It is very difficult to provide platforms for Navy to police the entire marine waters -Amire

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Mr. Akinsola Amire is the President, Nigerian Trawler Owners Association (NITOA), in this interview with our correspondent, he spoke on the illegal extortions by miscreants in riverine communities which according to him has been a recurrent menace hampering the smooth operations of trawlers in Nigeria. He also explained how government policies has reduced 34 fishing companies to 10 in 2016 among many other salient issues. Excerpt;

Can you tell us about the attacks on trawler owners and seafarers by some riverine communities who are allegedly demanding tips from your members before they can operate on their waters?

Generally, the issue is not new. This started around 2003 and at that time, attacks were up to four times particularly as the days move to festive periods like Christmas. Ever since then, it continued in leaps and bounds to the extent that in 2008, all the fishing vessels in Nigeria were withdrawn from sea because it was almost impossible for companies to continue their operations in that regard; when almost on weekly basis, we hear that in one company, somebody was killed, vessel hijacked and then take them to outside Nigeria to go and attack a bigger vessel. It became a global problem and so, why do I have to be in business if the only thing I do is to pay death benefits to those that died and only if it is easy to pay death benefits.

Fishing companies then decided if we would not be guaranteed safety in our operations, we had better withdraw. So, vessels were withdrawn from sea and the Flag Officer Commanding Western Naval Command in 2008, Admiral Ibrahim on behalf of the Chief of Naval Staff had a press conference where he assured the industry that Navy would give them maximum support. But the support the Navy will give will be subject to their capability. Unfortunately, even when the Navy would be assumed to be doing security, they are limited and so, these miscreants still have upper hand at sea.

During the build up to the 2015 elections, it appeared the situation got better, may be , it appeared the politicians employed most of the people in what can be described as devil finds work for an idle hand. They were busy with the politicians but now that the elections were over, they are back.

Between the 2008 experience and the recent one, which one can you say is deadlier?

It is as bad too.

Have you again taken your plight to the government after the previous one?

I should not be complaining if I have not taken the situation to the government. The problem like I said is that the capability of the Navy is limited and even the capability of the government itself is limited because I was once with the government and so it is very difficult to provide the platforms for Navy to police the entire marine waters. It is almost impossible.

Why?

Because of the expanse of the sea. To keep a vessel at sea for twenty-four hours is plenty of money and the money we have available in Nigeria now has so many uses and so the issue of opportunity cost comes in. It is only a matter of priority. However, the fortunes of Nigeria lie primarily in the waters. When you take care of the marine environment, you can be reasonably secure then, what is on land can have some respite but if you don’t take care of your marine security, there is a problem. May be politicians do not see it that way.

Where is the place of NIMASA in all of these?

When you say NIMASA, even when NIMASA has responsibility of safety, I would ask you but I will answer the question: ‘what type of safety? NIMASA does not go to defend the maritime environment even when NIMASA is now operating quasi coast guard; do they have staff? Is it not Navy they use? They only gave contract to XYZ to provide platform and Navy operates the security aspect. They put Navy there to provide security and their contractors would maintain the vessels and whatever. Two days ago, these miscreants around Fish town got on board one of our fishing vessels, grounded the vessel, took away the Captain, took away the Chief Engineer and up till today, they are not yet seen. Complaints was made to NIMASA just for the records, they said okay, send it to me by message what else would they do?

What is the possibility of getting the abducted crew members back?

They will get them, the only thing is that they will demand for ransom but I said that government has the responsibility but whether there is money or whatever, government is expected and should provide enabling environment for business to thrive, it is a problem. No wonder, if I have not seen, I have heard that businesses are moving out of Nigeria to places as close as Ghana and I think we should have a rethink.

Apart from the insecurity factor, what other challenge do you face in the course of carrying out your operations?

If we put them according to the economy of scale, the major one is security. If you are not secure, you are not safe. Then we have issues with the government. The last administration wanted to concession KLT 1 and 2 but this may be the only country where you don’t give pride of place to your fishing industry. In Ghana, Thelma port is Ghana’s fishing terminal. There are some of these things that you need to do to make your industries grow.

About ten years ago, we had about 34 fishing companies in this country, as I speak to you today, they are not more than ten and it is not because capacity is not there, not because the will is not there, not because the resources are not there but because of insecurity. And insecurity covers a lot of spectra. For example, you are walking on the street, you are not sure of your security, you are in your house, you are not sure whether the landlord will ask you to leave tomorrow, that is another type of insecurity.

There are several areas of insecurity. For example, you come in here and the only thing you see is containers, it is not because the fishing companies cannot put in place permanent structure but because the environment where you operate does not give you that assurance and so if you are in an insecure environment, not because of thieves but because your landlord can say go tomorrow, go tonight, then you cannot have long time plan and if you cannot have long time business plan, there is a problem.

