Critics of the situation at Nigeria’s pioneer nautical institution see the current slide in the fortunes of Maritime Academy of Nigeria (MAN) Oron as a misfortune that began with the appointment of Mr. Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi as the Minister of Transportation by the Buhari government in September 2015. MAN’s rector at the time, the late Mr. Joshua Okpo, had already entered the bad books of the Ministry’s helmsmen for sharp practices. One of these, from DDH’s findings, was the manipulation that led to the announcement that his tenure had been renewed by the Federal Government when, in actual fact, it was not. Not long after that, his relations with the Minister soured when he reportedly offered him admission slots in what the latter was said to have promptly rebuked because of the obvious irregularity in the offer. After that, Okpo goofed again. At a meeting of agencies and parastatals of the ministry, he accused NIMASA of withholding some payments (about N2 billion) accrued from the 5% statutory support which was due to MAN from NIMASA’s revenue stream. Unfortunately for him, the NIMASA officials at the meeting tendered documents which showed that N19 billion had been remitted to MAN’s account since Okpo’s tenure, to which the Minister was said to have demanded an account of its utilization from the Rector. Some insiders believe that this was the beginning of Okpo’s eventual undoing, for it was widely known that corruption and sleaze were the order of the day with management of MAN’s finances, being a man given to profligacy and wild drinking binges. He couldn’t give a good account.
On the day the Minister directed that an official probe be opened on the Academy, Okpo, who was monitoring the situation from an Abuja hotel room, reportedly succumbed to his failing health and suffered cardiac arrest leading to his death on December 8, 2015. However, despite the short shrift by Okpo’s money administration, the Academy had made strident progress in mounting various nautical and maritime courses, although the sea time programme for its seafarer graduates was hopelessly in arrears. Over 5,000 graduates have had their careers stunted on account of the scarcity of sea time experience. Nevertheless, a pet project to award degrees by the Academy which had been long in development, had passed through the National Assembly as a law, awaiting presidential assent. Thus, stakeholder expectations, including students and especially the Akwa Ibom community, were rife that, despite its challenges, stability had been achieved for the academic programmes of Nigeria’s pioneer nautical schools. Unfortunately, after the passing of Mr. Okpo, his successor, Engr. Anthony Ishiodu, also suffered failing health, and died seven months after assumption of office in July 2016.
The next most senior officer after these deaths was Mr. Ante Mkpandiok. He was asked to coordinate the affairs of the school in the capacity of acting Registrar. According to inside sources, the circumstances of his appointment to the post later became a subject of argument between him and the Federal Ministry of Transport top echelon vis-à-vis the exercise of certain executive powers. The magazine was informed by insiders that top Ministry officials were not comfortable with the moves made by Mr. Mkpandiok to seek confirmation to the position of Rector. Soon after he came into the office, Mkpandiok began to welcome visitors who reportedly addressed him as Acting Rector and news bulletins with this detail were widely circulated. The Ministry was said to have frowned at this development. Furthermore, Mkpandiok’s foreign trips in the presumed capacity of MAN’s head and his acceptance of a well-publicized honorary doctorate degree were all seen as desperate self-help which fuelled opposition to his ambition in some quarters.
Meanwhile, the Transport Minister had constituted a committee, headed by Chief Adebayo Sarumi, to look into the running of the Academy and proffer solutions. When this committee submitted its report in September, the Minister directed them to transform into an Interim Management Committee (IMC) for the purpose of implementing their recommendations, with a time frame of six months. Apparently, an undercurrent of discontent has been activated by many aspects of this committee’s appointment and work. Although the initial disturbances by the host community has subsided, the thin veneer of seeming peace might be a prelude to the bursting of pent-up agitations or anger whose outcome is hard to predict. Firstly, the constitution of the committee has been faulted on the grounds of ethnicity, conflict of interest and the pursuit of vendetta. Critics of the committee have pointed to instances of past unpleasant relationship between the Academy and the IMC’s Chairman, who stood against financial support of the school on the one hand. On the other hand, the Oron community, in 1999, had risen in arms against the rector of the Academy at the time, Engr. Olu Akinsoji, following the death of a top Oron indigenous staff of the Academy in controversial circumstances. Akinsoji is now a member of the IMC. DDH was informed that many believe that he has revenge up his sleeves.
