By Bolaji Akinola
Shortly before we got down to our tennis doubles friendly match at the Club last week, some folk started the discussion on the conviction of Raymond Temisan Omatseye by Justice Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia of a Federal High Court sitting in Lagos.
Except one, all of us were maritime industry stakeholders with deep knowledge of the issues at stake. I tried as much as possible to minimize my contribution to the debate because I became a bit close to Omatseye after he left NIMASA. All I felt for Temi after his conviction was pity.
We were all together at a maritime stakeholders conference at Oriental Hotel in Lagos five days beforehis conviction. He was his usual energetic self and lively self at the event. Temi had no airs about him. Always lively and never hesitated to speak his mind. Born into a ship owning family, Omatseye’s entire life revolves around shipping. So he never missed an opportunity to contribute to the development of the sector.
When the conference broke into syndicate session on Tuesday 17th May, Omatseye was asked to chair the group on Cabotage Policy. He did a fantastic job. Funny enough during the conference, I kept staring at him with his lovely beards, which he had just grown, thinking what his fate would be in another three days when Ofili-Ajumogobia would deliver judgement in the charges filed against him by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). The case had been on since 2011 but May 20 was judgment day.
Curiously, Omatseye and I weren’t the best of friends when he was at the helm of affairs at the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA). I was taken aback when his first action when appointed DG NIMASA by late President Umaru Yar’Adua in July 2009 was to sack 22 staff earlier recruited by his predecessor, Dr. Ade Dosunmu. Those sacked were duly employed long before his appointment. Most of them resigned from previous jobs to take on appointment at the Maritime House. So I thought it cruel and unfair that he would fire those young people without justifiable reasons and without paying them the statutory one month in lieu. At least 16 of the 22 are still walking the streets in search of new jobs. I became the voice of those hapless 22. I fought their course. Of course, Omatseye then wrongly thought me to be an enemy of his appointment. He thought I was fighting him for taking Dosunmu’s job. No I wasn’t. His image-maker at NIMASA, Ego Nwokocha and I fell out because of my stance against the sack of the 22. I did not have any relative among them; I did not even know any of them before the sack but I fought their cause because they were Nigerians from almost all geopolitical zones of the country.
Omatseye was adamant and I was resolute so we never saw eye to eye.
But shortly after he left office, we somehow became friends. I do not clearly recollect the circumstances that brought us together but I remember seeking his assistance to hire a vessel for a spot job for some IOC at a time and he gave me all the support he could. Once I visited him at home and he told me the house was rented. He used the same rented property as home and office. He was quite modest.
Omatseye is always eager to serve. He was always ready to serve in committees and take on responsibilities.
As he went to court that fateful May 20 in his immaculate white native top and trousers with some well-wishers and family members, I am sure he thought he would be discharged and acquitted same way his friend, Femi Fani-Kayode was discharged and acquitted by the same judge in July 2015.
The dismissal of the charges against Fani-Kayode by the same court must have inspired hope and confidence in the lawyer ship owner and administrator.
As one journalist who was in court during the sentencing observed; as Omatseye “sat on a chair in the front of the large courtroom under the slender voice of the judge, one could hardly tell whether Omatseye allowed himself to entertain the fear that the verdict might go against him”.
“The judge had been reading the judgment for over three hours and no one could guess yet where the pendulum would swing. Then, without any alteration in her tone of voice or her countenance, the judge said she found the allegations brought against Omatseye proven.
“At that point, it was no longer difficult to see Omatseye’s fear. He held his head and covered his mouth with his hands, looking intently at his lawyer, who sat a short distance away from him and was signaling to him to calm down.
“And then rather, unemotionally, the judge pronounced him guilty as charged and minutes later, the judge said, “The convict is hereby sentenced to five years imprisonment. I’d like to rise for five minutes to take water before I return to take the other cases. The court shall rise.”
And that marked the beginning of Omatseye’s journey to prison. Prison officials walked him past the posh luxury vehicle that drove him to court into a waiting prison van. He had lost his liberty at least for the time being.
Was Omatseye wrongly convicted as his lawyer claimed? Is he a victim of some public service trap, conspiracy in high places or is he a villain? Time will tell.
Copyright Ships & Ports Ltd. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit given to www.shipsandports.com.ng as the source.