My biggest regret as Nigeria’s transport minister – Porbeni

Admiral Festus Porbeni

Admiral Festus B.I Porbeni (rtd) is a man who has experienced many facets of life spanning the military, political, ambassadorial and business worlds. As a naval chief, he commanded ARADU, Nigeria’s naval ship which was the country’s biggest pride in her Navy at that time. Having left office as minster of transportation under the General Abdulsalami Abubakar regime in 1999, Admiral Porbeni had turned to business, investing mainly in maritime, oil and gas, communications and insurance. Currently anhonorary consul of Romania to the Niger Delta, the former minister is also the president of the Nigeria Rowing Sailing and Canoeing Federation and vice president of the Confederation of African Canoeing (CAC), while maintaining his position as non-executive director on the board of Mutual Benefits Assurance Plc. In this interview with SAMSON ECHENIM, he speaks on his contribution to the development of the maritime industry as a minister and as an investor. He also remembered hisactivetrajectory through arobust military career, among others.



May we meet you sir?

My name is Admiral Festus B.I. Porbeni. I left the Navy after being minister of transportation and I am presently into business, investing in the maritime environment, communication and oil and gas.

You are the president of the Nigeria Rowing Sailing and Canoeing Federation and recently you also became the vice president of the Confederation of African Canoeing (CAC). Can you tell us about these organisations?

Canoeing, like anything maritime is a little obscure. I am president of rowing, sailing and canoeing; so they are three federations that I am in charge of. And of course, canoeing and rowing federation have over 21 medals in Olympics because they make up big Olympic events and here we were just toying with it. But I am gradually moving the sports on now.Since I came on board, we have been moving forward. I presented two Olympians—Jonathan Akinyemi and one other person in the last Olympic in Brazil. As you can see in my environment here, there is a lot of rowing and sailing going on and next week we are having training of Nigerian rowers by the NOC. We already have the boats which I bought from South Africa.

Indeed as a country, we have not harnessed the marine sporting. As someone who has excellent knowledge and experience in marine sporting, how can you describe the business in marine sporting?

First, we are manufacturing some boats here in Nigeria with the collaboration of NELO. NELO is the largest canoe manufacturer in the world, designing and creating boats for racing, touring, fitness, sea racing and slalom. With that collaboration we are going to spread to the West African countries; they are going to be buying boats from us and that is a big economic venture and of course, now that canoeing is in the national sports festival, that means we will be having them to come and buy boats from us; we will create jobs for the boys. NELO will come here to teach us how to make the boats. NELO will first make 60 units and after the 60 we will continue making the boats ourselves.

Marine sporting is very low, or almost absent in Nigeria. How can we start harnessing this aspect of maritime?

Like I said earlier, anything maritime is a bit obscure and not many people are exposed to it. Not many people even see what the Navy does, because they are in the water. The Air Force and the Army can be seen on the surface—on air and on the road respectively, but one has to go to the water to see the Navy. Luckily, we have succeeded in establishing a national sports festival. With that, more people will be aware of it and will become part of it. The last time we trained in Calabar waters, LiyelImoke, the then governor of the state was very cooperative. So, Calabar is in the forefront of rowing today. You can imagine their rivers all over and the advantage they present.

Besides sporting in the marine environment, what other aspect of maritime have you been playing active role in, by way of investment, or consultation?

Of course, I have investments in the maritime sector. I have jetties in Lagos and Port Harcourt. The jetty in Port Harcourt is for oil and gas, while the one in Lagos is for leisure and recreation. Besides that, I am into pollution management. I own a company called African Circles Pollution Management Company. When a ship calls at the port, you have to clean it up. We manage this for the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA). We take dry cargoes, the wet cargoes, the base oil; some will take the…refine it into base oil…the sludge …engine oil that is mixed with water, we take care of this and turn it to base oil. We are doing that at Tin Can Island. We bought another one now in Port Harcourt. We are doing this on a BOT with the NPA. The NPA owns the port and we are just doing the cleaning. It is a very massive thing we are doing. We even build ship that carries the MARPOL and we’ve bought four from Turkey and we will buy another one from Denmark. You know that when the ship comes, it has a lot of waste. We take the waste away and clean the environment to avoid marine pollution, because with the MARPOL law you cannot dump waste on the water. All those waste we see in our channels, it is an offence, so we have to clean them.

The Nigerian indigenous shipping industry is in shambles. You have been minister of transportation and shipping is a subsector in transportation. Did you try to do something at that time to make Nigerians actually own vessels?

