Ronke Kosoko is the Chief Executive Officer of Employment Clinic, a non-government organisation. In this interview with Oluyinka Onigbinde, she talks passionately about the Nigerian maritime industry, and related issues.
What is your appraisal of the Nigerian Maritime industry so far?
Well this is a new administration, they’re just taking-off. They started with the creation of the Ministry of Marine and Blue Economy which shows their interest in the sector and their willingness to prioritize it. Also, it shows a government that is private sector-driven that understands efficiency, which also defines why I think the transportation railway was removed from the ocean-based maritime agency. So I think with that foundation, we can say that we are having a good start. You all know the potential of the marine and blue economy globally and the interest that it has garnered in Nigeria. So at least it shows a path. And maybe I should mention that the Nigeria Economic Summit is happening in the next two weeks, for the first time. I would say the first time because the first one we attended then, we didn’t go beyond the next level. This year we are having the maritime sector roundtable at the Economic Summit itself. Again, the leadership is trying to connect the industry to the whole economy itself in such a way that it can contribute to GDP; create millions of jobs, and all the benefits that we’ve been talking about. Because I think what people don’t understand is that these things don’t just happen. You just didn’t see agriculture that the government just picked agriculture as a business or as a value chain. Certain things happen in certain places. Now, when the government sleeps and wakes up, they know agriculture is something they need to focus on.
The same thing applies to power and energy, when they needed to move from NEPA to PHCN, from PHCN to having DISCOs and all that. So it’s the same thing we are doing for the maritime sector and I picked up that agenda back after eight years with the same platform because like I said to them, when you have leaders who are willing to engage, dialogue, and have a conversation, at least you have a basis and a platform. The fact that the government created the Ministry of Marine and Blue Economy from the onset shows there’s going to be a major and monumental move in maritime. That’s all I can say for now.
Some stakeholders have expressed their opinion that if you are going to have a minister for Marine and Blue Economy, it should be a professional who has been in the industry. What’s your view about this and are you optimistic that this new minister will deliver?
Well, this new minister has an insurance background. He may not have a marine, maritime, blue economy background. I don’t think it matters. One thing we can’t take away from him is the fact that he has political capacity. When people say they need people with maritime background, I used to be of that opinion too until we had people from the industry and we found out they couldn’t really make any impact. Some of them don’t even carry anybody along. There is an arrogance of knowing it all and “what do you want to say to me?” which made them close up to ideas from other people. They believe they know everything. Who are you to say anything to me? I’ve been here for 30 years. They have the arrogance of the fact that they know this industry. So that itself is a challenge on its own. It can’t help the country.
So, as we all know, there are certain things you can’t do in this industry if you don’t have political capacity. The knowledge is there. When I came in 13 years ago, I think one of the things that fascinated me was that a lot of people know these things. The knowledge is there with very knowledgeable people, but no political capacity. What do you want to do at NPA and NIMASA and which one of them is outside the government? So you need to have that power to be able to make things happen. If you also understand the maritime industry, you know that there are too many conspiracy theories about even the most basic thing here. If a maritime person is talking, in the last few years, I just keep quiet a lot because underneath what that person is saying, there is something the person knows that is his own pot of soup. All those things are the reasons we can’t go anywhere. So although Oyetola does not have the maritime background, he has political capital. At least I know I can go to him or the Chairman Senate committee, or maybe Mr. Wale Edun and say on this issue, this is how it is and there will be action points. So those are the things for me. Like I said, the way this government is from my own point of view, I could sit down with the decision makers outside the industry noise and say, sir, this issue is taking 15, 20 years. Don’t bother re-inventing them. These are the issues. This is where to remove the rope because I think that’s what Nigeria needs now and not a whole lot of analysis because everything has been said.
What I know about the new minister is that he listens. I’ve had bosses that have engaged him. Last month I was somewhere and I asked a question. I got a message from Abuja that they’re going to discuss that issue with him in the night and they did. Two to three days after that, my boss flew to Lagos and he discussed what he discussed with the minister and he showed me the organogram and briefed us with the different policy commissions and all that. He acknowledged that the minister was willing to learn and carry the industry along. That defines the difference between people from industry. The person that you think doesn’t have the ideas is willing to listen to everybody, pick the best ideas from there and go the right path. So for me, I think that’s what we need except they fail. But until then, let’s see how it plays out because like I said, everything you want to do needs presidential power because we are dealing with forces, powers, and even the human capital issues they are talking about is not as if they train people. There are always cabals. So he has political capital. He is willing to allow technocrats to do the job and let things move.