Now, we suffer that, again, there used to be this Export Expansion Grant, which was given before to enable those companies that earn foreign exchange for Nigeria to continue to improve their operations but the EEG was probably granted last, six years ago.

So, if you have all sorts of insecurity all over the place and you are not sure of the policy that will be enunciated tomorrow, then it becomes very difficult for you, you are ever likely not to have a short term plan, may be your short term plan is just two months. That doesn’t help but if you find yourself operating in a secure environment, then you are now able to plan operations even ten years ahead. If for example, I know I am going to be here for the next ten to twenty years, I can plan that in twenty years, I am going to add certain number of vessels but if you are not sure, then you cannot plan appropriately. Up till 1990, it may surprise you, the price of a litre of diesel was eleven kobo, not eleven naira and so, a tanker of diesel then would cost just  about N3,000 but now it is millions but the price of fish cannot go up.

What are the new innovations you have brought into fishing to improve on the operations?

We are supposed to fish; you want us to be fishing what again? If you are talking of innovations, understand that basic, we are supposed to fish. You either trawl for fish or you trawl for shrimps and so licensed but in order to may be add value to the chain, that would probably make your products more marketable, more acceptable and by that, you get more money. Or what you probably contracted out before, which you spend money on, you now decide to do it yourself in order not to spend that money outside but I don’t think it is even good for the company because it is always better to have different people doing different things not concentrate everything within one company.

If you concentrate it within one company, the number of people you employ will reduce but if for example, different people are into cold storage, different people are into processing, different people are into transportation and it is not just one company that does all these things, you have more people getting employed. But because of the need to survive, even the fishing companies in Nigeria cannot survive on their own; if that is the case, without seriousness, a company like Honeywell will not fold up because I know of another Honeywell that is doing well.

We have Atlantic shrimpers here, in order for them to survive, they have now gone into shrimp farming and so all the fishing companies are now thinking of what to do to survive. But we have a lot of fishing resources in the country to sustain us because I said about ten years ago, we had 34 fishing companies operating about 260 fishing vessels, as at today, we just operate about 126, less than half.

So, the resources are there but the problem is that we need security in our operations at sea, security in the tenure of where we operate from, security that whatever policy government enunciates, will not suffer summersault every quarter.

How exactly do government policies somersault and inconsistency affect your business?

Export Expansion Grant was one policy enunciated by government to encourage companies that are into operations that earn foreign exchange to assist them to grow; 6th of February, 2015, NITOA was invited to a meeting with Nigeria Export Promotion Council because 2004, 2005, 2006 this industrial fishing subsector in Nigeria was the fourth largest non-oil foreign exchange earner for Nigeria. They said this was the situation before; what can we do to bring back those good old days but on 7th of February, they served us eviction notices from here.

So, are we secure where we are now? Thank God the present government is in place. If it were to be the other government, maybe we won’t be here. This place is supposed to have been developed as the Lagos fishing terminal as former President Obasanjo said when he was in government. I want to believe that it is not only the industrial fishing subsector that is suffering. It probably cuts across but this is my area which I know.

Now, we went as far as seeing Mr. President in the last dispensation, the President referred us to the Senior Special Adviser on Maritime affairs, he called a meeting, he talked and talked and that was all we saw. So long as the fishing resources in Nigeria are sustainably managed, it is not like crude oil, if you sustainably manage the fishing resources, it will last forever and ever and I would think that the subsector that is infinite is one area that you should concentrate on and not the finite ones.

Does Nigeria export fish?

Nigeria even imports fish. Nigeria does not export fish but some export-smoked fish. Nigeria exports shrimps and I can tell you that the shrimp resources in Nigeria is the best in the world and unfortunately, it is a business that you operate with your heart in your mouth which should not be. If my phone rings 12 midnight, I will think is somebody from the sea.

How true is it that workers in this subsector are not well remunerated?

In Nigeria as of Friday, don’t you have what is called individual rights? Is there any law that says if you are working in a place and you don’t like the place you cannot leave? It is only when somebody is a prisoner that is not free but as at today, there is no sailor that you want to say we don’t want again that will not beg you. Would somebody want to be using you as a prisoner and you still want to remain there? But one thing I know, ask Dangote if his wealth is enough, he will tell you no. That is why he is still going to invest more. Nobody is ever satisfied with what he has. So, I can’t understand that. As a captain, he must have a house of his own, a car of his own and his children in good schools and let him be honest with you.

Are you saying they are well paid?

If they are not well paid, how did they have cars, houses, and surviving to pay the children’s school fees in private universities even outside Nigeria? As I said, nobody will ever say what I have is enough.

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