Honestly, I tried, because I found out that our wet cargoes are carried by foreign vessels on FOB and I said look, why can’t we give it our indigenous shipping lines? The argument then was that NNPC said the indigenous shipping lines don’t have vessels. I said give the cargoes to the indigenous companies. The Greeks were all over. I suggested that if our people have the contract to lift our wet cargo, they can lease vessels from the Greeks. It was difficult. Recently I heard somebody said yes, we must now give the cargoes to the indigenous shipping lines and that is the way it should be. If you buy a car in America or London, Nigerian vessels don’t go there to carry the car. Persons in America or in London carry the cars and bring them here. NNPC was giving us headache that time, but I thank God they are now seeing what we saw then. We are losing money on FOB. We should be the ones to carry our wet cargo; that is oil which is the major cargo we have. Nigerians can work with foreign partners. If a Greek man brings two vessels to Nigerians for lease or charter, then Nigerians can now have vessels that can carry the wet cargo and he will employ more Nigerians. We tried to make sure that the NNSL didn’t go down by advocating that the NNPC give them cargo to lift. It is the same problem that the Nigerian Airways had. Government killed the Nigerian Airways. Tickets were sold to government officials too cheap, you know, complimentary rates and government official charter the planes without paying. I always say that government is the worse business manager; government has no business being in business.

As minister of transport, who came when the NNSL was almost dead and there wasn’t much to do to save it, what do you think led to the collapse of the shipping line?

It is management.Every business and everything for that matter needs good management. We manage poverty, manage wealth, and manage the society. Another issue was that like I said the shipping line was not having cargo. Take for example now, we have wet cargo but we give it to foreigners to carry. If the shipping was having cargoes to lift, it can manage to survive.

The current minister of transport, Rotimi Amaechi is trying to establish a new national shipping line whose ownership will be driven by the private sector. What advise can you offer for the success of this effort?

Yes, like I said earlier, government has no business being in business. Let government create the enabling environment and the private sector will drive it. When I was in office, before I became a minister, I fought for our airlines at that time such as Okada Air and ADC to do the job of lifting passengers as the Nigerian Airways began to yield to failure. But what we saw was that the foreign airlines were knocking our local airlines off in the competition.

You are a non-executive director at Mutual Benefits Assurance Plc. What informed your interest in investing in insurance?

First and foremost, when I was in Navy, there was the issue of insurance for our vessels- all the NNS and the rest of the vessels and we found that insurance was very good, because if we don’t insure you will have problems and there would be losses. So we were doing insurance. After so many years, somebody called that they need my attention at Mutual Benefits Assurance. The first thing they did was to fund a birthday celebration for me and after the birthday, I was invited to become part of the company and I accepted, as long as it was not going to tie me down. Today, from being part of Mutual I know more about insurance. Insurance is the most money spinning business in the world. The insurance companies own banks, big banks. For instance millions of people take vehicle insurance, but how many of such vehicles get accident? Very few. So the business brings lot of profits.

Insurance in maritime sector is very low. What can we do to make local insurance companies benefit more from the maritime sector?

Government agencies must ensure that all cargoes are insured. There is a lot of faking of insurance documents for shipping purposes. Also with motor licence, there is a lot of faking of insurance papers, but government has to find a way to counter. This system is all about managing and countering of unaccepted conditions. It is like pirating of music and other arts; government has to counter it. Somebody said he thanks those who said no, because they are the ones who made him to work harder to achieve his goals. If there is faking of insurance documents, government must rise to it.

You were resident ambassador to Equatorial Guinea from 1982 to 1996. You were also accredited to Cameroun, Gabon and Sao Tome and Principe. These are countries with lesser coastal stretch but have fine beaches bringing millions of dollars to the countries via tourism. How can we make our beaches attract more people across the world?

You know, luckily I’m just returning from Dubai. Over there, there are so many places of interest to go to. When you put sugar in a place, you will see ants will arrive there in a very short while. It is all about having the right environment. There are beautiful beaches in Rivers State, but they are all dead because of militancy. I have boats in Port Harcourt but I can’t use them; they are in my compound. Look at this place and see how peaceful it is. Now in Lagos, young boys don’t talk of which car you have; it is now what boat do you have? This is because the environment is conducive for them. You arrive at the airport and you see hostility. All these people who come to Nigeria now come for business; they don’t come for pleasure, if not, we have Obudu Ranch, we have a games reserve in Bauchi, but the problem of security is a big problem for us and our behavior as a people and as a government. Now we are selling we don’t bother about any other means to earn. India had the same problem we are having because they were getting oil. But later the money finished and there was nothing to spend. They sat down and came up with a way out and they opened up to other sectors. Now they are better off and doing very well from investments outside India. So, basically, we must try to open up to other sectors to earn from and militants should have a rethink. I have an NGO of about 100 boys in Port Harcourt. They day we had our seminar, I told them look you are my ambassadors of peace. Look at you people, you don’t have job because your brothers are militants; they drive away investors and therefore you will not get job. But if there is peace, jobs will be available. So, that is the major problem we have in the country.

