By Kenneth Jukpor
Barr. Mrs. Margaret Orakwusi is the Board of Trustees Chairman of MMS Woman of Fortune (WoFHoF) Initiative, Chairman of Nigerian Ship Owners Forum and a former President of Nigerian Trawler Owners Association (NITOA). In this interview with MMS Plus, she speaks on Senate’s rejection of 35% affirmative action for women, she also explains the challenges confronting fishing and ship owners in Nigeria and advises government agencies on the best ways to enhance port operations. Enjoy it:
President Mohammadu Buhari’s administration promised more women in governance, yet the Senate rejected proposals to give constitutional backing for 35% affirmative action for women. What is your appraisal of this?
I believe that those who voted against it either didn’t understand it or they didn’t appreciate women or they don’t want to encourage women to get married. What are we asking for? As Mrs. A, if you get married to Mr. B, automatically you have changed your name to Mrs. B and it is ok if you are both from the same state. But we should also encourage inter-state marriages. If Mrs. A is from Anambra state and she marries Mr. B from Imo state, the same zone in this case but different state, and Mrs. A rises to a stage where she is being considered to be made a judge or any appointment, the issue of quota arises and the people from Imo state would tell you that although you are their daughter, you are married so you should go to your husband’s state to take his quota. The woman should be from where her husband and my children are from, because they are one family. We have to promote inter-state marriages and we have to promote women with excellence.
We are saying if a woman is good enough to deserve an appointment and it belongs to her husband’s state, she is also an indigene of that state. Where does this hurt anybody that such a bill wouldn’t be allowed to sail through? What the men in the Senate have forgotten is that any vote against the women, is a vote against their mothers, wives and daughters. I’m not happy that the bill could not pass through and I hope that it is revisited. A lot of people suffer unjustly because of this. It is bad enough that a woman loses her father’s name, in spite of that her husband’s state would say that she is not an indigene. So, she is hanging, neither here nor there.
Don’t you think the female legislatures didn’t do sufficient lobbying?
I think the female legislature did lobby. I watched the whole thing play out. There was a second count but the issue was that people were trying to read meanings where they should be no need for that. Those who voted against this have daughters and we feel offended as women. We are losing vital contribution to the development of this country by discriminating against women. If a woman is qualified for a job, let her have it. You shouldn’t deny her the opportunity because she is a woman, especially at this stage of the nation’s development.
Let us look at the percentage, PDP applied it in their time but it wasn’t really carried out. Nigerians expected that Buhari’s administration would allow this scale through the Senate scrutiny. What do you think about that?
I watched one of the Senators who didn’t quite make sense to me (with all due respect); when he said “women are everywhere, if we do it now they would soon take over everything”. When it suits some people, they say women are more than men in this country. This means that women’s votes are more than the men. We aren’t even asking for 50% but we are asking for 35%. This wouldn’t have been necessary if we had the money to contest elections, show good representation and lobby. However, we recognize that we are more but we don’t have the necessary funding to be there so we are asking for 35% to be left women just for political appointments. When it suits a male politician, he recognizes that women are more trustworthy, diligent and industrious so Nigeria needs all those positive attributes of a woman especially at this time of the nation’s development. We have had men all the while, so why can’t we give the opportunities to women.
As the Chairman of the Ship-owners Forum, what is happening in the development of national fleet championed by the Minister of Transportation, Hon. Rotimi Amaechi?
Shipping is a serious business. Acquiring ships is easier said than done, but the good thing is that we have a Minister who is result-driven. He has seen the multiple advantages of owning ships especially by the indigenous players on the carriage of goods. This would also grow other sectors like the banking, insurance, legal services, etc. Considering the massive benefits we generate annually, it is important that we participate in the carriage of these goods.
What is in the pipeline is attaining a national fleet. However, the funding is massive but we are trying to find good partners and indigenous investors. However, the process is ongoing. We are also careful to avoid the mistake of the past and the Minister also wants to build something that would last. So, it may be slow but the correct process is being followed.
Nigerian banks can’t provide the funds required for ship acquisition, so what are the plans to get the required funds?
Yes, that is why we are doing all that we can to find credible foreign partners. The equity is 60-40. When we have credible foreign investors, efforts are already being made to come up with indigenous contribution.
