Mrs. Margaret Onyema-Orakwusi is a lawyer, fishing trawler owner and immediate past chairman of the Nigeria Maritime Expo (NIMAREX) planning committee. In this interview with SHIPS & PORTS DAILY’s Babalola Yusuf, she speaks on the state of the maritime industry and the performance of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) under its former Director-General, Patrick Akpobolokemi, among other issues.
How will you assess Patrick Akpobolokemi’s five-year tenure as Director-General of NIMASA?
There is need to access the achievement of the ex-DG of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) for any incoming administrator to know where we are. There is need to know where we are coming from. Though, what happened to the former DG was that he concentrated more on a particular area more than the others. We all know that maritime is all about safety, which was what NIMASA stands for and are expected to do but also, they should build capacity. There is need for the administrators to know that building of capacity in the industry does not start and end with training of seamen, it goes beyond that and I think much did not happen in terms of building capacity for ownership of vessels or helping those who own vessels acquire jobs.
So the capacity building for those that are coming there now must take into account all sectors of the industry and what is more important is the ship because everything dances around the ship. If you do not have ship and you are training a million people to start with, where will they get the required sea time and employment? So you need to build capacity of the indigenous owner. You need to attract more people into shipping which is very important.
Also, the business of having government agencies dabbling into education and institutions by way of ownership is overreaching. We have to specialize in a particular area because their functions are defined by the laws setting them up and it is always good to concentrate on these functions and I know as a matter of fact that we do not have safety gadgets out there on the sea. We do not have ambulances, firefighting equipment and we have heard stories of vessels burning probably by a small fire that starts and nobody from any Nigerian vessel coming to their aid to put off the fire but we have international vessels coming to the aid of our vessels in distress and that is an area that is begging for attention from the regulator.
Do you support the unbundling of NIMASA?
The issue is not subscribing to a lot of functions or activities. I think what is important is that we should all go back and then know why NIMASA was set up and know what they have to do because the issue here is not the absence of a guiding law but conforming and applying the laws for the generality of our people. That is the missing link. I think they should not leave the area of regulation because they are by and large a regulatory authority and I advise they should stay there and see that people are conducting their businesses and conforming to the provisions of our laws.
NIMASA is there to ensure the growth of the industry by building capacity and the issue is not that they are doing XYZ but the issue is that are they allowed under the law setting them up to dabble into them? The answer, I believe, is no. So, NIMASA was supposed to provide platform and ensure compliance with the activities of companies providing the services because I believe when you are a jack of all trade; you will be master of none.
There are institutions that exist for different functions so I can’t see why a government agency will run an institution of higher learning with building of shipyards and we hear the government saying they are going out of all those commercial areas and leaving them in the hands of the private sector. I think NIMASA should limit its functions to those regulatory activities, which they are established to do and building effective capacity that will bring about growth in the industry. There is no basis for having 10,000 seamen and we have no employment for them, it does not make any sense.
What kind of person will you advise government to appoint as the substantive Director-General of NIMASA?
NIMASA relates to everyone in the maritime sector so I will want to see someone who has deep knowledge of the industry becoming the head and I want to see people who are passionate, knowledgeable about the industry and who are key players in the industry sit on the board of NIMASA.
The board is meant for policy makers and it should not be for purposes of getting contracts. It should be purposes of development and building capacity. People with passion, who have the time and who are driven by the record and standards they have set in the past are people that should be seen as board members of agencies like NIMASA.
Also, I will want to see someone who knows and understands the industry, an active player that understands the industry so that the mission of the agency will be achieved. If a person that understands the industry heads NIMASA, it will be easy to achieve its mandate and promote a lot of things that will move the industry forward.
The Federal Government recently banned about 113 vessels from loading Nigerian crude, what do you make of this action?
This has just confirmed what we have been saying about the atrocities going on Nigeria waters. Crude oil theft, illegal fishing and poaching of our natural resources are going on unchecked. So, once we take firm steps as we have done now, at least the foreigners that are engaged in these activities with their local conspirators will think twice. I really commend the government for taking that bold step.
However, about whether it will provide businesses for indigenous companies; it is sad that such a question will come out but that is the reality of the situation we have found ourselves because in a way, we have indirectly knocked off 113 vessels that are foreign owned and are committing atrocities within our territorial waters but are we now going to replace their functions with the local ones? I mean it is sad that we need to ask the question.
Local shipowners have advocated that to build capacity in shipping, we must promote the businesses of local investors. If we promote their businesses, we will see more of indigenous participation, more of lifting the crude oil but then, Nigeria is one of the few countries if not the only one where we generate the tonnage but we have no say in the transportation of the tonnage we provide. It is wrong. It doesn’t happen anywhere in the world. We are not losing from the angle of transportation alone but also losing the banking and insurance services.
We are also losing services that ought to be provided by maritime lawyers in the country. So once we are able to break into lifting our crude oil, transporting, stop selling our crude on Free on Board, then more revenue will be attracted to indigenous participation in this area I have highlighted.
What else should government do to build capacity apart from the Cabotage regime it has put in place?
To start with, I think on the Cabotage, we wanted to run before we crawl because if you look at it, the Act says we have to build, own our ships in the country and we do not have a shipyard that can do that yet. Cabotage is a beautiful law no doubt but it is not protecting and providing businesses for indigenous operators.
Cabotage will work if there is political will to make it work. If we insist that some aspects that we have the capacity to do is protected, indigenous companies will grow.
The capacity to make Cabotage work is between the government and the operators. The operators should be able to highlight foreign vessels coming to our waters. They should monitor when waivers are given and when they should be given. We should work with the government. There should be an evidence to show to our satisfaction that XYZ is not available or owned by an indigenous owner and that is why waiver is being given to foreign vessels to do the job. It is a collective duty.
