The immediate past President, Ship owners Association of Nigeria (SOAN), Engr. Greg Ogbeifun, in this interview, speaks on the recent signing of the anti-piracy bill into law by President Muhammed Buhari. He said until the restive and unemployed youths in the Niger Delta region are engaged, the law may remain a mere paper exercise. He spoke with Shulammite ‘Foyeku.
President Muhammadu Buhari recently assented to the anti piracy bill. Do you think the enactment of the law will make any significant impact in addressing cases of pirate attacks and other maritime related crimes on our waters?
You and I know that the country is not short of beautiful acts, laws and bills, but the problem is always implementation. I don’t understand how the anti-piracy act, now enacted, is going to solve the piracy problem. Maybe when they print it out, laminate it and put it inside the water, it will stop the piracy. For me, that’s an exercise on paper. What does it mean in terms of actually addressing the issue? Is it because there was no anti-piracy Act that piracy has been made? Or is it because platforms that had been put in place or that should be in place to address it are either missing, or not being funded, or not being properly managed to address the issue? I don’t know. That’s not my area of strength, to be honest with you. But, I think an issue like piracy, hostage taking, kidnapping, and what have you on our waters is directly related to unemployment. We have to find something for the people to do. If we mobilize platoons and military installations all over the place, you are only putting pressure on it. You still have a whole army of people who have no job, whose environment is degraded and who have no hope to contend with. So, whilst we are putting an anti-piracy law and other laws in place, can we also on the other hand, look at what we can do to address the social issues? Can we enable companies like STARZS for instance, to make the shipping expansion possible, so that 1,000 youths in that place can be absorbed? Can we make Nigerdock start building ships so that those youths, say from the Niger Delta, who were sent out for different trainings under the amnesty can now be absorbed into productive ventures and thereby, be able to remit money back home? That is the way we can fight piracy. If we are not addressing these issues and you are enacting laws and building armies and setting up securities platforms and all of that, and you think that is the solution, let us wait and see. If you are coming out with an anti-piracy act, you must also come out with a programme to create opportunities that will gradually reduce what we are trying to fight. If you don’t do that and you focus on fighting piracy, you are wasting your time. If more ships are going to the eastern ports, more stevedores, seafarers will be employed. That will at least reduce the number of teeming youths who are currently engaging in maritime crimes.
What do you make of the Federal Government’s proposed ban on cabotage vessel importation?
I was away from the country when I heard of the Federal Government’s announcement through the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) of the phased plan to gradually stop importation of foreign built vessels into the country. For me, it is probably the boldest policy statement that has been made in the industry with respect to genuinely wanting to grow in-country capacity in the area of shipbuilding. The statement is very commendable but we have to understand that it behoves on every one of us to make that happen. Primarily, it behoves on the people who acquire ships from abroad to see this as a positive step towards investing in this country, for this country, for the people of this country, and for our economy. And when you talk about this, everybody wants to think of the shipowners. Who are the shipowners? You can think of companies like Starzs, Marine Platform and many others. But don’t forget that NIMASA is a ship owner; Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) is a shipowner. So, the shipowners we are talking about is both public and private. Therefore, we have to come together to understand that this policy that the government has come out with, laudable as it is, will affect even the government, because the government through the NPA, is one of the biggest buyers or builders of ships in the country. Government cannot come out with that policy and tomorrow you hear that NIMASA is now ordering for security patrol vessels from Damen Shipyard or wherever, or NPA, who as you know, a few months ago brought in new tugboats built by Damen, will also go back to Damen to say build us a ship from abroad when they have made such a policy statement. When I read it, I said this is great, because initially everybody will look at the International Oil Companies (IOCs), who are the main employers of vessels, particularly upstream and thinking; what are the Total, Shell, and the Chevrons, going to do now that this policy has come out? But in the same vein, what is NPA, NIMASA going to do now? I hear about security contracts to police our waters; we can’t police our waters without using boats. So the boats they are going to use; are they going to be built in this country or will they be built outside the country? It is a laudable policy but the implementation is what all of us have to be ready to contribute. It is not to be left for government or the IOCs or the shipowners.
