Shipping sector alone can grow our economy by 90% —SOAN boss

In this interview, Dr. Mcgeorge Onyung, President of the Nigerian Ship Owners Association, SOAN, explains that the shipping sector has the capacity to drive 90 per cent of the national economy if there are sufficient state flag ships.

He also expresses confidence with the recent Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas (NLNG) Train 7 $10b FID deal, which he said is broad based, and was optimistic that local shipping operators can access 30% sub business window from the Train 7 financial deal.

IT became public knowledge recently that SOAN failed to deliver on its sea time exposure contract for cadets of Maritime Academy of Nigeria, Oron

The training agreement between the MAN and SOAN was an experimental initiative that was bound to have teething issues. The vessels that were to be used for the training were mostly double-bunk vessels and there was no way we can put men and women together in the same room. Most of the female cadets could not go on board for training due to the way the vessels were configured.

In the vessels, we have three bunks in a room and we couldn’t put the girls in the same room with the boys to avoid situation where cadets could get abused. If such happens, the ship-owner will take responsibility and this will backfire on the entire focus of the training programme.

For those cadets that could not go on board for training, the money received from MAN will be refunded. We will be having a meeting with MAN to know how best the laudable initiative can be sustained, going forward.

Bedrock of sustainability

We have vessels that cost 30 million Dollars in our fleets as ship-owners, so why would any ship-owner want to go to jail over N8 million or N2 million? SOAN takes the training of future seafarers seriously because it is the bedrock of sustainability of our marine investments and industry. With ageing trained seafarers pool in the country and the technological advancement in shipping, the importance of training of cadets cannot be over-emphasized.

What is your reaction to the Transportation ministers recent announcement about the readiness of the Federal Government to commence the controversial Cabotage Vessel Financing Fund?

It is a good development. But we have done had too much talking about it, what we want now is action. This will promote our shipping sector. I don’t know any member of SOAN that has received any letter that they will benefit from the fund. I don’t even know if they have gotten to the disbursement stage. It is commendable for them to say they want to disburse openly now. I have attended many gatherings in the past where they said they will not disburse. Let no one get excited until we see it disbursed.

You are sounding less enthusiastic

We have made progress in the maritime industry but at a very slow pace. We need to move faster than we are going now. Our maritime industry just has to go back to the drawing board. We went to IMO and lost the election. What does that tell us? It tells us that we have to come home and really put our house in order. All these statements, clapping of hands, patting shoulders are not the solution. The ocean is not for everybody, we have to call the real stakeholders together. Anytime they call stakeholders, everybody will gather in a hotel to drink tea, take coffee and eat lunch. Issues about the maritime industry are not tea party. We are looking for solutions, not just empty talk. For the minister, that is within his power to say what he said. It is his prerogative. We are the subordinates that will wait to see the outcome of what he has said.

What is your vision for the rapid growth of our shipping industry?

Our industry is not where it should be yet. You can imagine a small country like Norway that has less than five million people has 27,000 ships in the world. For every five ships that ply the waters of the world, one is a Norwegian flagged ship. Those are maritime nations we need to learn from. How did they get there?  One Norwegian company has 650 ships. I don’t like unnecessary speculations and just talking to make ourselves feel good by saying we have 840 nautical miles adjoining our coast, 10,000 miles of inland waterways. When we gather that is what we talk about all the time. No one remembers that Norwegian waters are frozen eight months in a year because of the weather. It has never been an excuse for them not to develop their shipping industry.

What did you do to map out the correct outlook during your recent conference?

SOAN held a conference on November 27 and 28 and it was the maiden edition of Lagos International Shipping Expo. The conference was held within seven months of my being elected as President of SOAN. With the cooperation of my members, I was able to pull it through. Many people did not believe in it, they never thought it will happen and many did not believe it will be successful. I was told that the conference was monitored from London.

We are happy to drive the whole industry to a conference that was very rich, well attended by international companies from China, Thailand, Norway, Singapore and United Kingdom. Local participation was very encouraging, we had Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas, Shell and many others. The managing director of Shell was a moderator and speaker at the event. He brought his whole management because it was a very important topic. The communiqué has been presented to the minister of transportation.

In the communiqué we discussed and stated our position on the Cabotage Vessel Finance Fund and questions about its disbursement. One of the take home from our conference was that ship owners have the key to unlock the economic potentials of this country, singlehandedly. We don’t need any other sector. The shipping sector can contribute 90 per cent of all that we need to make Nigeria prosperous.

All we are asking for is ships. I am sure the government is seeing it. There was a slogan we were using very much in the conference which is, no shipping, no shopping. Without shipping, no one will be able to buy anything in the world. Shipping handles 90 per cent of global trade. You have a sector that can solve 90 per cent of your problems, why are you wasting time on other sectors?

Entirely or exclusive of other sectors?

I am not saying other sectors are not good but the search light should be on shipping as a priority area. When borders were closed, we feel the effect more because we have no ships. If we had ships operating on the waters, we wont know if borders are closed or not.

Global trade

Train 7 of NLNG final investment decision has been made. We are talking about $10bn that is going to be unlocked. Out of that huge amount maybe 20 or 30 percent of it is going to involve shipping. There is no way we are not going to get $3bn from it through shipping if we have ships to participate and that will create jobs, boost the economy and the money will remain in Nigeria.

We ship owners are involved in solutions. We are also focusing on ship building. We had ship builders who attended our event and they have shown willingness to come and build ships here. If we achieve ship building in Nigeria that will be a success story for me.

What is your associations take on AfCFTA?

We are working with government to talk about how we can benefit from the African Continental Free Trade Agreement. Foreign ships plying the world are registered in African waters already. If we don’t have our own ships competing, we are going to lose out. If we are building our ships here, nobody will tell us stories. Then the Cabotage regime will work better.

There has been so much controversy on the Secured Anchorage Area for cargo liners. Has this ever bothered SOAN?

Those anchorages are harbouring ships that do not belong to Nigerians. Even if we don’t have those kinds of ships for now, we are going to have them in the future. Our position is that whatever security arrangement we are making in our waters, lets make it sustainable. It is the function of the navy to secure our waters.

I used to be an army officer and I was taught in the Nigerian Defence Academy that the navy is in charge of maritime security. The navy takes orders from the President and Commander in Chief. We all cannot be talking on an issue being handled at the highest level.

President Muhammadu Buhari has the final say on this matter. We can only approach him to tell us exactly what he wants. He is constitutionally empowered to direct the navy and the entire armed forces.