Greg Ogbeifun: Onne is Now a Mortuary of Ships

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Managing Director/CEO of Starzs Marine and Engineering Limited, Mr Greg Ogbeifun

Chief Greg Ogbeifun is the former President, Ship Owners Association of Nigeria and Chairman/Chief Executive Officer, Starz Investments Company Limited. In an interview with Chris Paul, he speaks about the sorry state of the shipping industry in Nigeria; how the crash in oil prices globally and COVID-19 pandemic are killing off Nigerian Shipping investments, with Onne as the mortuary, where they are buried. With the coming Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AFCTA), Ogbeifun is saddened that Nigerian Maritime sector may be missing in action. Government policies and stifling of Nigerian players in the sector, literally breaks his heart. How do they compete against their foreign counterpart? He would wonder. His personal experience, illustrates the tragic plight of his colleagues in the business.

As you know the economy was heading to a tailspin when the COVID-19 pandemic hit us. Now, with the second wave coming hard on economies, how is the Maritime industry managing itself at this time?

It has been with extreme difficulty, understandably so, the Maritime industry is not alone in the effect of the pandemic; virtually every economy and government. as well, have felt the effect of the pandemic. The first thing is to protect the human beings, who are the workforce in the sector. The Seafarers are the most hit because they have to live in a confined environment of the ship and so they are all vulnerable to the virus if one person is infected. That is something to contend with; therefore the first thing to ensure is that before the Crew is sent on board is that they certified free of the infection. If you look at our own Shipping sector, particularly upstream of the industry, working with the Oil and Gas; the peculiar type of boats and ships we use, we now have to quarantine the Crew for seven days. After which they are tested and if found negative they are sent on board. Where they are found positive, we bring in the NCDC to take them to the respective centres for treatment.

So, what that means is that you are keeping Crew for seven days who are not working, but you have to pay them; and that extra cost is borne by the ship owner. You don’t have a palliative arrangement in place whereby, that extra cost is recognised by the client and compensated. So, that is a burden on every ship owner. Then when the Crew come off the ship as well, we have to test them before we allow them to go home. If they are negative, they are allowed to go home and if they are positive they are taken to the isolations centres to be treated before they are allowed to go home.

Now, you may ask; how can a crew that went on board to work, negative, return from the ship, positive? You find that they interact with the client’s personnel on the rigs or on the platforms, the FPSOs and the like. Our sector is extremely vulnerable to the effect of the pandemic. But it has obviously been doing business in our sector, higher than normal, which is not being recognised. In other climes, there are so many types of initiative that governments come up with, to mitigate; against such situations; to enable off-takers to continue to operate and provide the services they render to the economy.

I have talked about the upstream; I believe the downstream also has its challenges; as long as they are in a confined environment, their journey on and off the ship, for example the Coastal Tankers, where they are also exposed to the pandemic. Like the rest of the world, we are trying to reduce our risk level while at the same time working to protect ourselves, in compliance to the protocol approved by the appropriate agency.

Have you interfaced with government on the need to intervene in mitigating this extra cost and the impact on your business and the bottom line? For instance, governments in other countries, as you have rightly said, have you gone the extra mile to give concessions as in the over 30% given in Port Dues by the Singaporean government to its Shippers and over $ 110 million pumped in to protect the Freight Service in Australia. Have you considered drawing government’s attention to this? Because we are in a pandemic era and this cost is not going away anytime soon.

You are very correct. The answer is that I have thought about the fact that the government should be engaged and such engagement should be by the organised sector of the industry. For instance, the Ship Owners Association is one platform that should come together to engage the appropriate organ of government; whichever that may be. I believe it is a good point you have made. Without such an engagement, we cannot expect manna to come down. I will reach appropriate persons in the association to see if they can initiate this move because like you rightly said coronavirus is not going away in a hurry… and that means some of the challenges people are living with are not temporary; therefore, we need to find a way to ensure it doesn’t kill us all completely. Or, kill the business.

The Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AFCTA) is meeting us in a pandemic era and at a point the Nigerian economy, especially in the Maritime sector, is having issues that require urgent attention. So, how is the sector preparing to meet what would end up creating a continental floodgate economy?

Hmmmmmm!… That is a very strong one. It saddens my heart as an individual that such a wonderful opportunity being created by the African Free Trade agreement; we are going to effectively benefit from it, from the Maritime perspective. The free trade operations will definitely leverage the transportation of goods between countries; either by road, air and majorly by sea. Some of us have been in the vanguard of talking, long time ago, about the need for the country to re-establish global trade opportunities for ourselves; Global trade access; global trading ships.

Since the episode of the Nigerian National Shipping Line in 1995, it is a matter for regret that we have not, as a nation, made the most effort to see how a Nigerian fleet (whether it is private, whether it is public or even public private partnership), flying Nigerian flag is parked out there. A country of over 200 million people with huge imports and exports daily, we do not have our own ships participating in the movement of our national goods. It is terribly sad! So, we now have a free trade opportunity whereby if we have to move our goods to other countries by sea, we have to go and chatter bus. This is the trend and every time, I just shudder and shake my head. What a shame! What a pity!! What are we losing? So much! As at the time the national shipping line was in operation, we had 29 global-seas worthy ships trending globally. You can imagine the number of Nigerian seafarers that were involved in that experience. You can imagine the job creation, the economic benefits and so forth.

We have lost all that as a nation! And we have not purpose in our hearts and let’s do something about it! Am I excited about the Africa free trade opportunity? Of course, I am. But I weep that we would stand by and watch other nations move our goods with their own ships, on our behalf. So, how do we deal with it? It is never too late to get it right.

Now, you may be aware that my 70th birthday is coming up next month and there were all sorts of activities that were lined up, which I have now postponed now because of the COVID. But one activity that is still going to take place is the virtual symposium, which is coming up on the 5th of February and the theme of that symposium (which is why I insisted it should go on, even as virtual) is the issue of re-establishing a Nigerian Shipping Fleet trading globally. That is how important I take the issue of the re-establishment of a national shipping line for Nigeria.