Comments by former President Olusegun Obasanjo at the Maritime Stkakeholders Conference organized by the Federal Ministry ofTransportation in Lagos on Monday and Tuesday last week.
Disappointment with the sector
When I was given a letter of invitation to be chairman of this occasion by the Honourable Minister of Transportation, I wasn’t sure what to do but because of my interest in the maritime life of Nigeria, I decided to accept.
I have personally had disappointments with maritime services in Nigeria. Despite all my reforms, which Bolaji (Mater of Ceremony of the conference) talked about, where are we today? There was no result and that is my pain. Why have we not made progress? The reason why I was so concerned to have brought the reforms included that most of the countries in the early history that were great countries were so because of their maritime prowess.
We are lucky we are not landlocked. We have 3,000 kilometres coastal stretch. That was an added advantage and how we can harness this was my concern. Again, 90 per cent of our trade and indeed trade all over the world are carried over water, so we have two advantages. We also have inland waterways, which could make inland transportation cheaper, particularly for bulk goods.
I want participants at this conference to think out of the box. Why have we underperformed? Why have we not achieved as much as we could have? And that could apply for most of the government institutions we have in Nigeria. We are talking of maritime today; we can also talk of air, which is also an aspect of transportation.
How corruption Nigerian National Shipping Line
Bolaji reminded us that 19 ships were specially built for Nigeria. We did not take delivery of some until I left office in 1979 but when we came back 20 years later in 1999; the National Shipping Line has been liquidated with all the 19 ships gone including the five that were in existence before the 19 ships were added. What happened? In your thinking today and tomorrow, if you want to build a sustainable maritime industry in Nigeria, we need to look back because reforms means we want to improve. What did we do wrong in the past? Why did we build 19 ships and we had five before that and within 20 years, 24 ships were all gone and disappeared? Part of our aim was to be able to train our own people and be a key player and become a hub in the region.
One of the 19 new ships was sold for USD1 million, but when the Maritime Academy of Nigeria Oron needed a ship for training, they bought back the same ship for USD2 million. The week I took over as President in 1999, it went to sea and was arrested for not being seaworthy. They came to me and said we should pay USD1 million to retrieve it and I said no. The next day they released it.
When I left office, I called someone who was a young officer in the system to tell me some of the things that happened. Why did we have 24 ships and within a space of less than 20 years, they had all gone. He said, one, there was no commitment, no professionalism and there was high level of corruption. And he gave me example. He said people who were managing and repairing the vessels colluded with government officials to bring the ships for repair even when there was nothing wrong with the vessels so that they can siphon government money.
There were two ships missing for almost two years. One military man was using it somewhere and two years later, he brought them back. Can you imagine that, doing such to your own country?” Why are Nigerians doing these to themselves?
On the change agenda of the government, if we take too much time, change will become a bad name. We should not take too much time.
Proposed new national shipping line
In any system, the institutions are very important and these institutions that we have not made to work, we have to make them work now.
One of them is the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas Limited (NLNG). But before I say more on NLNG let me talk on the NNPC [Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation]. One thing I wish I should have done during my tenure as President was to privatise NNPC. If I were to be there again, I would have privatised the NNPC so that it would not have been flagrantly mismanaged the way it was in the last six years. Maybe I would have done that if I’m there today. For NLNG, it did not go the way of NNPC because of the way it was organised. We have 51 per cent owned by the private sector both Nigerians and non-Nigerians and 49 per cent owned by government and from three trains that we started with, we are now going to seven and we have not put in more money than we did since the formation. If we had run it the way of NNPC, it would have gone the way of NNPC. Another one we reasonably did well was telecommunications. When I was military Head of State, I struggled so hard to get telephone lines to half a million and I spent so much money but in less than 10 years when we privatised telecoms, we got over 120 million lines and government didn’t spend any money. Rather we auctioned and made good money from it. So maybe we have to look at that as a model for the maritime sector.
Now we have boys who go to maritime academy but we have no shipping line where we can train them. Whatever you want to do, don’t build another national shipping line where government should put money. Our experiences with NNSL, Nigerian Airways are heartbreaking, but we have seen the experience with NLNG and telecommunication. So, let us adopt and adapt. That is why I said we have to think out of box.
I hope at the end of this conference, you will come up with something that will make the maritime industry in Nigeria an example for the rest of Africa and an example of what other institutions can copy.
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