Would you say the last administration affected the maritime conversion programme?
No, I didn’t bother so much about the last administration because I didn’t vote for them because I know they didn’t understand economics. If you have an economics background, you know certain things don’t just happen. It doesn’t need prayer. If you don’t do it, certain things won’t happen. Then I remember they said they wanted to give N5,000 to one million people every year and when you calculate it, it comes to about N1.5 trillion and then our budget was N6 trillion. So how do you earn N6,000 and they said you want to be giving out N1,500 and you have not shown where you are going to make that N1,500. So it means that N6,000, if you give N1,500 in 4 years, it is all gone. So what we were using to run the nation annually was what you sent to the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, you sent N500 billion every month there for a year and N6 trillion for one ministry just to be distributing N5,000 or N10,000. When we look back now, what have they done? They said N-Power and that kind of thing from day one, is not going to take anyone anywhere. So I don’t know how people believed in that kind of person that was going to change the economy. So congratulations to all the people who voted.
The second economics of it was that the best time to remove fuel subsidy was in 2012. As an economist, this policy has been there since the regime of former President Ibrahim Babangida. It is not emotional. It talked about liberalization of enterprises and privatization of public enterprise. So before these things became the problem that they were, in the 1980s, somebody talked about it. Another government came, they called it needs. Another government came, they called it seats. But if you look at it, the underlying principle is the same, that these things are not going to be sustainable. So that is where it became a problem and the Buhari administration knew, but it didn’t have the mental capacity to be able to solve the problem. It just believed let us borrow and be paying. So how long is it going to last? It was a bubble that was going to burst. So the suffering that Nigerians are now suffering was what they could have suffered then when oil price was still stable. When you can just go through the pain in one year or two years and you will balance. They didn’t want to go through it then when fuel was N141, now fuel is N700. It has to just happen because you are living above your means. So in that kind of situation, the economy is not creating anything new. People are living on the rope. People are barely surviving while every handful is having hundreds and hundreds of more billions of Naira. So we just had to wait for that administration to finish and start a new path. That is why I said even this new administration is not going to create any miracle because the foundation is faulty and you can see it’s still grappling. We are owing N77 trillion and at a point, we were servicing debts with 100% of what we are earning. It doesn’t happen. You have oil and you go and drain the oil. Unfortunately, the oil is not even worth it anyway. So it’s a dilemma. Now, that’s why you see that organizations, as soon as the election was over, investors’ confidence came back. People were just waiting. Let this guy just leave there. And the only reason they waited is because of what Tinubu did in Lagos. At least, they’ve seen how he brought water out of the rock. How he didn’t have money and he built Lekki port by bringing LCC. People don’t know that his commissioners were going in the night to use their hands to go and pack dirt the way we have LAWMA now. Somebody had to facilitate Julius Berger to give him N200 million and equipment to be able to clean this thing before they now structure it to become LAWMA as it is today.
So those things, Nigerians will not see. Investors out there are bringing their money to this country. So we went to the G20 summit which was what he went to do. He said we are open for business. He went to attract that money, not by getting that money immediately, but telling the world, he didn’t go there to sell to them that we are poor or our people are corrupt. If you remember the beginning of Buhari’s government, he went to CNN and said Nigerians are fantastically corrupt. Christian Annapol and David Cameron were asking him questions if he is sure and he said, yes he knows his people are fantastically corrupt. And they said, you mean that they are thieves? Investors should not come and put money in their hands. He didn’t know that he was de-marketing his own country. So investors said our President said we are fantastically corrupt. So they kept their money and they were going to other African nations. But Tinubu says, we are ready for business. He showed them our people flew in here with private jets saying we are not poor. But we understand what your issues are. Whatever you want, investors want to come and write something to you and in three or four weeks, they want to get a response and that was what he made the States understand. So instantly, he was sending them to the Minister for Finance, Minister for Trade and Investment. He wants to see reports about those things on a monthly basis. So investors know it is no longer business as usual, where you will send a letter to a country and in one year, there is no response. So how do you attract investment? So that’s just what is changing. And now you saw that his countries, nations are writing to him, it was the Indian government that invited him. After that, at that meeting, you find the German Chancellor is coming to Nigeria this month. The Germans, if you know them, they are very, very serious-minded. Those ones, if you are not serious, they won’t say they want to come. They have a meeting next month; also in their country. They want to know the direction of policy. It is policy that drives things. Once you know where you are going, they know where to bring their money and before you know it, we would have about 20, 30, 50 or 100 of them and they will all employ people. So that’s how it works.