You have passion for the marine environment and maritime resources. Where did you get this love for the water?

First of all I’m an Ijaw man. I was born in the water. Remember when I granted an interview to a TV journalist in Abuja and the journalist asked me: is it true that when a child is born in Ijaw land, they put him in what for long hours? And I said yes (laughs). When I was in India in the 70s, the Indians haven’t known me well then; they would ask me: where are you from? Are you from Uganda? I would say no; are you from Tanzania? I would say no, I’m from Nigeria and they would say Nigeria is capital of Ghana (laughs). In another country later when I was ambassador, someone said, I hear you people live on top of trees, I would say yes and as an ambassador, I live on the tallest tree (laughs) and he would say no, that is not possible and I would say why not? (Laughs). So back to your question, I am an Ijaw man and we are the people of the water. I remember when the ADC to Abdulsalam lost his father and the president asked me to represent him at the burial. I said how can I an Ijaw man and I don’t have a boat? That was how I decided to buy my first yatch, a small boat which I used to travel to the home town of the ADC. So, my love for water is derived from my background as an Ijaw man. I went to school paddling canoe in my village. When I joined the Navy, it was easier for me to work effectively. When I now retired, I said let me get back to my element, focusing on recreational marine sports.

Sir, indeed, you’ve seen it all. You were an admiral in the Navy, travelled all over the place. I am sure you had fantastic experiences and of course, some of them were not too good. Which are your experiences that you would never forget?

For the bad experience, it was when I was court-martialed in the Navy. Of course, it was a charade. I was commanding a base in Port Harcourt, and they took me from the base to command a ship. Before I left I told them that some more cadets were coming for training that they allow me finish up with them. They said, no, go ahead to command the ship. And of course to command the ship, ARADU is the pride of every senior naval officer. Two weeks after I left, the cadets came for training and after that they went for boat training and the boat capsized, leaving 13 of them dead. The victims included children and brothers of some top politicians and generals. So, in the process of probing and of course, as it is should be done in the military, I was court-martialed. But I was no longer there and I was commanding a ship elsewhere, how can I be liable? But, you know, they were trying to tie me. The first of their argument was that I did not leave enough logistics before I left; that I didn’t leave joined instructions. But, you know, when one is meticulous in life, you avoid a lot of mistakes. So, the court-martial went on and they found out that I joined instructions when I came. The officer who came after me was the one who didn’t join the instructions I left and I was cleared on that. And they came to logistics, saying I didn’t leave enough logistics. What is logistics here? They said canvass shoes. Luckily for me, there had been a navy sporting event in Port Harcourt where I had bought over 100 pairs of canvass and they were all there for use. So, if the person in charge did not allocate them, is it me in Lagos that would do it? They found that all the allegations they want to use to tie me down were well defended. I remember my lawyer said what do you want again from this man? This man had been an ambassador who had national honours from Equatorial Guinea and lots of recognitions. If the man who is on ground didn’t do his job well, why want to tie the officer who was no more there? He cannot command two places at the same time. So, I was discharged and acquitted, but it was a very embarrassing experience because being court-martialled means you are already guilty. There is a board of inquiry, which will simply give you in because you are already court-martialled. It is very rare for officers to get discharged and acquitted when they are court-martialled. I was cleared, but it was very embarrassing.

The good experience, well, you know that sometimes, you get a good experience from a bad one. The other one was when I was accused in Equatorial Guinea of going out with the President’s wife.You see, there is a big difference between the defence section and the embassy. I had better capacity than the Chargéd’affair who was there. In an embassy you have a political officer who notes down all the secrets of the country because an embassy is really a place of spy; the defence adviser is a spy person and they wrote to Nigeria that I was going after the president’s wife. The president said he was going to declare me a persona-non-grata, so I ran away from the country. Then I was a defence adviser, I wasn’t an ambassador then. The defence section has all the Para measures of an embassy, while the man at the embassy then was so lackadaisical, he never cared about his office. When this thing came to Nigeria, at that time Mike Akigbewas director of personnel, he phoned me and asked me to come. Then I was on leave with my family. The following morning, I met the chief of Naval Staff, August Aikhomu, who said, look, you have a good career in the military, don’t go and spoil that atnonsense embassy; come back quickly. When the report came, it also went to the president, Ibrahim Babangida. Babangida said, I know this officer, what went wrong? Let us investigate first. Then Domkat Bali, who was chief of Defence Staff said, Festus, I like your write up, you are doing very well, why are you getting caught? So the allegation investigated and found out there was nothing like that. It was just the disparity between the defence and the embassy. One Ernest Annaba was a political writer there with Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIA). They were the people writing on international issues, making predictions of what may happen in a country and all of that. Ernest Annaba, one nice boy, but mentally lazy would just sit down and contrive things. So, there was nothing there. Unfortunately, when the report of the investigation came out, Babangida then president, EbituUkiwe then in charge of general staff, said the Charged’affair should be dismissed for writing lies against me. So Babangida now said, this man (me) had done very well already, let him take over the affairs of the embassy. That was how I became the ambassador to Equatorial Guinea. It was a bad experience that turned good for me. Today I am first and only military ambassador, still serving, not retired as an ambassador, but being paid as military man not by ministry of foreign affairs, but by the Ministry of Defence. So today I have that record in Nigeria, the only military ambassador.

