Seventeen years after the Cabotage Act was enacted during the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria is yet to earn the real benefits the law was intended to bring to the country, which includes boosting inland waterways transportation and trade along the coasts of Niger and Benue rivers. These are the two major inland water bodies with potential to make significant contributions to the growth of the economy and development of the hinterland, as well as reduce pressure on the interstate road network.
In this interview, Mr. Ajuzie Osondu, a fast rising legal practitioner and author of the first comprehensive book on the Nigerian perspective of maritime law practice, who is keenly interested in pushing the growth of inland waterways transportation through facilitation of the Cabotage Vessel Finance Fund, gives insight on what needs to be done.
You recently published a book on maritime law. Tell me a bit about the book?
The book is entitled: Modern Maritime Law and Practice in Nigeria, and published by the University of Lagos Press. Maritime law has a special practice, which we call admiralty jurisdiction, and for that reason maritime matters are adjudicated on in the Admiralty Court, which is a specialised Federal High Court. Really, all federal high courts have a special section called the admiralty jurisdiction which handles maritime matters. For instance, if somebody in Owerri, Imo State capital, imported a container and an issue came up about it, the person can institute an action about it at the Federal High Court in Owerri. Maritime law is on the exclusive legislative list, state high courts have no jurisdiction over admiralty matters, because they deal with international trade and are considered as urgent matters; to avoid the congestion in courts, that is why admiralty courts were established to fast-track and give priority to adjudication on maritime matters, so as not to impede international trade.
What informed your decision to write a book on this particular aspect of law?
Maritime Law is a very important part of the Nigerian economy, and has largely been untapped. Moreover, there is scarcity of books in this area, especially those that focus on the Nigerian experience in maritime law and practice. You don’t find books written by Nigerian authors in this area. Most of the books you find on maritime law were written by foreigners, mainly British and American authors who approach the issues from their perspective, and for that reason the contents do not cover the Nigerian experience. Moreover, those books are outrageously costly, ranging from N25,000 to N30,000 or more, and yet they are deficient in terms of Nigerian statutory provisions and case law. They can give you a general idea about maritime law but are not too relevant to the Nigerian situation, in that they severely lack the Nigerian institutional and domestic provisions. Seeing this yawning gap in Nigerian legal knowledge, I decided to write the book on Modern Maritime Law and Practice in Nigeria, which primarily focused on the Nigerian maritime jurisdiction and industry.
How long did it take you to do the research and ultimately write the book?
It has taken a long time. I finished writing it in 2015, but I did not want to publish it in a hurry. I have been reviewing it since then. After writing the book I went to do a specialised Master’s degree programme on Maritime and Commercial Law, to make me more grounded in knowledge in this field, and be able to compare what I had written with what obtains in actual practice. Based on the deeper and broader knowledge I gained from my second and specialised Master’s degree programme, I was able to further enrich the book as I continued to review and improve on the contents, to make the book really rich and appropriately cover the topic it deals with adequately, bring it up-to-date and in line with what currently obtains in maritime practice. So, the review process has been on for five years from 2015 till now, 2020.
Did you subject the manuscript to review by your peers in law and legal practice, to evaluate and make relevant input?
Yes, some of my colleagues with who I took the special postgraduate course in maritime law were able to review it and found it to be a very relevant material on maritime law.
Looking at the Nigerian maritime situation how do you feel? Are we taking full advantage of the laws to grow the Nigerian economy?
One of the most important laws in the maritime sector is the Cabotage Act 2003, and the purpose of the act is to ensure that Nigerian entrepreneurs in the shipping industry are given advantage over foreigners. That law makes it mandatory that no foreigners participate in coastal trade which covers maritime transportation within Nigeria for both passengers and goods. Take for instance, somebody boarding a suitable vessel at the Onitsha River Port and going through the River Niger to Burutu, Lokoja and some other places along the Niger. That kind of transportation is restricted to Nigerians under the Cabotage Act, and to be carried out by Nigerian seafarers using Nigerian owned, Nigerian-built vessels. The essence is to create employment, significantly improve on ship building technology, deepen knowledge and expertise in this field and ultimately grow the economy. Unfortunately that is not the state of things today. The law is not being implemented as intended at the time it was enacted by the Olusegun Obasanjo administration, because the waiver provision in the law has made nonsense of the law itself and defeated the purpose on the enactment.
