Obasanjo, a maritime hero

“History will forgive us for taking wrong decisions but will never forgive us for not taking decisions at all.” – Author unknown

Notwithstanding the various criticisms that trailed his administration, I believe former President Olusegun Obasanjo did more for the growth and development of the maritime industry than any other Nigerian Head of State, including the incumbent.
I cannot readily identify any concrete evidence, in over six years, of a burning desire to develop the maritime industry. The Jonathan/Sambo years are as bad as the YarÁdua/Jonathan years.
Critics might contend that it is too early to judge President Jonathan’s two years old government but I say nay.
Right from his first year in office, Obasanjo showed a clear understanding and demonstrated the political will to tackle the various challenges confronting the maritime industry.
In 1999, Obasanjo left no one in doubt that his administration would reform the ports. He started with reforming dock labour – the one strong force that held the shipping sector captive for over a decade through the dreaded Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria (MWUN). It was clear that without a reformed dock labour industry and without breaking the stronghold of MWUN on the shipping sector, no meaningful progress would be achieved.

The Joint Docklabour Industrial Council (JODLIC) was set up in 2000 under the now repealed Nigerian Dock Labour Decree 37 of 1999 after the dissolution of the National Dock Labour Board in 1999 to achieve the reform objectives. JODLIC subsequently transformed into the Joint Maritime Labour Industrial Council (JOMALIC) following the enactment of the Nigerian Maritime Labour Act of 2003 which Obasanjo promptly signed into law. JOMALIC was a tripartite organization made up of workers’ representatives, employers and the government in line with the recommendation of the International Labour Organization (ILO).
JOMALIC became as a veritable platform for industrial labour relations and conflict management/resolution in the maritime industry.
By the time Chief Ojo Madueke took over from Dr. Kema Chikwe as Obasanjo’s second Transport Minister in 2000; the ground had been prepared for a definite move against the then tyrannical leadership of the MWUN. The action was swift and decisive – laying a solid foundation for the port reform of 2006. On this score alone, no Nigerian leader compares to Obasanjo in not only having a good understanding of the industry’s problems, but of possessing enough political temerity to tackle the problems.
President Obasanjo wasn’t done yet. In 2003, he signed the Coastal and Inland Shipping (Cabotage Bill) into law.
The Cabotage Law was spearheaded by then Chairman of the House Committee on Marine Transport, Hon. Okey Udeh, and was collectively driven by stakeholders in the maritime industry. It was a collective action backed by President Obasanjo.

The Cabotage Law – now bastardized at the stage of implementation – was a culmination of agitations by Nigerians to participate more in the country’s domestic shipping trade in line with their counterparts in over 50 maritime countries worldwide. The law intended to open up coastal and inland shipping business to Nigerians. About a decade down the line, Nigerian ship owners are not any better though not because the law was not well conceived but because those charged with its implementation decided to circumvent it.
The intention of government at the time was to use the instrumentality of the Cabotage Act to institute a liberal protectionist maritime industry policy for the resuscitation and protection of the local shipping industry from incapacitation due to the domination of carriages from point to point within Nigerian waters. It also was also meant to check unhealthy competition from the highly subsidised foreign vessels.
We all believed at the time that through the Cabotage Act, the local industry would be able to control and become very strong in domestic shipping before venturing into regional or international shipping where it would then be able to withstand competition from the highly subsidized foreign ships in international shipping.
After the Cabotage Law came the big one – the Port Reform of 2006. Nothing would stop Obasanjo from implementing his reform agenda for the ports. Not the workers, not the outcry of a few uninformed lot and certainly not the absence of a separate legislation for that purpose. In the President’s opinion, and rightly so, the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) Act provided sufficient cover for the exercise.

But for Obasanjo’s doggedness in performing that painful, but necessary, surgical operation on Nigerian ports seven years ago; we would have experienced a total meltdown in the system and the Nigerian economy would have paid dearly for it.
I align with the assertion of the Chairman, Shipping Association of Nigeria, Mr. Val Usifoh, when he described Obasanjo as the saviour of Nigerian ports.
Following closely on the heels of the port reform was merger of the National Maritime Authority (NMA) with JOMALIC. That merger became effective on August 1, 2006, giving birth to the National Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NAMASA) which later became the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA).
One month to the end of his administration, Obasanjo signed the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN) Act.
The Council was charged with, amongst other responsibilities, regulating and controlling the practice of freight forwarding in Nigeria and promoting the highest standards of competence, practice and conduct among members of the profession.
It is clear, therefore, that not only did the former President hit the ground running with regards to the developing the maritime industry, he was able to sustain the tempo all through his tenure.
But what do we see today in terms of President Jonathan’s interest for the industry? Nothing, I must say. Apart from appointing a Senior Special Adviser on Maritime Affairs whose impact the industry is yet to feel, nothing meaningful has been achieved under this regime for the shipping sector.
President Jonathan made one attempt to address the challenges of the industry last year. Specifically on 23rd July 2012, he hosted the Presidential Maritime Security Retreat onHarnessing the Potential of Nigeria’s Maritime Sector for Sustainable Economic Development at the Presidential Villa in Abuja. At the end of the retreat, a committee made up of eminent persons in the maritime industry and chaired by Transport Minister, Senator Idris Umar, was set up to make far reaching recommendations to the President on how to develop the maritime industry. The Committee has since concluded its assignment and submitted its report but one year after, the report has neither been made public nor implemented. That is how serious this government has been with the ‘transformation’ of the maritime industry!

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