The recent pronouncement by the Transportation Minister, Rotimi Amaechi, that the federal government was not favourably disposed to continuing with the Maritime University located in Gbaramatu, Delta State, is still generating considerable controversy. Iyobosa Uwugiaren examines the untold story and the intrigues behind it
The Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, killed the joy of the people of Okerenkoko, Gbaramatu in Delta State when he stated recently that the establishment of the Nigeria Maritime University by former President Goodluck Jonathan was a misused undertaking, which the present federal government would not support.
“We are not going ahead with the Maritime University project proposed by the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) because we have an institution in Oron, we have Nigeria Institute of Transport Technology, Zaria and we have the Nigerian College of Aviation in Zaria, which we could be upgraded to a university status and NIMASA is proposing to build a new one,’’ the minister in an emotional tone stated.
He added: “Who will attend the university? How many parents will allow their children to go to such a place where it proposes to site the university? I do not think we are proceeding with the university proposed by NIMASA because it is a waste of resources.’’
Amaechi further claimed that a lot of money had already been released for the university project with no ‘’structure on ground but just the feasibility study,’’ asking whoever that is holding on to the money to return it.
But THISDAY findings are at variance with Amaechi’s outburst. To underscore the seriousness the previous government attached to the project, former President Jonathan had appointed for the institution Professor (Mrs.) Ongoebi Maureen Etebu and Mr. Anho Nathaniel Esoghene Lucky, as Vice-Chancellor and the Registrar respectively through a government publication dated May 22, 2015, and signed by the then Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Education, Dr. MacJohn Nwaobiala.
The letters of appointment issued to the two officials was with a reference number HME/FME/41/X/139, and signed by the then Minister of Education, Malam Ibrahim Shekarau dated May 26, 2015. The university is number 41 on the list of approved universities released by the National Universities Commission (NUC) in May 2015.
Also, through the Banking and Payments System Department, the Central Bank of Nigeria in a letter dated August 19, 2015 with reference number: BPS/CSO/OAGF/CON/01/86 and signed by the Director of Banking and Payments System, Dipo Fatokun, formally opened an account for the university domiciled with its (CBN) Asaba branch with the following details: Nigeria Maritime University, Okerenkoko, Delta State, Account number 0240522742016.
THISDAY checks revealed that the directive conveying the opening of the account is contained in a letter dated August 25, 2015 with reference number FD/LP2008/72A/C/I/DF and signed by the Director of Funds in the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation, M.K. Dikwa. The letter was addressed to the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Etebu.
A trip to both the temporary and permanent sites in Kurutie and Okerenkoko communities, both in Gbaramatu Kingdom, creates an attractive tincture about the controversial university. The journey of 45 minutes on Yamaha 200-horsepower engine speed boat, first berthed at the permanent site, Okerenkoko – where construction work had already commenced before Amaechi announced the cancellation of the project.
The new site of the proposed Maritime University is about three kilometres from the temporary location. The area covers about 100 hectares land, donated by the community, while the only compensation paid for were the economic trees and farmlands owned by the community.
At the site, are 12 completed buildings prior to the minister’s pronouncement; and construction of the main gate and two other structures are already at an advanced stage when THISDAY visited the site. About 20 make shift-buildings, which used to house the site workers, are now housing the heavy duty construction equipment of the contractor.
However, for the Transportation Minister, all these accomplished structures appear inadequate for the university to sail smoothly. To be sure, when Amaechi appeared before the Senate Committee on Marine Transport, headed by Senator Ahmed Sani, on January 14, 2016, to brief the Senate panel on the activities of the agencies under his supervision, he deliberately repudiated the existing structures.
But Amaechi was wrong. Hardly has he left the Senate building than he started receiving attacks by those who believed he lied through his teeth to the Senate.
For instance, a former Federal Commissioner for Information and Ijaw national leader, Chief Edwin Clark, first threw the salvo: “It is unfortunate that the Minister of Transportation, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi, has come to lie and deceive the federal government and indeed, Nigerians.’’
The elder statesman said that “Amaechi carefully avoided mentioning the take-off campus of the university in Kurutie, which boasts of competitive and acceptable standard facilities that meet NUC standard for university campus, as part of the property of NMU, Okerenkoko and for which NIMASA paid the sum of about N13 billion.’’
Clark was not alone in condemning Amaechi’s manipulation of the Senate. A former Acting Managing Director of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Mr. Power Ziakede Aginighan, called on Amaechi to retrace his step, describing his statement as an error of judgment.
Setting the records straight, the former NDDC boss said the idea of siting a tertiary educational institution in the crude oil and gas-rich Gbaramatu Kingdom in Warri South West Local Government Area of Delta State was first proposed and adopted by former President Olusegun Obasanjo-led government as a critical component in the roadmap to peace and sustainable development of the Niger Delta.
