I took to arts so I won’t run mental – one-time DG of defunct NMA, John Egesi
John Parick Egesi, a maritime economist, succeeded Buba Galadima as Director-General of the National Maritime Authority, NMA (now Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency) in 1998.
Egesi, who had been promoted from within the organisation, was dismissed after only three months due to internal intrigues. He, however, bounced back to reckoning in 2012 when he was elected President of the Nigerian Institute of Shipping.
In this interview, he speaks on the workings of the agency he once headed and other maritime issues.
Expectations were high when you were appointed DG of National Maritime Authority. What were your ideas for implementing the National Shipping Policy and developing the shipping sector?
I live with the pains of having some of our plans thwarted by short term or sometimes individual goals. So, naturally, when I came in, I knew the limitations of the statute, the Decree 10 of 1987. We also knew certain other aspects of the decree that could not be done. Our plan, which I was in fact carrying out when I was Director of Operations, was to consolidate on the internal aspect of the shipping industry.
That is, to start with the export. You must realise that at a time the export was in fact more common than goods coming in, containers coming from abroad. This was the beginning of our strategy to properly control our own ports. It has a lot of advantages. Jurisdictional problems, scope of the law and all that, will not affect us, given our experience of some of the people we dispatched to the EEC (European Economic Community) countries then. Some of them were captured and our documents thrown away. So we decided to consolidate. My plan at the time was to build on this and eventually get what now became the cabotage regime, believing that if we could show that this thing is more effective here, then of course, the aspect of control and infusion of power into the shipping industry would become easier.
In essence, you’re saying that cabotage goes way back to your era at NMA?
Of course! Cabotage was way back. Cabotage had already been in our diction, even five years before I became the DG, when we started having problems. If you ask the foundation members, although most of us are gone now, they will tell you that cabotage has been in the offing.
What were the limitations of the then NMA law?
You know the way the decree 10 was choreographed, along the 40:40:20 rule of the UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) Code of Liner Conferences. The emphasis was on liner conferences and between the two, conferences was more emphasized. There was this conference shipping. Now, if you lap something to a flag and you remove the flag, what happens to the body? It’s on its own. Most of the European countries knew that. We didn’t enact the law; we were executors of the law. And some of us who were, if you like, shipping executives ab initio from school and from training and all that, although we didn’t voice it because if we voiced it, it would be like destroying our own trade; we knew the limitations of this law and we dared not voice it. And the idea was to work very safely within that particular law and to avoid stepping beyond it so that people don’t cut our toes.
The NMA was like a young lamb thrown into a den of lions. And very few people appreciated the problems that we were carrying on our shoulders. The issue of corruption was out of it, nobody was even thinking of it. If you earned your salary you were lucky. If you had paper to print your document you were lucky. The purpose of everybody was how to steer this ship and make it strong.
The Nigerian populace was not patient. Many wanted our jobs. Everybody wanted to kill us. First, they demolished Dr. [Bassey] Ekong, who was a fantastic pioneer. Up till today, I cannot make out why anybody in his rightness of mind would remove Dr. Ekong. He motivated us. Sometimes, I used to sleep in NMA. I had a small office when Dr. Ekong was there, with my small television, working, designing Form Cs, and posting people to the ports. But shortly before we knew it somebody beheaded Dr. Ekong and Dr. Ekong was gone. Again, this sort of thing happened to my friend, Mr Akinfie.
Why do you think the then Minister of Transport, Dr. Kema Chikwe, removed you as DG NMA after barely three months in office?
