“We discovered that the freight of the dredge to Nigeria was more than the cost of the dredger.”
Engr Ben Efekarurhobo, managing director of Global Dredging and Marine Services Ltd, has paid a high price to master dredging as a skill and as a business. Having decided in mid-life to break into the venture, he went to start from the scratch. He became a humble deck hand, cleaning the deck and related chores. A rich man by this time, Ben adopted a disguise so as to mingle freely with other petty staff. He abandoned his luxury cars, bought a small motor-cycle to perfect his disguise and went to work for one of the booming companies in the sub-sector in those days. He was desperate to switch trades. Eventually, the same drive saw him to Denmark where he underwent further tutelage. To cut a long story short, he mastered dredging skills due to the painstaking devotion of his new Danish friend, Mr Henk, a man whose love for dredging equaled the keenness of Ben to know the rudiments of the technology. The rest, as they say, is history.
This is a very interesting narration of a man’s life to break into a perceived greener pasture. It’s cast in the background of the Niger Delta and as always these days, the Niger Delta is news across the world. How is he making it amidst the troubled Niger Delta communities where skirmishes constantly push up world oil prices? How is he dealing with the spectre of kidnappings and similar misadventures now rampant in the Niger Delta? How does he move dredgers, workboats and allied equipment across the creeks where toll gates have been mounted by militants and huge sums extracted before any movement is permitted? Has he had encounters with militants? The answer is yes and the particular way he dealt with the encounter will begin to open the eyes of readers and stakeholders in the Niger Delta face-off how not to deal with the menace in the short and long term. This is a rare interview brought by DDH through meticulous planning. And Engineer Ben was at his best in marshalling the points and x-raying the situation. Excerpts:
DDH: How did you stumble into dredging or did you plan for it or something like that?
Ben: I trained as a marine traffic manager in the Institute of Ship Brokers in London. I was actually working as a clearing and forwarding company, Ponfab Services, in Lagos for many years.
DDH: What year was that, the beginning, that is?
Ben: We started Ponfab in 1979 till 1986. Clearing and forwarding became an all-comers’ affair, professionals were no longer recognized. Half-baked, half-educated human beings started coming into the industry, and I didn’t see a future in it anymore. Prior to forming my company I had worked with Panalpina. I left Panalpina in 1979 as an assistant manager. I said let me try my hands at my own thing instead of working for someone else…(something) also marine related. Then I saw them reclaiming Lekki peninsula. I went there, I was just standing there, it swallowed me. What I was seeing, sand was coming, this swamp was turning to land… I said, whatever this takes, I am going to be a dredger.
So in 1986, I had an opportunity and I traveled to Denmark, to a little village called Hals, it’s a habour town. I loved the way I made friends, stayed for three weeks, came back home and the following month, I went back again. I fell in love with the place, there was dredging there. And I met somebody there, Mr Jens Boddun; he’s Danish. He became a very good friend. I went back to him in Denmark and he introduced me to a dredge master “perfecto” (sic) (probably indicating high expertise) (General laughter). Mr Hendrik Drinth (Henk for short). He is Dutch. And Hendrik fell in love with me too. We struck it on and we were very good friends. I said to him, there is a lot of potentials for dredging in Nigeria. He said yes, yes, your population and everything…, it must be big out there. I said it is but how do I get into all this. So we started looking into old machines because new ones were too expensive. So I bought a 10-inch dredge from Denmark, from a company called Uddunyn. We discovered that the freight of the dredge to Nigeria was more than the cost of the dredger, because I bought it from an auction. Mr Boddun now told me, why don’t we look for a reefer? We can find a reefer from the auction. So we went to the Faroes Island. This is part of Denmark, the biggest auction on marine equipment. We went there and I bought myself a reefer, a small ship that can carry the dredger. So in one fell swoop, I had a vessel, I had a dredger. I kept them in his habour. I said I wasn’t going to venture into this thing until I knew what one or two is in real dredging line. So I came back and met the late Cousin Mosheshe, Prince J.O.C Mosheshe, in Warri.. He had dredgers, he was running International Dredging. So I went to him, that I want to go under him and study. He said Ben, the much I know of you is that you a very successful man, how are you going to learn this dredging? I said I want to come into your company as a deckhand. So, I went into his company as a deckhand. My name was in the payroll even though I was not receiving a pay. (General laughter). I begged him not to allow anyone know my identity. I bought a motorcycle, left my cars, that’s what I was riding to work. After going there for six months, I wasn’t satisfied with what I was getting. So I called my friend up again, Boddun. Meanwhile the dredger was still there in his little harbour. I went back to Denmark and for nine months, I was on the dredger with him this time with my dredger. For nine months I was a deckhand until I became proficient enough to handle the dredger myself. Then, I started dredging under the tutelage of Henk. And when Henk is the captain, you know every bolt and nut that is in the dredger; every part of the work you have to go through it. His wish was that he should die in a dredger, that’s how much he loved it. And he did, he died in a dredger. He had a heart attack on a dredger and died. That was about four years ago. So he did not just leave me to come to Nigeria with the dredger. He crewed the reefer boat with some young men from Lithuania. They are the cheapest in Europe and very efficient. And he came and was captain of this dredger in Nigeria.
