Former President and current Chairman, Board of Trustees of the Nigerian Shipowners Association (NISA), Chief Isaac Jolapamo, is very well known in the maritime industry. With experience spanning more than 50 years, the septuagenarian appears to understand shipping like the back of his hands. In this interview with SHIPS & PORTS’ Tosin Aribisala, the foremost Nigerian ship owner did not mince words in expressing his displeasure on the poor state of shipping in the country. He also narrated how he was kept waiting for more than five hours to see the Director General of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA).
You have been quiet for a few years. What happened?
I’ve not been particularly quiet. I have been on the issue of national fleet though we’ve not made much headway but I deliberately kept quiet on the issue of the Nigerian Shipowners Association (NISA) hoping that people saddled with the responsibility of running it would take it up and revive the place. But of course, the way things are going, if one does not take necessary steps, we will be talking of something else. So, to avoid that, I have decided to take the bull by the horn. Hence, I said let us revisit the vision and mission of those of us who started the association. And as you can see, nothing has happened in the past years. We had an election that fragmented the association because of selfish interest. And that has been the trend but you can’t see a baby you gave birth to dying while you are still very much alive. It is only God that keeps one alive but you have to play your own part to see that what you have delivered does not die suddenly.
How has your business been? I know you were one of the top ship owners in Nigeria. At a time, you had a fleet of six ships with all of them trading under your company Morlap Group. Do you still have those ships?
I’ll want to say at this juncture that I have owned and operated more than 25 vessels since I started this business in 1985 when I left the NNPC. I even owned a vessel that operates in the United Kingdom. That’s where I got the money to train my children abroad. Their school fees were paid from the proceeds of the vessel I operated in the UK. But I think the Cabotage Law has not been a blessing even though we fought to have it. Of course, the people who are working against us are usually one step ahead of us. So, I can say today that I don’t have any operational vessels. As of today, I want to say that if probably we don’t have Cabotage at all, I would probably be operating vessels. I started running NNPC chartered vessels in 1978 and after doing that; I started doing my own in 1985. So, I cannot be said not to know my left from my right. It is just that some of us are targeted by the people we are up against. The people we are up against are the foreigners that have taken root and you can’t beat them because you don’t have a backing. If you had backing, then the narrative would be different. We were there when they created the National Maritime Authority (NMA). We were there when they were created the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA). We made input into what they should do but because of selfish interest, those things are not done; they were jettisoned. Fortunately, some of us still have papers that we can present if there’s going to be a story to be told about how these things went wrong. Talk of the refineries that went down; the refineries went down because the development of shipping was frustrated. It is not about anything; it is about people who believed that these are their core treasures and they should not be booted out of the place and I know how we started trying to push out the foreigners who have deeply planted themselves into the industry. However, it is still not a lost battle though I felt tired at a time. But looking at the way things are going, somebody has to bell the cat.
So what happened to all your ships sir?
We lost all to a lack of business and opportunity. If you are running a ship, a ship is called a ship because of the maintenance mechanism put in place. If you have a ship and it is not earning, it would start depreciating and in shipping parlance, you must put your ship in class to be able to trade. If you don’t have work to put the ship in the class, the ship is not able to trade and the best you can get is you have to sell the ship as scrap or as something. You see, a ship trades with a certification. You belong to a class that classifies that ship for trading. There are two classes. You have the top class of the classification society, which they call higher class and there are others below. But of course, if you fall from the higher one which everybody is clamoring for and you go to the lower one, if you are not still getting jobs to do, then you’ll fall out of class and when you fall out of class, there’s nothing left. It is either you are doing jankara business, which is not legitimate. Some just abandon the ship when a situation like this arises.
