Nigerian Maritime Sector Under Democracy  

May 29 every year has since1999 been added to Nigeria’s list of public holidays. And as it has been since 1999, last week Tuesday, Nigeria again celebrated what has come to be known as ‘democracy day’. This has been so since 1999, when the General Abdusalam Abubakar handed over to General Olusegun Obasanjo (rtd).  Last week therefore represented an unprecedented 19 years of uninterrupted democracy in Nigeria.

No doubt, democracy has ushered-in new things, it has also engendered reforms in the Nigerian maritime sector; arguably, these have also come with pains.

Because the maritime sector is one of the strongest pillars upon which the nation’s economy rests, it is natural to expect that the advent of democracy will impact on the sector. And it sure did and it is still impacting.

To appraise the nation’s maritime sector since May 29, 1999 will invariably necessitate looking at the local indicators such as: port concession and associated issues, Customs reforms, maritime safety and security and globally, one will need to appraise Nigeria’s status within the comity of maritime nations since the advent of this Republic.

Since 1999, the maritime industry still holds the unenviable records of being the only sector with the highest turn- over of ministers and chief executives of government agencies. Since 1999, the sector has had about nine Ministers of Transport. They include: Dr Mrs Kema Chikwe, Chief Ojo Maduekwe, Dr Abiye Sekibo, Alhaji Habib Aliyu, Prince Okechukwu Emeka, Alhaji Isa Bio, Alhaji Yusuf Suleiman, Senator Idris Umar and the incumbent; Mr Rotimi Amaechi.

The frequent change of guard also affects both the Nigerian Ports Authourity and Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency and of course, the Nigeria Customs Service; all of which have had at least, seven or eight chief executives since 1999.  

Undoubtedly, the greatest benefit of 19 years of democratic rule is port concession and the nation’s port system. Port concession has transformed the nation’s seaports into a safer and more profitable venture, unlike what obtained in the past. It can be rightly said that, prior to 1999, the Nigerian  port system was a haven for all manners of illegalities including: discharge of un-manifested cargoes, under payment of revenues that are due to the government, cargo vandalism and theft, uncontrolled human and vehicular traffic,  embarrassingly long cargo dwell time and ship turnaround time, and a host of other vices.

All that is gone, the ports are now better and more profitably operated, even though with complaints from freight forwarders and shippers about high charges. But, port users will agree that port operations in 2018 are a lot better than those of pre-1999. Cargo throughput has soared, turn-around time for vessels has reduced, cargo dwell-time has also improved, while ships of bigger draughts now call at our ports with maximum TEUs.

This is however not to say that there are no challenges in the ports any longer. But the challenges are basically operational and they predate the May 29, 1999 return to democratic rule.

Significantly, democracy gave the nation’s maritime sector the Cabotage Act, and the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding of Nigeria (CRFFN). Sadly, the intendment of the promoters of the two laws appears to have been defeated as the two interventionist laws have not aided the growth of the sector.

The Cabotage Act has been roundly condemned as failing to meet the objectives for which it was passed. To the extent that the nation’s indigenous ship owners have  remained poorer than they were prior to the enactment of Cabotage Act and  to the extent that there are now more unemployed seafarers than before, can one safely say that democracy has impacted positively on their lives. No!

There is massive investment in the nation’s maritime sector and a lot more players have come in as well.

Without mincing words, we make bold to state that the shocking discovery of monumental fraud at government agencies; especially at NIMASA are clear manifestation of the fact that operators of democratic and government institutions are taking advantage of the system.

One of the most painful things that the nation’s maritime industry has witnessed since May 1999 is the impunity of government officials to defraud and the impunity of stakeholders to frustrate implementation of government policies through mundane litigations. Examples of such abound, but the one that readily comes to mind is that of the terminal operators who have  employed frivolous and self-serving litigations to ensure that despite being appointed as the Economic Regulator of the Ports, the Nigerian Shippers’ Council has not been allowed to function effectively in that capacity.  

Arguably, the greatest failure of democratic dispensation is most visible in the prevailing state of the nation’s waterways and territorial waters where sea robbers and pirates have resurfaced. Sadly, piracy has put Nigeria on the world map of notoriety, next to Somalia.

Even though, piracy and sea robbery abated at a point, its resurgence and rise call for concern. Maritime safety and security has not enjoyed the benefits of democratic dispensation. Issues like compliance with the ISPS Code, safety of oil laden tankers, attacks on inland waters, etc have been more pronounced than they were pre-1999.

Democracy has turned chief executives of government agencies to absentee heads of their various institutions and dignified ‘errand boys’ for their Ministers. They are hardly on ground to attend to issues as they unfold in their respective agencies. They are always in Abuja; either answering questions from their supervisory ministers or as guests of the various committees of both chambers of the National Assembly.

Certainly, democracy has made the cost of running government agencies to soar as a lot of valuable man-hour is lost as the CEOs shuttle between the commercial capital city of Lagos and political capital; Abuja. The impact of their absence is better felt when serious operational and administrative issues are kept waiting for their arrival. The CEOs also have their various boards to attend to.

How can one appraise democracy and the maritime industry without noting the state of the roads leading to the ports and the roles of the various tank farms in the whole saga? It is a fact that prior to 1999, there were no tank farms in Apapa, and if there were, they were very insignificant.

Democracy brought freedom (including right to litigations!), enhanced port efficiency, made the agencies more people-friendly; it has also made stakeholders bolder to comment on issues and offer workable suggestions to the government.

That is why we acknowledge the comparison that some people have drawn between the military and democracy. Those who frown at the valuable time that is usually lost when CEOs answer the calls of the various committees at both the Senate and the House of Reps and their supervisory minister and the boards, indeed have a point. The military has no time for the time – consuming ritual called ‘oversight functions’ by the lawmakers and board meetings.

For as long as the nation still has an army of unemployed and unemployable  seafarers, and for as long as the CRFFN remains the way it is, and maritime security is still the way it is,  can one also safely say that Nigerian maritime sector is better-off under democracy?  The answer is still yes.

Our faith in democracy remains unwavering, even in the face of seeming unending challenges, and we state unequivocally that the Nigerian maritime sector has fared better under the democratic dispensation. The military curtailed our right to challenge government and its agencies. But democracy gave us our voice and right.