Chief (Dr.) Isaac Jolapamo is the founding President of the Indigenous Shipowners Association of Nigeria (ISAN), the body now known as the Nigerian Shipowners Association (NISA).
In his first interview this year and since leaving office as the association’s leader, Jolapamo speaks exclusively to SHIPS & PORTS DAILY on the crisis rocking the association and the sour deal involving his daughter and suspended NISA President, Niyi Labinjo.
As the founding President of NISA, are you happy with what is happening in the association since you handed over?
Well, the obvious is that one cannot be happy because this is something you nurtured to maturity and then you see all sorts of things happening. In the first instance, I didn’t want any of the three people that contested the presidency to be President. I said it openly that none of them was qualified for the post and I have my reasons but looking at what has happened now, I think history has vindicated me. Today, Greg has gone to form another association; Omateseye is President of African Shipowners Association that you cannot understand. I don’t know where they find the model. The man that won the election only exposed himself and that was one of the reasons why I did not support his becoming president. Immediately he won, I knew he would shoot himself in the leg and unfortunately, he did it to me.
I have tried to cover his back from the time they started their business way back in 1993 but I may not open up in that end but the issue of morality, honesty and integrity comes in. Those are the hings missing. I have been buying ships since 1986 and my daughter that got involved with him has followed me to buy ships and there is no reason why she should have gone through him to buy ship for her.
If money is transferred to a place to buy something and that thing was not bought – in their own case, the money was transferred to bank and then returned back through the back door – it is nothing but money laundering.
I am surprised that today the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has not charged the Labinjos for money laundering because there are enough proofs that a certain amount was transferred to a certain place to purchase ship and part of the money has been laundered back to Nigeria. If he was not involved, they wouldn’t have seized his cars. Under the previous government, they will look the other way but this present government will not look the other way and I expect the EFFCC to have charged him to court.
I am not a happy person that I toiled for almost 13 years (to establish the association) and when I was leaving, I said there was nothing new that would be done since a firm foundation has been laid. I asked them to build on it but rather than do that, they decide to alter the foundation.
For the 13 years that I was there, I was never reported to the police not to talk of going to EFCC.
I have been in shipping before anyone of them – I mean commercial operation of ships – before anyone and I am not boasting. I was operating NNPC vessels and I was just a small boy – that was way back in 1985 but I just laugh when some people call themselves ship owners and say they want to be this and that but until you are tested overtime and stretched to the elastic limit – that is when you know you are something.
I expected that this matter should not have gone this way. There is nothing stopping Labinjo as the exco has asked him to step down since they have not said leave the association or said that he was no longer the President. All they said was that he should step down until the matter is resolved and you can see all what is happening. It is very difficult but for me I have accepted it the way it came, I knew it was going to happen since I could not get someone whom I know will be effective in moving the association forward.
Everyone thought the association’s Presidency was juicy to the extent that I was told that I would be rehabilitated after leaving office. One of the contestants said that but I asked what sort of rehabilitation I would get from leaving because if I am a sit tight leader I could contest that election and won but I said we should move forward and elect a younger blood that will move the association forward. Even when I was approached by NIMASA, I told them all the contestants are over 60 but we should look for a younger person who could move the association forward. That was my idea but of course, everyone have shown their true colour.
You said you are not happy but were you surprised with the happenings in NISA?
I was not surprised because for someone like Labinjo; I knew he would get himself into such a mess because I have been covering his back in the past. I can show you cheques he issued and the people were going to EFCC but I collected it and held on to it till now.
There were other instances but I will hold on for now.
He worked with you as secretary of NISA. How were you able to work with him for over 12 years?
I was able to work with him because I can work with anybody. The way I was brought up, I am able to work with anybody. You will notice that in the last three years, I have been shouting that we should weed the association. I knew what I was saying even though it was made impossible but now the shaft has been separated from the wheat. Since we have two group of NISA now, we know the shaft and the wheat.
It is the shaft that Labinjo has carried away with him because everyone of them have a record and you do not need to find out from Nigerian journalist because I have journalists abroad who know about what everyone does here.
This was what I have been doing when I was the staff of NNPC trying to find out what Mr. A does but off course, this is the time of reckoning. Let us all stand and let us see the last man standing when it comes to accountability, credibility and uprightness.
We have another group called Ship Owners Association of Nigeria (SOAN) led by Engr. Greg Ogbeifun. What is your view of the group?
