Chief Musa Danjuma does not need introduction. As the younger brother of retired General T. Y. Danjuma, he was entrusted with supervising the growth and expansion of the first family heirlooms – the Comet Group of Companies. To say that he has succeeded in this task is to put it mildly. With the recent addition of five years to Fivestar Logistics Ltd’s concession at Ro-Ro Port, Tin Can Island Lagos, Chief Danjuma’s Comet Group of Companies has imprinted its logo on the sands of time in Nigerian maritime trade. In this interview, he speaks of business prospects and worries in Africa’s largest economy. Pointedly however, he laments the decay in infrastructure and amenities which clogs the wheels of portland-to-hinterland flow of cargoes and therefore makes the case for a special transport master plan for Nigeria’s busy port cities.
Comet Shipping Agencies Nigeria Ltd turns 30 this year. What memories does this evoke for you?
Chief Danjuma: The name Comet evokes happy memories for me. As you know, it was the passing of Halle’s Comet in 1984 that prompted our founder and my senior brother, General T. Y. Danjuma, to name the company Comet and since then, by God’s grace, the company has soared high and given rise to many more companies. So, naturally, it gives all of us at the Comet Group of Companies a lot of happiness and joy that the company turns 30 this year.
How many companies have been formed around the original first companies? Is it true that the Comet Group of Companies hardly retrenches staff because you see the increased burden of the workforce as part of corporate social responsibility?
Chief Danjuma: As of today, nine companies have been formed in the group. Before Comet Shipping Agencies, Nigeria America Line Ltd (NAL), was formed which took part in the Nigeria Brazil counter trade of the early 1980s. Comet Shipping Agencies was actually formed to provide agency services for NAL but after it took off and was doing well, we expanded and began to provide same agency services to the industry and even to lead other indigenous agencies in this type of services. But to answer your question directly, other companies in the group now include Plantgeria Company Ltd, Tethys Plantgeria Ltd, Tarabaroz Fisheries Ltd, Danelec Ltd, Best Trade Nigeria Ltd and Fivestar Logistics Ltd. To explain why we don’t retrench, we believe that we should be creating jobs. As a patriotic Nigerian, I put myself in the shoes of my workers who have families. We don’t want to disrupt their sources of livelihood for slight reasons.
Some of your operations are in the Niger Delta which was a hotbed of militant activities since the new millennium. Is it fair to say that militancy has largely been curtailed? How did the disturbances of militants interfere with your companies’ activities and how did you cope with the demanding situations?
Chief Danjuma: Yes, it can be said that militancy has reduced in the Niger Delta following the federal government’s amnesty programme. However, during the time it was active, many of our operations suffered their depredations. As you know, the attacks were against marine activities, boats and other maritime targets. Even now, we still get attacks from the pirates and the Nigerian Navy can help with that. So, overall, it was not easy coping with their attacks but we managed to survive them.
Since the establishment of Fivestar Logistics Ltd and the operation of the Ro-Ro terminal at Tin Can Island Port in Lagos, the Comet Group joined the elite group of companies that took over NPA’s cargo handling activities. Has this helped to uplift the profile of corporate activities in the Comet Group of Companies within the maritime sector?
Chief Danjuma: As you know, the ambition of all operators is to reach the zenith of their career or the higher echelons of service provision in their industries. For the maritime sector, terminal operation is a kind of higher echelon because you are in a position to do more by way of hosting calling ships at your berths, receiving and storing cargoes on behalf of consignees and other customers, managing the offloaded cargoes or other cargoes on your terminal with a view to maximizing the use of space, etc. So, our winning the bid to operate the Ro-Ro terminal at Tin Can Island Port Lagos in 2005 was one such opportunity to showcase our capabilities and expertise in cargo handling operations and we have been doing it well. Our concession originally was for fifteen years but since we spent the better part of five years developing the infrastructures, the federal government has graciously added extra five years to our concession.
What are some of the problems of running the Ro-Ro terminal?
Chief Danjuma: Firstly, one of the problems we had was space constraints for storage of break bulk cargoes, vehicles and containers. As the name implies, one of the core areas of our operation is receiving vehicles, mainly cars, fairly used and brand new. As at 2013, for example, we offloaded 114,000 vehicles, 48,000 containers and 193,000 metric tonnes of general cargoes. So, this has necessitated our search for appropriate off-dock terminals as a relief accommodation for our cargoes. Aside from space, we also have problems sometimes with the shallow draught of the terminal. Some of the big ships that would have called at our terminal were diverted to other Lagos terminals of our neighbours because our draught is about 10 metres whereas these big ships are drawing draughts of 12 or 13 metres. So, we would like to commend the work of NPA in dredging the channels and berthing areas but we would like to appeal for more attention to the draught problem.
