughen him up to work under adverse conditions in the sense that the weather is so bad, you cannot cook, the safety of the ship is paramount, everybody is living on coleslaw, cargo is shifting and you are going on deck to latch the cargo. A 5,000MT ship was going to Warri, there was fire on the electrical board, and they all abandoned the ship including the captain. Fortunately the fire smoldered and the vessel started drifting towards Shell’s facility and they raised alarm and that was how NIMASA got to know about it and had to tow the ship to Lagos and these things happen all the time. There are some we don’t even know about that the ship will sink and pollute the water because the people are not toughened. A lot of people went to Mobil to work to displace the Europeans who were there. They were not trained by Mobil, they were trained by NNSL for the industry.

So there was no deliberate effort by government to train people anymore. Look, 60 percent of young mariners have fake papers and fake sea time. How would you say you had seatime on a ship that has been laid up? Even in our time, they caught some people. You ship is laid up in Liverpool or Lagos and you say you had seatime or put a ship that is sunk in your discharge book. 

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