Some of these wrecks will not be there if we had done the right thing by encouraging people who got into the shipping business; not for their own benefits alone but for the benefits of others and the nation at large. But of course, those incentives are not there. Nobody is interested in how you do it. They are using millions of naira to remove wrecks now; but it is avoidable. I don’t know whether you’re aware of an incident that happened when one wind from the southern part blew over 13 or 17 vessels ashore. I know people lost vessels in that incident but nothing was done. Even with the pressure that we exerted, NIMASA that came in that time only specified that they were going to remove three of my vessels and one other vessel and I had to put my foot down but they didn’t even remove one or two at the end of the day. And so many of those ships were lost. You may ask what happened to the insurance. Is it not Nigeria insurance? These are areas that need attention that we don’t attend to. When you take a loan from the bank – my first loan from the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), UK, was in 1985 because I had a paper from Mobil to be carrying gas from the refinery to their Eket base. And when I got to the bank, knowing well that I knew my right from my left in the industry and the question they asked me was, do I have a Rolls Royce? And I showed the man a gate pass underground and the man said he was approving it because I didn’t impress I want to be this or that. He did arithmetic that he thought would help me pay back in two years. This is because the people in the bank know how to structure repayment. It is not an interest of 10 or 12 percent but an interest of four or five percent. I bought at least more than 14 vessels through BCCI, Bank of American Express and the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Limited (HSBC). The only four vessels that I bought with the Nigerian bank were bad. This is because there are no shipping bankers in Nigeria. The people you are also dealing with don’t want you to succeed.
What has your experience been with the banks considering that you had a lot of transactions with them?
Well, my experience with Nigerian banks has not been palatable. As I’ve said, my first experience was with the Bank of Credit and Commerce (BCCI), United Kingdom. I had experience with American Express Bank in the UK and I had an experience with HSBC for a very long time. These are the places I secured loans to buy all the vessels that I have operated except for four that I got a loan from a Nigerian bank to purchase out of the 25 to 26 vessels. And all the ones from the Nigerian bank went bad. They went bad because of the lack of knowledge of everybody that was involved. The bank and the charterer preferred to have foreign persons so that the transactions between them would be close. It was assumed that transactions with your fellow Nigerian are open. These are the little issues that made up the big picture. It is very difficult to convince people to change their orientation.
You were the pioneer President of the Indigenous Shipowners Association of Nigeria (ISAN), the body now known as NISA. But since you left as president, the association has not been as vociferous and active as it used to be. Why so?
It is so because the government wants it to be so. It is helpful to the government when we are not speaking with one voice. You see, when we started, the intention was that when we have a Cabotage law, which is what I called the small end of the shipping trade, the big end is the international trade. When we can master our own brown waters, then we can move to the blue sea. That was the vision of ISAN as at when it was created or formed. But I’ll say we became so formidable that we had to be listened to. We were in the trenches before fighting to get recognition. By and by, we were able to penetrate the National Assembly as at the time the civilian government came. This got to the level that we were present at where NIMASA or NMA was defending its budget. And when we also saw that the Cabotage Law was not working well for us, we had to take it upon ourselves to be arresting vessels that were flouting the law. We know we were stepping on some big toes but of course, we did what we had to do. They feel our pulse when the government wants to do something like changing NIMASA DG or something. When they want to do things that concerned shipping development, they try to feel our pulse, looking at how we will react but now nobody does. The whole thing is on the political platform. It is not on a professional pedestal. And it’s fragmenting ISAN but helpful to the government because they’ve weakened the power base. So, they can get away with whatsoever they want. If it were in the olden days, the minister would not get up to say he couldn’t understand why some people who don’t have ship are clamouring for the disbursement of Cabotage Vessel Financing Fund (CVFF). Who started the CVFF? What are the qualifications to become a member of that association? The qualification is that you must have so and so. And if you don’t have it anymore, that does not take you out of the association. If you have contributed to a place, you have the right to have a stake. It is now being looked at from the political point of view and my position is that I knew my left from my right in the shipping industry. I’ve never gone out of shipping. I started my life from the Nigerian Navy to the Royal Navy to NNPC and to being a ship owner. So, I know my left from my right.
If we say we want to develop shipping on a political platform, we are just wasting our time. And that is what they are doing right now. I mean, I’m sorry to say, but this present government has been the worst government in terms of shipping development because it has been pushed to the very back. There are lofty programs that we have drawn up for the development of shipping. Instead of just spending billions to do parties and all sorts of things, if we have this money expended on ship maintenance and repairs, we’ll not have most ISAN members not having their ships working. But of course, our government knows how to manipulate and that is the issue.
What is your view about the fragmentation of Nigerian ship owners? All Nigerian ship owners used to be under one umbrella before but this is no longer the case. Why did this happen and don’t you think it will have a negative impact on your advocacy?