At this 30th anniversary of the founding of the Comet Group, what activities will be used to mark the event?
Chief Danjuma: We have planned some corporate activities to host our customers and workers in various forums. We shall reveal these activities at the appropriate time, including mementoes to our long-term customers and major stakeholders in the industry. Definitely, we are not lying low about this.
What new products and services are being planned for your customers in the various companies going forward?
Chief Danjuma: As you may be aware already, our terminal has installed many innovations and gadgets to fast-track the clearance of cargoes at our terminal. As such, we separated the exit gate for brand new cars and vehicles from the exit gate for fairly-used cars and vehicles and opened a special air-conditioned cafe for our customers who come down to the terminal. We also do door-to-door services, etc. As you know, we have the ISO 9001 which is a very high standard for quality service delivery. ISO quality management certification is deployed by companies that want to give high levels of efficiency, maximized quality of service delivery and high levels of customer satisfaction. The Comet Group of Companies attained this standard four years ago and it was a highly orchestrated ceremony held at Sheraton Hotel and Towers Abuja by the Standards Organization of Nigeria (SON). Since then as we have been doing before, we are constantly fine-tuning our service delivery techniques to ensure they are always top of the range.
How is the Comet Group grooming its next generation of managers and top executives?
Chief Danjuma: Succession planning in our group of companies is a very big project because we realize that the continuance of our services, the longevity of our group of companies and the expansion and growth of our companies depend on good succession planning. Because of this, we take training seriously at the terminal and at our administrative offices. We also send our staff to seminars, conferences, trade fairs and important meetings so as to expose them to the issues in the industry, to understand the demands of our principals and to facilitate their interaction with leaders in the industry and other operators. So, we take the grooming of our younger generation of managers and top executives seriously.
How does the serious problem of traffic jams arising from the ports and shipping activities affect your operations?
Chief Danjuma: This is by far one of the biggest problems of port cities in Nigeria today, be it Apapa in Lagos or Warri or Port Harcourt in River State. The volume of cargoes leaving the ports and traversing the cities constitutes a bottleneck for traffic flow in these port cities. In Apapa, for example, this has been the case since the activities of the two seaports enlarged in the late 1990s. However, our appeal is that the transformation agenda of the President for the telecoms and power sectors should be extended also to the shipping and ports industries. If you consider the genesis of the problem you will see it flowed from the expansion of maritime activities. The volume of goods from the seaports which is transported by road continues to rise annually. In 2012 alone, for example, total throughput at Nigerian seaports was 24,914,764 metric tonnes. From 2007 to 2012, it was over 77 million metric tonnes, with a total of over four million containers, according to the Nigerian Ports Authority. In the 3rd Quarter of 2013, 9.5m tonnes of general cargo, petroleum products and containers passed through Apapa Port and Tin Can Island Port into the city. But these statistics also mean a lot of money for the federal, state and local governments in the country. In 2013, for example, the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) collected N833 billion in duties and levies, mainly from the seaports, and as at January 2014, NCS had collected N40.5 billion in import duties and other charges at Apapa and Tin Can Island Ports.
What short- and long-term measures would you suggest as a remedy?
Chief Danjuma: If you consider the sum total of the scenario, you will agree with me that the port sector is a money spinner that should be taken good care of. My suggestion is that for the long term, a new transport master plan for the busy port cities such as Apapa, should be embarked upon immediately. For Port Harcourt port, Abonema Wharf, and the city, a renewal of the port itself is called for because there is a limit to dredging the berths of a 100year old river port. The road infrastructure of Port Harcourt is also in need of such a new transport master plan especially since the new dredging achievements by Bonny Channel Management has made it possible for Maersk Line’s WAFMAX container carriers to berth at the Onne Port. This will cause a spillover of trucks from the port to pour into the city. As you know, the Onne road has several failed parts, so if the road network is not enhanced more bottlenecks will be experienced there. But if the suggested transport master plans for the port cities are embarked upon, this will ensure a better future for Nigeria as a maritime nation and secure the jobs of more people and cut off the scourge of the notorious poverty ravaging the land. In the short term, I suggest that failed roads and critical junctions that cause traffic jams such as Liverpool Roundabout in Apapa Lagos, Oil Mill Junction in Port Harcourt and the Onne road, for examples, should be quickly fixed by government to ameliorate the problem of go slows. In Lagos, something must be done to get tankers and trucks to stop parking along the highways. The Association of Maritime Truck Owners should be assisted to find a spacious park for their trailers and no trailer should leave the park unless its number has been called for loading inside the port. We have to get it right urgently because development experts have calculated that approximately US$7 billion will be invested into port expansion in West Africa over the next five years. Nigeria can only benefit from this foreign direct investment to the fullest if her port facilities have functional road and rail networks for seamless cargo delivery from port-land to the hinterland.