In 1961, the Nigerian government acquired the 49 per cent shares held by Elder Dempster and Palm Line. There was no rational justification for the acquisition. The shares were acquired out of sheer zeal to ‘take control’. The move by the Nigerian government was premature and was the first major bad policy of Nigerian leaders concerning the shipping sector.
In 1964, Donald Tod was removed from office paving the way for Nelson Oyesiku’s emergence as the first Nigerian head of NNSL.
Oyesiku was dragged to NNSL by Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu who was its Board Chairman at the time. Oyesiku was working with Elder Dempster Lines as the Head of its Eastern Region in Nigeria at the time. Legend has it that Ojukwu, who was also Chairman of the Commodities Board in Eastern Nigeria, had gone to the office of Elder Dempster to negotiate freight on behalf of the Commodities Board. Ojukwu was fascinated by Oyesiku’s knowledge of shipping and invited him to NNSL.
Oyesiku came with a clear cut agenda to expand the fleet of NNSL. By the time he took over from Tod, NNSL already owned four ships. He commenced negotiations with a shipyard in Belgium to build four additional ships for NNSL. It is important to note that the company did not approach the federal government for money to buy the four new vessels. It drew up a business plan and presented its balance sheet and projected cash flows to financiers and the Belgian shipyard to acquire the four new ships. This set of new ships was classified as ‘N’ ships by NNSL.
In 1965, NNSL teamed up with Elder Dempster Lines and Palm Line to form a company known as the African Containers Express to position for container shipping which was fast gaining grounds.
By 1966, political and ethnic cleavages were beginning to manifest at NNSL pitching some of the company’s top management against each other.
In 1968, the West Africa Lines Conference (WALCON) was reorganized and replaced by the United Kingdom West Africa Lines Joint Service (UKWAL) and the Continental West Africa Conference (COWAC) with the NNSL playing a leading role.
The same year he successfully negotiated the formation of UKWAL and COWAC, Chief Oyesiku resigned from NNSL in anger. He had taken delivery of only one of the four ships he ordered at the time of his resignation. The remaining three were still undergoing construction.
“I am a professional and it got to a point where I could not bear the intrigues anymore. The nepotism, politics and what have you were unbecoming and I did not think that was good enough for a company like NNSL so I quit”, Chief Oyesiku told me bluntly in July 2012 when I visited him in his country home in Abeokuta.
Chief Oyesiku’s premature departure from NNSL would later have dire consequences for Nigeria’s shipping sector.
In 1968, very few Nigerians had the kind of experience required to administer a national shipping line. It was very difficult to find local replacement to head NNSL. The federal government had to place an international advertisement for Oyesiku’s replacement. Eventually a Chinese was employed to run the line.
During the Nigerian Civil War which lasted for three years from 1967 to 1970, the Nigerian military made free use of NNSL vessels to transport troops. The ships played a key role in the advances made along the coast in 1969. With the end of the Civil War in January 1970, General Yakubu Gowon announced an extensive program to revive the economy. NNSL took delivery of the remaining ships ordered in the late 1960s while contracts were awarded for rehabilitation of the ports of Calabar and Port Harcourt.
NNSL continued to grow with its fleet increasing to 15 vessels by 1971. Its ships were however becoming old and unable to meet the challenges of modern shipping especially the advent of containerization.
Apart from the ones ordered under Oyesiku, the others were bought fairly used.
Continues next week
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