They still claim they are members of NISA but of course everyone want to be President that is the problem. If we are together and can speak with one voice – but when everyone think if I am not President then the association cannot stand – then we have a problem. But parading themselves as ship owners; I laughed at them and I say if you are a ship owner five or 10 years ago, then you are not, that is the obvious because you have not run an old or new vessel and see over time what you have done and at times, they say people like us are not doing well. Yes we are not doing well because the system has not assisted us to do well because if the system accommodates upright people, then we will be doing well and if they are going to be upright or tested over time, let us see in 5, 10 or 15 years if they will also be doing well.
What is the problem with Nigeria’s indigenous shipping business?
Things have gone from bad to worse because we are having wrong people in the right places. We have square peg in round holes. That is the problem we have. If the flag administration had been focused on their mandate, we will not be where we are today. We have a programme for CVFF (Cabotage Vessel Financing Fund) that never works; we have a programme to refurbish our old vessels – they voted money every year for it – and today nobody has benefitted from it. I have two dead vessels and all I am asking them to do is to fix just one in the last three to four years but that was not done till today. We should not forget that that is their core responsibility which is regulatory and developing the shipping sector. I believe things will change from now.
What is the reason for this attitude to ship owners from the flag administration?
It is not their fault because if they do not know how things operate, then how do they understand what we are saying? If you are not a practitioner, if you have not dabbled into shipping before, how do you know where the shoe pinches? Omatseye was the DG of NIMASA but was operating shipping at the periphery before becoming DG and when we were negotiating with him, he didn’t tell us the people that sent him to start negotiating with us when we were arresting ships but when he came out and bought two ships, he now knows better and God help him if he runs the business for ten years or be a ship owner for the next 20 years, then he will be a better person to understand shipping but we are getting people who do not know that this is important to do because if I present it, it will be like they are doing me a favour but if I succeed, I will be able to employ people and retain some money and create wealth but if I don’t, I will compound the problems in the country because people who are supposed to be working for me will be doing something else.
Take for instance how they are producing cadets. What are they doing?
They are spending billions of dollars to train them but what will they do at the end of such trainings?
Just mention anyone in Nigeria that has gone into shipping and can say he was able to breakthrough. From Fajemirokun to Abiola to Yar’Adua, mention anyone. It is until we address that issue – the fundamental issue. Like they say in my place that the stick we used in beating the senior wife is being kept for the junior one but because we have wrong people practicing, it also endangers us because we cannot stand upright and say I am this person because of the people who just believe in getting the money whether by hook or crook and this is where we are getting it wrong.
You mentioned earlier generation of ship owners like Fajemirokun, Abiola and Yar’Adua? So what is the core problem with indigenous shipping in Nigeria?
The core problem facing ship owners is international conspiracy. You can see that when the Federal Government said they banned 113 vessels, INTERTANKO said they couldn’t do that. Even when you made recommendation to the last government on what to do, they said it was a no-go area.
So what are they afraid of?
They are the ones behind it. We need a government with political power to crush the big toes otherwise we are going nowhere. Of course before the Cabotage regime, we were doing well because we were doing a master-servant job but when we said this thing is ours, let us have it then the problem started. The refineries that were not working was deliberate also. When the CBN came with another policy that we could not earn foreign exchange if the ship bringing the product is coming straight to Nigerian waters is also deliberate.
Vessels moving their operations to offshore Lome is deliberate because with that policy, Nigeria lost more than one million jobs there – from taxi drivers that will pick the crew from the airport to immigration, to ship chandlers to mention but a few. That is what the countries where the mother vessels are berthing are enjoying and anytime Nigeria wants to wield the big stick, their Heads of State come to Nigeria to beg. They make sure cabotage does not work. Cabotage is from Badagry to Calabar and anything outside Badagry is no more cabotage. The ships that are coming to load are foreign and with these, we are losing all the levies we are supposed to be collecting and even if you buy a brand new vessel – owned and crewed by Nigerians, none of those foreign vessels that brought import will allow you to load. That is the conspiracy theory we are talking about.
But can Nigeria stop it?
Yes, the government can stop it if they want to. All they need to say is to direct anyone bringing import to enter Nigerian water. So whether our ship is old or not, they will have no choice but to use it. But the last government just pretended as if everything was ok.
How will you access the industry under the government of Jonathan?
I was pauperized so how would I have assessed it? For five years, I was doing nothing. I took my vessels out of NNPC because they are frustrating me and they started the subsidy scam and my ships cannot be used because I cannot carry 20,000 tons and discharge 5,000 tons and say the 20,000 tons has been discharged. Since then, there has been nothing. But I have refused to sell the vessel because there is a lot of loan on the vessel and I am looking for ways of repairing it or looking for who can use it but if someone that is coming yesterday said it was because he is smart, I just laugh.
