Barr. Mrs. Margaret Onyema-Orakwusi is the Chairman of the newly formed Shipowners’s Forum. In this interview with our correspondent, she speaks on the Forum, the circumstances that led to the birth of the new organization, her dreams for the shipping business in Nigeria and the way forward for the maritime industry in Nigeria. Excerpts;
Congratulations Madam on your election or appointment as the Chairman of the Shipowners Forum. Could you please let us into the activities that led to the coming together of the two rival shipowners association in Nigeria under one umbrella body?
Thank you very much and I wish to correct the word you have used, I wasn’t elected, I was appointed and of course you know there is a big difference between being elected and appointed and I consider it a privilege to be appointed to serve the industry and that also goes a long way to show the spirit of the shipowners involved in the two major associations and the fact that we are being driven by our interest in the ship, the ship that is being put out there. So anything that has to do with the ship is now important. Why I am saying this is to make the public to also know that NISA still exist, SOAN still exist. Why it is important to say so is that, I am a member of NISA, I am also a member of SOAN and membership in NISA if you look at their constitution, you will find out, most of the members are not shipowners, they have interest in ship and shipping but not ownership. It is just like my background in trawling, we have an association known as NITOA (Nigerian Trawler Owners Association) and you find out for you to belong to that association, you must own a trawler and it means our interests are common, we complement one another, we are not in competition, we support our activities as it relates to trawler.
I am using this example to drive home what the shipowners forum is all about, it is the coming together of the shipowners, one to protect our interests, to grow the industry. We keep shouting, why do we do most of our export FOB (Free on Board) especially the crude oil transportation and we do believe that if we grow the indigenous capacity that it will generate a lot of employment, auxiliary industries that has anything to do with marine transportation would also benefit, the bank, the insurance companies even the people from my profession, the maritime lawyers, they will be gainfully engaged in at least drafting agreements even our judiciary as a whole because now what do you see, if you pick any of the IOCs contract, you will see the jurisdiction, maybe breach in contract give to foreign jurisdiction.
So, how do we grow? All over the world, if you generate cargo, you control the transportation of the cargo. So, it can’t continue to be business as usual, the people that are mainly affected are the shipowners. So, when they get together, they have these common problem, they can begin to suggest solution, they can also be an advocacy group in the industry, they can discuss the politics backed up with statistics on what is happening. They know the few things that they need to see take place in the industry and that is why we all decided to put sentiments aside.
The businesses are not doing well, so, why can’t we come together? We are not competitors, we should be able to complement what we are all doing, we are there to create job and it is a huge industry. So, that is all it is all about, we have taken cognizance of the fact that in NISA for instance, they have membership from maritime, from insurance, from banking, these other people, they have their interests but we recognized that even though we belong to these different associations, there is the need to come together and make the ship the connecting factor and that was what has happened here.
Does you coming together to form this shipowners forum had anything to do with the Minister of Transportation’s directive that unless you come together under one umbrella, he would have nothing to do with you or could it be that you have been in the talks before the statement from the Minister?
I wouldn’t say so because you can’t force two people to work together if they have nothing in common and if they don’t even wish to work together and the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria gives a freedom of association.
But the truth is that especially for those of us in SOAN, we recognized the coming together as shipowners and since we came together as shipowners, we have been able to participate in activities all over the world that has something to do with the interest of the shipowners. We were in Malta at our own expense.
So, the Minister, we appreciate his anxiety but to say we came together just because the Minister ordered it to be so, it was bound to happen, it has already happened in SOAN and it is like telling everybody irrespective of your reason for belonging or not belonging to any of the associations, this is the common platform, this platform is strictly for shipowners, come let us know our challenges, come let us draw up a roadmap, come let us build up indigenous capacity, come let us look for what we can do to at least offer sea time to our cadets. Of course, we know the problem and if the cadets don’t have sea time, train them in the best institution all over the world, they are still unemployable and it is in our interest that they have that sea time. It is in our interest that if you come out to say that you are a marine engineer, I can allow you operate my engine and go to sleep.
So, there are so, many things that we need to offer, training of the cadets, and we all do know most of these multinational companies we have in the country now, they employ all these graduates from most of these universities with different background, of course they know the type of education we are all getting today. So, the question is can we individually as company by company fund their training or establish practical now for them? The answer is no. but coming together, we can say okay, we contribute money and send our workers to get adequate training or practical or anything needed. So, it becomes a closed shop so to say, we are protecting our investment, we are ensuring that our equipment are not commonly damaged by providing all those extra training.
What is the point of saying we have trained two thousand cadets and they are not employable and there is scarcity all over the world but there nobody that will employ them.
In essence, you are saying that what we read in the papers that the Minister coerced you into forming this umbrella body is falsehood?
That is not exactly what happened. To start with, I have given you the membership example of NISA, what the Minister is saying or what I understand him to be saying is that people of similar profession should be able to come together, it is a good advice, it is a fantastic one coming from the Minister, we all know that and that was why we formed SOAN and he is advising that you have common interest, if you are coming one by one to speak one language, wouldn’t that be a waste of time? But if you come together, you identify issues that are unique to you and provide the roadmap, then you will be taken seriously and that is why we have identified the membership classification. We cannot take all NISA or any association which membership is not hundred percent shipowners and go and be talking about ship, it doesn’t make sense and that is what the Minister is saying and it is left to us to also explain what the shipowners forum is all about. We are also saying to the Minister thank you for advising us, we have come together as shipowners under this platform, let us discuss because it is also in the interest of the Minister that he leaves maritime better than he met it.
