Thomas Kemewerigha is the national president of the Nigerian Merchant Navy Officers and Water Transport Senior Staff Association. He was recently unsettled by the announcement by the Nigeria Police that the association is under a ban and he says the police do not have the right to ban a government entity gazetted in the Federal Republic of Nigeria official gazette under senior staff and employers' associations. In this interview with Correspondent Andrew Airahuobhor, he announces new measures the association is adopting to stem the use of merchant navy uniforms for illegal activities. Excerpts.
Recently, the police announced a ban of the Nigerian Merchant Navy, in reaction to incidence of some members allegedly engaging in illegal activities. How would you react to this development?
We have written a lot of letters as far back as 2006, when we discovered a mystery Merchant Navy body. We wrote to the Police, Navy, SSS and every other agency but nothing was done. From day one we knew one or two people that matter were involved in promoting the miscreants for political reasons and other issues that are yet unknown to us. The police never responded, nobody responded, only the Navy made an attempt. The Navy intercepted a body that called themselves Nigerian Merchant Navy Petroleum Corps, they were all arrested, more than 20 of them. We were invited and we testified that they were not our members, they were miscreants used for political reasons. They were handed over to the police and the case died down. We were surprised that the same Nigerian Police, the custodian of law and peace would come on air and ban Merchant Navy as a body. We responded, I was with police public relations officer we discussed at length, we gave them gazetted federal government copies of the establishment of Nigerian Merchant Navy Officers and Water Transport Senior Staff Association. This body is a trade union organization affiliated with trade union congress (TUC). The principal aim of this body is to take care of all seafarers senior staff, it is gazetted. We have merchant navy Austrialia, UK ETC. We are affiliated to international Transport workers Federation (ITF) of over six million transport workers in the whole world, both marine, air and land, railway. A lot of publications have gone out concerning this issue of miscreants using the name, Merchant Navy just to enrich themselves.
You said something about they being used for political reasons, could you expand on that?
Yes. I am telling you the truth. You see, after the civil war, we started experiencing armed robbery, and there was no such incidents in this country before the civil war. Youths were given arms by both the federal government and Biafra, after the war, those arms were not recovered from them. Poverty has been the order of the day so they used these arms to take care of themselves. That is the first origin of armed robbery in Nigeria. Throughout the military era, armed robbery was minimal, not to talk of militants or sea piracy. You are aware of the suffering in the Niger Delta where the survival of this country comes from because of pollution from drilling, if you plant a crop in that place it doesn't grow normal, the soils are also polluted. The average Ijaw man is contented with the life in the hamlets, they fish and farm and they were managing their lives. Then came democracy, politics, the privileged ones living outside in Abuja etc came for power. These Ijaw people had no social amenities but their votes were needed. Politicians promised them electricity, roads etc. But they soon started seeing the kind of life lived outside the Niger Delta and were told that the gas flaring in their communities is being used to develop places like Abuja etc. These politicians gave the youths guns to do their bidding, mobilized them and they did their jobs for them but were abandoned at the end of the day. They didn't give them the electricity, hospitals etc that they promised them. To crown it all, the multinationals that were there did not develop the communities. The guns were still with these boys, what do they do with them? Survival of the fittest. This is were the militancy started. Our politicians initiated it, they gave them all they needed.
Now, they are not able to control the problem of militancy?
Yes they were not able to control them again. That's why I said the governors should be careful. We are entering the era again, more arms will come in, youths will be more equipped in every way because these politicians need power.
Do you think these weapons could still be brought in through the port as the ports may not be safe haven again for such imports of arms"
Which port? I don't want to be deceived as an Ijaw man that there is no breaking of pipelines and others. How many Ijaws in the military are involved in the JTF? It is only the man that knows the terrain that can go there. During an investigation panel at the National Assembly, they asked customs if they know how many crude is being exported, they said they did not know. We have security and these miscreants answer Merchant Navy, put on uniform, extort money, go to the borders, escort Tokumbo Cars, escort people with their rice, turkey all sorts of rubbish. That is not the essence of Merchant Navy, it takes care of welfare of Seafarers in this country. We are coming out with measures to protect the name; Nigerian Merchant Navy Officers and Water Transport Senior Staff Association.
As a gazeted association, do the Police have the power to pronounce a ban on your association?
They don't have any right. They were misguided. We have problems with communications. We had letters written to the IG, chief of Naval staff, presidency, all the commissioners of police in the South-South notifying them of the dangers of miscreants, I have also met the director of SSS in Cross River state concerning this issue. I tell you the armed robbers on the road also put on uniforms. Do we not have fake lawyers, fake policemen and fake military men? But we are very much concerned with the usage of our name to commit all these crimes.
But now, what measures are you putting in place to stop people from using the name of your association to perpetrate crime, at least to prevent a reoccurrence of this ugly incidence?
