'WHY NIGERIANS ARE PROTESTING FUEL SUBSIDY REMOVAL'
As the opposition for the removal of fuel subsidy gathered momentum, a former member of the House of Representatives and immediate past President of the Freight Fowarders Council of Nigeria, Chief Tony Nwabunike, has said that government's action should have been better appreciated if some facilities had been put in place.
He urges President Goodluck Jonathan to prove that he is different from his predecessors, while speaking on reforms in the maritime sector and other things.
What is your take on the ongoing reforms of ports?
Yes, I believe that the government is sincere because if you see what is going on in the ports you will know that the minister of finance is truly committed to the reforms. For making sure that agencies that have no business being in the ports are sent packing is a good development. I give you an example. The minister came and said that there will be reforms and right now that this is taking place. About 4,500 containers have been evacuated from the port. And as I said security agencies that are not supposed to operate at the ports have been asked to leave. So for the first time I can see the genuineness of government to cleanse our ports.
Some ports workers have been accusing the minister of not carrying professionals along in the reforms. Should that be taken as a baseless claim?
Yes, this has been one of the complaints of experts in the sector. And truly speaking, most times government embarks on this type of reforms without seeing the sense in working with professionals. I strongly believe that government should not dismiss such claim; experts should be used if it must succeed. It is the person that wears the shoe that knows where it pinches. If the reforms must succeed, experts in the maritime industry must be involved. That is how it is done world over.
There are people who believe that the incumbent administration lacks the political will to trample on toes, which reform of ports entails, have you any evidence to controvert this claim?
No, no I think the government has. If you look at what is happening all over the world you will agree with me that Nigeria has no choice but to key into what is happening globally in the maritime industry. Two years ago Nigeria freight forwarders were welcome into FIATA. Nigeria joined the world cargo association etc. Nigerian Maritime and Security Services has joined the world body. What I am trying to say is that it is a global thing. Nigeria has the capacity and wherewithal to play a role globally.
What we should concern ourselves with the sincerity and commitment of people that government will use in the reform; that is where I have problem with the reform. Government using cronies will take us backwards. We have to have the courage to use professionals. As I told, if freight forwarders are in FIATA, Nigerian shipping companies belong to world association and Nigerian Cargo Alliances in WCA, I think we have enough professionals to be used; we have people who know what is obtained worldwide. If you use professionals, people will know that it is no longer business as usual in the maritime sector.
Let me tell you if the maritime sector is well managed, it is even more lucrative than oil. Nigeria has not been able to generate enough revenue from the sector because successive governments neglected the sector. There are a lot of financial benefits associated with the maritime sector. The volume of trade that goes on in the maritime sector can help any economy. Maritime encompasses many things: oil services, cargo business, jetties etc; we can generate any amount of money we want from there.
We are losing billions of dollars that would have accrued to our economy to negligence and sheer corruption. If government can divorce politics and nepotism and choose professionals to work with, they will see that maritime industry is a goldmine, that we can use the revenue that come from there to handle our infrastructural challenges.
Do you support suggestion by Olisa Agbakoba that the removed fuel subsidy should be returned and that government should raise whatever money it wants from the maritime sector. Can the sector raise the type of money government is looking for?
I totally agree with Olisa Agbakoba. He knows what he is talking about because he has been in this industry for a long time. He is a maritime lawyer. He is a senior advocate of Nigeria. Remember that he is the brain behind cabotage and unfortunately till date government has not allowed cabotage law to function. That man knows what it takes to be there; he knows that Nigeria is sitting on billions of dollars. The cabotage alone will fetch the country a lot of money if implemented to the fullest. But government does not want to look inward; it has not used what it has to get what it wants. What does the government have? This nation has manpower, professionals that can effectively help maximally make use of ports. It is not about somebody claiming to be a professor and at the end some people take advantage of his ignorance to rip off the nation. Government should be sincere and bold enough to use professionals to reform the ports.
There is so much money in the maritime sector. Now, will you talk about oil and gas without talking about maritime.? Oil and gas are imported; the question is how is their duty being paid? Who regulates them? Who monitors what operators are doing in the ports.? Who monitors the vessels? So Agbakoba knows exactly what he is saying. When you talk about cabotage how many vessels today are indigenous? Even the foreign ones, how many flags in Nigeria are they flagging. They have ministerial wavers. All the cartels that call themselves shipping companies are siphoning our money and making things difficult for our nation. They make the money and take the money to their countries, leaving our economy to bleed.
Have there been attempts to bring this to the notice of government officials by maritime operators?
Government has always been aware of this. What they normally do is to bring in a Nigerian who is probably a retired General and make him chairman of the company. The billions and trillions of dollars they make are taken away; they don't reinvest it in Nigeria. Everybody knows that there is so much capital flight here. Government knows the problem, but it's not prepared to look inward. As I told you, it is merely scratching the surface.
Where do you stand on the recent removal of fuel subsidy?
The removal of fuel subsidy should not be a bad thing, but I believe certain things ought to have been in place before government takes the step. If you remove oil subsidy it is not a problem, but how do you plough back the revenue that will accrue from it into critical areas? The money should be given back to the people. If people see the tangible thing government has done I don't think much eyebrow would be raised. The problem we have now is that people do not trust government; people know that so much money has come the way of successive governments and it was mismanaged by officials. They know that their money has never been used to advance their cause.
Realistically speaking, Nigerians have not been enjoying anything from oil subsidy, only few individuals, members of the cabals are the ones using the money for themselves. If government will be sincere this time to use the money for the people I will say let it go; we will suffer the pain a little while. If the revenue is prudently used the benefits are enormous.
The protests you see people staging are based on failed promises in the past; people are transferring their anger; they feel that government is not sincere. Beyond oil subsidy, you and I know that governments, in the past, never fulfilled their promises to the people. I may not be holding brief for Jonathan, but I think that he looks like some one who is ready to make a change. I think he deserves to be given the benefit of doubt; let's see how he will manage the revenue that will come from the subsidy removal.
My advice to the President is to work hard to restore people's confidence in government; it is very important.
What do you make of the argument that the removal of the subsidy was ill-timed, that government should have focused on security?
I think security should be paramount; world over, every government pays attention to security. Government allocating so much to security means that it is taking it serious; it should work harder to address the current insecurity in the country. That is very important. Everybody should be involved in this security issue. We should all come together to stop this madness in the country.