President Goodluck Jonathan has vowed to intensify the Federal Government's efforts to stamp out crude oil theft in the Niger Delta region, promising to deal decisively with anyone caught in the criminal activity.
The president, who spoke at a presidential retreat on the maritime sector with the theme, 'Harnessing the Potential of Nigeria's Maritime Sector for Sustainable Economic Development', at the Presidential Villa in Abuja yesterday, said that the rising incidents of illegal oil bunkering had decelerated economic development and was causing embarrassment to the nation in the eyes of the global community.
Jonathan's threat came in the wake of revelations that the country loses over N2 trillion annually to foreign countries through capital flight, as a result of the inability of indigenous ship owners to fully participate in lifting over 150 million tons of cargo from the country, including crude oil exports.
Jonathan, who lashed out at both Nigerians and foreigners crude oil thieves, added that they will have no place to hide as his administration was determined to fish them out and bring them to justice.
According to the president, oil thieves should "throw their heads under the pillow" in shame, for their nefarious activities.
"It is embarrassing that it is only in Nigeria that crude oil is stolen. It is very bad news and I believe that Nigerians and foreigners who indulge in the act need to throw their heads under the pillow because all over the world it is only in Nigeria that crude oil is stolen.
"We are not the only oil producing country why is it that it is only in Nigeria that people steal crude oil? This must stop and we will be decisive in putting an end to this malaise.
Turning to the maritime sector, Jonathan said: "The sector without doubt, facilitates approximately 90 per cent of world trade with Nigeria, creates millions of jobs and generates billions of dollars in economic output. The sector, to say the least, is a major engine in our national growth strategy.
The president said that owing to the importance of the maritime sector in the national economy, the Federal Government has an uncompromising obligation to safeguard the country's territorial waters against all threats.
These, he said, included poaching, piracy, pipeline vandalism, coastal insecurity, crude oil theft, illegal bunkering, non-payment of statutory levies and charges, illegal entry of ships into our territorial waters, illegal importation of arms and hard drugs, and other sundry crimes.
"Even though it is generally known that the West African coast has the richest fishery resources in Africa, our inability to take advantage of our endowment has been attributed to inadequate law enforcement and industry capacity.
"The cost of piracy to our economy is unacceptably high. Pirates frustrate fishing activities and threaten investments in the West African coast. Higher insurance premiums and charges on ships sailing along the Gulf of Guinea impact negatively on our economy and image.
The president assured that the government was determined to reverse this situation, to protect the country's natural resources and ensure their sustainable use for the benefit of present and future generations.
Speaking at the occasion the Coordinating Minister of the Economy and Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, lamented that the country was losing a lot to inadequate maritime safety and insecurity, stressing, "You will hear more as we look as the issue of oil theft and piracy. The numbers are up on piracy incidence in the Gulf of Guinea from 45 in 2010 to 64 now and this is worrisome.
On the issue of increasing local participation in the sector and carbortage, the minister quoted the Indigenous Ship Owners Association of Nigeria as stating that the country now loses over N2 trillion annually in capital flight to foreign countries, which own vessels used to lift about 150 million tons of cargo, including oil products, due to absence of a Nigerian flag ship to ply international routes. "Nigerian owned vessels make up less than one percent of the global fleet and are quite old with an average of 30 years of age," hse said.
Iweala disclosed that though the presidential retreat would focus on harnessing the potentials of the nation's maritime sector and "come up with concrete initiatives that we can implement over the next six to 18 months to allow Nigerians to harness the opportunities we have in the sector."
On the significance of the sector, she noted that the maritime sector facilitates trade and commerce and enables the country export its goods as well as earn foreign exchange amongst other.
"The sector also generates significant revenue for government basically through customs and excise duties, and by leveraging our maritime resources
such as fishing. In addition, a significant number of Nigerians are employed by the sector," she added.
At the end of the retreat, the Minister of Transport, Senator Idris Umar, disclosed that an executive bill that would compel international companies operating in the country patronise indigenous vessel owners was in the offing.
Making this known to State House correspondents yesterday, the minister said that once the bill is drafted it will be sent to the National Assembly.
Idris explained that the bill was an executive effort to harness the potentials in the maritime sector, which was being eroded through a conspiracy of multinational oil corporations who own vessels but refuse to do business with Nigerian firms.
According to the Minister, "There are people who are complaining that they have acquired vessels but their vessels are not patronised by the oil companies. So we are going to look at this, if it is legislation, if it is a policy issue we are going to look at this."
Idris further assured that government has put in place the enabling environment for investors in the transport sector to thrive, saying, "If the private sector was not faring well under the present policy, the concessions at the ports would have been a total failure and all of them would have backed out of the agreement. So the government is living up to expectation."
In his contribution, the Director General of the Nigeria Maritime Administration Safety Agency (NIMASA), Patrick Ziakede Akpobolokemi blamed civil service bureaucracy as the factor militating against what would have been an excellent performance by the agency.
"The greatest challenge in the maritime sector is bureaucracy; it is a little bit frustrating. Getting things done is frustrating. Maritime administration should be run as maritime administration," he insisted.
Meanwhile, a 15-man committee that will be responsible for charting a course for the effective running of the maritime sector has been inaugurated by the President at the end of one-day Presidential Retreat on Maritime Security, Monday.
Chaired by the Minister of Transport, Senator Idris Umar, with popular maritime lawyer, Olisa Agbokoba (SAN), as the vice-chairman, the committee is expected to draw up roadmap for effective maritime operations in the country.
Similarly, it is charged with the responsibility of specifically looking at all the issues deliberated on at the retreat and recommend workable solutions that are feasible within a timeline.
The members of the Committee are the Director General of NIMASA, Mr Patrick Akpobolokemi, the Senior Special Adviser to the President on Maritime, Mr Leke Oyelese and the Managing Director of the Nigeria Maritime Authority, Alhaji Omar Suleiman. Others are the Chairman of Indigenous Ship Owners Association of Nigeria, Chief Isaac Jolapamo, the Chairperson Seaport Terminal Operators Association of Nigeria, Mrs Vicky Harstrup and former Managing Director of Zenith Bank Plc, Mr Jim Ovia.
Also in the committee are the Comptroller-General of Customs, Alhaji Dikko Umar and the Special Adviser to the President on Project Monitoring who will represent the Minister of Finance, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-weala, the Chief of Naval Staff, the Minister of Petroleum Resources, Attorney-General of the Federation and the Secretary to the Government of the Federation would send a representative each as members of the committee.