Only less than 10% of the maritime industry operators are busy-Nwabgara

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Chief Barrister Osuala Emmanuel Nwagbara is the Managing Partner, Maritime and Commercial Law Chambers located at Apapa, Lagos. In this interview with our correspondent, he bares his mind on the activities of the maritime industry in the last one year, his expectations from the industry this current year of 2017, the expected role of the stakeholders to advance the course of the industry and much more. Below are the excerpts of his chat with us. Enjoy!

What is your assessment of the maritime industry in the outgone year of 2016?

The maritime industry for 2016, talking about its assessment, I think its affairs were affected by the events of the preceding year, 2015 that we had change of government that did not quite appreciate the role of the maritime industry and when government came to power in   that year and because the government did not quite understand the critical role the maritime industry would play in the economy, attention was not given to the maritime industry. So, that caused some gaps in terms of follow-up of policies that were put in place by the previous administration which would have yielded the result of an upbeat in the maritime activities in 2016.

So, the effect was that by the beginning of 2016 up to the end first quarter and likey beyond, we did not notice much activity in the maritime industry. However, the stakeholders did not keep quiet, stakeholders were persistent in call for attention in the maritime industry and we noticed that that yielded some results from the middle of last year till the end of last year. We saw upbeat in activities mainly created by the appointments that we saw in various parastatals that are charged with various activities in the maritime industry and thanks to the persistent calls by stakeholders. These Chief Executives started working having listened to the stakeholders and we saw an upbeat of activities in NIMASA, we saw it in NPA and we also saw it somehow though not very pronounced, in NIWA. And you saw that the Nigerian Shippers’ Council, because there was no offset in the management of the Nigerian Shippers’ Council, we saw a consistent policies that was aimed at moving the maritime industry forward.

We saw that new procedures were put in place, Standard Operating Procedures for the ports was launched by the Nigerian Shippers’ Council and we saw that there were a lot interactions with the stakeholders by the Nigerian Shippers’ Council. We saw that the Nigerian Shippers’ Council motivated the ICD concessionaires and it was stick and carrot approach and we saw that up to the end of last year, even the beginning of this year, we saw them wooing the shipping companies to increase activities and collaborate more with the Nigerian Shippers’ Council for the benefit of the Nigerian economy. So, we saw this consistency from the point of view of the Nigerian Shippers’ Council, like I said, because there was no disruption in terms of the management of the Nigerian Shippers’ Council, we didn’t see any removal, there was no negative thing at the Shippers’ Council. So, that that level of activities there was there just because of the reason I had just enumerated.

And then, we saw that listening to stakeholders, NIMASA also from the second quarter of 2016, engaged in a lot of activities, engaged stakeholders more, they showed interest in safety issues and all of that. They showed interest in dock labour issues, they showed interest in the seafarers’ welfare, they showed a lot of interest and started putting in place preparation, working towards a better 2017. We saw them talk about floating dock and I think consistently, they had maintained that floating dock will be a reality in 2017.

So, these are the upbeat in the activities that we noticed in the second half and of course, NPA. We saw the passion with which NPA addressed the issue of the port access roads, the new Managing Director, from the second half of last year engaged stakeholders a lot, the Port Consultative Council was engaged by NPA and for a long time we didn’t see that between 2015 and the second half of 2016. Generally, we saw activities picking up and I think that the stakeholders are speaking enough, they are doing enough. It is for the Minister of Transport to harness all of these views and put them together and chart a course for 2017 with a view to regenerating this economy from recession to prosperity.

Like I have said before, it is not going to be a one Ministry affair, you have to look at the Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment and you have to look at the Ministry of Finance because the role of the Nigeria Customs is very critical for a viable maritime industry in Nigeria. The role of the terminal operators is very critical, all the stakeholders play critical roles, the truck owners, maritime lawyers, cargo surveyors, name it, freight forwarders, clearing agents, off dock terminal operators, ICD operators, all these are very critical and essential services that must be made to work together seamlessly for the success of the maritime industry in 2017.

