By AYO ALONGE
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Top Express Marine Services Limited, Captain David Ebobra, laments poor management of the country’s maritime sector and the tendency to ignore its huge potential in this interview.
According to Ebobra, the sector can generate huge revenue for the country, as is the case in Liberia, especially if Cabotage Law is enforced in the system. He fields other questions of economic importance too.
What impact did you hope to make in the maritime sector, when you incorporated your company?
I grew up in an environment where everybody is a mariner. My dad was a sailor and I learnt from him. I took up the challenge on my own to grow from being a private sailor to an international sailor. I went to Holland and UK to acquire knowledge in sailing. That is why I am now enjoying part of my father’s legacy as a master mariner. My foreign certificates are there and are for professionalism in terminal operations. That was how I incorporated my company, Top Express Marine Services Limited. Initially, we used to have only foreigners but today, we can do it ourselves. As I speak, I have trained more than six Nigerians to be international mariners too and we are the first Nigerian company to do such.
How long have you been in business?
Initially, we were running End Maritime Services for over 15 years. The experience has spanned over 30 years now. We later introduced Top Express and we have six expatriates working with us. They are all master mariners and Britons. We also have few Nigerians. Most of our clients are foreigners.
Does it mean that your company is not looking locally for you to employ more of indigenes and even have more of foreign clients, as you said?
We look locally but it’s just that, like an adage says, whenever you have a native doctor in your house, you don’t value him. The outsiders are the ones enjoying the native doctors. Nigerians didn’t take us seriously and they kept calling foreigners. The same foreigners are now the ones calling us to help them execute marine jobs now.
Can we say that the maritime sector in the country is yet to be fully developed and there’s potential yet to be tapped maximally?
No, the marine sector in Nigeria is developing but it is just that we don’t believe in ourselves. We believe in foreigners. Most people here would even like to give jobs to foreigners; maybe to beat the malpractices involved dealing with our own. When a Nigerian gives you a job, you may be heading to court just to retrieve your money from him.
How do we convince people to believe in made in Nigeria products and services?
Made in Nigeria should be recognized in Nigeria. Will you be happy if I have to call a journalist from Togo or Cotonou to come and report an event or story for me? Let’s learn to use our people here and stop inviting foreigners. I may have to call over 40 marine captains for employment, while so many expatriates get all the jobs here. Why?
That is probably because the Nigerian business environment is not friendly enough for businesses to thrive. Do you believe so too?
If the Nigerian business environment is not conducive enough, why do foreigners keep trooping in? It’s just that we have this nonsense chemistry that pollutes the system, where people don’t like to help their brothers, but foreigners. We have a strong influence on Nigerians and that is why we employ both indigenous and foreign mariners. The fact is that we want to prove a point that we have the potential and capacity to employ the entire Europe, if we recognize our own people who specialize on the job. As a company, after importation, we do the ship-to- ship to lighten the bigger ones.
Do you also believe that government owns the bulk of the blame for the poor state of the economy today?
How many oil wells do we have and who are the owners? They are Nigerians who partner with foreigners in the capacity of financing. The foreign partner you are bringing would like to bring his own people so that nobody would dupe him in Nigeria. The maritime industry is growing very rapidly but for some few greedy elements.
What do you mean by ‘greedy elements’ in the maritime sector?
Very good! When you are paid and you don’t want to pay your own workers. You are even eating the commission of the brokers. That is why you now see that over 80 percent of our vessels are going down due to greed. In Europe, someone would just be in the comfort of his room as a broker and connect over 50 persons. All what he does is get his own commission. In Nigeria, it is never the case.
How do we save Nigerian vessels, which you said, “are going down”?
Let us have a forum where we can dialogue, so that the greedy ones would be given a better orientation on the whole system. We have so many vessels in Nigeria but they are all dead. So many are dead, because there is no job for them, because I won’t like to give you a job and you eat my money. I would like to go get someone who won’t eat up my money.
What are the key roles of NIMASA in the area of regulating maritime activities effectively?
NIMASA is not doing its job. If it were, all Nigerians would benefit.
Could you highlight these ‘jobs’ they are supposed to be doing and how Nigerians can benefit?
We have a Cabotage Law, which states that a vessel carrying the Nigerian flag must have at least 70 percent Nigerian staff. When you get to the waterside, you can see a vessel with the Nigerian flag and everybody in there is a foreigner.
Is that really so?
Yes, I can count more than 15 vessels like that.
What are you stakeholders doing to address that anomaly?
By the time you report that to NIMASA, you become the enemy, while the Whites are left alone.
Would you compare our maritime sector here to that of any country of your choice?
Let NIMASA enforce the Cabotage Law, which states that the majority in a vessel must be Nigerians. If you go to a vessel, it may interest you to see that everybody, including the head of caterers and head of cleaners are all foreigners, even the safety officer and marine superintendent are all foreigners.
How can government address that?
I was talking to a friend who is a Whiteman. We were abroad and he said “Captain David, do you know the solution to the problem of your country? Do what Ghana has done.” Corruption will keep going up and not come down, until we do the needful.
What is the potential worth of our maritime sector, if the system is properly managed?
The maritime sector is one of the best resources that can generate huge income. Maritime money comes in daily. In Liberia, the only source of income is vessel registration and that is what makes them progress till tomorrow. How many vessels register in Nigeria and where is the money going? It is not going to be automatic but gradual.
What is the future like for the maritime sector of this country?
The future is so bright for us. Every year, our students graduate from maritime schools all over the world and the future is just so bright for us.
Is your company planning to go into the oil sector since both oil and maritime are complementary to an extent?
We are also an oil servicing company but we don’t sell petroleum products per se.