Attempts have been made to publicize this so that new investors are also welcome. The issue here is money and I would like to encourage people to invest because maritime is the future and it is stable. Nigeria has a population of over 160milion and most of the things we consume are foreign goods that come in through the maritime sector. The nation’s main foreign exchange earner ‘crude oil’ is also exported through maritime transportation. Our roads are always congested, needing repairs but if the water transportation is developed it can alleviate the road congestion. There are so many aspects of maritime and in terms of shipping with a population that is the biggest is West Africa (and probably Africa) can you envisage that if we get our acts right, especially services being rendered at our ports we can be the hub of maritime activities. What stops Nigeria from becoming the hub of all fishing activities in West Africa, to service the land-locked countries? Can you imagine the millions of jobs that would provide? Nigeria is strategically placed in Africa but we are not taking advantage of this benefit.
So shipping is open to all stakeholders. They should come in, have good dividends and create employment.
Afreximbank talked about coming in to help fund this. How far have they gone?
That is ongoing but you also know that no funding is cheap and any institution considers that. But we should ask ourselves why smaller nations like Singapore and Greece, for instance, are able to muster such huge investment in ship building and facilities. What makes their ship owners and those who have invested in shipping sleep better is the access to cheap funding and we can’t compete with that. How can you compete with somebody who has a more stable currency than the naira and gets loan at 1-3% interest and I’m struggling to get loan at 20% interest? Already, you have failed in the competition. We need to defend our currency and bring down our interest rates to enable us be competitive. These are the issues; however we have the market, population and the tonnage in our favour.
We have heard repeatedly that foreigners have invaded the fishing industry. What is the situation of things now?
What is happening in the fishing industry is not unique to the industry. The major problem is the cost of funding. It has to come down so that we can expand and create employment.
There was a time when we had about 32 deep-sea trawling companies but we have reduced to 12 and the trawlers at a stage were about 100. But things are improving now as people have been encouraged to put in more resources to resuscitate a dying industry. The amnesty which came for the Niger Delta gave us peace on the high sea. It was sea piracy and robbery that drove most people away from the Nigerian fishing industry. Safety and security are very important to any business that you do. When it comes to maritime safety, we don’t even have the facilities for that in Nigeria because people always mix security and safety. We have lost several crew members because nobody comes to their rescue when they are shot or something goes wrong on the high sea. This is what maritime safety is all about and we need to put all these in place because out there in the sea, it’s like having a factory on the ground. The sooner, we have more trawlers operating and we increase production, the better for the country because right now, over 70 per cent of the fish and the fish products consumed in this country are cheap imports and we can’t even guarantee their safety for consumption. As the fishing business improves, we should be able to feed at least 50 per cent of our population with our products. By stretching our contribution to 50 per cent, we would be offering over 50 million jobs to Nigerians.
We have universities offering courses in fishery and other maritime related courses but do they relate with the stakeholders? They have to relate with the stakeholders to know where the gap is and also reflect the needs of the industry in their syllabus. We see several people coming from our universities that can’t solve the problems in the sector.
Another thing that is killing the industry is the poachers; they fish in the most irresponsible manner and their trawlers are big. As a Nigerian, the law doesn’t allow me to own big trawlers like that because we fish in a very responsible and highly regulated manner. We aren’t just regulated in Nigeria but also the European Union (EU) to be able to export to any country in the EU. These poachers are criminals, they do not respect Nigerian or international laws, they do not fly our flags, and they fish from bottom to top; catching the big fishes that lay the golden eggs and juveniles. They do this dirty business and leave unchallenged. They take the endangered species which is like diamond to them.
There is an international conspiracy to this because I need to give the history of my products before I can sell them in the international market. I must have the license, my vessel must be approved and my products must carry some regulatory compulsory analysis. How do poachers dispose their products? Africa is losing billions of dollars annually to all these illegal activities.
Is there a body that does the regulation?
