The essence of the meeting wasn’t actually for an interview, but the few journalists who met with him (including my humble self) couldn’t allow the opportunity to slip away. So we insisted and we had our way. His thoughts on the implementation of the Cabotage Act couldn’t have been more appropriate; coming from someone who was part of the team intellectuals who worked behind the scene to ensure that the bill be became an Act in record time.
Has Cabotage benefited Nigerian ship owners?
I was amongst those who fought for Nigeria to have the Cabotage Act and also to implement it, if you read my book ‘Nigerian Cabotage Act Policy and Advocacy’, you will see a lot of the papers I presented both at the public hearing and I also wrote and presented at seminars that have to do with Cabotage. I have even done an appraisal of it, but what I want to say is that the stakeholders in Nigeria and also the legislators had good intentions, including president (Olusegun) Obasanjo who signed that bill into law, they all had good intentions; mainly to empower the local maritime sector and enable that sector to build capacity in respect of ship ownership, management, manning and building, and of course this also will come with other multiplier effect like employment, economic boom, safety of the marine sector and so on. But you see, it’s a good thing to have a good law and it’s another thing to have the good law implemented. If you read through the law, it has so much benefits, if you check my book you will see it there, employment generation is there, increasing the national tonnage or the number of vessels registered in Nigeria is one of them, also the pride of being a maritime nation with high tonnage, if you go to IMO, one of the things they consider in respecting any maritime nation is the number of vessels registered in the country’s registry. So, being a strategic sector of the economy and having a situation whereby we are in control and then helping us to develop from the infancy of a local maritime country to adulthood by first and foremost being able to control our domestic water borne trade, dominate it, go to regional maritime sector, dominate it and be strong enough to compete internationally with the highly subsidized foreign vessels because shipping is so capital intensive and cyclical that individuals cannot easily get in there without supports from banks, financiers and also from the country in terms of subsidies or guarantees. These are part of the good intentions apart from the issue of employment and the multiplier effect that it will have on the industry, but like I said you can have a good law but implementation is another thing. I think we have not achieved enough, I must say that there were no attempts to implement Cabotage Act, because if you look at the guidelines that were brought out and the regulations that have been out either in Cabotage Vessel Financing Fund, the ones in respect of detention of vessels that are going against the law, guidelines of Cabotage implementation as brought out by the minister of transport were all calculated intentions to ensure that this Act is implemented because without implementation, you cannot really begin to feel the benefits of the Act. We have not achieved enough, because the executives and legislatures have done their parts concerning the law, but in terms of implementation, I don’t think we’ve really got the political will to implement and monitor, that is where we have failed, there are so many vested interest that are working against or sabotaging the Cabotage Act in such a way that the indigenous sector that it is supposed to help have not really attained the kind of vessels. I remember Chief (Isaac) Jolapamo once said that after the Cabotage Act came into existence, the indigenous ship owners became endangered species; that is his own view, but he has good reasons because it appears as if after the Act came into existence they stopped collecting cargoes and a lot of things started happening, you will even see the foreign vessel owners (instead of coming to register because they are restricted and meeting the conditions laid down to participate in Cabotage) using other means to circumvent it like going outside Nigerian waters, keeping the mother vessel and using other small foreign vessels to bring in these cargoes and depriving local ship owners the opportunities of carrying these cargoes, so many things are going on, but it will take the political will and also a change in terms of monitoring because when you implement you must also monitor what you are implementing to make sure that you achieve the objectives and bring to book the people that have been violating the law because the law is in place so as to send warning signals to others who are violating the law or may want to violate the law and cause them to fall in line. If you do this, I am sure the benefits will be attained.
What should be the position of government on port charges?