Cabotage Act has witnessed the administrations of Obasanjo, Yar’Adua, Jonathan and now Muhammadu Buhari – a total period of 17 years. Isn’t that enough time for Nigeria to produce seafarers and be able to build suitable vessels to actualise the intent and purpose of the Cabotage Act?
Well, to some extent, we are producing seafarers. For instance, Nigeria Maritime and Safety Administration (NIMASA) has been providing scholarships to enable some Nigerians to train as seafarers. Again, there is the Cabotage Vessel Financing Fund (CVFF), established under the Cabotage Act, which is intended to enhance Nigerian’s involvement in shipping and coastal trade. It is not a federal government fund. Rather the funds are contributed by stakeholders in the Nigerian maritime industry. The pool of funds is supposed to provide loans, to assist Nigerian shipping entrepreneurs to acquire vessels. What I expect is that as Nigerian seafarers are being trained by NIMASA and the Nigeria Maritime Academy, Oron, Cross River State, shipping entrepreneurs ought to be able to get loans under the Cabotage Vessel Financing Fund at very low interest rates to acquire ships and other maritime vessels that would provide employment opportunities for indigenous seafarers. Considering the state of our roads, conveying goods from the coastal ports to the hinterland of the country would have offered a viable alternative to the use of trucks which damage the roads. This would have helped the inland waterways transportation industry to grow, by use of suitably sized barges that can convey tens of containers from the ports of discharge in Lagos, Port Harcourt and Warri to the hinterland. This would generate revenue for the government and create employment for Nigerian seafarers. Proper implementation of the Cabotage Act would have grown the economy very significantly. Today, the Onitsha River Port built by the Shehu Shagari Administration would have been bubbling with activity and reduced of importation of goods into the South East. The same would have applied to the Lokoja inland port at the Niger-Benue confluence. Everybody knows that the South East is very active in international trade. So when people talk about the marginalisation of the Southeast geopolitical zone, you begin to see why there is a lamentation in this regard by the people of the zone.
As a Nigerian who desires what is good for the country, I am not happy with the state of affairs in the Maritime Industry and particularly with respect to the stagnation of the vessel financing fund, which is being affected by the well-known Nigerian Factor. The purpose of the Cabotage Act is to encourage Nigerian entrepreneurs and grow the economy, but that has not been happening for 17 years – 2003 till now. It is a very sad situation.
In 2015, the All Progressives Congress (APC) promised Nigerians ‘Change’ and in 2019, the party said it would take Nigeria to the ‘Next Level’. If you were to meet President Buhari and Minister of Transportation Rotimi Amaechi, seated together, what would you tell them, eyeball to eyeball, concerning this issue of using the Cabotage Act and CVFF to grow inland waterways transportation?
I would strongly advice, in fact I would tell them point blank to wake up and mobilise the ingenuity of Nigerians, to build barges and other suitable vessels for inland transportation because it is a better and cheaper alternative to transportation of containerised goods on the roads from Lagos to Onitsha and other hinterland. Vessels can carry much more weight than trucks. Consider the damage to roads because of heavy truck traffic and carnage. Yes we have large network of roads and this increases the cost of maintenance. Apart from occasional dredging, you do not maintain the river as it were. River transportation will bring development to communities along the course of the river. Look at it this way: Obolo Afor, Umunede, Ore, Lokoja junction and some other communities have grown economically because they became major stop-over points for intercity passengers and truck drivers. The same thing can begin to happen in some key communities along the course of the River Niger and River Benue as agro-produce trading points begin to emerge and expand. That is how you grow the hinterland. If you recall, the old Royal Niger Company, which later became United African Company (UAC), had major agro-produce buying points located at notable railway stations in farming hubs. The same can happen for inland water transportation through the facilitation of CVFF loans invested in building and acquiring suitable vessels and employment of well-trained Nigerian seafarers that can man the vessels along the coastal and inland waterways. In fact, I expect the governors of the Niger Delta states to show interest in this and use it to achieve some form of socio-economic engineering in their areas.