Former Managing Director of Nigerian Shippers Council, Dr. Kingsley Usoh, is credited with many of the pioneering efforts in the NSC, including sending the council personnel for training on board vessels owned by the defunct Nigerian National Shipping Line Limited; and building of an imposing and magnificent multi-storeyed building, ‘Shippers Plaza’ which presently serves as the corporate headquarters of NSC in Apapa, Lagos. A trained maritime expert, Usoh who was born in Mbieri, Imo State, obtained his first and second degrees in the United Kingdom, including a Master’s degree in Transport Engineering and Operations from the University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. He was head of the Nigerian delegation to the World Trade Organisation to negotiate trade in services between 1995 and 1996 and to the United Nations’ Conference on Trade and Development in 1980. An author of several books on transport industry and current the Chairman CARIX Shipping Company Limited, Usoh tells John Iwori about his time at the NSC among other issues
How was it like in the early days of Nigerian Shippers Council?
I took over from Dr. Ekong and Chief Adebayo Sarumi took over from me just as Captain Adamu Biu took over from Chief Adebayo Sarumi, and Mr. Hassan Bello took over from Captain Adamu Biu. It was tough because many things that the present workforce in the council takes for granted were not in place. We were not many; to ensure we met our mandate, we embarked on a lot of training and re-training. In fact, I trained over 40 people. While doing that, I also improved myself by acquiring more knowledge. In the course of carrying out my responsibilities as the Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Nigerian Shippers Council, I did my Ph.D. With all the information coming into my desk as the helmsman of the council, I was taking what I needed to write my Ph.D. right there on my table. People got their Master’s degrees and insurance qualifications. Accountants did freight accounting.
There are certain issues people do not realise. As a staff of the council, we must know what the commercial banks, freight forwarders, shipping companies and ports authority are doing. As NSC personnel, we must know what each of them are doing and then put all these things together and see where they hurt importers and exporters. We always come in to solve problems so that the business of importing and exporting in the country will go on smoothly. We will know what the farmers suffer bringing his goods from the farm to the market.
Because if we do not solve the problems, he won’t make profit of the labour he has put into his farming. That is what we are talking about. You have to understand the dynamic of the business of shipping in order to know exactly what to do. At a certain stage, I have to send some of my staff to be on board the National Shipping Line Limited (NNSL) vessels in the sea for years. This places them in a vantage position to get the requisite experience and exposure as well as know what the ships and crew members do in the ports, how many days they spend, what are the delays and so on.
This is because when we are negotiating with ship owners or other shipping practitioners, all these things come to play. This is due to the fact that any delay or loss they make, they will build them into freight cost for the next voyage and you have to know whether these things exist or not. This was how we built up the manpower then which now forms the main strength of Nigeria Shippers Council today. In fact, this makes the Nigerian Shippers Council to stand tall among other Federal Ministry of Transportation parastatals in terms of manpower. The council might be poor in terms of making revenue, but it has quality staff. They can challenge the bankers, ship owners, shipping lines and other shipping practitioners on their charges. They can also challenge the policeman on the road on why he is detaining or stopping any consignment, as well as oil companies on the rate on their premium on goods in transit. In short, they can challenge anybody on anything they do in the cargo clearance chain. Nevertheless in the other parastatals, this is not the case. That is why the council has a gazette from the Federal Government as the economic regulator.
You mentioned the fact that some of the things the NSC has on the ground, such as the Shipper Plaza, were achieved during your tenure. Can you shed more light on this?
I built the Shippers Plaza in 1984; it worth N13.9 billion. It was in audited account of 1984. I left behind N3.6 billion aside cash that was outside. I come from a business family. That is why when I went to school, I did not only study maritime, I did business. I did ACCA to second stage. I later backed out and continue with my maritime and transportation. So I understood what investment is all about and how I can get it but as the boss, I do not have to be the director of everything. I have to get qualified people to work with me. This is because I like people to argue with me. I do not like yes-men. I like someone who holds a contrary opinion with facts and figures to argue with me. When we finish the arguments, we shake hands because we have got the right perspective. It makes me to be sure I am doing the right thing.
What do you enjoy doing?
I like cooking. Even till today, I still cook in my house. Besides, I am a practical person. I still do basic things. I also have a belief and philosophy. The day the biggest millionaire dies, he goes into six feet (grave). This is also applicable to the poorest person. Since the biggest millionaire and the poorest person, all end up in the grave at the end of their sojourn on earth, what is the difference? If you cannot help yourself, your house-boy might think that if he stops working for you, his boss will suffer and once they know you can do the things they think you cannot do, then they will be very serious with the job you give to them. Even when I was in Nigerian Shippers Council and sometimes when I get to the office and cleaners are cleaning, maybe mopping, I did not only tell them the right way to do it but also demonstrated it practically by doing it myself. For instance, if I came across any of them mopping the floor using a mop that was dirty, that did not get the floor clean. However, if you use a clean mop and water, you get a better result. Therefore, if I saw them doing it wrongly, I pulled up my trousers and take over from them and showed them how to do it.
What other things did you achieve while heading the NSC?