Even the halt to the admissions into some National Diploma courses is being viewed suspiciously as a move that will benefit a rival Port Harcourt-based maritime training school believed to be partly-owned by one of the IMC members. Disaffection of the academic staff to these developments has led to various fallouts, including the search for alternative lecturing appointments in other institutions and general demoralization. Against the welter of allegations and accusations, the magazine contacted Engr. Akinsoji who, however, declined to comment for this story, citing the fact that he is not the Chairman of the Committee. Nevertheless, one of the strong feelings to the situation has been expressed by Capt. Ime Ntiaindiem, the first Nigerian Rector of the Academy, who faulted the Minister’s appointment of a retired navy officer as rector for a merchant marine institution. According to him, the Federal Government had tried this method at first and rejected it based on advice from the Nigerian Navy. Excerpts of his interview are reproduced below:
DDH: How do you feel generally about the state of affairs with Maritime Academy of Nigeria Oron.
Capt Ntiandem: I was very surprised, yesterday I went for my pension and the boys that attended to me were my former students, Batch 10, Batch 11. When my mother died and I summoned them, they were very happy. I was asking them, what have you people done in NIMASA? Nothing, they just do routine jobs because they are afraid to make decision and if that is the attitude, shipping is gone forever.
DDH: However, for Nigeria to revive shipping, Maritime Academy of Nigeria Oron is very important…
Capt Ntiandem: Yes. But it’s not Maritime Academy per se. When I finished at the place [as Rector], I got the first batch of cadets ready for exams. The GIS (Government Inspector of Shipping) Office which was in place at the time was not able to set the exams and to avoid crisis, Capt Agbakoba, who was the GIS ran to the IMO (International Maritime Organisation). And the crisis developed and the burden fell on me and they tried to lean on the maritime academy in Egypt. Since then, we have not been able to organize First Class exams in Nigeria. I came from Oron to become the GIS. I was organizing that when they retired me. When I asked why files have not gone passed the level, they just laughed at me. They said there was nobody interested in that job. At least I was there as a captain, right at the top. But if there is no captain as executive director, there is no real captain in Oron, nothing will work. So, the real impetus is not Oron itself, Oron can do what it likes. Nobody can do without NIMASA now because the certificate is issued by NIMASA. It’s not Oron that conducts the exams. Oron prepares students for exams but certificates are issued by government.
DDH: Are you talking about the certificate of competency (COC?)
Capt Ntiandem: Yes. That’s the key.
DDH: However, stopping the internal management of the Academy and instituting an Interim Management Committee, is that the best way to go?
Capt Ntiandem: No, if in 1978, the government wanted a qualified person to head the place, they sent for me. I was not available in Nigeria, they called me from Switzerland to head Oron in 1978, a competent captain; there were other captains. I was the most qualified in Africa at the time and they sent for me. How come that they could not find one captain, a master mariner, such that they went to bring a retired navy captain? Navy and merchant navy are very different. In fact, what happened was that [former President] Obasanjo was the military head of state when the issue went to [Federal Executive] Council. He asked the Nigerian Navy to husband the development of the Maritime Academy Oron, the Nautical School. They took it for six months and came back with the response that they can run a naval college but they have no idea what nautical college is all about. Then, Obasanjo gave it to the Federal Ministry of Education. Ministry of Education said if the Navy cannot run, they too cannot run it. Then, in anger, they sent it back to the Federal Ministry of Transport which sought for the late … because there wasn’t a Nigerian to head it. That’s how they found me. The question is if they could find a man in 1978, a Nigerian, who was qualified to head it, why can’t they find one now? Why do they have to go for a retired navy man? There are so many qualified Nigerian master mariners, even though they don’t hold Nigerian certificates. There are so many holding British certificates, Australian certificates, Malaysian certificates, Singaporean certificates, why can’t they find one of them?
DDH: So, the Interim Management Committee is not a well-thought out idea?
Capt Ntiandem: No, they are not competent, there’s no qualified person in the team, not one.
DDH: Critics are also insinuating that revenge is the motive for putting Engr. Akinsoji in the team in view of his stormy exit from the Academy in 1999? What do you feel about it?