There has never been the usage of uniforms in the past as it is today. The Merchant officer is not supposed to use that uniform on land, it is used on board ships. Nigeria has a problem security-wise. Every Nigerian is entitled to pay his transport fares, but in some states, especially Lagos, when you wear uniform you are carried free. That increased the usage of uniforms by merchant navy because the Nigerian Navy and Merchant Navy uniforms are the same only the coat of arms is different. There is high unemployment rate in the country, Cadets are coming out of the maritime schools every year and they also use their uniforms to board commercial buses and not pay. You cannot try that in Rivers state, or Delta state because you are also getting transport allowance. We are coming out with measures as follows; No Merchant Navy personnel is allowed to board commercial transport for free. No Merchant Navy personnel is allowed to escort turkey, vehicles or any consignment from Cotonou down to uptown. The merchant Navy job is in water transportation, cargo vessels, tankers, creek operations, inland water ways, offshore, service vessels, harbour handling, FPSO's. Our programmes are these; we are going to have a press release and adverts in the national papers, we are retrieving all our Identity Cards, we would send the new copy to all the security agencies and will give a deadline after which, anybody that parades that ID Card is on his own. That is one. Secondly, we will also find out from the Corporate Affairs Commission that registers companies to tell them that nobody should go by the name Merchant Navy because it is government property. The Merchant Navy is a peculiar body made for a purpose. If they have registered anybody they should write them and withdraw it. The use of uniform is not allowed unless onboard ships. So we are coming out with very stringent measures to curb the abuse of the uniforms, and if anybody is caught using the uniform unless onboard ships, he is on his own not to talk of using it for illegal activities of escorting tokumbo cars, rice or turkey from Seme or entering vehicles without payment of fares and others.
Have you been able to arrest any body using the uniform for illegal activities or been able to use someone as a scapegoat?
It is not our duty to arrest. We have been having consultations with the Navy, Police etc. We try to educate them that this is wrong and it is not good, but we are now coming to make it a national issue due to the embarrassment we are receiving. This body is also a major stakeholder with NIMASA. As a nation, we are supposed to know the number of seafarers that we have.
Considering the fact that virtually every security personnel use the uniforms on the street of Lagos to board vehicles without paying fares. Do you think the measures you are taking will work?
It has to work because we are not using the same uniforms. We are calling the Lagos state government to come out openly and make it clear that every uniform person have to pay fares. In Ghana, no military personnel live within the populace, they live in their barracks and when they come out they are respected. It was so in Nigeria before. Every year we are recruiting, at times I wonder if we are recruiting criminals that do not have a place to go.
What has the meetings you have had with the police so far produced?
No, I can see that there is communication gap. When you write to the IG it ends up with him maybe he does not even see it. We have sent letters to the IG, they were received and stamped, I doubt if the IG has seen that because he does not receive it directly. I want to believe that every first week the police have security meetings where all the commissioners of police meet with the IG. If he received the letter, it should be one of the agenda in the meeting.
Talking about the issue of piracy, how pervasive is it in this country especially with the presence of security agencies bent on curbing the menace.
Forget that, last week two vessels were attacked at Calabar river and a sailor was killed by pirates. For me, we are deceiving ourselves. We don't have pirates but militants. I said the security personnel know them. The politicians know the Bakkasi Freedom Fighters (BFF) operating in Calabar river. Our sailors said the militants came with new speed boats, who bought that for them.
That means 2011 would be dangerous?
That is why I told you that we are entering into another era of militancy and piracy establishment. The Niger Delta youths cannot eat two square meals a day, the habitation is zero, how can they think of buying guns? How can the man that cannot feed himself buy guns? Why did the man buying the guns not buy for his son, relations? We need sanity and every hands must be on deck to achieve it. If every other Nigerian will do what he is supposed to do, we will get to where we are going quicker. It is exemplary lifestyle, the trust people have for President Goodluck Jonathan that is keeping him there.
It still beats my imagination how piracy will be thriving in this country when we have Nigerian Navy, Marine Police, NIMASA is supposed to be in charge of safety and safety of merchant shipping etc. if these agencies are functioning, why do we still have these series of attacks unchallenged?
NIMASA has an helicopter, how many times have you seen that helicopter flying? How many times have you seen NIMASA chopper flying for surveillance reasons? NIMASA cannot maintain a chopper it is political reasons, enrichment of individuals.
Does it mean they don't have the funds to maintain a chopper?
They cannot do that. Which money do they have and with the money they have what have they done to help seafarers in this country? The pilot must upgrade himself with the number of times he flies. If he does not fly for one month, he has to go for refresher course to touch the chopper. Chopper business becomes regular when it is profit oriented. We expected NIMASA to have gone into partnership with chopper operators and use them whenever they want to go on surveillance and pay, not to buy a chopper and maintain the chopper. When you keep your car for one month without driving it, go and start it again, you will hear one problem or the other have befallen the car. NIMASA made a mistake, they should have gone into partnership with chopper operators or buy the chopper and give it to them to manage and make profit and any time they want to go on surveillance, they use it. The marine police cannot go offshore because they don't have what it takes to go. I said it. They don't have what it takes to pass the breakwaters. Even the creeks they are to monitor, they have not started. Before we were born, Defence budget is always the highest. The Navy ship, Aradu was going to Brazil, when they got there they celebrated because everybody was afraid the vessel was going to break down. What has gone out of this country all these years is enough to give us a solid Navy. They are partnering with NIMASA to refurbish their vessel because NIMASA has become a public fund raising agency for every body. It is a very rich parastatal that everybody go there to suck money.
That means the Naval allocation in the federal budget is enough to cater for their needs?
The Defence budget is more than education. What has the defence got to do with NIMASA to assist them financially? They even went as low as trawler owners association to assist them. God will judge all of them. If we talk from now till tomorrow we will not stop.