First and foremost, every good government will want to make laws or do things that will be for the benefits of the citizenry, every good government have that responsibility and if there is anything which the government had well intended was later discovered not to be achieving those objectives, there is nothing wrong in getting it reviewed. I must say that every concessionaire has an agreement with the federal government through NPA and BPE concerning the rights and duties of each party as far as that terminal is concerned, you cannot send wrong signals to foreign investors because there is a principle in law that says that you are bound by the terms and provisions of any contract you voluntarily entered into. I have not been privileged to see the contracts, but if there are clauses for ensuring that before the charges are increased by the terminal operators, they should seek the approval of the guarantors or the federal government through NPA or BPE, of course that is what should be done and also ensure that the concessionaire sticks to that procedure for increasing charges so that it will not be arbitrary. There have been arguments here and there about the need for a commission to be a regulator of that sector mainly because NPA is an interested party and being an interested party and a commercial operator should not be allowed to regulate itself, there is a very good and valued argument in that, because you cannot be a judge in your own case, when you do that you are already being treated with some form of bias, NPA is there to make money and also to get income and if that is happening they may turn their eyes to it because they are making money from it, but it is the ultimate consumer who actually bears the brunt because the users of ports services will definitely pay in order to bring out their goods, but they are going to add these costs to the cost of the goods when they are going to sell, so you and I are the ones actually paying this and not the owners of these goods or the consignees, because they are going to mark- up the prices to make sure that they make profits and continue to be in business. That again could bring about imported inflation because if you look at this I don’t think it will be right to just allow any concessionaire to just have a field day by waking up to increase charges arbitrarily just because he believes that naira has devalued and so on, I don’t think its right. There must be a way of checking and regulating these things.
Will it be right to say that those who signed the agreement probably did not understand it?
I can’t really tell you that. All I can tell you is that in law, if you signed an agreement you are bound by the provisions of that agreement you signed unless you can show other basis of running away from the task. In law, it means that its not your deed or that it shows fraud because fraud vitiates any agreement no matter how well documented it is, or shows some incapacity on your own part, if not, you are bound and you have to comply.
On wharf landing fees?
There is what is called ‘covering the field’, when you have a law or an Act of the federal government which has fully covered an area and made a law concerning the regulation of a particular issue, it will not be right for any state government to also go ahead to make a law that will also govern that area.
On Lagos ports access roads?
The roads are bad and it’s bound to affect the movement of goods and also passengers, that particular route is so exerted because a lot of trailers taking things from and to the port pass through there and what you find out is that because the road is bad many of these trailers will avoid that route and use other routes, there will be traffic congestions and also pressure on those roads and this is bound to affect man hour spent on the roads in getting to your place of business and also affects business or the economy. When you have situations whereby containers fall arbitrarily, you run some risks, because it might fall on human beings or on other vehicles and even block parts of the road that is still motorable and worsen the traffic situation. But again, I must say that from what I read the minister of works had inspected that road and had given his promise that the roads would be worked on, I like what the Lagos state government said: that we should not wait until it’s budgeted for before we do it, and if that is the case, it is an emergency. I want to tell you that one of the problems that we have is that we do not have a regular or an appropriate basis of maintaining infrastructures, they know the lifespan of these roads, they know the volume of traffic on them per month or per annum, so they should be able to say this road requires maintenance and should be maintained, we don’t need to wait until the roads gets out of hand before you think of repairing such roads, money should be budgeted for maintaining these roads and those who are charged with the maintenance must be accountable, we must not wait until the roads are so bad before we start to repair, prevention is better than cure. This(Apapa Oshodi) is a very essential road in terms of conveying goods from and to the major ports that we have in Nigeria, but we believe in fire brigade approach, spending money that we ought not to have spent.
Advice for the federal government about the welfare packages of the customs?
Government cannot spend money that is not appropriated or budgeted for; it is unconstitutional. So, they should appropriate these funds, let these things be taken in their strides so that the right provisions will be made to ensure that this money is available and it is budgeted for. But I must tell you that if you look at the money being spent on the arms of government you will see that something has to be done, especially now that they want to review the constitution, I think we should do away with the local government system because from what I have seen, more than 50 per cent of the money spent by the executives goes to these areas and there is hardly anything to show for that and because government spends a lot of money on those areas, there is little or nothing left for development or infrastructure maintenance; something has to be done. If that is done, then government will have enough money to channel to those other critical sectors like the Customs service, they(Customs) make money for Nigeria and so they should also be properly taken care of, there is no reason why their remunerations should not be increased at least for compensation for the services they are rendering and make the place attractive for people to come in, because there are people who may want to come to render their service and contribute their quota to the development of the nation, but if they hear that the salaries are paltry, they may not be interested in going there; they will rather go to banks, oil companies or other places where there is more money and that will become a disadvantage. So, to attract the right brains and the right people, the remunerations should be increased at least to also recognize their contributions to generation of revenue for the federal government.