Dr. Kingsley Usoh is a former Chief Executive Officer(CEO) of the Nigerian Shippers’ Council. He recently launched a transport book titled, “Effective Transport Systems: A Catalyst For Nigeria’s Socio-economic Development”. MMS Plus sat with this transport veteran as he explains several pulsating issues affecting the nation’s transport sector as well as the essence of his new book.
You just launched “Effective Transport Systems, A Catalyst For Nigeria’s Socio-Economic Development”. Why the book, why now?
There has been a big vacuum in the Nigerian transport sector. Nigeria inherited the colonial road map in transportation and this has made it so narrow for us that it is a little bit difficult for us to expand and ensure that our own development is well taken care of by the way our transport system is designed. I said that because when the colonial masters were here, they decided to build the railway and the aim of was to link the harvest points to the ports for shipping our products abroad. They wanted our agricultural produce or primary products and other items to get to the sea ports easily for export. So, what we inherited was small but with the development of oil and gas in Nigeria, the economy started to grow bigger than the agricultural settings. Now when you look at transport, it is a derived demand. This means that if things that need transportation increase in volume, then there would be need for more transportation and the best possible system needed to control the transit of goods and services. This we have done without much thinking, we just developed a transport system then because we had to. So now we have to expand as the economy is expanding, the demand for transport infrastructure and facilities is also increasing.
In those days, our people were using bicycles even to travel over 40 miles, they used bicycles because they didn’t have so many vehicles at that time. Now the number of those who are riding bicycles in the country has reduced significantly and motorcycles and tricycles have replaced it; the pattern of demand has changed that. Again, in those days aircraft was something like mystery as people will say how is it? We only saw it flying over; however, today an ordinary man uses aircraft in order to get to where he is going safely and faster. So we now have several modes and each mode is competing with the other, but we now say let’s get it in a way that it is effective. When you look at the transport system in this country, scholars have said that 60% – 65% of all cost of goods is transport related but research by economic consultants shows that 75% of all cost of goods and services are transport related. So if we perfect it, it will reduce our cost. This thing they call transport affects everything we do. So if it is done in a good way we reduce our cost and it will now be better. So, this the reason why we need to look at every sector of transport, every mode of transport and make sure we get it done rightly and ensure the interconnectivity of all the transport systems so that each one will work and the nation will be better.
So in a very simple explanation, what is the book all about?
The book is telling us that we have so many modes of transport. We have land and land is divided into road, rail, pipelines, etc. You can then go further to sub-divide it into urban and rural transport developments. So these are the areas of land transportation, so when you move to water transportation, it is divided into river, inland waterways and the coastal areas, that is the one outside our territorial waterways but the deep sea is still a part transportation because ships will move through the deep sea from near countries across the oceans to other nations. We also need to look at the facility we have such as; the seaports and their terminals.
We have some terminals outside the seaports that are not under the control of the ports authority, i.e. individuals and private sector. We also have the air transport. So all these link up together to form the Nigerian logistics chain. The logistics chain covers everything- both the warehousing for goods, insurance companies, for example, are involved because goods moving along this chain have to be insured, the haulage services are also involved, the security services are involved and a host of other people. So these are the issues we are looking at.
When you talk about an effective transport system, is it a holistic idea about this thing or is it about having a relationship between the various modes for achieving a given deliverable result? What is the main idea behind it?
There are several ways to look at this. For instance, the essence of using any system to take passengers or goods to their various destinations is to make sure that whatsoever is being transported gets to the destination in good condition. The way the goods left here when it was shipped should be how it is delivered. That is what insurance will tell you. So, because you need them to get there in a perfect condition, risk that can cause accidents should be minimal. Things such as road infrastructure, the vehicle itself, the driver or the people handling the vehicles need to be in perfect condition to get what they picked up from point A to point B in good condition because that is the only way the owner of the goods or travelers would be satisfied.
The engineers constructing the roads most bear in mind that it is going to carry vehicles and that the vehicles want to reach their destinations in good condition without any accident.
Listening to your book audio tape, you ran a narrative of doing a postmortem on why the Nigerian National Shipping Line (NNSL) and Nigerian Airways failed before thinking of refloating them. Why didn’t you give a conclusion on whether the nation should refloat them or not?