‘’For the Niger Delta and the nation in general, the advantages of having the university far outweigh every argument to the contrary. Apart from capacity building for Nigerians in the maritime industry, bringing in direct foreign investment and arresting capital flight, the Nigeria Maritime University will play a key role in the re-integration phase of the Amnesty Programme,’’ he said.
The Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), the umbrella body of Ijaw youths in the Niger Delta, also considers Amaechi’s move as provocative. In a letter jointly signed by its president and spokesperson, Messrs. Udengs Eradiri and Eric Omare, respectively and addressed to President Muhammadu Buhari protesting the minister’s decision, the group said the reasons advanced by the Minister of Transportation were not only ‘’weak, mischievous and misleading,’’ but also ‘’highly provocative and inciting.’’
But if the positions canvassed in favour of the take-off of the Maritime University by the Ijaw leaders are justifiably, ethnic induced, according to some critics, that of Hon. Reyenieju, an Itsekiri and member of the House of Representatives representing Warri, appears apt.
While addressing Ijaw and Itsekiri youths, who besieged him in Warri, the lawmaker said that the statement credited to Amaechi regarding the cancellation of the Maritime University was “provocative, vexing, insensitive and consequently unacceptable.”
He said the minister’s outburst does not possess the force of finality, saying that the House of Representatives would not allowed such “brazen arbitrariness without subjecting it to parliamentary scrutiny,” wondering why the university one of those established by the Jonathan administration “is being singled out for cancellation.”
The position of another Itsekiri scholar, Professor Tosan Harriman, not only gives potency to the lawmaker’s submission, but reinforced the need for further concern. ”The only way out of the present looming violence is for the Maritime University to take off. It will reduce criminality, stem agitation and create jobs for the people of the region,” he said.
Speaking on the development, the Secretary-General of the Federated Okerenkoko Community, Comrade Ernest Bebenimibo, expressed surprise at the fate of the Maritime University, saying the entire situation is at variance with the aspirations of the people of Gbaramatu Kingdom.
He said: ”Our position has already been stated and well known to the world. As a community, we wrote several letters to the Transportation Minister on the need for the university to take off. As far as we are concerned, there is no fraud on the issue of land as widely being speculated.
”Sometime in 2012, NIMASA approached the community on the need for land for the institution. The land, which is more than 100 hectares, was acquired through due process and the community was issued a certificate of occupancy by former Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan of Delta State.’’
Bebenimibo added that what the community needs is the reversal of the cancellation, saying their children are ready to be educated and prepared to acquire technical knowledge concerning the maritime industry. ‘’This is a clarion call and the government has a duty to show that it has the people of the Niger Delta at heart. Again, we are prepared to protect the workers of the university against any form of criminality,” he added.
At the Mieka International Diving Institute, Kurutie, which serves as the temporary site of the Maritime University, the architect who designed the project, Architect Piniki Azaiye, conducted some journalists round the site, saying he conceptualised the project and built it to its present status.
He said that the institute, which was originally owned by Chief Government Ekpemupolo, (Tompolo) before it was taken over by the federal government, had planned to train divers of international standard.
”At the inception, Mieka Dives Limited had a plan to train world class divers who will be useful to both the maritime and oil sectors,’’ he stated. ‘’But, when the idea of the Maritime University came up, and the federal government approached us to take over the school, we entered into all necessary deeds and we handed over to the federal government.’’
The designer of the project added: ”You people have seen the structures on ground and it is left from you to judge whether the N13 billion the Transportation Minister is talking about is just for land. How possible is it for anybody to build these high rising structures on this swampy area without first reclaiming the land?
He said that the issue of reclamation came in because the site used to be swamp of about 12 hectares that was reclaimed with over N6 billion, adding that the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) did a similar job in a smaller expanse of land at the cost of N9 billion in Gbaramatu Kingdom.
‘’Again, the reclamation is about 1.5 high on the surface, meaning that we went really deep in excavation works,’’ the designer of the project further stated.
Beside the reclamation work, Azaiye disclosed that the cost of transporting building materials to the area is three times of the actual cost.
He added: ”If for instance, 100 bags of cement cost N150,000, you will need an additional N270,000 to transport that quantity, it means you are spending N370,000 on 100 bags of cement.
‘’So for those who know what it costs to build a house, while a three-bedroom bungalow costs N15 million to build in Warri metropolis, a similar one here costs N45 million.’’
Also speaking on the fate of the university, the Managing Director of Mieka Dives Limited, Mr. Keston Pondicherry, said that the company had a partnership with the Nigerian Navy to set up an international diving outfit.
Pondicherry said NIMASA later approached them for the use of the place and in the process, NIMASA, the Ministry of Transportation and Mieka Dives did their valuations separately, saying the federal government later sent the company a letter that it would pay the sum of N13 billion.
‘’So why should I be called a criminal for selling my own property? Not just that all the documentations are there in the Ministry of Transportation. So, Amaechi should stop playing hate and inciting politics but look at the records. Was it a virgin land that was sold to the federal government?