We are the first Nigerians that ventured into owning ships. The others that attempted it only ventured into joint partnerships with foreign companies. People like Fajemirokun tried it and the day he died, the foreign company removed his name and flag. I have for long ventured into buying ships fully manned. We were operating in Nigeria and we are doing very well but today, the reverse is the case.
The suspended NISA President recently announced a partnership with some Greek ship owners. What is your view of this?
The 40 Greek ships is a scam. I can show you the documents here. The man was supposed to be arrested when he came to Nigeria for aiding money laundering, because that was the man Labinjo used as broker in the scandal with my daughter. That man came with some people and said ‘I am going to give you my ship and the bank will support’. The banks didn’t know what they are doing. If they know what they are doing, they won’t get themselves involved in the scam
At the right time, I will come out with facts and figures.
So do you see that arrangement working?
No, I don’t see it working.
How will you define shipping under Jonathan and side-by-side Patrick Akpobolokemi’s tenure as Director-General of NIMASA?
I want to say I was conned into believing that something good would come out of Jonathan’s administration because when President Jonathan was doing his campaign in 2011, I specifically pointed out that of all the development programs they had for the country, there was nothing that showed shipping and it pained me because all I know all my life is shipping but they told me I should not worry that we would not be reading the book of lamentations but the book of revelation. I took that hook, line and sinker. I was in a committee (set up by Jonathan to chart a roadmap develop the shipping sector). I was not even allowed to speak at a committee I headed. It was as bad as that but I know it was the administration that pauperized me and my company.
When you heard of the vessel transaction deal that transpired between your daughter, Nike and Capt. Labinjo, how did you feel?
My daughter is an adult. She is in her forties. She left Buckingham University with her Masters degree several years ago. That was where she had her first and second degrees. She also had her A-level in one of the most expensive A-level colleges in London. She came home with a husband and she got married. This same university was where several notable people across the world attended so I expect her to be able to make decisions on her own. For reasons best known to her, she attached herself to Labinjo.
I don’t know how to pamper children and in December when she called me to tell me what happened, I told her I won’t listen to her until she gives me the documents to prove that she went to the bank, took money and gave to Labinjo. Was it because she did not know how to get a ship herself or because she had never done it before? The money was laundered back and for another one month, they were negotiating because another friend of mine was involved who paid the ten percent deposit and when I heard this, I told that my friend that he should not let his name be dragged into the mud because the money had been laundered and he said they would still buy the vessel so I kept quiet.
If the EFCC are not convinced that there was money laundering then why did they arrest them or why did they confiscate their vehicles but the truth is that when you are doing something over and over again, there will always be a day of reckoning because if it is not my daughter, he would have gone with other scandals which made people say they could not serve under him.
It is one problem or the other with those people that made them say they could not serve under him but this is the time of reckoning. I don’t keep malice but to pretend that nothing is happening is unfortunate.
I have heard a lot of people calling me to say I should not throw the baby away with the birth water but that’s not true, it is an issue of is it right morally and if I am dead and this thing happened I would have said maybe it was because I am dead but I am alive. My daughter can protect herself because I have given her everything she needs in life.
You have identified flag administration as crucial to the development of indigenous shipping. Under President Buhari what is your expectation as regards the flag administration?
He is already showing it that he is not going to appoint mediocre in such key places. He has experienced it before when he was the Minister of Petroleum. Some of us were in the forefront of bringing Nigerians into the business and even asked them to go and buy ships on hire purchase basis and we gave them contracts to support it. That was in the 70’s and that was how people like Ladoja bought ships. Then, jobs were there and when we were asked to take foreign vessels, we said no since there is a Nigerian vessel – and the only Nigerian that had a ship 20 years old then was Abule – and I said I will take the ship and I took it (for NNPC operation).
The present President was the Minister then and I was marched to him and I was able to convince him and by the time some of us were leaving NNPC in 1985, Nigerians controlled 80 percent (of coastal operation) and it would have been two years more to complete 100 percent but today Nigerians do not have anything. One Greek company now controls 80 percent through many tentacles and the 20 percent Nigerians have is still foreign interest.
That is as bad as we have gone but of course no one is ready to listen. You can look at the recommendation of the presidential committee but I know we will have a change.
Today INTERTANKO may be planning to boycott Nigeria but that will force us to develop capacity and that is what we have been talking about since the 1970s but because of those who derive personal gains from the current situation, we are where we are today.
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