Engr. Greg Ogbeifun is the President of the Ship Owners Association of Nigeria (SOAN), the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Stars Investment Company Limited based in Port Harcourt, a marine logistics company, the MD/CEO of Stars Marine and Engineering Limited and Stars Ship Yard, based in Onne Rivers State. Engr. Greg has been in the maritime industry for 43years, where he started as a marine cadet in the year 1972, and grew to establish the Stars Group in 1980. In this exclusive interview with Ifeoma Oguamanam, he gives his take on the recent happenings in the maritime arena in Nigeria.
Sir, often times at different fora you have mentioned a report prepared by SOAN and presented to the Federal Government of the last administration and you have also called on this present government not to do away with that report, urging that it should be used to grow the industry rather than starting a new one, can you please tell us what this report is about?
I will like to correct that information. In 2012 the administration of the President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, organized a maritime retreat in the presidency and at the end of the retreat, a presidential committee was setup to review all the issues arising from the retreat, a report was prepared and sent to the President on the reforms that are desired in the maritime sector.
So I was privileged to be nominated to serve in that presidential committee and the chairman of that committee was the last Minister of Transport , Senator Idris Umar, and the vice chairman was Olisa Agbakoba (SAN). That committee spent close to 9 months working on their terms of reference and at the end of it, a comprehensive report, of the presidential committee, was submitted to the government and that is the report I keep referring to, it is not a SOAN report.
Sir, what are some of the recommendations of the report?
The report was very elaborate and comprehensive, running into several hundreds of pages that dealt with different aspects of maritime, not only shipping and since the government has not come out with the white paper I cannot divulge the details of the report or comment on if further.
What in your opinion do you think the maritime industry needs, to bring it to its rightful place as a top economic earner?
It is not so much the Nigerian maritime industry, as it is the Nigerian government and critical stakeholders. The government has come out with different lofty policies like the Cabotage Act, but the implementation of the Act by the government has not really been effective, so there has to be a political will to critically look at existing and extant laws that govern the sector; The Cabotage Act, the Merchant Shipping Act, the Nigeria Local Content Act and their provisions.
Take Cabotage Act for example, it says vessels should be built in Nigeria. In ten years the country has not been able to build a Nigerian vessel, the country has not been able to develop the maritime structure that can build ships. So, the government has to intentionally and purposefully, set an agenda for establishing the relevant infrastructures to be able to build ships that are relevant in our Cabotage regime.
Secondly, the Nigerian flag. They have done well to some extent, the Nigerian Cabotage special registry is in place and the Nigerian flag is gradually growing. Ownership has been a failure, you cannot own a ship if you do not have the resources to fund it. The Cabotage Vessel Financing Fund (CVFF), was put in place to help acquisition of vessels but for some reasons, has not been implemented, this has led to the lack of growth in the capacity of Nigeria ship owners.
There are a few growths here and there but it is nothing compared to the growth that could be accomplished if there was genuine government support and interest to assist the indigenous players to acquire fleet. So ownership of vessels by Nigerians needs prompt attention.
The Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), has attempted the Nigerian Seafarers Development Programme (NSDP), which to me is a failure on its own. Like I will say any day NIMASA has no business training cadets, the training of cadets is primarily the responsibility of ship owners but government can encourage the ship owners like it is done in some other countries.
For instance, some of us ship owners are training cadets, it is costing us money to train them, and if a fraction of the money the government is taking out of this country through NIMASA in the name of NSDP, if given to people who are already training cadets here, it will encourage them to continuously make available their vessels available for the training of cadets.
These are some of the issues that have militated against the growth of the Nigeria shipping industry and the human elements in our maritime sector are indispensable, whether it is the ports, the ships or the shipping companies, there is need for skilled and experience man power.
Lastly, we believe that the new government in place will have the political will to appoint two knowledgeable technical professionals to man the critical agencies in the maritime sector. The Act is very clear in the case of NIMASA, which states that in the board of NIMASA there must be a professional mariner, in its board.
They cannot afford to toy with that because if everybody else is a politician, they need a professional to guide the board in engaging the management to ensure that they are doing things right, so this are some of the issues that could help improve what we have in our maritime sector today.
What is the impact of the monopoly of Intels in the Port Harcourt maritime and how is it affecting shipping business?
People call it monopoly, I call it a blessing, Intels has been a blessing and I am speaking as a patriotic Nigerian, a lot of people talk about Intels monopolising trade in Port Harcourt. After the federal government in the 70s constructed the Federal Ocean Terminal (FOT), the place was not built up to standard of utilization, so it was an abandoned project, the only place that was functional was the Federal Lighter Terminal (FLT) of Onne. At that time, in the early 80s, the promoters of Intels came to Onne, they came with a container as their office, we were already in Port Harcourt at that time and we used to drive to the present FOT to go on the beach on Sundays to recreate.