DDH: For how long?
Ben: He was here for close to a year. And during that time I was still learning, until he was sure I was strong enough to supervise the work team. Now we employed dredge masters from Westminster Dredging …until I outgrew the dredger and sold it and bought something else. It’s a gradual process. I have been doing it from rock-bottom until we got to where we are now. But what it exposed me to, being humble and willing to learn, is several intricate parts of dredging. When we were dredging for Shell, my company then, Vernon Engineering, I was the moving force of the company. I had an M.D. who, of course, was political. We were doing so well in Shell with an old dredger, that our supervisor in the dredging department, one Bonny Ofor, was saying that if they had problems in other locations he would call me to ask how do we solve this problems; for me to tell them and solve the problem without even going to site. So, they held me in high esteem, but their rates were getting so poor, and costs were rising and they were not prepared to vary the contract, I told them one day that I was pulling out. Since then if you call me, I want you to do it at my pace, not at Shell’s pace, because they drive people like slaves out there.
DDH: But as to the other sides of dredging, like mining of sand and selling, how is it here in Port Harcourt?
Ben: Before the recent time since last year when the new government of (Governor) Omehia came in and then (Governor) Rotimi Amaechi, there was relative peace, even though we knew it was like a caged tiger. If you pay the boys, they let you work. But now, you are even afraid to risk your equipment to work anywhere in River State. We are mining sand now but I had to devise a means. I think we and Shahimi, one Lebanese, we are the people working constantly and my trick is simple: I don’t want all the money. Let the host community be my partner. So, when we are mining now, they are my partners, I cede them a percentage of my gross takings.
DDH: As a condition for peace to reign?
Ben: Yes, yes. So they are now my protectors. They are making money, so anything that will come against that money, they will come against it. It’s working for me. I think it’s about the best thing that we can do. I make them get up to 20% of my gross earning, not net earning. So that way they protect me, they make sure that work is going on. I will tell you a little story. A young man from the community whom we hired as a security man decided to help himself with the diesel on board. This is problem on a site, they steal a lot. And the diesel level in the tank was so little that he decided to enter the tank to scoop the diesel. He was asphyxiated and he died. The community immediately asked us to release the corpse to them so that they bury him; that he is a thief. Under normal circumstances, I would spend millions and millions of Naira even though he came to steal but since he is their son. We ought to be in trouble. But this one, ten kobo I did not pay. They took his body from the hospital and buried it on their own. Except they want to jeopardize the relationship. Then, they, on their own, went out to meet the militants that they (community) were dredging there, ‘this is our own show, please just tell us what it will take’. You wont believe this, N200,000.00 (about $1,700) did the trick, and paid the militants off. So, the militants too are protecting us now. So, these are the little things that I think that we need to do even in the bigger Niger Delta problem. If the federal government, you know how much money you are making from this system, the oil is running through people’s land, the oil is spoiling the lives of people, make them partners, so that they will protect the very essence of their living. They will argue that they give 13% derivation to the states. It’s true. The corruption in the system from head to toe will not allow things to work. The 13% is it reflecting in the lives of the communities. It’s not reaching down to them. So, what stops government from converting that 13% to scholarship schemes: train the man to catch fish, don’t catch fish for him. Scholarship is not only going to secondary schools and universities. Skill acquisition, manpower.
