“Nigeria should have a national fleet”  ---Dr Chris Asoluka

“If the aim of Cabotage was to give Nigerians a good bite into the profitable business of shipping in the Cabotage arena, then it has not been fully realised”

 

Dr Chris Asoluka is a maritime consultant and Chairman,  Manpower Training and  Development Committee of the Nigerian Chamber of Shipping. In this interview with Anozie Egole, he spoke extensively on the need to have a national fleet. He also talked about the numerous challenges in the nation’s maritime industry and the way forward. 

  

 “NNSL did well in terms of exposing Nigerians to shipping and encouraging and training our first generation of shipping crew and officers”  

 

 As a maritime expert, do you support the establishment of a national carrier or a national fleet?

For strategic reason and for employment and as well as foreign exchange generation, shipping is a good business it exposes you to earn the other currencies and as such fleet development is one of the proxies or measures we use in assessing maritime development level of any country or nation. So apart from manpower development, the number of officers or crews, the ship registry, ship yards, the other proxy is ship ownership. For defensive and strategic reasons, there is need for countries to at least house a number of flourishing shipping companies and all that, so that you are not exposed as it were in periods of turbulence, you are not abandoned. You can say that some of these fleets belong to us and they can fill-in any gap unlike if the fleets are not owned here. If the ships for hire are outside Nigeria of course you will pay a lot of money rather than when they belong to Nigeria. And if they are trading around Nigeria, they may not be as expensive as ships that are based outside the country and attempting to do business with Nigeria.

But the second leg to the question whether it should be state owned or individually owned; states are withdrawing from owning their own flags but there could be a strategy when the capital accumulation is not very healthy and we need the force of state as well as the presence of states to confer certain benefits for a start up to involve the state.

But whether you will allow a state run it as its own business that is where most of us will say NO; that the state may not have any business in the business especially in shipping where time is very important. And the bureaucracies in state enterprises will be the sure disaster for any shipping investment. Because in shipping, one hour decision delay could be very injurious to not just the productivity but the profitability of the shipping business. So for that reason we suspect that as they say, the state may not have much to do in running shipping business and the sad story of the Nigerian National Shipping Line (NNSL). But at least it did well in terms of exposing Nigerians to shipping and encouraging and training our first generation of shipping crew and officers. But whether we want Nigerians to re-invest in another NNSL is what would be subject to debate and some of us will be interested in that debate.

 

Don’t you think if the state should establish a shipping line; it will go the same way as the NNSL?    

We are saying the same thing, we are saying if the state should run a shipping company, some of us will say, NO, because the structure and the style of governance that is the hull mark of state bureaucracy cannot provide the field for a very profitable shipping business. And I know some people will say what about China, Philippine among others, yes their structure made them a little bit different; maybe we have to go and study the modem. But if you check now, the Chinese shipping company is not as competitive as it used to be; we need to carry out a close study. The state may be right to say where there is unwillingness to invest, because individuals may not have everything it takes, so the state could do what we call kick-start the process. But whether the state should run it, some of us will say NO business model has to be well defined. If I am asked to prepare a business model, I don’t think I will give that hurried advice. Take into account a basket of factors and begin to know which one that has to be most appropriate as a business model for our circumstance. But the ministry of transportation is showing interest in the Nigerian fleet, yes it is a concern, if you have all the potentials you have in Nigeria and the business is taken away by foreigners. Any very smart minister will be concerned, it is like a proliferation we take out the wealth of a country outside and you are not sure that in the case of emergency that you will have the local ships to feel in the shipping needs. If it is a boom, Nigerians are entitled to share from the boom that comes from their privileged shipping position.

 

What is your assessment of the Cabotage Act, do you think it has failed?

Most times people don’t understand what we mean by Cabotage. Cabotage could be an opportunity legislated into the shipping industry for locals or Nigerians to begin to have access to shipping business and in other to achieve that, four measures were introduced- that you cannot operate in our Cabotage trade, which is trade in Nigeria waters if the ship is not built in Nigeria, which is to encourage ship building. And we are questioning how far we have achieved that, maybe not too much but some ship yards are there and we are expecting more to come. Although we have not got to the level we were in the late 1980’s when we had Nigerdock. The second proxy is if you want to trade in Nigerian waters of Cabotage trade, the crew that should man those ships should be Nigerians.  If you check you will see that we have young men and women eager to be seafarers but they are not properly-trained. 

So it brings the issue of Maritime Academy Oron, can their graduates fit into Cabotage trade. Some of those who are into shipping operation in the Cabotage doubt this. So something has to be done in that area.

Three, if you want to trade in Nigeria waters, your ship must be registered in Nigeria, then it means when we go to NIMASA and their ship registry, have we experienced an increase in the number of tonnage owned by Nigerians operating in the Cabotage regime. Perhaps there must have been some impact, but is it to the extent of the expected, the answer could be No.

Finally, that any ship that is in the Cabotage trade must be owned by Nigerians. So when you look at the activities of the International Oil Companies (IOCs) that deal with our offshore and also in the onshore world, you will now ask yourself, how many of those platforms or equipment belong to Nigerians.  There was a time the issue of whether rigs should be classified as vessels. So if the aim was to give Nigerians a good bite into the profitable business of shipping in the Cabotage arena, then it has not been fully realized. And now people are asking why should we have these laws and they are abridged. 