Intels took half of FLT, leased it from the government and began to develop the place gradually and in no time, Intels gradually began to open up the place with their own money, with support from the financial institutions of their home countries. They were putting in money there and all of a sudden they were able to develop the FOT to a point where we now have international ships berth there.
The bible clearly states that a diligent man is worthy of his wages. If they have made such investments they deserve to see returns. People are seeing the finished port, they did not see what it was like when this people came and under our noses, they turned it into what it is today.
Now , it is up to the government to engage Intels, to make sure that the returns they are getting is equitable , but as to monopolizing the business, I will not agree to that because some how they can be made to respect the rule of the land, whereby they can allow indigenous players to also exist, but business is capitalistic and if you give any entrepreneur a chance, he will monopolize. So in a way we will not totally agree with the monopoly of Intels because I think that they have contributed to the development of the infrastructure of that environment.
So how is their presence there affecting shipping business?
It is very expensive, the prices they charge are completely ludicrous and like I said, I think that the appropriate government agencies can engage them to moderate this.
Sir, are you comfortable with the recent appointments made by President Mohammadu Buhari, in the maritime industry?
I reserve my comments, I will wait till the President appoints his ministers and finalizes his appointments, then I will be bold enough to speak on that because I believe what is happening now is temporary and transient, I don’t think all of them is permanent.
So how do you rate Buhari’s achievements after 100 days in office?
Fantastic, I voted for him, he is a blessing to this country, we should pray for him, I am confident that Buhari will take this country to the promised land, he is showing the signs that he is going to wipe out corruption and serious investors in this country are going to make a living, those who are not productive in Nigeria are going to become very poor , so do not be surprised if in a short while you discover that multimillionaires of yesterday are suddenly beggars in the future because they have not been productive and they have been reaping where they did not sow.
I think Buhari is a blessing and I am an unapologetic supporter of Buhari and I will always do that as long as he continues in the direction he is going right now. We have every reason to believe that he has good intentions for this country.
How is the changes in the oil sector affecting the sector?
The first happenings is that oil prices crashed and that has led to a multiplier effect across the board, it affected shipping banking, and the economy, it is a worldwide thing. What that should tell us is that Nigeria should de-emphasis oil and gas as the mainstay of our economy and I would like to believe that right now, the new government is thinking out ways of looking back to agriculture, we want to see the old groundnut pyramids in the north, the cocoa in the west and rubber in the south-south, even coal in the east, that is step number one.
Secondly, those of us that are critical stakeholders must fashion out more innovative ways of doing things and a few people are begging to key into this. They should make a list of their priorities, reduce the cost in their method of operating to ensure that they are competitive. It is a wakeup call but a universal phenomenon because it has taken its toll on the economy of other countries around the world.
Therefore, Nigeria should rise up to the occasion like every other nation has, some of the reforms of Mr. President is going to take a lot of people unawares; the financial sector is better regulated and policies are being put in place to check the excesses that we used to have, corruption is being tackled by the government . Generally, it is all interwoven because the fall in the oil price is the catalyst that led to a lot of these change.
Buhari has embarked on plans to stop private companies from participating in the importation of petrol and to make it a sole monopoly for NNPC. What is your take on this?
I am not an expert in that side of things, I am not even aware of such plans, but what I am aware of is that Buhari’s government is trying to reawaken our refineries to begin to produce at optimum capacity to meet up to the needs of local demands, thereby reducing the amount of products that are going to be imported into the country, in the short term. So, I do not know about him making NNPC the sole importer of petrol but I think the emphasis and focus is to make our refineries more efficient and able to meet Nigerian needs.
Some of your members in SOAN have been supporting NIMASA by providing sea time for cadets, what can be done to increase it. You mentioned it before, please can you throw more light on this?
We are yet to engage NIMASA formally to make available to them a certain number, at the moment we are starting with 100 training berths to support their training initiative but it has to be properly articulated through a set up committee that will look at the availability of berths in relation to the number of graduates from schools. Our emphasis though, is that NIMASA should focus more on using our vessels for children who are in the Maritime Academy of Nigeria (MAN), Oron rather than from other source, as a first start and as the opportunities grow, we can increase the number of cadets. It is completely wrong to ignore schools in Nigeria and send children out outside Nigeria to study seafaring, when we can bring up our schools here to the standard of the schools we are looking for outside Nigeria.
Not much has been heard about SOAN lately, what are the new programs and projects of the association?
SOAN has been doing a lot behind the scenes, SOAN has no intention to run the association on the pages of the newspapers and sooner than later you will begin to know what SOAN is doing but as a good answer to your question, you can check our website at www.soan.com.ng, on a daily bases and read about the amazing things that the association is doing.
Sir, you have been quoted as saying that you are still a member of NISA, between Capt. Dada Labinjo and Alhaji Aminu Umar factions which one do you identifies with?
I am a bonafide, absolute, dedicated member of the Nigerian ship Owners Association (NISA), the one that is headed by Mr. Aminu Umar, is the one I recognize as NISA.