We have several ministries that are responsible for regulating fishing. The Ministry of Transport through the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) has to license our vessels and cater for security and safety. The Ministry of Agriculture through the department of Fisheries is in charge of fishing license and they have to give an approval for me to bring my trawler into the country. They also have to give the specification for the trawler and they monitor my fishing trips to ensure my vessel is well-equipped, my crew, net, and turtle excluder device to protect endangered species, etc. The Ministry of Finance also plays a role to check the finance, the Customs also plays its part; so my industry is highly regulated, yet we have criminals that come from Europe and Asia to poach and steal. We can’t fight these poachers alone; it should be a joint effort of the countries affected and the international buyers. The United Nations has to do something about this because it should be a global effort. This is important because we also need documentation that we can rely on to say this is the amount of products we take annually.
Recently, fishing trawler owners complained about an increase in the cost of license, was it reviewed?
Nobody listened to us, but this is not good because we want to encourage production, encourage indigenous participation and grow an industry that has a huge gap between demand and supply. We all know what the naira is doing to businesses. So, it is wrong for the government to keep adding to the cost of production of products that are for exports, knowing that at the international market the prices are static. It means that if my cost of production keeps going high I cannot pass it to the end user.
The Acting President did issue an executive order on port operations recently which has seen several agencies change their modus operandi and NIMASA has said that it has started 24 hours operations even as it plans to establish an electronic platform. Have you observed any changes?
Some of us look at production and the quality of service we are getting. We want to see results. I can claim that I am sitting down for 24 hours but it doesn’t mean that I am more productive than someone who may have worked for 2 or 3 hours. I commend the Acting President for moving us to do it the right way but I would also appeal to all the agencies to be effective in the usage of time. The ease of doing business goes beyond the time factor. It is good service delivery.
If you ask people why they divert their goods to neighbouring ports, they would tell you that in 2 or 3 hours they are out of the port but in Nigeria it takes a month. Another thing is the culture of impunity. It take six hours to get in touch with someone whereas in another jurisdiction it takes five minutes; so the individual has a choice to wait for six hours or get the job done in just five minutes. At times you are standing before someone who is to attend to you but the person is busy answering a personal call while on duty, when he finishes without any apology, he remembers that he was eating before the call and he goes to finish his food while you are still waiting. We have to be more productive in our respective offices.
We talk about hub status of our ports but it is service delivery. If they put the best infrastructure yet there are people to delay the process, you would be forced to go to another jurisdiction where your turn-around time is shorter, especially to avoid paying demurrage.
One last word for Nigerian women
Firstly, as a woman, you must work, be qualified and also be the better candidate. I don’t think that a board that is full of men would do as good as a board that has both men and women. By nature, females have unique things to bring on the table and it is also the same with the males. When it comes to female touch, we have it.
We have also found solutions to what the male give as reasons for not employing females and some big organizations have started implementing this. I led the Women Corporate Directors to the Stock Exchange and we made that case and they bought it and started implementing it. You don’t just say no to your opposition but you go a step further to ask what their fears are. They should be able to tell you why they wouldn’t employ women and when they do; we can be able to find solutions to these fears.
One of the major problems is the need for women to take maternity leave and other casual leaves because a child is sick or something. These fears are valid because we are talking about work hours, but there is another aspect of it. We are in a society where we have to raise good citizens so there has be a situation where we can meet half way. We say it is maternity leave; but we can break it down to also have paternity leave so that the healing process for the woman would go faster and the child would be well grounded because even at the tender stage, the child doesn’t only need the attention of the mother. It also needs the warmth of the father and some companies now give paternity leave as it applies abroad.
Another issue is that for a woman, no matter how much you love your work, your heart is where your baby is. So we had to look for a way to ensure that the mother returns to work after having the baby. She has to return early, instead of waiting for six months or losing her employment. So we admonished the big companies to have corporate crèche at their organizations with highly qualified people to care for the baby so the woman can still feed fresh breast milk to her baby. She goes to work with her baby, drops the baby at the Creche, sits in her office and goes to see her baby when it’s time to breast-feed. So, the woman is working and she is happy. You haven’t denied the woman the attention to her child and you have also not denied her the opportunity to be productive at work. She knows that her child is in good hands at the company and she is not forced to leave her child with an untrained nanny or domestic staff. I know one big CEO who told me that when the work is ‘so-so’ he goes to relax his head at the nursery.