Merchant marine: A weak component of Nigeria’s sea power

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The economic life-line of most maritime nations depends on the merchant fleet to transport both imports and exports. This dependence is important that most landlocked nations are among the poorest in the world. For a maritime nation to aspire to be great it must acquire sea power. One of the proponents of sea power, Alfred Thayer Mahan in his book titled “The Influence of Sea Power upon History” propounded six conditions that affect sea power namely, geography, physical conformation, extent of territory, population, character of the people, and character of the government. According to him “sea power in the sense includes not only the military strength afloat that rules the sea or any part of it by force of arms but also the peaceful commerce and shipping from which alone a military fleet naturally and healthfully springs and on which it securely rests”.

The merchant marine as a component of sea power is so vast in creating millions of jobs directly and indirectly at sea and on land. The capacity of Nigeria to place ocean-based resources at the service of her people, and make use of them to develop the economy, the health of which finally determines its defence capability has to be reappraised. This is because sea power in its broadest sense carries both economic and military principles.

Last week, I engaged a former colleague in a discussion on what happened in the United States during the recent tough hurricane season and how the merchant marine responded to emergency calls as it has always done in the past. Hear what my friend told me: “The US has a vibrant merchant marine because her government over the years, has committed resources to enhancing the nation’s maritime industry”.

I am aware that there are dissenting views expressed by maritime experts and other stakeholders in Nigeria as to the need for the re-establishment of a national carrier. But the global economic order that necessitated the formation of the Nigerian National Shipping Line (NNSL) in 1961, and subsequently its scrapping in 1995, is certainly different from the one that exists today. Though, some factors remain constant while others keep changing. The fact is that Nigeria constantly remains a maritime nation, dependent on the seas for commerce, transportation and security.

Factors that are changing rapidly include dwindling foreign earnings from sale of crude oil and increasing population of unemployed Nigerians which was recently stated to be 25.6 million people representing 14.2 percent of 180 million people.

Interestingly, the FG wants a maritime industry crewed mostly by Nigerian merchant mariners. But the body language of those saddled with the responsibility of providing a viable maritime industry suggests that the FG does not want to own a ship. Why? For almost two decades, those in the government have always argued that the NNSL was scrapped due to corruption and management ineptitude. Then the Federal Government (FG) should stop corruption by ensuring that those appointed to manage any strategic outfit of the nation are not with questionable qualifications. Corruption as it were, is a reflection of the failure of the nation’s value system.

Another reason why the FG must intervene is that old sailors are retiring from sea duties, while young marine cadets currently undergoing training are without sea time. Let us assume that in a national emergency the need arises for young mariners to complement the efforts of sea dogs (old sailors), what will the FG do? It’s very simple. The FG would simply provide jobs for foreigners who have internationally recognized certificates. That is why a varsity don recently stated that “foreigners especially Philippines and Indians have taking over seafaring jobs which Nigerians were entitled to as provided in the Cabotage Act.” Furthermore, “he blamed the development on lack of adequate manpower to man Nigerian owned vessels.” Hmm, it is a pity!

So, if young Nigerians who are currently under training in various maritime courses at home and abroad are to have sea time, where will they be trained to enable them have an internationally recognized competency certificates?I believe they can be trained to a certification level by a shipping line owned by the FGunder the supervision of Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA). Otherwise,for many years to come, most Nigerian merchant “mariners” will not qualify for jobs on board ships operating under Nigeria’s cabotage regime.

The disestablishment of the NNSL has left a yawning gap in the nation’s economy where international shipping lines now dominate and compete with indigenous shipping companies in the maritime industry. The implication is that Nigeria’s sea power status has been weakened with the absence of a national carrier. In an emergency, the Nigerian Navy will depend on the merchant fleet particularly, those owned by the government, to enhance its sealift capabilities. In addition, the Navy and the merchant fleet are also dependent on dockyards and other industries on land for maintenance and repairs of their ships.

The investment and risk involved in setting up a merchant fleet is such that the private sector alone cannot cope with it. Accordingly, the FG must intervene directly in the matterby establishing a national carrier that would be fully owned but contracted to private shipping firms with technical expertise to manage it, and crewed by Nigerian merchant mariners. This should be done for some years with the objective of transferring technical knowledge and managerial skills of running a merchant fleet to Nigerians.

Nigeria’s maritime industry cannot be left to the fancies of market forces alone because of its strategic importance. If there is the political will, something worthwhile and commendable can be done to strengthen the merchant marine component of Nigeria’s sea power. It is time to develop the nation’s maritime industry for both economic and military reasons. Nigeria may need to review the Merchant Shipping Act of 2007 provided the FG is willing to take responsibility and thus, act timely.


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