I left the conclusion to the government, because three-quarters of the decisions we make in transport investment are political and it happens all over the world. Now, government has more information than I have on why they should do things the way they want to do it. As an individual, I will ask myself, if I have the money the government wants to put into this thing with the experience I have, does it make economic sense to invest such amount of money to refloat? Do I have any competing projects that can give me better returns than if I invest in this thing I that started before? But government thinks differently because they have a global picture of everything and some of the information that I don’t have. So it is up to them to do a postmortem and sincerely decide if the project would benefit the nation. That is why I left the conclusion to the government. A good government ought to have more information than individual has.
Now, the model differs going by what is happening, the case of NNSL for instance, it was an entire government 100% budget. In this case, it is a private sector project with government support. Already, we have 40% equity for PIL, 60% for Nigerian private sector. As an expert, would you advice that it should go on and let the actions of demand and supply or the other side of the government that as to do with in the security?
When I read shipping in the early days, flying our flag on a ship is advantage which is good for national carrier. Ghana was the first country in West Africa that ever had a black captain piloting their ship before Nigeria, and they did it in their airways. Ghana under Kwameh Nkruma did it and that was why in those days when we went to Britain and they asked where we were from and and you say Nigeria; they asked if it is part of Ghana because they knew and heard about Ghana. Everything about Africa then was Ghana except for South Africa that was under apartheid. However, it is a good thing that we have money from the foreign PIL as there is no bank here in Nigeria that can meet with the demands of funding ship building because the graph of a shipping trend goes up and comes down. For instance, now that we are in a recession, if any bank or group of syndication takes over to become the PIL, then there is trouble because our bankers are looking at it as a commercial banking and shipping is not part of commercial banking but a different issue entirely and nobody can do anything about it. So if any of our banks here wants to get involved in shipping, they must have partners or support of other foreign banks because if they don’t, they will have a problem. Recall when they were chasing crude oil exploration and the oil price went down, so many of these oil traders went bankrupt because they were trading with bank money and these were monies they got from other people.
What happened to these companies?
So many of them collapsed, the banks weren’t getting money and at the end of the day it affected where the source of the money was coming from and the same thing applies when it comes to shipping. The banking thing applies because transport is a derived demands; that is, what needs to be moved by transportation must be demanded for so if the demand falls, of course, it will affect the transport system and this is exactly why they should make sure that this opportunity is well used in such a way that if we give them cargo and guarantee them, they will also give us cargo and guarantee us that they will give us cargo in return because we will not run back empty coming from there. So whoever is negotiating this thing must make sure that cargo must be available from both ends because if cargo is available at only one end, then we will be facing what we’re facing in our container trade today when only the ones coming from the north get different rates going empty. Therefore, there must be balance. Yes, we can guarantee our own side since government can do that. As we know, more than seventy percent (70%) of goods that are coming into this country are government sponsored, that is; local government, state government and federal government, parastatals of government, etc, all contracts are coming from them. We can ensure that whoever is signing this thing must give a cover for certain percentage of goods coming from this side so that they can satisfy both sides. Again, human factor is another issue; we do not want to see what happened during the cargo sharing regime where people under our national fleet gets cargo when their ships are not ready and they sell the cargo as commission agents to other people. However, talking about liner trade, let me say this, we cannot only look at liner trade, we should diversify our economy.
Take a look at energy, the vast deposit of oil, at least, we can get cargoes from there. So everything we sell, we must sign the agreement so that some parts of it can be carried by our national bottoms and not by clever businessmen. If we put this as part of our trade negotiation even though we’re buying, but we want a slice of that cake, so whatever percentage we get will come into the purse and we can allocate it for this. Actually, we have more tonnage for oil lifting and gas lifting than dry cargo. So these are the issues and whoever is going to do this negotiation must put on his thinking cap. Paradventure someone goes to sign these agreements without thinking well; then our children are in trouble. So, on the sixty percent (60%) that the private sector is taking, the private sector can go to their banks or any institution and get their loan and put up their own collateral to make sure of whatever they want but they should also have their loan facilitation systems. While the banks that are going to house all these agreements should be able to bring in these things and most importantly, the Central Bank of Nigeria, for goodness sake, must be involved in this because the central bank is the banker’s bank and the bank of last resort.
Why are we doing things as if NIMASA is a bank? NIMASA knows nothing about banking. They will end up being duped. We have done it before where people took money for buying ships and used it for other things. No! this should not happen again and these are the areas I’m looking at because if we can get it done, there must be balancing in this thing and if there is no balancing, let them forget it because it won’t move no matter how much billions people put there because three-quarters of the people believe that the government money is nobody’s money and thus, they can do whatever they like but the private sector money is an investor’s money and if you don’t get it right you will be sacked by the management you serve but the reverse is the case for government. In government, people write petitions as against private sector, they write no petition, they give you what they want you to achieve and if you don’t achieve it, you are flushed out. This is the problem we have. In developed countries, the government has no business in shipping and indeed many businesses.
