This is the second time that I will be seeking him out for interview. Captain Thomas (as he is fondly called) is your typical seafarer. The first time that I spoke with him in this column (then, on the back page), he confessed that seafarers like to enjoy lives – obviously because of long absence from home. That interview elicited some reactions from some first generation master mariners who are now ‘saints’, having retired from active seafaring. Any way, just like the previous encounter, this one is also incisive and explosive. Enjoy it.
Congratulations on your recent re-election as the president, Nigerian Merchant Navy Officers and Water Transport Senior Staff Association.
Thank you very much
What were the challenges that you faced during your first tenure?
The challenges that we faced during the previous tenure was basically about seafarers themselves and the need to make sure that they are upgraded to cope with modern challenges in the seafaring profession as per certification and other things, that was the major challenge that we faced. We don’t know how it will go this time around because with NIMASA’s programme of increasing the man power in the seafaring profession through partnering with the state, it may go a long way in addressing the issues.
With all that you and others have been doing, how come we still have a lot of unqualified seafarers?
If you say most are still not qualified, you might not be far from the truth, because if you check the history of the shipping industry, you will see that apart from the Nigerian National Shipping Line that was a national carrier, there has not been any meaningful shipping company since, so that, in itself has reduced from day one the strength of the seafarers in this country, then when national line finally collapsed, it marked the end of the industry in Nigeria. Based on that, it was only the very few that national line was able to train that could meet the challenges. This is very visible, you see that now that the School of Oceanography as well as MAN, Oron are producing graduates every year, but they are half baked, they have not even started the journey, but it is until when they get their sea time that they can now start their basic professional exams, they are not there yet. You can have a graduate of MAN, Oron of four or five years still looking for sea time experience.
Where do you put the blame, government?
I do blame the government, for example, you have a child that goes to school, every day, you give him money, you buy text books and at the end of the day the child is not productive, are you blaming the child or you are blaming the teacher who is teaching that child? In Nigeria, we tend not to be serious in anything we are doing, but when an individual or somebody starts a project that is very beneficial, the next minute everybody will rush to be doing it without knowing the in-depth of that business. Why we are blaming the government is this: there are countries that started their national carrier after Nigeria like India, Malaysia and some other countries, today, they can absorb all the cadets that they have, today we are busy begging Malaysia to train and give our boys sea time, we are begging every other country to give us sea time, if those countries were to be like Nigeria, where can we be able to get the seafarers training programme. In UK, there is a system, eighty five percent of cadets are sponsored by companies and these companies have vessels. The shortfall that we are talking about today globally, other countries are bridging the gaps to know where they can go to, companies go to schools, catch them young, give them allowances, send them to academies, pay them and they get their sea time on the company’s vessels. That cannot be found in Nigeria because every company in Nigeria is profit- oriented, they don’t want to put anything back into the system; it’s purely their business.
ISAN wants to float a shipping company, is it possible?
Very practicable, after all there are shareholding is allowed in any organized sector, so if every member of ISAN becomes a share holder and they raise the required fund, why is that not going to be possible? It’s very possible; these are some of the things ISAN wants to do.
What is your take on the NIMASA’s National Seafarers Development Programme?
You want to train seafarers, and after training them, they become okada riders, you don’t dream of building a house when you don’t have a land, you must first buy the land before you talk of moulding blocks, if you don’t have a piece of land and you are moulding blocks, until you go out and acquire a land these blocks will rot away. The most important thing you have to recognize is this: yes, we have money, the state government will bring 60 percent, and NIMASA will bring 40 percent, after investing all these money where will you give them sea time?
But there is a global need for seafarers
Global need for seafarers is very impossible for countries begging other countries to assist you when they have not solved their own problems. We want NIMASA at this point to partner with ISAN. In the 1980s, when you go to School of Oceanography, before you leave in between your year one and year two, you go for your sea time for six month then before you leave, the school had an arrangement with all the fishing companies, they send your name to a company, you go to the company and you are absorbed for your sea time. When you graduate, the school does the same thing, if you are 50 graduates that left that year from marine engineering, they split them in two’s and three’s to all fishing companies, they mandate them to take you. That is the area where we want NIMASA to partner with ISAN, it is not training these boys that matters but after training them and there is no special arrangement for their sea time, it is as good as throwing the whole money you used in training them into the ocean.
Are you by any means advocating that NIMASA should go back to funding ship acquisition?