Let’s take a look at the Nigerian Economic Summit that you mentioned earlier. What should we expect?
Well, the Nigerian Economic Summit is held every year. This is the 29th edition. It is always opened by the President. There is always a presidential roundtable. This year is talking about a kind of economic reset, and an agenda for economic recovery. They are making a case for FDI. It is going to be engaging the private sector, like I said; it is going sector by sector. There will be conversations about the economy. Like I said, it is nothing new, but this is his own first and he has about five to six places he is targeting which is number one, economic growth. Number two is harnessing human capital, especially this ‘Japa’ syndrome. He has been a gateman before. He understands that Nigerians are not going there because we do not have any other solution. If we can provide what they are providing in those other countries as incentives for them to stay, they will stay. That is harnessing human capital, stimulating economic growth, and mobilizing sustainable finance for development. You need to have money. Money needs to come. Money needs to come into your country.
So, again, he wants to reform public institutions. He understands that these kinds of public institutions that we have are not going to lead anybody anywhere. Again, he did it in Lagos. It was the same Lagos where they had ghost workers. He did not argue with anybody. He did certain things that changed the whole system. He can’t remove subsidy and restructure the Civil service at the same time, but there are economic plans. So the Economic Summit is hinged on those five things. Which are: to stimulate economic growth, harness human capital, attract financing for sustainable development, long-term financing, reform public institutions and I think it is about inclusion because under the last election, we were all divided. Everybody sees themselves like, if you are not a Muslim, or Fulani it looks more or less like you are not a Nigerian. So, you need to bring back that unity in diversity and all that. So, that’s the five legs on which the Nigerian Economic Summit is hinged on.
With the meeting you had with the Legislators today, how do you think the issue of the decaying port infrastructures can be addressed?
The legislators were open to NPA. What NPA is doing is very phenomenal. They are on the right track, but they know they are not going to get their money from us. They should do the right thing. Open it up and investors will come. The ports that are running well all over the world are not driven by the government. So, those things are going to be funded by the private sector. So, the private sector wants to know when and what to put their money into. If you want to sell it, there are different people who are interested in the ports. There are countries with their money in their pockets. It is Nigeria that thinks it is big money. Lekki port was built with $1.7 billion. When they were ready and they did the right thing, there were people ready to put their own money in it because they knew they were going to recoup their money in 45 years. Badagry has been signed. They are now asking for $2.6 billion from the government. The money is going to come. There is a road and rail thing that has been approved. Without the government’s money they said it’s going to run across nine states. So, these are the things that we are saying. There are certain things you do as a government, and as a country. Investors should bring their money because investors know the plus and minus. So, the ports infrastructure thing is not a headache. If you look at NPA’s presentation, they said government funding, hybrid funding and investors. They have many funding options. But investors are not charity organisations. If your paperwork is not set, it’s not their business. They will keep looking at other countries. Unfortunately, we are the only ones that go everywhere saying we are looking for investors. Investors know where to put their money. I have a client that left specifically on the 19th of March 2020 in the midst of Corona virus; they arrived on the 1st. It was about eight companies coming together. One was a 107-year-old German company. Another one was a 53-year-old company. There was an Italian firm. There was a Russian workshop. About eight were all in that meeting. Of course there was Corona virus thinking that it was just going to go off. But the thing is the economic indices from that time began to fall. Dollar was about N200. Now the dollar has gone to about N1,000. So they have money. They have done India. They have done Malawi. They have done three smaller African countries and very powerful things. But Nigeria is there; their facility is there. They have had businesses there for over 65 years. But they did not put money down. They are all there. Nigeria is on the radar. But it’s not a priority. When everything is settled, they can come. I don’t need to market. So that’s how it works. Investors know where they are going to put their money and it will be multiplied. They don’t need anybody to tell them. You do your part, if it’s legislation like Ports and Harbour Bill and Inland Waterways Bill, pass it. Remove the hand of the government. They will ship about 30,000 boats into the country because they know that they can move things because the law permits them to do the business. So, to have it sorted, first get the government right. That’s the only hope that we have in Tinubu’s administration. But just let them do the right thing and nobody needs to go to Aso Rock before there will be economic activities.