It baffles me when they make argument that government has no business in business. Why it baffles me is that I know in Kenya they still maintain national fleets in air, same as Ethiopia, so how come in Nigeria everything is different?
Our cultural background, nepotism and tribalism have been the problem we have in this country. If you are from the north, and you are doing well, a Yoruba man will write petition that you are doing this, nobody will even investigate it, and they want you out without investigation. An Igbo man will also write petitions except you are his brother or you have talked to him. The only thing they are looking for is for you to leave that seat but they have no genuine problem with you.
Another problem we have as a nation is that we only spend, we do not create, and we don’t innovate. Three-quarters of those in service don’t think. The only thinking they do is about themselves and how to collect money to enrich their families. They don’t think about tomorrow. If one is in a leadership position, the person should be like a slave to his people and let the people say thank you for what you have achieved while in an office. Some of us did it. I also have no regrets that I did it. Money is not everything, in fact, I am satisfied with what I did when I was in service and I thank God I was able to do it.
We will come to that. So, based on what we’ve discussed so far, because the private sector is more or less in running enterprise. As it is now, do you think the idea of refloating the national carrier is right?
If they can get the human angle right, I don’t see why not! Please, let them leave out where you come from and get the best man and make sure they do something for the Nigerian people.
Ok! Would you endorse the same thing for the national carrier for the aviation sector too?
The same thing applies. If they can use it in one, then they should use the same drugs to cure what happened but if they allow it to continue like in the past, it will fail the first stage and this is what I’m talking about but government, like I said, has all the information, so they should find out the best plan.
You talked about doing a postmortem and the need to collate all the recommendations that have been done all over the years in various committees. Even if we do a postmortem now, postmortem means that somebody has to look at what has happened and make recommendations again and when those things are not looked into, the problem remains. How do we solve the problems of having too many committees and at the end of the day, these findings and recommendations are gathering dust?
Yes, they are gathering dust because the people who set them up are not sincere. They set them up in order to appease the public opinion. They didn’t set them up in other to find an answer to the questions we have. If you set up something and say go and get this thing, of course, when it comes you will discuss it and then argue it and then find the best way to do it. Things change, their recommendations may have flaws here and there but you continue researching as these things are changing you must continue putting efforts. Thus, somebody must be working day and night to get the results in the way you want it but if you leave it and say yes I’m following the recommendations, that is wrong. That is a child. When your son is born, he starts wearing wool woven shoes. After sometime, he’s growing bigger you buy him another set of wool woven shoes, it won’t last him two days before it gets torn. You will do away with woven shoes and start looking for leather or rubber shoes every now and then until that leg stops growing. You can’t say immediately he’s born you will go and get all those sizes of shoes because dust will cover the whole shoes up and this could result to skin diseases and he might not grow to cover the length of the shoe. I have given you a beautiful analogy.
Like some people have argued, the CVFF is not government money; it is contributory money from private sector as it was meant for the development of indigenous capacity. We haven’t seen that much on that area because of whatever criteria they want to use, now we don’t have a national fleet even as it’s done, we expected that they should also use the CVFF funds for this but the government is saying no. What do you think should happen to the indigenous operators?
I’m one of those that conceived the CVFF and said this is the only way we can guarantee the sustenance of Nigerian vessels. We don’t have to depend on government for everything. But unfortunately, the political bigwigs came in, saw money in the CVFF and they have to spend it, now they told their friends, brought the Managing Directors and the DG’s and everybody into the place to discuss how to spend the funds and divert it to some others things other than the initial purpose. It’s meant to be a consolidated account but they opened it and a Minister can just write and say spend it for this or that. There is money in that account; why can’t these people take money from there? So they started breaking the law, just like when you have pension funds. Nobody touches the pension fund anywhere in the world. It is an investment towards retirement of people who contributed to it. But in Nigeria, people tamper with it and nothing happens. Do it in Britain and you go to jail? When an account is consolidated, you don’t touch it but I have heard from the National of Assembly saying it should be taxed. Taxed for what?
What should be taxed?
The consolidated fund and why is that? It is because government is looking for money? Government should find another way because this one will create jobs and development of infrastructure. We have to develop so that we can compete effectively with our exports and other things because your ship is supposed to carry goods and go to top markets where other ships won’t go.