DDH: Like in the dredging sector, for example, what kind of skills can be encouraged for these boys?
Ben: Very simple. In dredging, you have welders. When you say welders in dredging, people will say, Ah! Wetin concern water concern fire? No. The pipeline you are using is steel. The dredge you are using is steel that can break any time. It needs arc welding, a serious type of welding that will not leak, even without x-ray. You need to train these people. You need to train people to make the elbows that will channel your dredging. You need to train people to make the jet pontoons that will discharge your effluents when you are dredging and sweeping. So, there’s so much welding work in dredging. There’s so much mechanical work in dredging. Look at my little boy now, Uwalaka. The instruction I gave to him are simple, go and learn everything. Am not sending you there to be a dredge master alone. Go and learn everything, so he is going to start as a deck hand. That’s the only way you will gain. You start as a deck hand, how are these anchors moved? If I want to dredge, where would they put the dredger? If they put the dredger here, what will I do? They are not taught in the class room; it’s on the job. Like I told you I became a deck hand after being a managing director of a company for years. (General laughter). Today I am an authority. I mean, you can confirm (that). There is nowhere you talk dredging that somehow my name will not come up.
DDH: Now, you have left Vernon Engineering, what are you doing on your own?
Ben: I run Global Dredging and Marine Ltd. Basically, it’s a consultancy firm… but I can’t stay outside practical dredging. So, I must go back to physical dredging. I plan to acquire a 20” – 20” (dredger) from DSC (Dredging Supply Company).
DDH: How is the need for sand in the Niger Delta? How can you describe it?
Ben: It’s simple, the government knows, federal government knows. That is why when they wanted to build the Bonny (LNG) Terminal, did they not make a new town? Was Finima not re-located and a new town founded? So, that is how dredging is an integral part of the growth of the Niger Delta. The truth of the matter is that 80% of what the Niger Delta needs is dredging, reclamation of land. Let us go to a place like Forcados in Delta State. The terminal at Forcados and the host community, you don’t want to compare them. It’s like comparing New York to your native village. In short, the disparity is beyond that. They live in story buildings made of wood in Ogulaha. Ogulaha is the host community of Forcados. The community is living in squalor and the terminal is a haven. They have chopper pads, they have everything. The electricity power there is constant and this community is in darkness. This community has never seen electricity apart from the one they see at the terminal. So, what stops the government from creating land for them because they build on top of the river with sticks. That’s where they live; that’s where their children manage to go to school. So, I am seeing you living a good life out of my God-provided resources. Would I be happy? These things have been happening for a long time, so the people from the deprived areas started going to school. If you remember, the problem started during (General Sani) Abacha, the 3-million-man march. When the Ijaw boys got back home, they said, ‘is this what they have used our money to do and we are still like this? We shall die’. This is the genesis of this thing. They see Abuja and compare it to their villages, compare Abuja to Warri, to Port Harcourt. You can see that we have been cheated for so long. So this was something that was bound to happen. But what is happening in the Niger Delta now is not just the resistance any more. Criminals have stepped into it. There is no white man in this town o! Since you came, you have been going round, the only coloured people you will see are Lebanese, Philippinos that are worth nothing. All the Europeans, all the Americans have gone. They now fly them from Lagos straight to the offshore rigs to work. They are all in Lagos. So, is the government not challenged enough? Can’t the government tell themselves the truth that we have deprived this people for so long? You create a place like NDDC (Niger Delta Development Commission), because that is their excuse. NDDC is supposed to develop the place. How much is NDDC getting compared to what the federal government is getting? How much? Absolutely nothing. Five percent, it’s nothing.
DDH: How do you describe the need for roads, for the creeks where these boats and canoes can go in, because that is where I think that dredging has got a role to play?
Ben: That is the point I am making. There is a document I have in this house I prepared and submitted to the Bayelsa State Government, which is purely a riverine state. About 400 of their creeks are blocked. Dredging is not just about mining sand. The whole creeks, 400 of them are blocked by water hyacinth and siltation. A journey that should take normally two or three hours now takes two to three days with your hand-pulling canoe. The water hyacinth blocks the way. So don’t event think of speedboats because they cannot go at all. So, I told them, you can get it done (clearing them) but government being what they are, they are dragging their feet. There are machines specially made for clearing water hyacinth, even Lagos State should do it. We have a machine that can eat up the water hyacinth, to make into granules and reintroduce it into the water for aquatic feeding. It does 200 square metres every hour.