 

Do you think that the NSDP organised by NIMASA is effective?

Yes, this has been a very controversial programme where the states collaborated with NIMASA to sponsor some of their indigenes in the art of seafaring and for that reasons, some universities outside Nigeria were used; either Egypt, Philippines and others. And when they came back, could they fit into Cabotage, the experience they have now is from the industry players. They would have been trained but the proficiency level is lacking and for that reason they could not be employed easily. So the issue of exposing them one would say to get sea time has come up. One other thing there was a mismatch in the resource development. If you needed a middle level manpower from able seamen, of course those graduates cannot feel that. Then if you wanted the officers’ cadre they couldn’t also come in because they were not exposed to sea time. So what is being planned by the chamber of shipping I understand is to collaborate with NIMASA and other foreign institutions in other to fast track a programme that will give these graduates sufficient exposure in terms of sea time so that they could be employed here and abroad. Like I have always pointed that it is always good for you to have a focus, have a thorough assessment of yourself. You know your strength and weakness so with that you will be able to know what your priority is.   For instance, India when they started seafarers’ development, their target was to dominate the officer cadre in the maritime industry and they achieved that. And Philippines wanted to dominate the sea men; the crew and they did. Now they have spread to another area, you will be surprised that in terms of exchange of bulk ships they are giving a good account in terms of building ships.

And what is ship building all about, it is all about welding, a ship yard is a welding center, because in terms of the naval architecture, it could be outsourced. All you need is to give your specification and they will give you what you want just like architectural work. The person doesn’t need to be with you; naval architecture has gone nuclear as it were and with this computer aided designs it is no longer a big deal so long as the prospective shipping owner who is booking tells you what he wants and it will be designed. In terms of the equipment to run the ship, you cannot re-invent engines and all these equipment manufacturers; they don’t need to stay in Nigeria. It is just to know the Horsepower need of the vessel you ordered. So basically the hub is the construction or welding of metals together because you get to the next level of fitting the equipment and all that. So it is do-able but we must be clear headed as to what we want to achieve, how we want to achieve it and when we want to. What strategy do you think the government should put in place to absorb these cadets leaving the school?

Of course, if you don’t have ships what will you do, in law there is something that says you can’t give what you don’t have. If you don’t have ships to expose them perhaps Oron should be equipped with stimulators and all that. We shouldn’t even go too far, the LNG has done a very beautiful thing. The LNG was established several years after NNPC, but LNG has several trains and each has about 3-4 ships. So at the last count, I know they have up to 20 vessels that carry their products internationally and their shipping services are well run. So is like we have NNPC that doesn’t even have a tanker it is so sad and that Nigerians are not exposed to that is also sad.

 

Do you think Nigeria is ripe enough for a maritime policy?     

We have always had policy but whether you call it policy or not. Public policy is a response to a public demand if there is a gap either to solve or to show how we are going. So normally a policy in terms of public policy we say is a government response in other to bring about certain things or to correct certain things. So when we say policy there is nothing esoteric, it is a response either legislatively or through the executive to show the kind of interest, attention or solution the government will want in those areas. So in Nigeria even in 1987, there was a formal attempt to have what we call Nigeria shipping policy decree that created National Maritime Authority (NMA) which later in 2007 became NIMASA. So if you talk about policy of course in terms of 2007 NIMASA Act, it gave a broad frame work, but for us now to sharpen it, it becomes an executive problem to say Ok, we are saying in the next 10 years, Nigeria will be great with the young men and women everywhere. And Nigeria has become sophisticated, I know Nigerians who in-spite of their degrees they would have acquired in the university, will stoop down a little bit to learn professional thing that will put food on the table. But any educational thing they acquired will make them do such things better even move faster in their chosen field. I know resourceful Nigerians who are willing to take jobs that normally graduates wouldn’t take.  So I will say that if we are serious we can mope up a lot of unemployed Nigerians from the unemployment list. 

Shipping is technical like aviation; either in equipment or personnel. Just like the Army, Navy or Air Force, you cannot rise to the next level without certification or proficiency. The military is a thorough institution that you cannot just come and rise without undergoing training, so also in the maritime world; the equipment have life span, if your ship is trading we say there are routine survey. After three years the underwater survey will be taken up from what we call dry docking, because we don’t want a ship that is not in good state.

 

Do you think the nation of ready for the request of a deep seaport?   

If we gain proficiency in Cabotage, we go for regional - what we call short sea training and from there. You can’t play from local league to international league just like that. You must have a developmental programme. There must be a very clear headed programme for capacity building, it is where to go, because not only do we have the manpower, they need to be trained and it is a no hanging fruits. You don’t need to spend N10million sending them to Phillipines, Oron is crying. With simulators and all that installed you can even have more training centers for Cabotage needs and we have young men and women who are graduates and even non-graduates who could be exposed to acquire such skills in the short run. It doesn’t expose anyone to what we call glass ceiling. They still have the opportunity to rise.    

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