It is already having negative impact. It is not even if I think. It is already happening. It is the government divided the association. It is the government that was behind the fragmentation. I won’t mince words. When the election (of NISA executives) was coming, I wanted to see a younger person take over. And I looked at the people who had taken the industry to the stock exchange. Some of our members who were running publicly quoted companies. It was an added advantage seeing some young guys taking the industry to greater heights. That was what I was looking at. Selfish interest made some people think that a particular individual must become the president (of NISA). Some were government candidates. We also had some people that were almost of no relevance in the association. So, what we did was to tell members pay their association dues. Some of us had spent millions of naira on behalf of the association. So, if you want to vote, come and pay your dues. It was misconstrued and everybody was raising an alarm of what they didn’t understand. When the information got to the wrong hands, even the boys that were running the publicly quoted companies couldn’t come out again because of phobia. And the government wanted a particular candidate to emerge. So it was the government support that brought the fragmentation. This is because they saw the place as formidable. In other places where we have gone and researched how they got to the level they are, we saw that it was only when they are formidable that the government would listen to them.
In fairness to Amaechi when he first came, he wanted a situation where we come back together as one. I know it is not in the interest of most people. Even in Greece where they have the largest number of ship owners, they have groups. They separate themselves into groups. They have salvage vessel owners, ship owners groups that have supply vessels, groups that have coastal vessels etc. They are in groups but they are one association. It is only in Nigeria that we talk of division in an association and we are not ashamed. They are claiming that there is freedom of association. Yes, there is, but certain things should not be done because of ego or selfish interest, or because I want to better myself if I’m in a certain position. I never used my company’s business card for the whole period that I found and ran ISAN. This is because it’s not about personal interest. My staff then can vouch that if they wanted to pay salary and there’s something to be spent on ISAN, their salary would wait. You can ask people who were working with me then. A few of them are still around.
So how do you plan to ensure that NISA regains its pride of place in the industry?
The first and foremost thing is to attract the members back. We attracted them in the first instance that we are working on the Cabotage fund and if it works, these are what would be the benefits and it was going to work. This is because when the Cabotage Law was enacted, we had ship owners from Greece, Norway, Scandinavian, and from the Far East wanting to partner with us until our own country Nigeria put a hole by putting waiver condition. The people knew we didn’t need a waiver. All we needed was to partner with them and they were coming to partner with us. So, that was the issue. However, we can still go back. It’s possible but we need to attract the members back somehow. So, what are the points of attraction? If we are still a formidable force, we’ll be able to raise money in the international market. All that would be left is to give us this right of taking this volume of cargoes from the government.
I think we have more than 100 ship owners and close to 100 associate members. Associate members are those that trade within the periphery of the ship. When you put the ship at the center, every other service – be it maritime lawyers, chandlers or shipping bankers – there a lot. So we are looking at the possibility of raising some money from the international market. We are looking at the possibility of reviving the ISAN Shipping Line, which was formed years back. From that, we can form a formidable force. Even if it is that one that is working; if 120 people have two to five percent of something, it is better than 100 percent of nothing. And that would encourage others to come onboard opening an avenue for those who do not have ships now to acquire.
What will be your advice to the present DG of NIMASA to enable it truly promote shipping development and grow indigenous tonnage?
Well, as I said, the guy is doing his best but he has limitations. He is the only NIMASA DG that has offended me. When he got there, there was a party organized for him where I was present. I was invited, and what we said was that we would advise him. He called me last year December when I was at a friend’s place in Kwara wanting some advice. I can’t really recall the whole picture and I said I was far away but promised to see him when I returned to Lagos. And when I got to Lagos, I called him but he said he was in NPA or somewhere and he was going somewhere in Lekki to greet a bereaved staff. I said I was at Parkview, could he pass through? He said no because it was an official assignment. I told him I would go and wait for him in the office. And I was in that office for five hours. Even when the people in the lift saw me because I hardly go to the place, they were surprised. I was there once during his predecessor’s administration, and when I discovered that one was just about politics and not about the industry, I stopped going there. I spoke with the security guy there that I wanted to see the DG, and I introduced myself. And I sent the card. Second hour, third hour, fifth hour and somebody came where I was sitting to say the man has left. I felt so slighted. But despite all these, I know their constraints. The forces that are against shipping development are far, far more than the DG. The more you look, the less you see.
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