This is what I’m saying, some Nigerians do nothing. There’s no innovation. They just sit and spend, which is a major problem. We have to change our mentality, and know that you have to create wealth and when you create wealth, don’t spend it all.
There seems to be serious procrastination. In fact, not just procrastination since the CVFF thing came up, the Cabotage has not really done any good for the industry, the CVFF nothing has happened about it, what do you think should be the fate of the indigenous operators?
The operators themselves should be sincere and serious. They shouldn’t think that the best way to address this issue of ship owning is by conniving with other people from other climes and bringing in their ships that are in the other regions and to register in Nigeria.
They should make sure that whatever they are doing; let them get themselves into groups. Some of them will be board members, the able ones would manage and then they can own companies to make sure that they compete effectively outside world. If they can open their hands and embrace knowledge and not only money because money is not everything and can’t get you anywhere if you don’t have ideas to plant the money. So my answer to that question is that our brothers and sisters that are into ship owning in this country should come back. Float their companies, form good and strong viable partnerships with strong men, that is, people who are knowledgeable, even if they end up having 1% of good company, it’s better than 90% of something that cannot work. But all what they think is that when they float the company, they will have connections, they can get money from the float and use it for whatever they want to do but that should be discouraged.
Let’s quickly do an appraisal before we do other things. We have seen the current government trying to use the private sector as a springboard to refloat the national shipping line and fleets and possibly do same in the aviation sector, although, I haven’t seen much in the rail subsector because the land sector happens to be one of the problematic sectors we have. But generally, how would you appraise the Minister of Transport in the last one year?
He has a problem and the problem continues to be there. What are the problems? The problem is this. Let’s take the road for example; our roads are constructed on ECOWAS specification. And ECOWAS specification has a weight of 11.5 tonnes but we have been putting cargo of about 20 tonnes on the road, for a long time. So, the road continues cracking from bottom and at the end of the day, the container system is imposed on us is a problem.
So, if we stop all heavy duty vehicles from plying the roads, what do we do?
Railway is the answer. The inland waterway is another viable option. Let’s go back and develop our railways and send these things there. Let’s make our laws to divert traffic into railways and inland waterways. So that things get to the point where railways and inland waterways can compete with the road and take up the goods from one point to the final destination!
As a nation, where is Nigeria heading in terms of container trade?
Container trade is fixed. Developing countries don’t make decisions. It is the developed countries that make decisions and you have to oblige because they own the ships, trades and in fact everything. You’re coming there just to sign your signature to show you were there when it was approved. However, this policy was not done for your own good. If it suits them, it automatically becomes an international law and the international bodies will take it up. So we also need to start making research into all these things by using our universities. It shouldn’t be about going to collect the certificates and get out of there (university). The students should get into these things and be able to tell us that these measures are good and these are not good.
Do you think that Africans having a collection of national carriers with fleets can in anyway dictates the place of trade?
No! We have had Air-Afrik by francophone countries, where is Air-Afrik today? Do we manufacture any aircraft? The Whiteman, like I said, is the person who builds the standards according to what he thinks he can gain. Take airlines, for example; they will use the noise levels to make sure that all of us stay within our country. If they see that your noise level is high, and you carry it to any developed country, you will pay a penalty for it. So it is to make sure that you don’t operate. So you see that all these things are being put in place to make sure that they resist you from participating. They will tell you that it causes something to the environment and all that, but one can ask; who has the highest pollution records? It’s the United States. The Chinese pollution is caused by the developed countries because the price of labour is relatively low and they go there to invest and use coal to generate power.
Nigeria is trying to get the permission to use coal but they said No! Yet they are using it in China. So I ask again, who is killing who? You must use a technology that they know that you cannot compete with them. You will have to employ people from there who are doing it, bring them here but you cannot maintain it. But if it is coal, we have it everywhere here, you can dig coal from Kwara but they said No! That it brings a lot of smokes. So whatever comes, they turn it to suit them, while they use it to keep you in the level they want you to be. So when I look at all these things, I just laugh when I read most of these things because I know them and how they do things since I schooled there.
