Until the elections that brought in Capt Niyi Labinjo as the President of the Nigeria Shipowners Association (NISA) in 2014, there used to be only one body for Nigerian ship owners.
For over a decade, the Indigenous Shipowners Association (ISAN), which later became NISA served as the only body of indigenous ship owners under the headship of Chief Isaac Jolapamo.
But the association split into different groups after its first election held on 24 October 2014.
The polarization led to 22 ship owners, with Engr Greg Ogbeifun as the leader, forming a new association tagged Shipowners Association of Nigeria (SOAN) in April 2015.
After SOAN broke away, NISA also broke further, with Alhaji Aminu Umar leading one faction and Capt Labinjo leading what is left of the once-united body.
It was in the mist of this mess that Mr Rotimi Amaechi emerged as the Minister of Transportation. He then ordered that the various groups should merge under one umbrella. Amaechi emphasized that without the merger, he would not recognize any of the associations.
The minister gave the directive after realizing that the various ship owners associations that now exist in the industry have been operating as splinter groups with equally divided interests. The fragmentation of the body of ship owners has led to delayed progress in the sector since the operations of the various groups gave no room for necessary cooperation.
Following the directive by the minister, the founding President of the Nigerian Shipowners Association; Chief Isaac Jolapamo, went ahead to convene a ‘reconciliation’ meeting where the various groups met and eventually reached the decision to abide by the Minister’s order.
The reconciliation meeting was attended by the representatives of a faction of NISA, led by its President, Aminu Umar; African Shipowners Association (ASA) led by former Director General of NIMASA; Mr Temisan Omatseye and Shipowners Association of Nigeria, SOAN led by Engr Greg Ogbeifun. The Capt Labinjo-led faction of NISA was not invited.
The various groups that met reached an agreement that henceforth, while each association retains its identity, membership and leadership, they would operate as one entity under the Shipowners Forum. It is through the Forum that the groups will now relate with government.
The meeting led to the formation of the ‘Shipowners Forum’ with Mrs Margret Orakwusi as President.
It is safe to stress at this point that, it is the emergence of Capt Labinjo as NISA’s President that led to the creation of splinters in the body of ship owners. By inference too, it is the face-off between Capt Labinjo and then-outgoing President of NISA; Chief Jolapamo over succession that led to the mess. The emergence of Labinjo did not go well with Jolapamo.
And shall we say that since his emergence as Chairman of NISA, he has had a frustrated tenure. We recall that speaking ahead of the elections that brought him into power, Capt Niyi Labinjo had said: “I am glad that we have an association that has provided the platform to champion our course".
And after he was elected, he boldly told members of the association that: “The next priority thing to do is to get our jobs back which we shall do immediately. We will get our jobs back so that all those usurpers can then leave our shores and we take over our jobs.”
Capt Labinjo was apparently aware of the age-long plight of indigenous ship owners who have consistently claimed to be on the receiving end in the lifting of Nigeria’s dry and wet cargoes. He therefore chose no other opportunity than his first day as the new NISA helmsman to declare what his interests would be.
Little did he know that his tenure will herald a negative vista in the life of the once-united and well-respected association, which his predecessor; Chief Isaac Jolapamo presided over for more than 10 years.
Five years down the line, NISA is worse-off, more painful is the fact that, after the break-away faction led by Aminu, Engr Greg Ogbeifun (who lost the NISA elections to Capt Labinjo) floated SOAN. And after all that, came the Shipowners Forum as mentioned earlier.
Without necessarily going to into issues that led to the presence quagmire that CaptLabinjo, NISA and indigenous ship owners have found themselves, it is apt to acknowledge that the association and its members do have challenges.
The challenge of NISA centres mainly on joblessness on the part of a greater number of ship owners. The association had once raised alarm that about 50 percent of ship owners in Nigeria have been out of business for years. Those still operating are battling to stay afloat owing to huge debts incurred by most of their firms.
For almost 12 years, NISA blamed the woes of its membees on marginalization by foreign shipping interests. Then came Cabotage and Local Content Acts, and they blamed their woes on improper implementation of the two protectionist laws, yet they were passed by the National Assembly to adequately protect indigenous players in the Nigerian oil and gas as well as shipping sector.
It is true that Cabotage has not impacted as much on the operations of local ship owners; it is also true that the main ingredient that would have been used to re-fleet indigenous capacity, that is, the Cabotage Vessel Finance Fund (CVFF) has not been available.
Some highly placed stakeholders have however labeled those who cry marginalization as only playing to the gallery and expecting to be spoon-fed by the government be ‘decreeing’ favours for them. This group said that, there are many indigenous players who are doing very well, but they are not the loud ‘Lagos-based players’.
It appears too late and almost impossible to bring all indigenous ship owners back into the NISA fold, because empires have been built and new kings have emerged in the name of SOAN, Shipowners Forum and the faction of NISA.
But it is not impossible for the two factions of NISA to fuse together again.