A lot of suggestions had been made; they are there in the archive of these parastatals for them to look at. People had talked about crashing customs duty in the port to make the port come alive with activities because if you look at the current exchange rate, you will see that it will be difficult for importers to raise all the capitals to bring in goods even essential goods that we need on daily basis. So you now find out that unless a radical decision to cut down on import duty by the Nigeria Customs is taken, the port will continue to be a ghost town for ships. Until ships start calling on the Nigerian ports, this economy will continue to recede because it is not just the ship bringing in goods, the ships also pay for certain services to the Nigerian Ports Authority, they pay certain fees to NIMASA. So, there is so much that will come with ships calling on the Nigerian ports.

So, until Nigeria Customs looks at their import duty charges and crash them as an incentive for ships to call to Nigerian ports, the economy will continue to recede. That is how critical the maritime sector is. Like I had said, the Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Trade and Investment, the Ministers that are heading these three Ministries need to come together and work together with a view to revamping the economy from the maritime sector and enough suggestions had been made, they are there. For me, it is not about closing the borders for the purpose of importation of cars, if you make the Nigerian ports importer friendly, if you make the ports user friendly, you don’t need to close the borders. People will leave the borders and import their cars through the ports naturally.

So, by and large, I believe that the Nigerian maritime industry had an upbeat of activities from the second half of last year because owing to activities of stakeholders, people at the helm of affairs at various parastatals, saw the need to really take a critical look at what their core mandates are and then started working to the benefit of the maritime industry. I believe 2017 will be much better because most of the suggestions that were done towards the end of 2016 are still very much alive in 2017 and going forward.

How much do you think that maritime sector contributed to the GDP growth of the Nigerian economy in 2016?

That was why I said that most of the upbeat that we noticed have not really crystalized into much of value addition to the economy because like I said, the men at the helm of affairs in these parastatals realized from constant stakeholders input that their parastatals are the engine room of the economy and then they started working with that view. We believe that by the time all the proposals that we saw from the second half of the year are implemented in 2017, the maritime industry will have a very high contribution to the overall GDP growth of the country but right now, of course, I am not an economist but judging from the activities in the industry last year, not much value addition was made to the Nigerian economy for the reasons I already given.

So, you are saying that we should begin to reap the benefit of most articulations made in 2016 in this current year, is that your submission?

Yes! If they are implemented faithfully because at every point in time, stakeholders are talking, towards the end of last year, I just give you one example, on the 15th of December precisely, NIMASA presented the Dockworkers’ Regulations and the stakeholders were there and they spoke their minds and they spoke so much about the benefits that the implementation of the regulation will bring to the economy. They talked about proper implementation of the stevedoring regulations reducing the influx of small and medium arms which is negative to the economy. They talked about government generating revenue from the activities of stevedoring in the port industry because government has revenue to earn. And they talked about government benefitting from proper record keeping of the amount of goods that were imported into this country because when you have an independent dock labour in the port industry for instance, the dock labour will collect money for his services therefore he must keep a proper record of what was turned in and what was turned out of the ships and by so doing, government will collect its own revenue.

So, you find that if the policies that were debated by the stakeholders last year are implemented early enough and consistently so, you will find that from 2017 going forward, the maritime industry will make huge contributions to the growth of the economy.

Stakeholders believed that there had been too many talks on the development of the maritime sector but no action was being taken and from what you had just said, you lent credence to the fact that the stakeholders had spoken enough in terms of their contributions towards the development and growth of the sector. Are you saying that what transpired in the industry last year as manifested by the stakeholders would not go the way of the others before them?

No! I am not sure it is going to be rhetoric as usual because we begin to see, for instance, NIMASA last year said that beginning from January, it is going to implement dock labour regulations to the letter. So, it is up to the stakeholders now to demand for implementation. NIMASA said in 2017, we are going to have a floating dock, it is up to the stakeholders, ship owners’ forum, ship owning interests to consistently demand for it, that they want to see a floating dock so that they can dry dock their ships, where they can do under water repairs, where they can do general repair and maintenance of their ships. And when they do that, they will reduce capital flight, they will create employment, they save enough for the economy.