”Some people say the place is too far for an institution. But it is not far in terms of oil exploitation; this is disheartening and the earlier the federal government listens to the voice of reason, the better for all of us in this country. University has a natural tendency to bring development,’’ he noted.
The buildings in the expansive yard in the Maritime University include, a storey building housing the VC’s office and its supporting staff. Others include offices for the Registrar, Bursar, HoDs, Deans, Account department, boardroom, conference room, general offices and other ancillary offices, all furnished.
The structures also include, the 1,200 capacity ceremonial pavilion, a nine-bed medical centre with a digital laboratory – the laboratory is yet to be furnished all the same; a workshop block, classroom block, which is a storey building with 12 classrooms; two canteens, an e-learning centre and a 200 capacity lecture auditorium fully furnished.
Also there are two hostel blocks, a storey building, each meant to accommodate about 300 students, both furnished; a Library building with two archives; librarian office and two reading areas that can accommodate about 60 students at a peak time, as well as a fully furnished storey building with offices that can accommodate about 45 lecturers.
There is also the well-furnished University Guest House; a three-floor building of nine rooms for the university senior staff, aside two blocks for middle level and junior staff. And there is a separate three- bed room duplex for the VC.
Apart from an Olympic-size-swimming pool that is 11m wide and 45m in length, there are two separate diving tanks – one is an open air diving tank of 8m in depth and the other one is enclosed in a building 10m depth, and both are ready for use.
In spite of the progress made in term of structures, there are signs that the university is already contending with ethnic challenges. Former Delta Waterways Security Chairman and renowned Niger Delta activist, Chief Ayiri Emami, recently lambasted those calling for the immediate take-off of Nigeria Maritime University.
“How do you expect parents and guardians to send their wards to school in an environment that has over the years been associated with violent attacks, illegal oil bunkering and pipeline vandalism, traits that are associated with people who are terrorists,’’ he queried.
”Let me make it very clear, I am not against the Nigeria Maritime University coming on stream, but I can’t imagine innocent Nigerian citizens across the country and beyond, becoming endangered species, surrounded by people who easily take up arms without provocation.’’
Emami claimed that the day the militants do not get access to vandalise pipelines they would resort to kidnapping of staff and students of the NMU, saying afterall, the kidnap of 14 media practitioners and six Ugborodo indigenes by the militants several months ago, is still fresh in the minds of the people.
He said the militants had only succeeded in exposing their terrorists’ tendencies and confirmed the fear that the land whose acquisition is a subject of criminal investigation, is not suitable to host such an institution.
He further argued that it was a ploy by those behind the renewed bombing of pipelines in the Niger Delta to make the Maritime University bait for terrorists’ demand that informed their decision to change the original location of the institution from Koko in Warri North Local Government Area, with existing facilities and conducive environment, to the present location.
The proposal for the establishment of the Maritime University suffered a setback recently as the Bill supporting it brought by Senator James Manager (PDP), Delta Central Senatorial District, failed on the floor of the Senate.
Manager had explained that the establishment of Maritime University would produce manpower in the maritime industry, a situation that past administration couched on in order to come up with the said proposal.
‘’A Bill for an Act to establish the Maritime University of Nigeria, Okerenkoko and for other matters connected therein,” Manager had stated.
But Senator Dino Melaye representing Kogi West Senatorial District, would not hear of that. He was the first to shut down the proposal, maintaining that it would have been proper for the existing Nigeria Maritime Academy, Oron in Akwa Ibom to be upgraded instead of establishing a new one.
Similarly, Binta Mashi posited that the terrain of the proposed university was unsuitable, noting that it was improper to take a boat and travel on waters for 30 minutes before reaching the place.
Senator Nelson Effiong, Akwa Ibom South Senatorial District, in his contribution, reminded the Senate that the Maritime Academy at Oron, which is situated in his senatorial district, have trained Seafarers in the last 30 years of its existence, was approved by former President Jonathan; and that it has since been with the National Universities Commission.
He advised the federal government to work on the approval in order to upgrade rather than starting fresh one stating economic reasons.
‘’The National Maritime Academy at Oron has been operating for 30 years and based on the track record, former President Jonathan approved its upgrade to a university status and the approval has been with NUC,” Effiong stated.
On his part, the senator representing Kaduna Central Senatorial District, Shehu Sani, envisaged security challenges because of the isolation of the environment, stressing that Oron should be upgraded. ‘’A university need serene and peaceful environment and this one cannot be situated in Okerenkoko,” Sani argued.
Former Governor of Akwa Ibom State and Minority Leader of the Senate, Godswill Akpabio, revealed that his administration did relocate land owners with compensation following government’s willingness to upgrade Maritime Academy at Oron. He reasoned that the Academy, which has trained professionals in maritime industry, should be allowed a degree awarding status.
When it became obvious that the Bill had suffered Setback, Manager withdrew the Bill, promising that it would be represented at the appropriate time.