Johnson appraises challenges, opportunities of Africa’s sea power in new book

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By Anote Ajeluorou

AFRICA is a continent evidently challenged almost on all fronts except its riches in natural resources. But even this God-given blessing is also challenged as Africa is unable to transform them into tangible benefits for her people who largely live on the margins of hunger, unemployment and acute want. And so in Michael Akinsola Johnson’s new book on marine opportunities, African ranks lowest in almost all indices. Perhaps, only in the continent’s aviation industry can a measure of success recorded mostly by countries like South Africa, Ethiopia and Kenya. There’s no rail linking African countries together yet. And in terms of maritime industry, Africa lags behind other continents as Johnson shows in his book, Developmental Challenges of Sea Power in Africa: Securing Ships, Ports and People (Origami – an imprint of Parresia Publishers Ltd, Lagos; 2022).

A retired Rear Admiral of the Nigerian Navy (NN), Johnson writes from a vantage position having been a player in the Nigerian Navy for some 35 years. This gives him a bird’s eye view of the situation. And like other writers about Nigeria and Africa’s maritime business have noted, both country and continent rank least in opportunity optimisation in that critical segment. While a writer and ship owner like Greg Ogbeifun (Potentials of Nigeria’s Maritime Economy) dwells only on commercial shipping business and the many lost opportunities, Johnson takes it further to include Nigeria and Africa’s weak naval strength as well as poor commercial optimisation of maritime potential. Johnson speaks to both the military and commercial challenges Africa faces in her coastlines and how she was getting the least trade benefits to enrich her peoples.

The seven chapters in Johnson’s book speak to the various aspects the sea could be put to better use to benefit Africa. Although the subject of Johnson’s book is continent-wide, his main focus is Nigeria, which in a sense approximates the entire continent, with the caveat being that if Nigeria got her maritime priority right, the rest of Africa might fall into line. Indeed, the problems that are peculiar to Nigeria are a reflection of a continent-wide malaise. While African is rich natural resource-wise, she is poor in managing those resources coupled with her poor technological development, as she is unable to convert her natural resources to finished goods to export to other continents the way other continents dump their finished goods on Africa. This is of immense worry to Johnson who believes that Africa, nay Nigeria, could do better than she was currently doing.

The seven engaging chapters in Johnson’s book include ‘The Mighty Ocean,’ ‘Mariners’ Ordeals,’ ‘Maritime Governance,’ ‘Constructing the Steel Behemoths,’ ‘Collective Regional Initiatives,’ and ‘Shaping the Future.’ These chapters give Johnson a handle to proper engage the challenges in Africa’s maritime industry.
“Although Nigeria’s maritime industry has grown,” Johnson writes, “its evaluation reveals that it contributes an average of 1.6 per cent to Nigeria’s GDP. In comparison, Singapore’s maritime industry contributes about 7 per cent to its GDP.”

Weak government’s policies and regulation, high port tax and tariffs, and poor investment in the maritime industry are some of the reasons why Nigeria is yet to benefit optimally from her maritime industry.
For most in Africa, the Ocean is an alien phenomenon. They may live close to it but never know it, never venture into it, its vastness a source of awe to many. So Johnson starts his journey from here in his first chapter ‘The Mighty Ocean’, to acquaint his readers with the concept of the sea and how he and man are impacting each other. While man derives all the benefits from the sea in terms of food, navigation and discovery, global economic gains, naval military activities, man, on the other hand, has been the sea’s prime source of pollution – oil spills, plastic dump, and human waste, etc.

“The sea has always been a veritable source of food and path to exploration, trade and prosperity throughout history,” Johnson writes. “The sea is vast as it covers almost 75 per cent of the earth’s surface while it holds 97 per cent of the earth’s water. Nearly 90 per cent of the world’s trade travel by sea on merchant ships. Archival records show that 50,000 merchant ships, 1.5 million seafarers in over 150 nations, and 11 billion tons of cargo use the oceans for commercial purposes.”

From the above, Johnson gives a panoramic view of the importance of the sea to man and how his very survival depends on the sea. However, Nigeria and Africa play very negligible part in all this vast opportunity.
But it’s not all benefits, as Johnson writes. The sea could also be hazardous. Millions have perished at sea, including Nigerian seafarers: “The year 1989 was particularly tragic in its global history of maritime accidents as 33 ships were lost. A Nigerian National Shipping Line (NNSL) vessel River Gurara set sail for Dublin and Liverpool from San Pedro…” The ship never made it. The captain plus 20 members of the crew died. River Gurara was scheduled for major repairs in 1987, but typical with most things Nigerian, this was not done. Two years later, the accident happened. The distress calls the ship made were ignored because of Nigeria’s poor reputation in meeting its statutory obligations to international partners.

Sea piracy and armed robbery are some of the challenges bedevilling maritime life in much of Africa. The Gulf of Guinea and the Gulf of Aden in East Africa are rife with such sea criminal activities that the world naval forces are battling given Africa’s weak naval power. In Nigeria alone, crimes in the sea also include brazen crude oil theft that numbs the mind. In 2003 African Pride stole 11,000 tons of crude oil, but it disappeared in circumstances that beggar belief. The late terrorist Osama Bin Laden used his shipping line to deliver explosives that were allegedly used to destroy the American embassy in Kenya. The sea can be deployed for good as well as for evil.

No doubt, Johnson’s Developmental Challenges of Sea Power in Africa: Securing Ships, Ports and People is a valuable book on sea power and how Africa can catch up with developed nations. The overall aim is for Africa and Nigeria to benefit from the billion dollar trading activities that take place in her coastal waters. Africa is lagging behind greatly. Africa neither builds ships nor able to repair most of the ships that ply her waters. Almost all the global ships doing business in Nigeria are owned by foreign shippers. Only an insignificant number of Nigerian ship operators are involved since Nigerian carrier NNSL was grounded years ago. This is not good enough for a country in dire need of employment opportunities for its youthful population and government’s dwindling revenues.

Johnson’s book is therefore a template for developing the ample resources and opportunities that abound in Nigeria and Africa’s maritime industry. In the last chapter ‘Shaping the Future,’ Johnson is advocating a workable maritime strategy that can benefit Nigeria and Africa. And as Johnson writes, “The challenges within Africa’s maritime space are daunting. And unless one goes to sea, these problems may not be readily seen… A maritime strategy needs to consider landlocked neighbours with a clear focus on wealth creation arising from sustainable governance of Nigeria’s inland waters, oceans and seas. Without a maritime strategy, Nigeria may not tap beyond 20 per cent of the resources within its maritime environment.”

For Johnson therefore, collaborative efforts between private sector players and government is the needed panacea for resolving Nigeria and Africa’s maritime industry deficit that has denied country and continent maximum naval and commercial benefits.

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