Unsung heroes of Nigerian ports



By Bolaji Akinola

Present leaders of the labour unions in the maritime industry have not been accorded sufficient credit for the patriotic roles they played and are still playing in the success of Nigeria’s port reform programme.

Many of us remember the ports before concession as complex webs too difficult to untangle. The backwardness of the port system was compounded by the brutal antics of the leadership of the Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria (MWUN) at the time. The President-General of the union until 16 years ago was a petrifying demigod wielding the power of life and death over his 18,000 strong mostly uneducated subjects and imposing an odious form of taxation on shipping lines, shipping agents and the ports authority.

The MWUN leadership ran an obscenely parochial system popularly known at the time as ‘akugbe’. ‘Akugbe’ as we came to know it, was undocumented huge cash payments shipping lines were forced to make to the MWUN leadership before their vessels could berth. The amount varied from the type and size of ship to the discretion of the almighty PG. The union had district leaders made up of chairmen and other officials. The chairmen were the representatives of the PG at various terminals in the port. They were the small gods of the notoriously aggressive crop of dockworkers that pervaded the system.

Despite paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Nigerian Ports Authority and the now defunct National Maritime Authority in shipping dues, berthing charges and three per cent freight levy, no ship dared berth at the port without paying the MWUN’s ‘akugbe’. The ship’s agent must convey raw cash in ghana-must-go bag to the district chairman who in turn took it to the PG at Osho Drive in Olodi, Apapa, Lagos. The same system ran through all the ports in the country. The ship must wait until the PG issued berthing clearance. This crude extortionist process took a minimum of four hours and sometimes more than day to complete before the ship would be allowed to berth. I came to understand later that ‘akugbe’ ranged from a minimum of one million naira to as much as 10 million naira per ship. With an average of about 2,000 ship calls annually at the port between 1996 and 2006, the union leaders were amassing as much as N11 billion in the criminal collection every year. They had an ominously potent war chest to hold the system firmly in their grips.

The ‘gang system’ was another creepy creation of MWUN through which the union leaders held the system by the jugular. Under the ‘gang system’, the PG – again through his district chairman – determined the number of dockworkers to work a vessel. Typically, the union charged shipping companies twice the number of dockworkers it deployed to work on their vessels. The standard practice was to impose bill for a 32-man gang per shift even when as few as eight worked the shift. Refusal of the shipping company to pay resulted in its operation being grounded for several days. The irony was that even the eight were paid less than 10 per cent of the amount collected by union on their behalf while the big chunk found their ways into the deep pockets of union leaders.

The death of a dockworker – irrespective of the circumstances leading to it – would typically be greeted by violent reactions from the union. All the seaports across the country would be shut on the orders of the PG. Violent reactions would follow with protests and vandalisation of public properties. Businesses around the port environment would be forced to close shop for as long as it took the union leaders to negotiate “compensation for the family” of the deceased. This would take anything from three days to one week. The negotiations were usually behind closed doors and I came to understand that part of the condition imposed by the union was non-disclosure of the amount paid to it as compensation. That was perhaps the real tragedy of the system. The union would collect huge sums of money on behalf of the deceased worker and release a miserable part to the grieving family. Families of deceased dockworkers were typically paid N50,000 out of as much as one million paid to the union. The union became all in all. It assumed the role of employer, union, regulator and sometimes the port authority.

The bold and courageous implementation of the Nigerian Dock Labour Decree 37 of 1999 by late Chief Ojo Madueke initiated the process that would alter the course of history in the maritime industry for good. Expectedly, there was stiff resistance from the leadership of the union and their pawns who obviously did not understand the atrocities committed by their masters. Because the union leaders had deep pockets, they stood up strongly against government’s move to set new standards in the industry. They manipulated the system including buying over the media. But the Obasanjo government’s determination paid off.

With the emergence of new MWUN heads led Comrade Onikolaese Irabor in 2001, the stage was set for a new narrative. The new leaders jettisoned the violent and unproductive approach of the past. They embraced partnership with the ports authority and became co-stakeholders with the new private terminal operators. Comrade Tony Nted, who succeeded Irabor in 2009, has demonstrated unprecedented high level of maturity and a clear understanding of modern day labour practices. The ports are now better off for the sensibleness of the new labour leaders, while the hitherto exploited and besmirched dockworkers now enjoy gainful employment and are paid by stevedoring companies and terminal operators with attractive conditions of service. We have not witness any strike since the new order.

As Nted wraps his up his 8-year tenure in 2017, I hope his successor will tow the path of safeguarding the harmony we all enjoyed these past 15 years.


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