Also, the government should carry along the ship owners. Ship owners have associations; they should work with those associations to ensure that there is a sign off from these associations before waiver is given out to any foreign owned vessel to operate on our coastal water. Also, waiver should not be given forever. There should be a time limit to it and there should be an opportunity given to the indigenous owners to get that platform in place.
Another issue is that we have saboteurs, we have Nigerians who will do anything to get patronized and get acknowledged by the foreigners and they also work against the spirit and intent of the Cabotage Act. They go to the extent of accepting to be chairman of foreign companies. They are the first to position themselves to get them meet who they want to meet in government and ensure that Cabotage does not work. It is unpatriotic of them when we have a lot of youths roaming around. We should be bold enough to let these saboteurs know they are doing a disservice to the country and we should go to the extent of reporting them to the government. These will allow them know the saboteurs of our economy and development because when shipping activities improve or is allowed to grow, it will generate employment and stop capital flight.
Do you support the review of the Act?
The Act is good. I see nothing wrong in the Act but what I think we should do is to make it work. It is in our interest to make it work. Most countries that have the Act used it to protect what is theirs. It is to discourage capital flight. For instance, there was a day I visited LADOL, I was happy that a place like LADOL is coming up in Nigeria. It was amazing when I saw what was being done in LADOL. This people need to be encouraged because it does not augur well that with our economic potentials and populations, we need to look outside by moving our vessels to neighboring countries to drydock our vessels. Nigeria should have the capacity to build vessels and what I saw when I visited LADOL really encourages my faith that one day, all Cabotage vessels on our territorial waters will be built in Nigeria and that is how growth is achieved.
The fishing trawling business has gone comatose. What went wrong?
It is unfortunate that an industry that should be encourage to grow, an industry that is highly regulated, an industry that is technical that is controlled not only by Nigerian government but also the European Union was been left to die.
This is an industry that can provide employment in millions above all it is an industry that should feed our population with the cheapest source of protein and that is fish. It is sad that over 90% of fish and fishery product consumed in this country is imported from all over the world.
This is an eye opener for the opportunity that existed in the fishing industry so what is happening to the fishing industry in Nigeria is that we are watching it die gradually because from over 30 companies that were involved in deep sea fishing a couple of years back, we have less than 10 in existence and they are operating below 100% of their operation and you begin to ask why.
Why did this happen?
The operators are faced by so many challenges. Firstly, we started by complaining about sea piracy and sea robbery. Nigeria was in denial but later, the government acknowledged the attacks and they were like what do we do and we all know that trawlers are most vulnerable to attacks because of their fishing form, because when they are fishing and the pirates fully armed are coming to attack them, they cannot just run away because they have to haul up and you don’t haul up in a matter of seconds. That is why they are most vulnerable and the pirates come to attack them, to kill them in a most brutal manner, throw them overboard and steal their equipment.
We have been crying out. We have lost a lot of seamen, we cried to a point that when I was the President of trawler owners association, we shut down the whole Nigerian fleet and vowed not to go back until government provided security to go back. It is sad that it will be difficult to breach the demand gap that existed in fish supply without the industrial fishing because the bulk of what to be consumed comes from industrial fishing and this is a sector that there was a time in this country that it was the second largest foreign exchange earner in the non-oil sector.
This was also an industry that employed people in hundred of thousands. The industry is coming down right in front of our eyes. We should know that our loss in Nigeria is the gain of neighboring countries because people relocated their trawlers and sadly we have big vessels coming to our waters to poach our aquatic resources and because they have nothing at stake, they fish from bottom to top. They take the juvenile, the big fish that lay the golden egg and they go. These are big vessels from other countries. They are not just stealing our crude oil but also stealing our aquatic resources in an irresponsible manner because nobody regulates that.
We have to be careful because we cannot forever depend on import. Import which you do not know the quality of what you are giving your people to consume. A nation of over 170 million people and about 90% of fish and fishery products consumed it consumes is by import! Does it make any sense when we have such a huge capacity untapped? We are training our children in the School of Oceanography and Department of Fisheries? What will happen to them (after the training)
Why did you resign from NISA?
This is an opportunity to clear a lot of misgivings. To start with, I contested election under NISA, I was returned unopposed as the 1st Vice President and I thank everyone for that huge confidence in me but of course, the company I head as the group head is still a member of NISA. NISA is not about personality but about companies or associations that decided to come together for a common good and that is the industry good so my company is still a member of NISA.
For forming SOAN (Shipowners Association of Nigeria), this is Nigeria where there is a constitution that says we are allowed to associate with whoever we want to associate with, join whichever group we want to join as far as we are not promoting crime and criminality but on a serious note, I will at any cost protect my integrity in the industry and whoever and whichever association I want to be involved with.
My guiding principle is that anytime I begin to see my position in any association I belong as shaky, I will leave because some of us have come a long way. I have come a long way with my family name. I have come a long way with my activities in the maritime industry. I did not just become the President of trawlers association – an association predominantly made up of men – by not having integrity so, that has been my guiding principles. Also, as a citizen of this country and as a lawyer, I am entitled to associate with people of integrity. People who will want to see some development in both the maritime and legal profession I belong to and that is what I stand for.
There is nothing under the constitution whether in the maritime sector or Federal Government that we should have only one association but what we should do is to promote the association and as it is today, the more the merrier and I believe the real interest group, the real stakeholders who meant well for the industry will shine.
I know that acting President of NISA, Aminu Umar is doing very well and they are saying one thing, which was show to develop the maritime industry. I am a member of the Chamber of Shipping and will always belong to any other credible group both in the legal and maritime industry that is after what I believe in and will not compromise my integrity.
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