I feel greatly honoured to write about a distinguished gentleman that I regard as a big uncle and a highly impactful mentor. I have known Captain Olugbemiga Abidoye since I joined the maritime sector in 1999. The highly cerebral and thoroughbred Master Mariner and Port Administrator earned the highest level of respect I could accord any mortal being from the very first day I met him. I have never seen a man so deeply passionate and highly knowledgeable about both shipping operation and port administration. If you seek the one person that is very much conversant with all the access waterways in Nigerian harbours, Captain Abidoye is that person.
The name of this living legend might not readily resonate with some young practitioners in the industry today not because his unequalled contributions to the industry are not visible enough, but because he is self-effacing. He is a private person who never sought the limelight.
Captain Olugbemiga Abidoye retired from Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) in October 2003 after serving meritoriously as the Executive Director, Marine and Operations. Those who are familiar with the internal workings of NPA will know that the Executive Director M & O directs the core aspects of the Authority’s businesses. Indeed, Captain was regarded as a potential MD of NPA. I daresay he is the best Managing Director NPA never had.
Prior to his appointment as ED M & O, Captain served in several other capacities including as a Pilot for about five years and as the Master of NPA’s hydrographic research vessel named “Argungu” for two years. It was in this capacity that he acquired considerable knowledge of the port channels and experience in navigable waterways maintenance. As he grew in rank in NPA, he served as the Harbour Master and Marine Superintendent at almost all the ports across the country and later on as the Assistant General Manager Operations for several years. While he was the Principal Manager, Harbours, he established the Compulsory Delta Pilotage District at Escravos, Warri River sometimes in 1993. The pilotage district did not exist before then as pilotage services were illegally provided by the locals, thereby exposing ships calling at the port to high risks of grounding, possible attacks and undue exploitation. Today, the compulsory Delta Pilotage District established by Captain Abidoye generates millions of dollars into the coffers of NPA. It has also provided employment to many indigenes of the south-south region. The establishment of the Compulsory Pilotage District earned him commendation letters from both the Ministry of Transportation and NPA management. His deployment from marine services to the operations division marked a major turning point in his career as it enabled him acquire significant experience in port traffic operations while serving as the coordinator of traffic operations for all the seaports in the country.
From operations, Captain Abidoye was moved to the Marketing and Commercial Services Division of NPA as the General Manager. In those days, the Marketing and Commercial Services Division was a different kettle of fish altogether. The folks working in the division were the big boys of NPA. Because the NPA billing system was ambiguous, officers in the division exercised a great deal of discretionary powers, which they gleefully explored to their personal advantages. Captain Abidoye was new to the division but he understood the system very well, so he decided to embark on far-reaching reforms. He assembled a team of experts and after a few weeks, introduced a transparent and simplified billing system. The tariffs were simplified and made known to the customers. The measure he introduced drastically reduced the discretionary powers of the officers in the division, blocked revenue leakages and greatly improved the income realised by NPA.
Captain Abidoye’s appointment as ED M & O in 2002 was greeted with loud ovation by NPA staff and other stakeholders. NPA customers heaved a sigh of relief, knowing that far-reaching reforms that would simplify their transactions with NPA were in the horizon. The then Managing Director of NPA, Arc. Aminu Dabo looked up to the amiable Captain for the fulfillment of the mandate handed down to the new Executive Management Team by then President Olusegun Obasanjo.
True to expectations, Captain Abidoye rolled up his sleeves and got down to work. First, he instituted the regular voyage meetings, which have endured to date. Within a few weeks, there were visible improvements in the efficiency of services and revenue generation of NPA. Revenue loopholes were rapidly blocked by Abidoye’s bold reforms. Some of the reforms he embarked upon included the upgrading of navigational facilities and services across all the ports in and outside Lagos to reduce vessel turn round time. His vision was to raise the skills of NPA workers and take services at Nigerian ports closer to international norms. Many might not know because he would never beat his chest for it; but I state here boldly that Captain Abidoye it was that aggressively promoted the idea of offdock terminals to decongest the port. Offdock terminals are now commonplace but it was a novel idea at the time.
Dockworkers also benefited immeasurably from the foresight, passion and patriotism of Captain Abidoye. I remember how he championed the battle for better remuneration of dockworkers through a key institutional reform. Our dockworkers, before the reform, were very poorly paid and were serially cheated by the leaders of their union. The leaders of the Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria (MWUN) in the 1990s/2000s lived big at the expense of the hapless dockworkers. They preferred the infamous ‘gang system’ where dockworkers worked at a task in a group of eight or twelve. This was irrespective of the size of the task. The gang system promoted laziness, favouritism and unbridled corruption. In those days, all dockworkers at the port were casual labourers without condition of service. They got paid through the union, which was sure to slice off as much as 75% of the money due to them. The union was very powerful and deadly, so no one dared raise their voice. But Captain Abidoye determined to end the gang system. In concert with the now defunct Joint Maritime Labour Industrial Council (JOMALIC), he introduced the payment by tonnage system in place of the gang system favoured by the union. It was a deft move and a game changer. While the union expectedly and aggressively resisted the new system, the doggedness and administrative sagacity of Captain Abidoye made the payment by tonnage scale through. It whittled down the corrosive powers of the union in favour of the dockworkers. Payment by tonnage meant that dockworkers got paid for the amount of work they did. It also meant that shipping companies paid for the labour they needed to work their vessels rather that for some frivolous gang. This improved productivity, contributed in reducing the costs incurred by shipping companies, and enhanced the welfare of the dockworkers.
Captain Olugbemiga Abidoye also championed the computerisation and automation of the Marketing Hall at the then RoRo Port. The terminal operated by Five Start Logistics today used to be known as RoRo Port. It has now been merged with the Tin Can Island Port. Captain Abidoye used the RoRo Port computerisation and automation as a model for future development of the use of computer technology in NPA. It was a huge success and one is happy to see that NPA is now fully computerised. The foundation was the pilot scheme implemented at RoRo Port under Captain Abidoye.
Without any fear of contradiction, I make bold to say that the various measures instituted by Captain Abidoye especially in his capacity as the General Manager, Marketing and Commercial Services Division and later as the Executive Director Marine and Operations of NPA laid the foundation for private sector participation in port operation and marine services, which has led to improved service delivery and greater revenue generation at the port.
Unfortunately, despite his unequalled contributions to the development of the maritime industry, the country allowed some enemies of progress to truncate his career at NPA and tried to rubbish his hard-earned reputation. But God will forever be on the throne and will never forsake His own. Captain came out of his travails a better and stronger man. As an ardent believer and follower of Christ, the God he serves vindicated him on all fronts. Words have meaning and names have power. Oluwa gbe mi ga – God lifted me high. Captain towers high – far above every evil manipulation and far above the mundane.
While he is no longer in public service, he has been steadfast in making sterling contributions to the industry through private enterprises. I wish this living legend would someday consider writing a book to document his rich experiences and journey through life.
Captain, as you join the club of septuagenarians on Wednesday November 10, 2021, I’ll like you to know that you have been a source of inspiration to me and several others – young and old. You have touched lives in many more ways than you might imagine. I declare publicly that you have been very kind to me. Your contributions to my career are too numerous to mention in this piece.
I wish you a happy and fabulous birthday Sir. When I saw you during the Day of Tribute for the late Chief Priest in Apapa about a month ago, you did not look anywhere near 70. This clearly shows the favour and grace of God upon you. I pray that God will continue to be your guide. May He grant you many more years of good health, sound mind, peace and joy so that you will continue to radiate His glory and spread cheerfulness and joy in the lives of others as you have always done. Happy 70th birthday Sir.