Capt Ntiandem: Yes, that may be right. He insults me personally; insults the whole shipping community. Why should he go back?
DDH: How do the host community and others like you from Akwa Ibom State feel about the situation?
Capt Ntiandem: They are not happy with the situation, I am not with them. When I advised them [MAN management] exactly what to do, they were planning for the university [status]. I told them Maritime Academy Oron is far higher than a university because they can award degrees. All maritime academies of repute can award degrees today. So, you do not have to go to a full-blown university, all you have to do is to get the right person to head it and get a competent faculty. At the time I headed it, I had Americans in my faculty as lecturers, I had Pakistanis, Indians, British and four from Accra Ghana in the place. I paid some in dollars, some in Naira. So nobody told me that by the time they took over from me, there was no — to take employ people and pay them in dollars. I only got approval from the federal government, I was paying. In fact, when I got Nigerian captains, three of them, I was not paying them sea salaries, that is what they were getting at sea.
DDH: Are you available to do the job now, do you think?
Capt Ntiandem: (Laughs) If they ask me to do the job, it would not be the first time. There was a time Dr. Babangida Aliyu, when he was the Permanent Secretary in Federal Ministry of Transport, asked me to do the job. But I said no, I can advise, at my age.
DDH: That is another accusation being leveled against the members of the IMC, that they are too old for the job…?
Capt Ntiandem: They are too old, they are just selfish. When I was the head at Oron, I had a chief technical adviser, he was Captain Philip Alexander, an Indian, who was the first Managing Director of the Shipping Corporation of India and also the first Principal of their maritime school, I was paying him in dollars.
DDH: Are you using to say to that they haven’t got the right complement of staff to run the place?
Capt Ntiandem: Yes, they haven’t. The way they are, if they want to appoint a Nigerian for that position, they have to appoint a young Nigerian master mariner, who has interest in maritime education. I am available as a technical adviser to him. I will guide him but I don’t want to take day-to-day decision.
DDH: From the foregoing, it seems that the Minister of Transportation needs better advice than he is getting at the moment on the subject of MAN Oron, do you agree?
Capt Ntiandem: That is true. Immediately he came in, I sent him a letter of invitation, something I have never done before. In that letter, I asked him to give me the opportunity of advising him, briefing him of what happened and the best way forward for shipping. He acknowledged the letter and said he will keep it in view. He never asked me to come back.
DDH: What is your overall assessment of the entire situation of Nigerian maritime training and capacity building?
Capt Ntiandem: To me, looking at Oron alone is not enough. In this country, the position of the number one seaman is there. He was called the Government Inspector of Shipping. In other countries, in Britain, there is the number one merchant seaman and there is the number one naval seaman, the Chief of Naval Staff. It was during the Obasanjo administration that the office of the Government Inspector of Shipping was merged completely into NIMASA. Once you don’t have that man, a seaman, heading merchant marine, you will have problems, because right from the beginning the Navy has two roles. One, to fight the pirates at sea to make sure that they protect your trade. The most important role for the merchant navy is to trade, to carry your imports and exports to the world market. So, the merchant marine in Nigeria has been destroyed once you destroy the regulatory body, the head of merchant marine. That was why when I was in NIMASA, I carried on the responsibility of the headship of the merchant navy. If that is not done, we can never have merchant navy. The Government has to make up its mind either to unbundle NIMASA and release one office to take care of shipping. Some of the things happening today such as piracy would have been taken care of by the Government Inspector of Shipping. You may not realize that it was the Government Inspector of Shipping that created the Nigerian Navy, the Inland Waterways, the Nigerian Ports Authority because of the office it subsumed under the system. Most of the offices that would have been established to take care of piracy have not been established. If anything, NIMASA swallowed everything. Electronic Navigation System should have been established. Anti-Piracy Systems should have been established. And Lighthouse Authority should have been established. All these things should have been established, instead the few that were established were subsumed under NIMASA. So, the number one merchant seaman office has to be re-established so that he could look at the issues of shipping: What do the ship owners want? What do the Government want? And what do the private people want? And what do Nigerians who want to be seamen want? All these things have been destroyed. If you make Oron a first-class merchant navy school, where are the ships? So, we have to make sure that not just the officers are available but also the seamen. These are very vital issues here.