Dr. Kingsley Usor is a former Managing Director, Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC).
In this exclusive interview he granted SHIPS & PORTS’ Shulammite ‘Foyeku, the veteran maritime administrator expresses displeasure with the state of the maritime industry 60 years after independence.
Where were you at Independence in 1960?
I was in secondary school.
What is your assessment of Nigeria’s maritime sector 60 years after independence?
My assessment is that we are not making a positive stride. Many of the things that we gained from developed economies; we are gradually losing them because of lack of knowledge. Many of the things we signed some 30 years ago, when you look at them, have been reversed indirectly because those implementing them didn’t understand and they think because it is transportation anybody can do it. No. It is a specialist area and if they go with the rule of thumb way of doing things, then we will continue to lose all the benefits and that will affect the economy.
If anybody says I am talking nonsense, let them go and look at the balance sheet and they will see that when they compare it with the previous years and work it out in real terms we are not making the desired progress because of the policies we are following. For example, look at the port situation, the shipping companies are charging us demurrage on containers because somebody somewhere went and approved some years ago papers that were rejected by shippers.
There are so many things that should not be the way they are and you ask yourself – what is the discipline of those who are taking these decisions, because we need knowledge to be able to take certain decisions or advise the minister right. The transport ministry is a technical ministry; you don’t bring people who study outside transportation and put them there that they will learn. By the time they are learning they are making mistakes.
When I came into the organisation, the agency given to me, I was the only person qualified in my field and I knew that I cannot do the job alone, I had to get approval both from the board, ministry and the government to continue training of all staff. From messenger to the chief executive are compulsorily mandated to take one month training course in the appropriate field every year and that paid off.
The Nigerian Shippers’ Council has continued in the training of its personnel because I laid out certain things and they are still following them but the Council cannot work in isolation; they need the other areas in the logistics chain to have specialist manpower that can understand and speak the same language they are speaking.
Is it still possible for us to retrace our step?
Why can’t we? As long as one is alive, we can retrace our step. It is just to get the right people and talk to them, everything should not be politics. What politicians do is to take the money you earn and tell you how to spend it through taxation but they do not create. Politicians do not create anything but they share what is created by other people.
We can do it and that is why we set up universities doing the course I’m talking about. But have we manned the faculties with the appropriate brains who will come and talk to the young people to pick up certain things, learn from where we made mistakes in the past and the right way to go? I have written books on these things but nobody is reading them.
The university lecturers come to me and I give them copies but instead of giving it to the students, they photocopy and sell as handouts. Everybody is looking for money. Nobody is really thinking of how to develop manpower for the country.
What areas would you want the government to focus on to enhance the development of the maritime sector?
Not specific areas; there has to be a complete overhaul of the system. From manpower to the basic things they do, there has to be a total overhaul of the system not in any specific areas. If you want to make money, you have to do things like a wise man. Look at what the developed countries are doing; we do not have to buy all those vessels when we have the Nigerian National Shipping Line (NNSL).
We need just one or two vessels and charter in the rest and when trade is down, you drop the ones you charter and manage your few. But in our own case, we did what we shouldn’t have done.
Do you think Nigeria would have had it better if the NNSL was not liquidated?
To own a national line is something every country would dream of but we need to build it thinking about business and not politics. You don’t build to impress, you build to use it as an economic weapon that can earn money for the country but all these things we didn’t do. We just built the ships, the same type of vessels and a lot of things happened. We built the ships for 18 footer containers and within the time the ships were in the dockyard going through construction, the international community changed from 18 to 20 footer containers and you cannot carry 20 footer containers without having broken storage. So from the first day, the ships were losing money.
If you refer to my book Politics of shipping and the Nigerian economy, you will get all the details. If you just join others because you have resources to build and you don’t have maintenance culture, you don’t have management, what will happen? That place will be run down and when it runs down, it becomes impossible for you to repair and if you are repairing, you have to cut off your arms and your legs in order to do it and that was exactly what happened with our shipping line. Poor management and a lot of corruption killed NNSL.
Ship financing remains a major challenge in Nigeria. How best do you think the problem can be addressed?
It is not an issue of money. I wrote it in my book Politics of shipping and the Nigerian economy. When politicians come in, if you are not making money you are not for them but the moment you start making money, they want to change you and put the person who will share with them. Even if the government gives the money to a consortium of banks to manage, let there be rules and regulations about how to do these things.
The Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) does not have the competence to be giving out loans. The banks that have the competence should do that. Government doesn’t have to form another bank and give to their people and they run it down because politics come into everything.
My question sometimes is: if the government is our father’s business, will we run it the way we are running it now and dashing out money to friends? We know those people won’t buy ships; we know they don’t have the competence. Why can’t we do the right thing?
We should be manufacturing vessels in this country by now. The ship acquisition fund is being shared among groups and so many of them that took it before, used it to marry more wives, buy bigger cars and divert the money. The money is not in maritime. So who will help us carry the goods?
The name of shipping is the transportation of trade but we allow others to carry the trade for us and when they carry it, they carry it at a higher cost and any profit they make, they carry it to their country and improve their earnings while our own is in deficit.
I have cried enough for the industry and I don’t cry anymore, when I look at them now, I just laugh.
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