Well, Dr. Kema Chikwe is somebody I respect a lot because when I saw what Kema Chikwe did at the airport, I don’t care what anybody says, I have the greatest respect for her. Before Kema Chikwe came in to man the Federal Ministry of Aviation, you could not stay 30 minutes in that airport when you land; there was no air-conditioning. So you must give it to her that she is not a bad manager. But when she came into shipping, she was new, both as a Minister and as a government personnel at that level, so anything goes. So between her knowledge at the time and whatever happened, there must be something I do not know. I am only a chief executive of a parastatal. I didn’t know. My head must have rolled like any other head rolled. Up till this moment, I sincerely, and I am telling you as a Catholic, I don’t know what it is. I even wrote to the President. I even thought it was MV Trainer. All of us know it’s not MV Trainer. I didn’t purchase MV Trainer. I didn’t even support the purchase of it. The files of MV Trainer contain very little about John Egesi. All I did was to welcome MV Trainer when they eventually bought it and brought it ashore. So, this is just an area I sincerely do not understand. I am sure many chief executives will give you the same answer. The politics that happen in places are often beyond us, and if they tell you to go, you go.
There were speculations that your appointment was a result of a disagreement between former Transport Minister, Rear Admiral Festus Porbeni and erstwhile NMA DG, Engr. Buba Galadima. Galadima also alleged this in a petition he submitted to the Christopher Kolade panel set up by President Obasanjo in 1999 to review the retrenchments done by his predecessor’s regime in 1999. It was said that Porbeni had an understanding with you that some contracts Galadima refused to award would receive prompt attention from you.
I don’t know your experience in government. I was a Director. And if you know me, and I am sure you do, I am not a politician. I am the most unpolitical character you would ever meet in the public service. I had never seen Porbeni until the day I was called to come and take over. Never! I had never ever seen Porbeni until the day I was called to come. I am not saying they didn’t quarrel or they quarreled. I didn’t even know whether he had a petition, I did not. So, anything I tell you about that will just be speculative, like any other person. So, that should answer your question, whether I promised or not. What can you promise? What really can a chief executive promise a minister? Promise a minister what? That you are going to buy a ship or you are going to do what? What are the promises? I read something in a magazine that I gave out a contract worth billions. All the money NMA earned up till today cannot give out those contracts. You see, I am not a politician. All I was told was, come to the Ministry and I came and before I knew it, the Minister said, ‘congratulations’. I said what for sir? He said‘well, you are now the acting DG of NMA. Please make sure you do your job very well’. Within three minutes or so, I was back. I was carried in another vehicle with some other people that led me back to NMA. And that was it.
It’s like somebody saying that the DG bought a ship. You and I know that even a Minister cannot buy a ship. So the issue of that is neither here nor there. It’s just not possible. Okay, where would I meet Porbeni anyway? I am not a military person. It was when I entered I knew he was from Bayelsa. I just shook him and said ‘how are you?’ He was looking at me curiously and I was looking at him curiously. We had not met before.
Why do you think Nigerian shipping companies are facing so many difficulties with a lot of them closing shop?
It’s partly to do with our perception of profit and dedication. The shipping industry is a long term returns industry. For as long as our people do not see it that way, they will have problems. I remember a certain shipping company in this country that was carrying very low quality cargo but having its ships completely filled, and when it fills it doesn’t make profit. I don’t want to name names. Also, they asphyxiated the cargo reservation policy in this country. It was meant to help. But our people – immediately the shipping policy was put in place – started selling their ships; the few that they had and latched on the process of collecting the cargo allocations. They had already gotten themselves ‘national carriers’ status. What they did was to collect the cargo allocations and sell to foreigners. You and I looking at it now say ‘ah our shipping trade is falling’. Of course, it is falling because a businessman is doing business without cost. Why should he have a ship when somebody will give him commission? Are they really shipping people? You didn’t ask me why did I turn my back to shipping and now doing this (art business)? It is out of frustration. Because of the mentality of our people, they didn’t see shipping for what it is.
So that explains your veering into art?
I have always loved art a lot. But it’s also to cool my mind from a kind of obfuscation or a road that leads nowhere. When I was removed, I thought that the government will be looking for me. Here was I being removed. I said what is happening? It’s either something is wrong with me or is wrong with the government. So that all of us do not go mental, I decided to go into simple things of life. As an emphasis, they should allow the DGs to do their jobs. And by all means, if you are giving CFR to other people, give CFR to them. It’s not an easy job. You must allow people to put foundation, study the places that are leaking … Look, if you play politics with the future of shipping, you are playing politics with the future of Nigeria.
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