By Johnson Momodu
The gung-ho approach adopted by the Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA) in its questionable bid to undercut Ocean Marine Solutions (OMS) and push it out from its legitimate operations at the Secure Anchorage Area (SAA) is not only iniquitous but also condemnable. Besides, the strategy of weaving false narratives around OMS to portray it either as unreliable or as constituting a threat to national security is hackneyed when it is considered that the operation of the SAA since 2014 has been done through OMS-Nigerian Navy partnership.
Except the NPA is insinuating that the Nigerian Navy is not capable or competent to maintain maritime security in the nation’s territorial waters would the rationale behind the authority’s action in proceeding against OMS escape essential indictment. But if the tenor of NPA’s logic is to “deal” with OMS for covert reasons, then that would really be a horrific blow against an indigenous company that is adding value to service delivery in the maritime sector.
Whereas, the most significant excuse that was adduced from the outset of the saga by the NPA for threatening to issue a Marine Notice to stakeholders in respect of the SAA was that it was not too tidy to hand over the SAA to a private company because that constituted a threat to national security; indeed, there were no recorded incidents to rationalise that assertion against a capacitated OMS whose operations are promoting local content in that critical sector of the economy.
There was no way the NPA could have convinced even itself that the Nigerian Navy, acting in collaboration with the OMS on the SAA, lacked expertise and capacity to deliver on the mandate. Nigerian Navy, through its personnel, provides the security surveillance in the nation’s territorial waters, particularly in the area demarcated as the SAA, while the OMS, deploying his financial capacity in the provision of patrol vessels, which it maintains, ensured that it kept fidelity to its side of the contractual obligations. SAA is an area outside the Lagos port that the Nigerian Navy, together with OMS, has defined as a secure place where vessels can anchor safely from the threats of pirate attacks.
But the desperate attempt by the NPA to forcefully terminate the contractual arrangement entered into willy-nilly between the Nigerian Navy and the OMS in 2013 in furtherance of a strategic partnership that has been functional remains curious. One is at pains to resist the temptations of reading political motives or undertones to the NPA action. The action was not motivated by genuine concerns over national security issue. Until the NPA unravels on the matter, statements on the issue can at best be speculative.
But to be sure, the involvement of the OMS in the SAA arrangement and/or transactions did not and could not have constituted a threat to national security. The NPA did not adduce specific instances of OMS compromising national security. But behaving like a proverbial hangman who wants give a dog a bad name in order to hang it, the NPA had thrown caution to the winds and could not restrain itself from overtly maligning the reputation of the OMS and its promoters.
It is baffling that the NPA would contrive a series of narratives that were replete with fiction, propaganda and outright falsehood in order to de-market OMS and justify, in the court of public opinion, its administrative action of issuing a Marine Notice to mariners. Building up the grounds against OMS’ involvement in the SAA arrangement with further allegation that it had, by its charges, increased the cost of doing business as well as insinuations about the tendency by the promoters of OMS to disrupt maritime operations to create the impression that its services were indispensable, the NPA had really gone overboard to deal the unkindest blow on the OMS brand.
The sponsored media report really justified its billing as such when it gave exposure to mere sentiments in a bid to put in the public domains NPA’s skewed narrative that ships that were supposed to anchor in designated areas at the Lagos port were forced to move to SAA where they were made to pay high charges or face threats of insecurity deliberately orchestrated to make it look like only vessels at the SAA were safe.
A purported investigation, according to the report, had revealed that vessels were charged $2,500 for the first day at the anchorage and $1,500 for subsequent days. In what appeared a deliberate attempt to drench OMS in the haze of salacious, even if unconfirmed findings, certain numbers indicated in the report as purportedly obtained from sources at NPA claimed that “it takes between 28 and 30 days for a vessel to exit anchorage and that according to vessel traffic numbers, 1,666 vessels called at the Lagos ports alone in a quarter and a minimum of 55 per cent of vessels that call at the Lagos ports stay at the SAA.”