When I was studying Railways, we were in the classroom one day and somebody asked a question that goes like this “since we’re going to electrify our system of moving these things, why don’t we sell our diesel engines to the developing countries?” the lecturer, a retired major in the army who works in the railways replied him, saying that he won’t say anything that somebody is here. I knew he was referring to me because I was the only black man there and a foreigner so I just laughed and of course I knew that because of the way our railway was built, the topography is high and this one doesn’t power because you need to power it. Again, the curvature and everything are winding so you need to strengthen the tracks. You also need another rail traction at the back so that while one is pulling, the other one is pushing, so we’re using two tractions at the same time. Isn’t it double expenditures? What we are doing is that we go and sign something with the World Bank and they will in turn give us an approved consultant from among them. Whatever they write is what we must do because we are using their loan. So we go and buy their old thing and bring it to our country because the consultant said so. All these things annoy me, because I’ve looked at it and I discovered that our problem is that we don’t think and it’s so unfortunate. Well, I’ve been fighting.
In other words Amaechi didn’t do much because there are lots of things drawing him back. Is that what you are saying, sir?
Yes! There’s nothing he can do. The only thing I can say is that if he can get good people advising him to move a little bit forward than the last people. But the main thing is that they should lay down the policies and put in knowledgably people who will drive the idea of what we’re talking about.
Do you see transport playing a major role filling the gap created by the declining patronage in the oil now, coupled with several other economic problems facing the nation? Do you see transport playing a role?
No! The people saying these things are not breaking it down. I told you earlier that transportation whether maritime, air or road; is a derived demand. By derived demand, it means that the thing which needs transport must be readily available for transport to occur. So if all these things are not working, transport cannot work.
We need to get all these things working before transport can work and of course give us cheaper products than if we allow things to stay the way it is. That’s my answer to this question because transport as a derived demand cannot solve anything. Do ships come now? No! Because there is nothing to carry, there’s nobody demanding for space in a ship anymore but if there is something to carry, you will see that other things like roads transport would have something to carry because people are moving all around.
The funny thing about this is that so many people know that the average Nigerian is ignorant, so they just say things without breaking it down for a better understanding. Industries have got to work, fishery has got to work, the internal waterways ought to blossom; you have to do so many things in other to make sure that the national economy has got to increase for us to have those things.
How many people do you see coming to Apapa? They say Apapa is jam lock before; this is because the ports were working! Now that the ports are not working, Apapa is almost free. It is only when the tankers come to take petroleum products that the place is flooded.
Now let’s look at the issue of TTP- Truck Transit Parks. Is it part of derived demand too or how do you see the idea?
It’s my baby in the Shippers’ Council. It is part of those things I left in the file when I left. You have accidents on the roads and I happen to be coming from the Nigerian Insurance Corporation to shipping and I understand insurance, goods were getting lost and people were complaining ,so why can’t we get a place where drivers can rest?
It’s all over in Europe because it is necessary, we must put it down and say how many hours drivers must drive in a day. If it is 10 hours, so be it. After that, they should be resting somewhere because many of them are drinking hot drinks or taking drugs in other to stay awake. It must not be so! They are human beings too and any secondly, they sleep away and the car go off they say there is an accident.
How many people have investigated on why the accident are happening the way they are happening? So it is necessary and a necessity for reducing accidents, making sure goods are safe, at least, if you know how many billions we spend every day on insurance and reinsurance, because if your claims are so big, then your premium will increase also. What I’m saying in essence is that it should be all over the places, comfortable to even watch television and in the morning they are fresh and they continue their journey. So it is needed.
But the problem has been that of funding?
Funding is in everything, the government cannot fund everything. There are people, local government should come and do this kind of investment, not just to catch people who haven’t paid tax, while there are other things that can turn into money. They should put on their thinking caps to innovate and create money because if you don’t create, you cannot get money.
Let’s discuss that of ICDs. You’ve been part of the Isiala-Ngwa project…
I try to tell them at Shippers’ Council that my problem with the inland container project is that for so many years it is bugged by political wahala, no funding and banks are not willing to fund green projects, they prefer brown field projects.
The issue is political, mostly political because for the politicians, anything that drops, they want it. They don’t have ideas, nothing but they want to eat into it. That is one of the reasons these things are failing but if you say you will not; they frustrate you and make sure you do not move. I thank God for the concept of dry port, I brought it up when I was at the Shippers’ Council but then I decided that we should go for offshore container terminals which didn’t work out because I was thinking of having off-dock container terminals in emergency but the powers that be then said they could not allow that to happen so when I left and retired, I brought it up again to the people in the private sector.
