Michael Ubogu is the Managing Director, Micura Stevedoring Service. In this interview with SHIPS & PORTS DAILY’s Babalola Yusuf, he speaks on the 2006 port reforms, drop in cargo throughput this year and challenges facing the maritime industry among others.
How the drop in cargo volume this year affected stevedoring companies so far?
Obviously it has affected our business because it is when importers bring in cargoes that we have jobs to do. It has affected all spheres especially stevedoring service.
What government policy is affecting your business?
Basically the idea of yanking off of 41 commodities out on the foreign exchange purchase is definitely affecting our business especially rice importation because rice is basically the commodities that importers bring in big tonnages because when they bring in tonnages we are paid in tonnages also. But if the policy is pursued with human face, it will be nice because we cannot win all the time. We win some and lose some. I hope the government pursues the policy to a logical conclusion without benefit to certain individuals but if it is for the general well being of everyone, we support it.
How is the business of stevedoring progressing generally?
Obviously, from January till now, if there is any sector that is worst hit, I will tell you it is the maritime sector. There was down time and this was because a lot of people are waiting for the general election and after the election, people are waiting to see the handover and see what is contained in the handover notes and after that there are no ministers yet. President Muhammadu Buhari has not made appointments into strategic positions yet and no one knows what is in the mind of the government. Subsequently, because the budget has not been fully implemented and because no one will want to import into the country and want it to be placed on restrictions list, importa have ceased so there is a whole lot of fundamental issues that need to be addressed because it is affecting businesses generally. This is not exclusive to maritime alone but other key areas of the economy.
How do evaluate the Federal Government’s port reform of 2006?
I have told people in different fora that the best thing that ever happened to the maritime industry is the concessioning because concessioning came with a lot of impact. Now, we can see that the turnaround time of vessels is faster and the cargo throughput has increased and opportunities for indigenous companies has also improved and if you look at efficiency and productivity, you can’t compare it to the olden days, so concessioning is the best that has ever happened to the maritime industry.
NPA and labour unions have been at loggerheads over payments to tally clerk and onboard security. How can this be resolved?
Whether there is concessioning or not, these are services that came through the Act of Parliament and if the NPA management want to substitute the services of these people, they should have waited till the time when their contracts will expire then they will not renew their contract but a situation where by they have worked for over eight months and they were not paid is not the solution.
There is now a lot of calm in the docklabour industry unlike what obtained in the past. What could be responsible for this?
When we look at the scenario now, the terminal operators have a platform called Seaport Terminal Operators Association of Nigeria (STOAN) where they interact with the labour unions. Also, with this, unions can take their problems to STOAN to tell them their grievances and STOAN will sit down with them to iron it out and don’t forget that the remuneration of dockworkers is negotiated every two years in a tripartite arrangement
Also, presently the people that are running the unions are very matured, dedicated and they have a good working relationship with STOAN and I think that is what have changed.
Government pegged capital base for stevedoring company. What is this capital base meant for?
Well, to be honest before now it was N5million to own a stevedoring company and this was because there was a time when some stevedoring companies ran away with the salaries of workers where they will not pay or won’t want to pay workers salary. Also, let me correct the impression that the money is not a capital base but a bank guarantee. The guarantee is one year renewable and that means in the event of not paying the entitlement of dockworkers, NIMASA will call back the guarantee and offset what liability you are owing the workers but two years ago it was slashed from N5m to N1m and if you look at this critically, you ask what guarantee a million naira will cover in terms of salaries and wages of dockworkers when averagly a stevedoring company pays between seven and ten million naira in a month to workers and if I decide to sit back to eat the salaries of dockworkers for a month, that is about nine million naira and you call back one million naira? It is a way of checkmating the stevedoring companies but it has no effect.
What will you want the current administration to change in the maritime industry?
My benefit in the maritime industry should not supersede the benefits of all Nigerians and that means if there are certain things that we are importing that we are wasting a lot of foreign exchange on, then the country should encourage local production. So as a patriotic citizen, I will not say because I am benefiting from huge patronage of my business so personal opportunities should supersede the interest of the country. But if I meet with the President today, I will tell him that all major roads should be rehabilitated because that is affecting major operation at the port such that huge man-hours are lost to traffic congestion. The road is bad on both sides especially from Tin Can to First gate.
Also, the government should be able to look for where they can ask most of these articulated vehicles to stay because most of them have turned the road to parking lots but if the government should have parking lots and enforce it then the problem will be half solved. When I go to London, Liverpool for instance, there is a whole lot of goods coming in and going out but there is a dedicated lane for smaller vehicles and this does not affect operation of other road users but today one cannot come in through the Oshodi-Apapa Expressway, it is difficult to come in because the containers and tanker vehicle will block the road and for those of us who do businesses that we are being paid in containers it is affecting us because the time in which containers should go inside the port will be affected. At the end of the day, due to traffic, we won’t be able to do what we should have been able to do if the man-hours are not lost to traffic gridlock.
Government should be able to address the issue of bad road, congestion, articulated vehicles and also try to reduce corruption at the port. The previous administration tried to reduce multiple government agencies at the port because if they remain at the port, the cost of doing business will go up and when the cost goes up, it is passed to the end users. So government should reduce the era of government agencies in the port and address the man-hour lost due to traffic congestion. Government should look at that as a matter of urgency.
What is your view on the reinstatement of the Managing Director of NPA, Mallam Habib Abdullahi?
In as much as I won’t want to speak for NPA but you also will agree with me that the termination of the tenure of Habib Abdullahi as MD was political and for the government to say they are also calling him back also tells you that the man has done creditably well when he was there and don’t forget he was a career civil servant not someone that was appointed into NPA to become the MD. He went through the rank that is to tell you that he has so many experience on the job but you can’t compare him to the MD that was just removed because he came in as a green horn because it was a political appointment and that is the bane of the maritime industry. When we have people that are career civil servants who are technocrats, allow them to do the job and appoint politicians as board chairmen or what have you for their investments into the system politically.
There are sensitive positions that should be kept for technocrats or career civil servants.
How about NIMASA?
Like I said, appointments in this country are political but if you want to look at it critically, you will see that there is need to appoint technocrats. Come to think of it, apart from Mfon Usoro and Ade Dosunmu that are fantastic because they have beautiful careers in the maritime industry, look at the one that just left, he doesn’t have the prerequisite knowledge and qualification. He was just given a political appointment.
The former DG came in with wonderful ideas but along the line he missed it, which was due to political interference. If we look at the programme he had, especially the seafarers and all of that but Dosunmu also had that but looking at the Cabotage fund set aside to promote and fund indigenous ship owners to help them acquire vessels; how far have they gone. Ask Jolapamo and co and they will tell you that four to five years ago they had five vessels but now there is none and I ask myself; what is the purpose of the fund if not to help ship owners?