Eric Omare, a lawyer, is the President of the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC). In this interview with Shulammite Foyeku, he speaks on the recent rejection of the Nigeria Maritime University bill by President Muhammadu Buhari, the $195 million maritime security contract awarded to an Isreali firm by the former Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Ameachi, among other pertinent issues in the industry.
How do you see President Muhammadu Buhari’s rejection of the bill seeking the establishment of the Nigeria Maritime University and its implications?
The refusal of the President to assent to the bill establishing the Nigeria Maritime University, Okerenkoko will not in any way affect the existence of the university. It will not be closed down. The only area of implication is that there won’t be any statutory guarantee funding for now, because the advantage of having the law is to have statutory funding. Now that the law has not been passed, that statutory funding will not be there and that is the down side for now. I think the President was not properly advised on the bill because the multiple funding sources, which he objected to, were put there because of the peculiar nature of the school. The university is in a very difficult terrain in the Niger Delta and also because the school was established in response to cry of marginalization by the people of Niger Delta over the years. The National Assembly decided to come up with multiple funding opportunities so that the school can survive. For example, if you are building an auditorium or a lecture theatre in a school like University of Lagos (UNILAG) with N1 million, in Okerenkoko, you will spend up to N10 million. So, the maritime university is not like every other university, it a peculiar school and that is the reason why the multiple funding sources were included. Moving forward, what needs to be done is to have an interface between stakeholders and the President for him to understand the reason why the multiple funding sources should be maintained. Some of our political leaders especially those at the National Assembly are already doing that and I believe now that there is a new leadership at the National Assembly, that interface will be done.
Some stakeholders in the maritime industry have kicked against the setting up of a maritime university arguing that the sector does not have the capacity to absorb the students that will be churned out by the university. How will you react to this?
A lot of people have been taking about diversifying the Nigeria economy, and they think that to diversify is only about going into agriculture. It is not so. Diversifying the Nigerian economy means going into other areas where Nigeria has strength beyond oil and gas and the, the maritime industry is one area of strength in the Niger Delta region. If the maritime industry is well developed, it has the capacity to employ thousands of people. So the argument that Maritime Academy Oron is enough to provide the required manpower for the maritime industry is not true. The stakeholders are saying so because the industry in Nigeria is not developed as it ought to be. If we are truly committed to diversifying the Nigerian economy, one of the areas we must develop is the maritime industry.
I believe you are aware of the challenges cadets at Maritime Academy, Oron are facing to get sea time training after graduation. Will the same fate not befall graduates of the Nigeria Maritime University?
I think we have such problem because as a country we are not very good in planning. We take decisions in most cases without planning for the future and that is the reason why we are having this type of problem. Let me quickly point out that the school is not only training people that are cadets or that needs to go for sea time training, it is just a section of the maritime industry. The industry span from administration, to engineers including those that will go for offshore, among others. As to the challenges the cadets are facing, I am aware that during the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan, there were plans on how to send cadets on sea time training after they graduate but the change of leadership between the former administration and President Buhari’s administration caused that problem perhaps because of lack of continuity in policy in Nigeria. We lack continuity in policy. In any case, even when there is challenge as a country, what needs to be done is to find solution to it and not to shy away from the responsibility because we cannot abandon the rich maritime industry because of the fact that we have not done what we are suppose to do as a nation. I regard that as one of our national challenges.
Do you subscribe to training of cadets abroad by NIMASA under the National Seafarers Development Programme (NSDP)?
Part of the reason for the establishment of the Maritime University, Okerenkoko is to address such issues. Now that we have a university in Nigeria, I don’t think that would be required anymore. Maybe they can still be sending but the number of people that will be sent abroad will not be as high as it used to be. It is just like the oil and gas industry where the Petroleum Technology Development Fund (PTDF) still sends people to schools abroad for training, but they are bringing down the number now. Similarly, I see the issue of training cadets abroad come down considering the fact that we now have an institution that can offer similar training here in Nigeria. But the overall idea is not bad, if you want to develop any sector, that is how it should start, you must go and gain knowledge from other places where they have years of experience in that sector.
Are you saying we should continue to send cadets abroad at the expense and development of our maritime sector?
No. Part of the reason for sending people abroad at the initial stage was because the facilities don’t exist. But now that we have a maritime university in Nigeria, we may not necessarily need to send our people abroad and even if we have to send them, we may not need the same number as we use to have before. For example, we have universities offering oil and gas law, petroleum engineering and the rest but the Petroleum Technology Development fund (PTDF) still sends people abroad. So sending people abroad does not mean you are abandoning local content, it is to gain knowledge so that we develop our local industry. The world is a global village and so people must learn from each other.
Do you support that the nation’s maritime security be contracted to a foreign firm?
In the first place, I think there is lack of transparency in the award of the $195 million contract to an Isreali firm by the Federal Government through the former Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Ameachi. The process of awarding the contract has been very controversial. Secondly, I don’t think it is the best for us to award a contract to a foreign firm for the purpose of securing our waterways. If there is need for training, you don’t need to award a contract. There is always bilateral agreement between countries to train their personnel in specific areas. For instance, we have officers of the Nigerian Army that go to other countries for training. So if they need to train officers to police the nation’s waterways, that is what needs to be done. I don’t subscribe to it and I think that it is a breach of our national security as a country and that is not the best way to go about it.
With the increase in pirate attacks and sea robbery on our waterways in recent times, would you say NIMASA is winning the war against maritime insecurity?
The issue of pirate attacks on our waterways is a source of concern to me as a stakeholder from the Niger Delta region because insecurity has direct correlation with business opportunities in the region. Part of the reasons why people are very reluctant to invest in the Niger Delta region is because of the problem of insecurity. The insecurity issue also has different dimensions. There is a social dimension to it, and an economic dimension to it. Overall, I think that the approach by NIMASA and other agencies needs to change. My view is that people who leave in a particular environment are always in a best position to police that environment. NIMASA’s approach to securing our waterways needs to be reviewed to involve community participation. By community participation, I am not saying the community should be given the sole responsibility to secure those places, but there should be a mechanism to involve communities where those incidents are happening so that they will have a role to play. You cannot commit a crime in a particular community without having the community being involved directly or indirectly. So, what I will suggest is for NIMASA to change its approach to have community involvement in their security architecture.
Niger Delta region is a hot spot for pirate attacks and sea robbery. What do you think the government can do address the problem of insecurity in the region?
When I was talking about the security issues, I mentioned the social and economic dimension to it. What I mean by that is that there is need for government to create more social and economic opportunities for people in the Niger Delta. If that is done, I believe some of those security issues will be addressed. In the maritime industry, I expect the government to come up with deliberate policies in good fate to revive the port in the Niger Delta region, which are popularly referred to as the Eastern ports. If the four ports in the Delta, the two in Rivers, the one at Calabar are working, I believe it will create a lot of economic opportunities for young men in the region, and when that happens, some of the security issues will be addressed. I am aware and also involved in the opportunity given to Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) to dredge the Escravos bar and the promise was that after the dredging of the bar, the breakwaters will be done then the channels from Escravos to Warri will be completed. I do not know the stage which the project is now. We call on government as a matter of urgency to implement those projects so that we can revive the Delta ports. I also call on government to do similar thing in Calabar port and also the ports in Rivers State. Above all, I also want to call on the people of Niger Delta, especially the youths who may have been involved one way or the other in the security challenges in the region to give peace a chance and work with government to ensure our waterways are safe so that we can attract investment to our region and also ensure that the maritime industry grow for the betterment of the overall economy.