I thank God for the former Vice President Atiku, when it was shown to him. He said this is a wonderful idea, it will work. So we wrote the application, gave them to the appropriate Ministry but by the time we came back the second time, everything in our file had disappeared and later we heard that every person wanted one for their area. So we so went on and at a point they gave us a letter of approval but eventually, they said there were going to throw it up open that it was going to be at the six geopolitical zones then, my friend, Adebayo Sarumi brought out a very good idea, that is, having the dry ports attached to an EPZ to manufacture cargo.
So Sarumi brought up the concept of EPZ?
Yes! He added his own knowledge to it, and it became a very good concept with the two attached together and I’ll say bless him for that. So we moved on, then some areas gave lands on federal government directives but the one that I’m involved in, the state government refused to give us land. They said that we have to pay for the land, so we have to find money and pay for our own land so that is where we are. But the idea of dry ports being attached to EPZ is a wonderful idea because it will take traffic away from the ports which the off-dock terminals are doing now but this one, the off-dock terminals are doing it within the towns of Lagos and Port Harcourt but this one we do it as far as Sokoto.
So, the shippers do not need to come from Sokoto or Aba to Lagos, Warri or wherever; you stay where you are as far as the dry port is declared a port, you can use port of Isiala-Ngwa, port of Ibadan and so on. You stay there, then the shipping company will now charge freight and insure it up to Ibadan. You stay in your house wherever you are and you will be notified when your goods arrive and you go to clear your goods and move it within a short distance to your place. This congestion which has become serious would disappear; provided anywhere you are you can be doing your business. So this is one of the advantages of containerization.
However, it will be of greater benefits to our people if the rail system is used instead of the road because on the road there’s a lot of risk in moving these containers by roads but in a train, nobody can stop a train, it will crush whatever is on its way. Therefore, the rail system has got to be built in other to make it successful and , if this thing can start, we will have so many new towns coming up in the next 10 years if we allow it, of course we know that activities are what brings developments to these new towns, so these ports will definitely bring about developments of new towns. We can now also have the customs there and other necessary authorities that will be there too. This is shipping as well, only that there is no water but every other facility is there; customs authorities are there, NAFDAC are there, everything! This is what happens even in the United States.
The problem now is that for over 10 years now, none has actually taken off…
The problem like I said is that political huddles are so much. In the ICD I’m involved in, I have done such about 3 or 4 times. When election is going to come, the government will say they are building a port, but for the first time, we are having somebody who is serious and we’re hoping that it will take off this time. If they give us the bank commitment on their own shares because it is better for them to have a stake so that if people are coming there to do anything, they know them since they are involved but it’s a private sector thing. So their share- holding has no seat in the board. It is the private sector exporters and the individuals that have seat to drive it and to make sure that it succeeds. So what we are trying to do is to make sure that after the rain, because the guarantee has come so if they get the positive nod, the nod from the state government or what they require, then there will be only one huddle to jump. If they do it today, the people are supposed to come in anytime from now to come and do the soil test and they said that since they are going to use their money to build it, they will bring the contractors to do it from their own base until they recover their money back.
So in other words, they build and also run until they recover their money or is it that it is a turnkey project that requires building or they run and later they pay back?
They build and they are running it, they will have the management, we will share the management with them and have certain positions with them until they say that their money is recovered then we pull out. But we are hoping that with the help of God, in the next 18 months, we will be seeing the first container by rail. So we have been negotiating and we still have consultants all over that are being paid on monthly bases in US Dollars.
But sir, how do you manage that?
Well, our chairman has tried! He has tried.
So how did you come into the Shippers’ Council?
Well, my master’s degree thesis was written on the 40-40-20 cargo sharing of the UNCTAD Code and that is what created Nigerian Maritime Authority (NMA). It was then that then Minister of Transport, Alhaji Umaru Dikko, who had a link to my family discussed with my in-law ,who told him that since he is in transport and the brother in-law is in insurance, can they take me up? He asked what I studied. They told him and brought my thesis and showed it to him. He exclaimed immediately! He said that he had been looking for a Nigerian who read this course and asked where I had been and they told him I was working with the Nigerian Insurance Corporation and he said he wanted me to see him. The following day I went to see him with my certificates and everything, and that’s how they pulled me from there to Shippers’ Council and I was made the Deputy Chief Executive of Shippers’ Council because nobody there was a transporter.
Who was the main person there before you came?
Dr. Ekong. He was a geographer who knew little about shipping. All he knew was about the weather but as for shipping, no way. The only thing was that he worked near the deck somehow before he went abroad. But as for shipping, they said he started the shipping desk in the Central Bank of Nigeria, that’s how they looked at us. People didn’t know that shipping could be studied in the university more or less, I was the person who pushed it to how far it has gone because when I came to the Nigerian Shippers’ Council, I was the only person who had transportation qualification.