If one was earlier in doubt as to whether or not the media report was sponsored or had political undertones, the paragraph that reads: “This means that OMS Limited, allegedly owned by a prominent politician, penciled to challenge Edo State Governor Godwin Obaseki for the All Progressives Congress (APC) governorship ticket in 2020, on behalf of the Nigerian Navy, collects, averagely, $133.28 million (N47.98 billion) annually. It has been collecting this fee since 2014”, would appear to point to the direction of the quiet attacks against the business interests of the unnamed “prominent politician”.
When this is tied to another media narrative in September this year credited to the Edo State Governor and Chairman of the Ad-Hoc Committee of the National Economic Council (NEC) on Crude Oil Theft, Prevention and Control, Mr Obaseki, about the purported loss of 22 million barrels of crude oil in the first half of 2019, the bigger picture of political conspiracy stealthily emerges. The report had as much as insinuated, even if mischievously, that the purported loss of 22 million barrels was despite the multi-million dollar security surveillance contract awarded to OMS by the NNPC. But the fact is that OMS had delivered and still delivering on the crude pipelines over which it keeps security surveillance.
Could these adversarial reports against OMS have been precipitated by some rumour doing the round about the so-called governorship interest of the unnamed “prominent politician” said to own OMS? Whereas the OMS personages are solid businessmen, none of them could be appropriately described as a prominent politician let alone being rabidly seized by governorship interest. Unfortunately, the rash of misconception, misconstruction, misrepresentation and misinformation has turned some government official in Edo into a bull in a China shop, trying to destroy everything bright and beautiful, especially a flourishing business through which lives have been blessed and illuminated.
But to be sure, the political shenanigans will fall through. The only concern in the entire saga is that good reputations are being soiled gratuitously on the altar of unconscionable politics. The action of the NPA, I must assert at great pains, was not motivated by genuine concern over threat to national security. Since 2014 that OMS has been collaborating with the Nigerian Navy in respect of the SAA, there has not been any reported security breach or threat in the area.
In a full-page advertorial issued by the Executive Chairman of OMS Limited, Captain (Dr) Idahosa Wells Okunbo, and published repeatedly in several newspapers a few days ago, the contending issues were laid bare and succinctly addressed. Significantly, since the so-called financial windfall from the SAA seemed to be the target of the adversaries, it was convenient for them to bandy N263 billion payments, which Captain Okunbo said existed only in the warped imagination of those that cooked up the figures.
If the adversaries had thought they could draw out OMS into the fray, they must by now be disappointed by the company’s response that “contrary to the erroneous impressions created by NPA on SAA charges, we have actually saved our country more money that would have been lost to vandals and bandits by bearing risks on behalf of anchoring ships transiting or making port calls to Lagos.”
It is significant to underscore the point made by OMS about its track record of performance and integrity in business: “OMS as an indigenous company has a broad objective of promoting local content in the maritime industry, and has been collaborating with the Nigerian Navy in carrying out its statutory duty to promote, co-ordinate, enforce maritime laws and safety regulations in Nigerian waters. This collaboration for the past 12 years has significantly improved security in Nigeria’s maritime domain.”
And, throwing down the gauntlet, which the NPA is expected to take up, the OMS said: “At the height of piracy, armed robbery at sea and the proliferation of illegal arms importation into Nigeria through the Gulf of Guinea, the Nigerian Navy invited OMS to the meetings of a Steering Committee composed of NPA, Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) and other maritime stakeholders, for a discussion on how to improve security within the Lagos harbor Approaches.”
This audacious assertion simply confirms that OMS is not alien to the NPA as claimed in the media report in which the Authority threatened to issue a notice to mariners for the discontinuance of the SAA operations and a consequent amendment of the British Admiralty Chart-1381.” The OMS position is a robust response and an archival material that touched on all the issues involved. The public is encouraged to consider the issues dispassionately on the basis of facts released into the public domain by both parties.
While the OMS has urged the NPA to retrace its steps in the SAA notice to maritime stakeholders in the interest of the country, it is apposite to posit that the NPA should extricate itself from the webs of political intrigues that are feeding the disagreement in demonstration of genuine concern for national security and state interest.
· Momodu, a journalist and public affairs commentator, contributed this piece from Abuja.