Of all members of NISA and SOAN, why the choice of Margaret Onyema-Orakwusi as the Chairman of this new forum?
I shouldn’t be the one to answer that question but I think I have done a lot in the industry. Without sounding immodest, I have been the president of the Trawler owners Association, I have been the only person, man or woman to chair NIMAREX twice and for some of the associations in the maritime industry, it is either I am a Council member or I am a Trustee and I have great passion for the industry which may be what is coming across to everybody.
I have the passion to work, give all my time to the growth and development of the maritime industry. In that position as the Chairman of NIMAREX, I travelled quite a lot; I talked to different agencies and business owners. I also came in close contact with the Navy, the Air force, Immigration, Customs, you just name it and that opened my eyes to a number of things. I came to recognize the fact that if we all come together and work and support ourselves, that we will take maritime to the height that even our children will be proud of.
Now, what am I trying to say? Because I have my background in trawling, I have been a victim of sea piracy attacks more than ten times over, I have also lost vessels because of sea piracy attacks and because of lack of safety out there in the sea, you can imagine, do we have fast going crafts that you can classify as ambulances in this country? The answer is no. do we have firefighting equipment out there? The answer is no. And these are challenges; these are the things we would want to see on ground.
So, there are a lot of issues that being a player in the industry have opened my eyes to and the solutions are everywhere. If people can come together, work together, support themselves, we will achieve a lot.
So, may be, it is all these advocacy and the few things we have been able to achieve in the industry and I haven’t achieve anything without the support of a lot of people, probably, that was why and another thing, as a woman that commands respect from everybody in the industry and they are able to say at this point in time let us appoint her to bring these associations together and then they will hold election and I am not interested in competing for the Presidency or otherwise. What I am interested in now is to serve them properly, coordinate all the activities effectively. It is like laying the foundation, step aside and whoever that is coming in there as the President would build on it.
Now that you are there, what do we expect?
You expect that the shipowners have already come together and I am throwing an open invitation to all shipowners who qualified because your ship must be registered and all that to come into the fold. I think most of us are already in the fold and then I hope to carry everybody along, I hope to know the problems, we have already asked from people at the downstream the problems, the challenges and way forward. Same for upstream, same for trawler owners, same for all the various interest group and that is interest of our members, to find out the issues, to find our challenges and then map out the roadmap and when all these things are put together, we intend to see our Minister, talk with him and put all those things on the table for him and we take it from there. I need to be able to achieve this.
I need to be able to make the shipowners forum members recognize the fact that they should complement their activities and not stiff in competition, that is the only way the industry can grow. There is a lot of work that we need to do to make some of the Acts breathe life, the laws that we have governing our activities like the NIMASA Act, the Cabotage Act, Local Content Act. All these protect the indigenous shipowners and operators and it mandates capacity building and people say why is it that NNPC is not part of us? NNPC is part of us not by saying that they are shipowner, no, we have to let them know that they owe a duty to the Federal Republic of Nigeria to make sure that there is full compliance to all these laws and we have to tell them that. The law says, you have to give to a Nigerian; you have to build capacity, if you don’t patronize the indigenous people, how will they grow?
So, these are some of the things I feel we can go ahead doing at least to lay a good foundation. Once that is done, I will be very happy.
The Minister of Transportation has indicated government’s intention in refloating the national carrier but this time, instead of empowering the private operators to acquire the national carrier, he is still insisting that government will acquire those vessels and manage it on behalf of Nigerians since there were proven cases of people diverting funds meant for the acquisition of vessels to other areas of their personal needs. What is your take on this?
Now, what were the experiences we had with the defunct Nigerian National Shipping Line? If you look at them, were they avoidable? The answer is yes. If we are not careful, are the mistakes going to be repeated? The answer is yes. I don’t think and I have always said it that government has any business running business. Theirs should be governance, they should be regulators but the platform must be there for indigenous operators and no matter your intention, if you give it to the wrong person for the wrong reason, that is it. And that is what we see happening day in day out in this country.
We the shipowners, we know the real shipoowners, we know the real operators in the industry but you find out these people are bypassed, those people given especially, look at all the privatized businesses of the government, go there and see because we also need, we are stakeholders in this project Nigeria, it is our collective responsibility to ensure that the proper things are done and that is the beauty of the forum, at least, let the Minister know the real shipowners , let the government also know the real shipowners not non shipowners masquerading as shipowners so that what happened before would not happen again because it is a shame to a big nation like Nigeria that we are talking about how do we have a national shipping line when landlocked countries have shipping lines. Is it not a pity? Same Africa.
So, this time, we shouldn’t be in a rush. I will advise that the Minister consult widely and consult some experts in the industry and then look at countries like Brazil, see what is going on. Remember that we all started together but see what is happening today. We need to study, we need to read, we need to open up our mind, we need to do the proper thing. There are no sentiments as I told you earlier on in business; it is what you put in that you take out. If you go for politics or maybe because this person is my sister or my brother then you hand over something, it is not going to work.
…To be continued.
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