Those staffs you see there today, I trained them or I trained the persons who trained them. So I found out I was the only person and by idea, these people only knew practical so I was thinking that if I could see Nigerians who were intelligent and could do this things, I will train them. So I went to Wales University and arranged for courses for them and I also prepared with the university the course schedules and everything and I was sending people, everybody from the cleaner to the chief executives for a compulsory 4 weeks training every year, the drivers were being trained on how to manage their vehicles, repair minor things to carry them to where they are going in case there was a vehicular breakdown and they used to have spare parts in their cars.
That’s how the training program in Shippers’ Council began; it was here that I sat and read my Ph.D. So even until today, researching is part of me. If you ask them in Shippers’ Council, when I was the Chief Executive, if I caught you sleeping, you will go to your house and sleep for 2 weeks without pay but if I saw you reading newspapers or any materials, I would come and discuss with you on what you have read.
So I encouraged them to do well and if you failed GCE, you would go back and write it again and if you passed, the Council would pay you back your money because the board approved it. It’s part of the training. Some of them in Shippers’ Council have master’s degree today but when I left, they didn’t have ‘O’ levels because of the program I did. That’s why they have better manpower than any parastatal and when they see me they are so happy even to lift me up and I can say that even if you give me that job again, I’ll still do what I did because I believe that it will help grow the national economy.
Now we want to know how you were able to raise funds to build that structure?
When I took over Shippers’ Council, Shippers’ Council was worth N13,906. It was in the 1982 or 1984 audited account, so you can go and find out about it. Now, the accountant general of the federation said government did not have money and there was no way they could continue giving us subvention. So he said we should find out how to fund ourselves or be closed down.
Where was the office then?
The office was at No 8, Kanu Street, Ebutte-metta. I brought it from Ebutte-Metta, that place where beggars used to stay. We were at the beggars corner; one white man who visited the Council then, came to me one day and said and I quote “Can anything good come out from this place?” because when we went abroad we talked tough but when they came to our office we had nothing to show and you see beggars all over the places. So when I put the proposal across, I said to them; we negotiate a place for ship owners and at that time before Shippers’ Council came, we started negotiating freight with the ship owners. The ship owners used to increase freight rate every 3 to 4 months and every 1% increase in the freight rate at that time was about 980million pounds on our trades. That was what they took from our importers because of freight increases; now when we negotiated, the ship owners paid lower than what they used to collect because they charged 4%.
We reached an agreement and freight rate wasn’t increased the way they used to when they had the liberty. So I said to government, “since we are making it, we are making some savings for the ordinary shippers, that is, the importers and exporters, they should be able to pay us from that savings which is now the surplus because if we do nothing about this situation, they will spend the money and the ship owners will take it abroad.”
So, we said that government should approve it and let them pay us 1% of whatever amount and that is the 1% that Customs is collecting and at that time. I also knew that if we go to collect it ourselves, we don’t have the staff to go from every ports or borders to go and collect this money; so let us ask Customs to collect it and the money will pass through government who will in turn release it to us. Not only that, I was trying to save my head because somebody, say a frustrated staff might write a petition against me because I know that in this country, when somebody writes a petition against you, nobody will do an investigation before they will come and arrest you and then you will prove that you are not guilty. I didn’t want to go through that entire situation so I said government should collect through Customs, create an account for us and pay into that account for us to use.
Now in this case, it is what Customs collected, not that it is importer or exporter savings anywhere?
No! it was Ibrahim Babangida’s government that decided to collect 1% of import and 1% export to give us but I told them no, that we don’t have to charge the exports. Babangida’s government gave us approval that Customs should collect it so they gave us the 1% and gave raw material and research institute 1% and gave port development 5% and that is the 7% we have now and that’s how we came about the 1% given to me, they (the customs) collects and release it after 3 months. So I looked at what I learnt from insurance, you take a small premium, if you invest that small premium well, it will yield you something bigger and then you can use it to settle claims and the balance is yours and I used it for Shippers’ Council. Now, I said that what we needed was to have accounts and they way to get it is to get our own building, rent out some as long as we are not paying rent and then start setting up. In actual facts, I had 24 ways Nigerian Shippers’ Council could make income; the dry port is one, the trailer park is another and so many other things I had that we could make money from but I only implemented four before they said I should go.