DDH: Your company can supply this machine?
Ben: Easy, in their hundreds. It’s a little bit pricey but if you look at the services they are going to give to you, it’s worth it. So, when you clear the creeks, then … After removing the water hyacinth, you now have another problem. The place has become so silted, so the draft has become so shallow, maybe in some places less than a metre. So a common flying boat cannot even fly there. It is then you come for sweeping, dredging has started. Deepen the place. Make sure the water hyacinth is treated in such a way they cannot go back. Even if they come, they come in trickles and if you have a maintenance culture, then you don’t allow them to accumulate before you kill them off. Then make a network. In Bayelsa, you need a network of rivers, the water ways. So that from community to community they can just fly in and out.
DDH: That will even make for communication for security agencies…
Ben: Exactly. It’s better for security. It’s better for patrolling. It’s better for everybody because the militants would not have where to hide. Because most of our naval boats cannot go into the creeks. They know the creeks are silted. But these boys know how to go about it. Will you put a navy man on a hand-pulling canoe to go? But the militants will do it. We need to clear up all the creeks in the Niger Delta and Lagos State because Ondo is part of the Niger Delta, the Ilaje area. So, just from there to Lagos is still the same zone.
DDH: I understand that to take dredges and barges through these areas you pay tolls along the way?
Ben: Haa. Alright, last year, one of my partners bought a dredge in Lagos, 26-inch. I moved it to Port Harcourt. Moving from Lagos, Lagos to Ondo, by the time we got to Epe, the toll started. From there to Atijeren, Atijeren to Igbokoda… Like that you pay tolls, they seize you. So, we made sure there was enough money with the crew to be paying. When I say enough money, I mean millions of Naira. I think totally to get the dredger to Port Harcourt, we spent about N7m.
DDH: And this is cash along the way?
Ben: Physical raw cash. When we got to Arugbo, they took about N300,000.00 at Arugbo. When we got to the Delta end of it, Okerenkoko, which is the headquarters of MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta), that is when the trouble started. They just said ‘don’t talk about the dredger, park it’. You dared not move because the militants’ presence there was nothing but noticeable. So, they called me. I am a close to the ground. So, I called the commander-general.
DDH: Of MEND?
Ben: Yes. By the time I told him who owned that dredge, that I was the owner of that dredge, he said nobody told him. He said, ‘come, you have to come, so that all of them, dey go know say na you get am. I no go tell them for phone’. He said, ‘when are you coming?’ I said I would come tomorrow. He said, ‘you know the law?’. I said I didn’t. He said, ‘come alone’. It means no driver, nobody. You have to fly the flying boat yourself. He gave me the description of how to get there. I went, with N3m in my pocket. Passed through all their check points; there were six of them, until I saw him. And he was very receptive; I mean, he knows me. We’ve worked together. He said, ‘Oga, give us what you have’. I said I have half-a-million Naira here for you here. He said, ‘Oga, is that all you are going to give to us?’ I said yes, that’s all. He said, ‘bring it’. ‘Is this from your mind?’ I said this is from my mind. So, I brought the N500,000.00 and gave to him. He said, ‘go and tell them to go, and put escort to escort you from here to Port Harcourt’. He said, ‘Oga, you go give them small money o’. I said yes, I will give them. And I left there that evening, drove back to Warri. Of course, (as for) the dredge, one way… until they got to Bayelsa and the Bayelsa people made problem. (We) paid them…We pay tolls, heavy ones. So that, it’s not very interesting to move equipment from state to state now. Even within the state, if you are going to go to work within that state, you have problems. Anywhere in the Niger Delta, you don’t move freely.
DDH: Am sure you are recounting these things so that government can sit up…?
Ben: They should know what the people are facing. You are not a government for yourself, you are a government for the people. See what they are facing. Like I justified the move made by the militants earlier on, address their issues. If you don’t address them, the problem will continue. Because the worst you can do is to behave like (ex-President) Obasanjo who went to kill everybody at Odi. Come and kill us! Are they living? A life of squalor? If you create land for them, build infrastructures, build hospitals, build schools, so that a child does not have to travel more than a kilometer to school.