Part of efforts the NIMASA is making to ensure maritime security includes anMoU with the Navy. How else can the country ensure better security in its coast?

In fact, there was a time I had a company which tried to provide maritime security. You know, we pay more on insurance for cargoes coming to Nigerian waters and the Gulf of Guinea, right from Dakar. The company came to me to tell me from Britain. They were going to provide security for vessels. On every ship, they put officers who take over the security of the ships once they enter Nigerian waters. I wrote to the minister of defence, transport, the NSA and all of them agreed. The company came from London, made presentations to the NSA and Navy and it was okay. That was during the Goodluck Jonatahan-led government. The company would provide its officers with arms; these arms are deposited with the port commandant. The company is called Neptune and I am the chairman here. These are just measures to safeguard the waters against piracy. The other one is you have a ship coming on the anchorage criminally-minded people go there to harass them, steal from the vessel, so it makes it very difficult for shipowners in our area. So when these criminals know that there are armed men on board, they would have restrains. So many things are wrong with us; so many youths without jobs and going into piracy.

As a former minister of transport who is also vast in maritime, how best can we harness the nation’s maritime resources, especially the indigenous shipping industry?

Like I said earlier about crude oil carriage, the regulators should make sure that operators give cargoes to the indigenous ships. You must have cargo for your ship to get going. So, if that is done the ship owners will succeed.Also, the government should improve training at Oron so that instead of using foreigners in our waters, we have the human capital to do the job. Government should invest more in Oron. I remember when I went for their passing out parade of Oron, there was this lady who was in charge of the guard. When we finished she came to me and said she wanted to work in my company. Today, she is the one handling my maritime business. We have a lot to do to improve our capacity. When I was in office, I started an express railway from Lagos to Abuja. We had gotten right of way for the standard gauge and the survey was being handled by a company from Canada which came and surveyed, but as I left, the thing died. So that today, we would be having a multimodal system of transport and people would even prefer the rail to go from Lagos to Abuja for instance. Also the train can carry all the oil products and there would be fewer tankers on the roads. I made efforts in all these areas. There was one Greg Ilukwe who was in charge of railway then.If that was done, today we would not be crying about tankers lying in the port or causing traffic and accidents on the roads. One train wagon can take 20n tankers. I don’t just understand. When we started the efforts to improve the rail, the tanker drivers went on strike in protest saying they invested money in their vehicles and we are trying to push them out of business. I called them to a meeting and I told them look, you will be the ones to benefit. When the train brings the products to the nearest station the tankers will go there to take the products and deliver direct to the station. So you will have your jobs and you tankers are still working and you don’t have to go the port and stay there for days. The owners agreed, but as I left, nothing followed. That is my biggest regret that I didn’t finish up the project.

You are Consul of Romania to the Niger Delta. How are you still holding this position after your retirement and is Niger Delta considered a state by Romania?

That is a good question. Now, in America today we have the Nigerian embassy in Washington, but the Nigerian consulate in Atlanta. In Nigeria, we have American embassy in Abuja and American consulate in Lagos. We have in Nigeria today, the British embassy in Abuja, the British consulate in Lagos. We also have the British consulate in Port Harcourt. Now a consulate is a part of the embassy. The consulate can appoint a countryman for instance, in Atlanta, a man of worthy character and make him your honorary consul.So,I’m an honorary consul covering the Niger Delta. That is, I run the embassy with my personal resources. I do not get fund from them. I’m a diplomat inside this area of my jurisdiction. When a Romanian was kidnapped, I intervened just like an embassy, but I run everything with my personal funds.

Copyright Ships & Ports Ltd. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit given to as the source.