Now, NPA is going to see that the access roads to the ports are repaired and maintained. It is up to stakeholders to start demanding in January that they want to see action. So, stakeholders are not expected to fold their hands and say we have talked last year, we won’t talk again this year, they have to talk. Shippers’ Council that if by 2017 there is no appreciable investments in terms of equipment with a view to taking off that it is going to revoke concessions. It is up to stakeholders to say, Shippers’ Council, do what you promised. It is up to the stakeholders to tell the concessionaires, please get on to the sites and equip the site and start operation.

Stakeholders had suggested that the Nigeria Customs Service should reduce their import tariff; it is up to stakeholders to continue to demand that they do that for the benefit of the economy. So, when we consistently demand, it becomes clear that those who supposed to perform that are not performing will be spurred to action.

But are we supposed to be on the toes of the government reminding to do what we voted them to do, is it the right thing to do?

Well, you are supposed to remind them because you are a stakeholder in the maritime industry and if every sector in Nigeria is doing well and your industry is not doing well, you have not succeeded and you have not played your role as stakeholders. So, reminding them is also building success for yourself. When you remind them and they are informed, you succeed, the generation is happier, the country is happier, the society is happier, you are happier, Nigeria is growing. So, you are not supposed to say we put them there, they are supposed to perform. No! You have to make them appreciate that they have to perform for our own good and for the good of all of us.

If you are to set agenda for the government in the maritime industry for this year, what would the agenda be?

I have spoken enough, even from what this interview that is being conducted, you can see my thoughts, my thoughts are there, for there to be a collaboration of at least three Ministries going forward, looking at all these areas we had talked about. If you make our ports user friendly, you find out that all the landlocked countries can service their economy from the import coming through our port, that means a lot of money for the port industry. It means NIMASA will raise a lot of money as shipping development charges and as sea protection levy. It means NPA will make a lot of money from ports and harbor services that NPA renders as a technical service provider in the port system. So, that means that they have to have from the maritime sector alone a good amount of FOREX to build our economy. It means that jobs are going to be created because when you have about 5, 000 ships calling at the ports as a result of making the Nigerian port user friendly, you will find that the freight forwarders will be busy, truck owners will be busy. You will find that cargo surveyors will be busy, maritime lawyers will be busy, you find that marine engineers will be busy, you find that Merchant Navy will be busy. Virtually, everybody in the ports industry will be busy and what that tells you is that the economy is looking up because the economy will be doing well when people are busy.

In the maritime industry in Nigeria today, 90% of all the stakeholders are idle, only about less than 10% are busy because the port is dry. Some people came here yesterday to tell me that they are closing shops, they are truck owners. So, course there is no business. The port access roads are in terrible shape. What it means is that there is a lot of wear and tear on the trucks and it costs so much to replace a tyre. So, when we make our ports user friendly, cost of maintaining the trucks will be less, running costs for transporters will be less, fuel consumption will be less because he easily move in and move out.

So, NPA has so much to do, Nigeria customs has so much to do, NIMASA has so much to do; Shippers’ Council has so much to do.

Now, what is your advice to Nigerians?

We have to be persistent in demanding quality execution and implementation; we should not leave it in the hands of Chief Executives of the parastatals in the maritime industry because like human beings they can suffer distractions. Don’t forget many of them are politicians. So, we need to bring them back to their feet so that they focus on their core mandates and deliver on their core mandates. We won’t just look at them and keep quiet, we have to constantly remind them and that is why some of us are not tired talking to journalists. We have to keep talking because it is very necessary, we have to put pressure on them, we are a pressure group, stakeholders are pressure group. So, we have to keep pressurizing them for them to also bring pressure to those who are supervising them to do the needful for Nigerians and the maritime industry.

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