During my tenure as the CEO of Nigerian Shippers Council, I made it possible for all staff to go on training on board vessels and the ministry approved it. As a result, be it a cleaner or driver as long as you are a worker of the council, it is mandatory for you to go on training programmes. These training programmes gave the workers broad knowledge of what they are doing. It was during my tenure that the account of the NSC began to be insured. My background and experience made me to understand the importance of insuring one’s assets. Therefore, all Nigerian Shippers Council assets, I ensured that they were insured.
Presently, there is a bill before the National Assembly called National Transport Commission which seeks to make one of the parastatals in the Federal Ministry of Transportation act as the economic regulator in the maritime industry. Do you see the NSC as a possible regulator in that regard?
When you look at our country over the years when things like that come out, everybody’s looking for what to benefit. People do not see what it will take to do the job. They dwell mainly on what they stand to benefit. Those who are saying that Nigerian Shippers Council is not fit are economical with the truth. The other parastatals they are mouthing how trained are their manpower? Are we going to start training their staff? Take note that Nigerian Shippers Council has been doing a job that is almost the same thing as the ones outlined in the proposed bill. Why can’t we learn from our mistakes and do what is right? I am not saying give it to the council, Nigerian Ports Authority or the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency. But let us do a little bit of auditing of the manpower you required in running an efficient National Transport Commission. This is vital due to the fact that maritime transportation is the key to any economy. If there is a default anywhere, the economy cannot grow or stand. I strongly believe that if we get it right, transport industry can give us the much needed income or revenue we are looking for. If the National Assembly wants to do a proper job on the bill, let it do its homework and hand the commission to the right parastatal with the right calibre of persons.
Did your background play a role in being successful while heading NSC?
To an extent, I can say yes. I am an engineer. I am also a maritime economist and businessman. I have a Ph.D. I am a fellow of the Institute of Transport, London chapter. I know a bit better than the average Nigerian. But we do not listen. We do not read. Everybody runs after money as if when they die, they will carry it along to the grave. Transportation is my passion. So many people think I am just a maritime practitioner. They know little or nothing of the other aspects of me. I have written a book on the Nigerian maritime economy, freight, logistics, among other things. The history is not the same and I propose in mathematical formula how they will use it to sure that we can make a change. It is my formula.
You left the NSC 20 years ago. What keeps you going?
I am a technocrat, not a politician. Anything that troubles you in transportation industry, I will try to think how to solve it; that is the driving force. The rate of accidents we have on our roads, I try to capture it. I make suggestions on how to reduce it. Where are they coming from? Nobody knows the Federal Roads Safety Corps’ faults but we see them every day. Transportation is important to every one of us. It is life itself. It is due to the fact that transportation is something we cannot do without. By the way, transportation includes movement from one place to another because you are transporting yourself either by walking or other means. My submission is that whatever mode of transport you are using, let us make it to be without any friction. This is due to the fact when there is no form of friction, it is easier and cost-effective for everyone. This is the only way everything will go smoothly as obtainable in advanced countries. We must make sure that we execute policies and programmes in the transportation industry that at the end of the day, our children and children’ children, will say long after we have gone that our forefathers tried their best to give us a befitting transportation that works.
How do you relax?
I can watch football from now to dawn because I played for this country. I played once in a day. I was Port Authority goalkeeper. I read sometimes. At times, I see myself as an idiot if I do not understand how to solve a problem so that I can argue and make a point.
You have written many books. What gives you inspiration to write those books?
I get my inspiration from my area of competence. That is the transportation industry. This is one of the reasons why virtually all my books are on various aspects of transportation. People are stealing from my books. Take note, the people stealing from my books are not ordinary persons. They are very important people. This is one of the reasons I am not bothered; as long as I know I can render to my people, I am okay. This is due to the fact that the average black man does not read. If you want to hide anything, put it in a book for a black man. We are averse to the written word. As long as it is written in a book, it will remain hidden there. An average black man or Nigerian in particular, will not bother to read. In short, except it is for examination purpose, a great number of black men or Nigerians will not read anything written in a book. So let it be that I am doing this thing so that when we are gone, our children who will see the problems of transportation that we leave behind and will not be bereft of ideas of how to tackle them. When they turn around and read these books, they will have an insight into what we passed through at our time.
They will say why is it that our parents did not see these things the way we are seeing it with a view to finding a lasting solution. Many of them will castigate us but one day some of them will see that somebody told them the solutions to these problems in a book and nobody listened. That is why our universities should sit up and do research to better our society. The universities and other tertiary institutions should no longer be a place where students come to study and be given certificates that have little or no bearing with our state of development as a country. In the future, I envisage, one should stay in the university more than six years. You do not just do first degrees and graduate but you will continue to study up to Ph.D. So many people in the developed world are already doing that. We need to catch up fast. We are lagging behind. There is another aspect of it; it is an issue of having patience to wait for the manifestation of your efforts. For example, when you want to bake bread; you put flour in the oven after mixing it properly. You do not take the outcome of the flour which is the bread from where you put it into the oven. You go to the other side of the oven to take it out. At the other side, the bread is done and you can now eat it as food. But in our clime, they prefer the bread half done because patience is a problem for an average Nigerian.