DDH: Right now, we understand that they travel kilometers by canoe to go to school?
Ben: A little child will pull a canoe ten kilometers to and fro to primary school everyday. I was dredging in Okerenkoko in 1990 or so. That community had no school. Gbenikuku, Abeteyi, those are communities very close. But the two big communities don’t have schools. They have to travel all the way to Kokodiagbene, which is across the river. When we talk of rivers here, these are not toy rivers, these are massive rivers, turbulent rivers, they go through it everyday.
DDH: And now with powered boats but canoes?
Ben: With canoes; little children, little canoes.
DDH: Do these children row these canoes themselves?
Ben: O, yes! Who is going to row it for them? The mothers have to go fishing in the morning for them to eat or tapping of palm wine. So, if you must go to school, which is the determination of the parents, that their children must not end up like them, they want them to go to school. No matter how far the school is, you will row your boat and get there. And row back. These places are so poor that in the whole of the clan, I think that is Gbaramatu clan, they did not have a graduate until 1982. And the first graduate they had read forestry.
DDH: In terms of commuting therefore, each family must have more than one boat?
Ben: It’s their own type of bicycles, canoes. A family has maybe three, four. And they are in sizes too. The one they use to go and fish is not the one they will use for transportation.
DDH: What about clinics and amenities like that?
Ben: We are talking about primary schools not being there, what are talking about. Clinics? That’s a luxury. The life expectancy of an average Niger Delta dweller, not those of us in townships, is maximum forty-five years.
DDH: I know you are from the Niger Delta, which part of the Niger Delta?
Ben: Yes, I am. I am an Urhobo man from Ughelli south local government of Delta State. I am even a riverine Urhobo because my town is partly riverine, partly inland. So, we experience both sides, though in our own case, because of the land portion, we had schools as early as the 1900s.
DDH: But the rest of the Niger Delta environmental degradation you experience it in your place?
Ben: O, live! No, I’ve been through it repeatedly. That is why they know me in the Niger Delta.
DDH: Oil spills and so on?
Ben: You need to experience an oil spillage. You see when people talk of oil spillage, people don’t know what it entails. When oil spills, all the aquatic lives are destroyed. The largest gas plant in Black Africa right now is in my community.
DDH: What is the name?
Ben: Nturogo gas plant. And when there is spillage, for the next one year after clearing the spillage, you don’t have any fish in the river. It will destroy everything, even microscopic organisms will be killed, not to talk of the big ones.
DDH: How does the village survive after that? What is life like after such an occurrence?
Ben: Life has never been the same since the invention of oil. I went to school when oil exploration was not much at home. We used to bathe in the river freely. The water was clean even though it was brackish, we drank from it. But now, no matter how tasty you are, you can’t think of drinking from it, because there is repeated pollution after pollution.
DDH: So, where does drinking water come from?
Ben: Boreholes or wells. Most of the village dwellers drink from wells.
DDH: Their lifestyles and livelihood that has been damaged, what do they take recourse to?
Ben: There’s nothing, they go starving or depend on their relations who are in the townships to send them money because obviously they can’t go fishing. Their farmlands have been destroyed.
DDH: But we hear they also pay compensations…?
Ben: Compensation, how much is it? What compensation will you pay a man that you have destroyed his earnings for a year? It’s not commensurate. So when people say people destroy the pipelines in order to collect compensation, who? How much will you pay me? Will you pay me a N100m? This compensation they say they pay is N15,000.00, N20,000.00 or N30,000.000. That’s what they pay. They don’t come and say, ‘here, this is N100m for this thing that happened’. No. They will select a few people and settle them and the rest of the community will go starving. Blood money! This is what they do. Shell is very guilty of it. In short, it’s the most notorious because they don’t give a damn what happens to you, they want their petrodollar. So, spillages have occurred in our place killing all aquatic life. Nature is so good. Just give it some time, it will regenerate itself. But these things happen also frequently, causing real hardship on the communities. So instead of oil being a blessing, it becomes a curse. While it is a blessing to the Yoruba people and the Hausa people that manage the economy, it’s a curse to the owners of the land.