With the moribund state of the steel industry, which is a crucial aspect in shipbuilding and repair, how successful will this policy be?
The steel industry has to be active. We may initially start by importing steel. If you don’t also look at that sector in-country to become functional, then, you are weakening the implementability of this very nice policy. So, it is beyond just looking at boats. We need to develop that sector to be able to complement this policy. The policy statement is enough to reactivate the steel industry. The few ship repair companies in-country have some level of skilled labour, but for the human resources to build ships, we can start with international skilled personnel and gradually build in-country capability of manpower. So, that is not a challenge. Nigerdock is a case in question. When Nigerdock was built in the ‘80s and commissioned, the Polish people were the real skilled ship repairers who operated that yard. But today, you will agree with me that a large number of the workforce there are Nigerians. The biggest single element that is critical to the actualization of this policy is the maritime infrastructure, the shipbuilding yards. We have a few shipbuilding yards that can do shipbuilding and ship repairs. West Atlantic Shipyard that started with building aluminium crew boats used to pre-fabricate the components outside the country, bring them to Onne, and assemble them. They were launching built in-country crew boats, but they had to stop after a while because it was 40 per cent more expensive to build those boats in-country in that method than to bring them from outside the country. So, they migrated from building boats to repairing ships. That has to be revisited. Why did they stop? It is because of our tax policies. So, that has to be reviewed. It is the same thing that is dogging the emergence of another national fleet. Our tax policies, our tax incentives have to be looked at to make it competitive to build boats in-country than to build outside the country.
How feasible is the 2020 deadline for implementation of the policy?
Looking at the timeline set, I said to myself, anybody who sets out saying we must achieve this 100 percent is being unfair. Let us start first and if at the timeline, we have only achieved 10 percent, we have started something; you’d have set infrastructures, systems in place that you could build on. Let us not wait after two years and start blaming NIMASA that the policy did not work, which is a Nigerian thing. After two years, we can then review what we need to do to take it to the next level. It must not all happen in our lifetime. But let it be that after our lifetime, it is on record that we did what we could do and left something for the next generation. That is my position on that because all I am hearing is that they can never achieve it. You don’t defeat yourself before the matter. If all they are able to achieve within that timeline is to put that infrastructure in place and produce one ship in each category; that is an achievement because the next one is just to repeat what you have done.
It’s been over three years of talk with no action on the issue of Nigeria acquiring a national fleet. As a shipowner, do you see any hope in this project?
If, like I have read severally, the immediate past Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Ameachi, keep saying that the reason the idea of national fleet failed is because shipowners were not able to bring 60 percent of the required amount, which amount nobody knows, and the Executive Secretary, Shippers’ Council, Hassan Bello, is saying that there are issues being addressed by government, issues relating to fiscal incentives and tax issues to create the environment to enable the emergence of the national fleet, issues for which the fleet implementation committee, of which I am a member incidentally, is engaging the Ministry of Budget and Planning and the Presidency to let that happen, then, we may not make any headway. Unless there is a convergence between the positions of the minister, who is critical to what we are talking about and the position of the committee set up, we are deceiving ourselves. I was involved in the committee that went to Singapore with the Minister to talk about the fleet implementation with Pacific International Limited (PIL). PIL came back and pulled out of the whole discussion because they said our tax regime does not favour such an arrangement, and that is what indigenous ship wners are suffering today. If you as a Nigerian bring a ship into the country, you pay 100 percent duty, but if you are a foreigner, you will only pay for temporary importation. So the assignment of our committee did not even get to any point where any shipowner was asked to bring any amount. If we don’t get the issues straight and we have a person in the position of a minister who is critical in actualizing this objective, taking such an erroneous position, then we are not going anywhere.