But how many years did you stay at the Nigerian Shippers’ Council cumulatively?
12 years! But out of that 12, I was in command for about 8 years.
Ok. So you were the deputy until when Ekong left you then took over?
Yes! It was a struggle to turn it around because at that time, if you wrote a letter to us; we would not tear the envelops because Ekong printed a lot of letter heads but there was no envelop for them. So at that time, we made sure we opened the envelops carefully to remove the document. But when I took over, because government was giving us a straight line bill of 1 million every year for salaries and everything we were able to plan. Even, when some people started shouting I kept quite because if you say you are making money, they will bring all sort of people to come and spend the money, so I was quiet. The only time they knew that we were making money was when we opened the new place(building) . Everybody said this Igbo man has been there eating everybody’s money but I didn’t eat anybody’s money, I can bet you that I’m the poorest chief executive that has ever worked in a federal organization but the only thing I’m happy about is that the prayers of those I made to have their jobs, trained and everything is with me today and that is the protection I’m happy about. So I can get up and stand tall and say to anybody “go to hell”
Interesting! They have 2 percent now. The new management got the second percent, I think last year or there about.
I don’t know. So that is to help him carry out what they are trying to do and that is fantastic because if they get the right people to advise them on how to go about it, there is money for Shippers’ Council to make. Hassan hasn’t asked me because now I’m a private person but if he comes to me I’ll say “son! If you want me to advise your organization which is government, then you’ve got to make me a consultant before you can get it and I’ll advise him. But by and large, he has been wonderful”
Do you have any regret been in Shippers’ Council?
I think it’s a mission God sent to me. Because before I left this country I went for prayers and I was told that when I come back, there’s a job that is reserved and would be given to me. So when I came back, I didn’t even know what Shippers’ Council was at that time. When I was trying to come back to the country with insurance, I went for prayers again and I was told that the place I’m going to work is a stepping stone to where God wants me to be. So I came back being in insurance, believing God. Also I was in church, Church of the Lord Aladora and mother Adejobi our spiritual mother at that time said to me openly in church that what God said to me, that he said he would do it. To be frank to you, it didn’t take two months when they called me to this job. So whatever I signed with my God that I will do for the people, I was obliged spiritually to do what I did. So I have no regret and I know like I’ve said before that if given another chance to come to that seat, I will still repeat what I’ve done.
So Shippers’ Council was created out of NMA?
No! NMA wasn’t in existence. Shippers’ Council was created in the year 1978 while NMA was 1989. It was when I was in Shippers’ Council that we started talking about NMA. As a matter of fact, I was to be the first chief executive of the NMA but they said they had just given me this one that I should stick to it. I just laughed because the place didn’t have money and I wanted to escape but they said stay there. But they brought back Dr. Ekong to head NMA and Dr. Ekong out of whatever said he would deal with me at Shippers’ Council because I took over from him and I said for what? In fact, I never wrote one petition against him but I would go to him and say to him that “ all these nonsense mistakes you are making, if these things enter my hand you will never get it back because I will use efficiency and effective administration to show you that I can turn this place around. When they gave him the NMA job, he was following me and he said he wanted to draw up a list of those to sack and those not to sack. He was a common enemy and I told him to concentrate there because he could lose that job if he kept following me because as far as I was concerned, my job was ordained. As you can see, I went through a lot of sacrifices to put that place the way it is today but I agreed with my God, and I don’t know if I finished what I should have done.
Actually the structure alone is magnificent and it is something people can see but your contribution to the human capacity development must have been greater than the structure.
It’s not only the structure. The present administration can also stand up and say we have the best staff in the industry and they do have the best staff because I trained them. There’s nothing like education, if you want to help a child, give him education. So that’s why you see me still writing because I’m still researching.
With all this trouble, how were you able to manage the family angle? How many children do you have?
I have only one daughter and I can’t force God to give me more than one daughter. Although she is single, I’m satisfied with her knowing that she is also one of the first class grades. My wife is a medical doctor, an eye surgeon and we live a modest life.
Where does she work now?
She was working with a finance institution but now she’s doing her own things and works with big companies in Europe. I trained her through the very best of education from American International here to the most expensive secondary schools in Britain and from there to Imperial College and back to London to do masters. They offered her a Ph.D program on Water Resources but she didn’t tell us because I would have asked her to go for it. But she said she wanted finance because her aspiration was to work for the United Nations.
So how old are you now, sir?
I am 72 years.