Look, I am a very practical somebody, it has been proved beyond reasonable doubt that in Nigeria every government property is nobody’s property, this is what led to what we are seeing today, they will import eight cars into the store and starting from the store man, he starts stealing these cars and selling it to the public, the people driving government buses, the conductors print their own receipt and at the end of the day there is no profit coming out, so that area is very glaring. NIMASA should not fully go into acquiring vessels, but they can partner and invest indirectly with shipping companies and acquire a vessel for dual purpose, the vessel will be carrying out normal business activities, but because of the partnership, we will be having Nigerians on them and I think if they go by that, they will be able to acquire many vessels than accumulating the money to acquire one or two vessels. If we can have one or two that will be completely training vessels that will still be carrying out some normal business activities to increase money to run the vessel. But our fear is with the Nigerian mentality, if not, that will have been better, prepare like two vessels filled up with cadets with normal workers on board to train the cadets and they still go out for contracts, lift cargoes so that at the end of the day, they can still get money because I don’t see the possibility of other countries absorbing our cadets, because everybody is going for sea men, there is total shortage. You and I know that, so the little space they have they will not come and give to you when they know very well that after training you will not be useful to them.
But, if NIMASA partners with ISAN properly, we will get what we want. I bet you, we don’t even know how many coastal tankers that we have in this country. if you go to outside bar, the ones that have not entered the port for five years are there, the ones that change engines every other day are there, the ones that use modern day documents to forge certification documentations are all there, we don’t have the exact number. Every Nigerian flag vessels get their documentation from NIMASA. NIMASA can still come with a new policy and say that for every renewal of certification that want, there must be a proof of three or four Nigerian cadets on board. So if we have 100vessels (of course, I know that we have more than 500 registered Nigerian vessels) and you want to have just two cadets, (one engine room and one deck), that gives you 200 cadets. It is very simple, but at times I wonder whether NIMASA knows this,
Has your association advised NIMASA about these things?
It might not be in the form of a proposal, but I know that my association has a very formal understanding with NIMASA, we send in a lot write ups and we suggest a lot to NIMASA for the betterment of this industry. But, it is for us to tell them that look, if you do this, it will be good, but it is another thing for them to do it. The issue of this sea time is what I have just told you, no country can build up a manpower without having enough certified and qualified seafarers, how do you get this certified seafarers is what we are saying now. The step that NIMASA has taken so far is a good one, but another thing we want them to understand is that they should respect existing sailors that for one reason or the other can not go on board, because the problem they are having might take up to four or five years and we can not remain stagnant. I am talking about Nigerians who have the skills but maybe, they could not meet up the modern day requirement of STCW ’95. We are talking of short time programmes, not this graduate scheme that they are talking about. It is a good thing, but there are shorter programmes, professional programmes; nine month programs and so on. If am a rating today, that does not make me a rating forever, if by coincidence I am a rating and I have the basic O’ levels, from there I should aspire to be an officer and that itself takes nothing less than nine months.
Can’t MAN, Oron offer that programme?
No. the nearest place you can go is Ghana. MAN, Oron is not running the type of programmes that we are talking about; Oron is doing a bridging course of three month from one professional stage to another for three month after acquiring your sea time. But, for the man that is coming as a bridging, like in Oron if you are a bridging and you have experience, you have the basics and you want to move, you will go for a three month bridging course, that is what Oron is doing, Ghana has nine months programme, but, Oron does not have that.
Why is Nigeria losing the battle against piracy and sea robbery?
I have said it times without number, if you want to solve any problem you must go for the remote cause. When did this issue of piracy start on our waters and why did it come up and if it has come to stay, how do we overcome it? Every day, we cry that it is the sole responsibility of the Nigerian Navy to protect the territorial waters of this country, yes they are right, the Navy too will come out and tell you that they don’t have this and that. But let’s look at it from my point of view; before 1999, piracy was not an issue in this country, nobody was talking of piracy, that is the way I look at it: that if we really have to solve this problem, before 1999 piracy issue was no were on Nigerian territorial waters. As a man who come from that area Niger Delta), the average Ijaw man or youth can not even afford three square meals a day, so how do you expect him to go and acquire arms, when he can not eat three square meals then he will get money to go and acquire arms, and these arms are not falling from heaven so some group of persons get these arms into the Niger Delta region and when I mean group of people, to be sincere and straight forward it’s the politicians from the local government chairman to the Presidency, they got these arms, gave it to these boys to subdue their opponents to achieve their political aim.
Is NIMASA on the right track?
One thing I will tell you is that this question have been coming up every other day, when you want to compare two things, it can never be the same because one must be better than the other. For the government to have appointed somebody to head the place, its because they have the trust that the person can deliver, but, if for any reason, you do not allow that man to deliver and you remove him, the constant changes of the Directors General and other people in NIMASA have caused us more harm than good. What we are saying is that we see some sense of direction in what the present management is doing, whether we like it or not they have done certain things that could not have been done some years ago, because if these things were done some years back, today we will be talking of continuing from were those people stopped. NIMASA is trying and we believe they can take us to the promise land. Any body that is the listening type must definitely excel, but if you don’t listen and you don’t take advice and you think you are alone that you are an island, then you are bound to fail. From the association’s point of view as a major stakeholder, we are aware of the efforts that NIMASA is putting up.