The rebirth of the Naval Dockyard
It shone a bright light through the darkening gloom in a nation that appears to have domesticated bad news. I am talking about the commissioning of 118 ships and boats by President Muhammadu Buhari at the Naval Dockyard, Lagos, on November 29. One of the ships was the NNS Oji, in navy parlance, “a seaward defence boat” locally built by the Nigerian Navy.
Buhari said he was delighted, as indeed he should proudly be, that the new defence boat “is the third of its series to be built locally at the Naval Dockyard Limited, Lagos, solely by our navy engineers.”
The navy chief as well as his officers and men should be equally proud of their accomplishments. As citizens, the rest of us must cherish the progress the navy is making towards its own greatness and the greatness of our nation. When we celebrate accomplishments such as this, we remind ourselves that a nation makes progress not by leaps but by incremental steps towards a defined goal.
It is important to tell the story of the Naval Dockyard to show that its eventual success story was a long journey through the winding paths of shenanigans and bad belle. Its success is the triumph of a broad vision of our potential greatness over short-sightedness – the blight that has held our nation hostage since independence. To paraphrase President Ibrahim Babangida, this has forced us to periodically witness our rise towards greatness only to drop down to the nadir of our small-mindedness and the abrupt halt in our forward march towards the sunrise.
The story of the Naval Dockyard needs to be told to illustrate, among other things, how our leaders inflict injuries on our nation and reduce our long strides to long stretches by a midget. The dockyard was virtually dead for some 15 years. Its rebirth owes more than anything to the dream of one man, Vice-Admiral Murtala Nyako, former chief of naval staff and later deputy chief of defence staff.
From what I have been able to piece together, the Naval Dockyard was set up by the General Yakubu Gowon military administration sometime in 1974. Good money, in dollars, was committed to its prosecution under the chief of staff, navy, as the position was known then, Rear-Admiral Nelson Bossman Soroh. A naval dockyard is critical to all modern navies. In our case, it was intended, first to undertake minor repairs of naval ships; it would then graduate to major repairs and refitting and eventually become a shipbuilding dockyard. It would save the country tonnes of money in foreign exchange. The navy has more or less attained each milestone. But things could have moved faster for it and the nation had successive administrations remained committed to it as a major national vision of making Nigeria a regional military power.
Construction work that began on the dockyard in 1975 was scaled down after the overthrow of Gowon that year. Work was eventually abandoned on the multi-million-dollar project in 1977. To go ahead with it was to give credit to the man who lost his throne to those who thought they had a better idea of making Nigeria great. This has been the fate of most of our projects conceived towards the development of the country. With its abandonment, the nation’s hope was held in abeyance; the Nigerian Navy remained dependent on foreign dockyards to repair and refit its ships at an increasingly heavy cost to the national purse. The dockyard was taken over by weeds and reptiles. Nature abhors a vacuum.
One man who had sleepless nights over the fate of the Naval Dockyard was Navy Captain (as he was then) Murtala Nyako. As director of naval operations (the position was later renamed chief of naval operations), Nyako wrote copious position papers on two important challenges faced, namely, the dependence of the service on foreign naval help. He argued that the time had come for the Nigerian Navy to domesticate the training of naval personnel and the revival of the dockyard to fulfil its primary objectives and, to use modern political parlance, move the navy forward in its ambition for self-sufficiency. Those papers probably flew over hills, but they failed to move mountains.
In Footprints on Marble, the biography of Admiral Nyako, I wrote: “Nyako watched the fate of the project with mounting anguish. He knew what the navy and the country were losing to the abandoned (dockyard) project. He confided in a few close friends in the navy that if it pleased God to make him the service chief, the completion of the dockyard would be his number one priority.” God gave him the thumbs up.
He was appointed the navy boss in January 1990. He needed no one to tell him that the ball had landed squarely in his court. How he played it would determine his place in the development of the Nigerian Navy. He set to work immediately on his number one priority – the completion of the Naval Dockyard in the time it takes to say, ahoy! He made a daring move by promising President Babangida that with his co-operation and support, he would present the completed Naval Dockyard to him as a special gift on the fifth anniversary of his administration. Babangida, ever the informed gambler, took him up on his ambition and provided Nyako with the financial support he needed. On August 27, 1990, Nyako delivered on his promise to the commander-in-chief and thus opening a new chapter in the development of the Nigerian Navy.
Babangida noted in his speech at the occasion of the commissioning of the Naval Dockyard that the “event will mark a milestone in the history of the Nigerian Navy, the Nigerian nation and black Africa as it would be the first time (that) a dockyard project of this magnitude for the commissioning of ships would come on stream in the country or any black African nation.”
According to Nyako, “the project was embarked upon in the 1970s to back the acquisition of very modern ships which were then in the pipeline… The Naval Dockyard was meant to provide comprehensive capabilities to overhaul the machinery, equipment and systems of ships …as it had dawned on the navy that having heavily armed, sophisticated ships is one thing, the ability to support them is quite another.”
This, really, is not necessarily about Nyako as the authentic architect of the rebirth of the Naval Dockyard. I have gone to this length to tell the story of the Naval Dockyard to make a few points about the greatness that continues to elude our country. The country lost 15 years here. Our country has never been in want of men and women with grand visions of its greatness and is committed to it. But our nation has systematically been hobbled in its aspirations by men and women in high places who fail to realise that a nation builds the blocks of its greatness through small steps that add up to great things. Nigeria cannot be an economic powerhouse without first putting its house in order as a military powerhouse. It can accomplish neither with gigantic public contracts that merely celebrate wastage.
The landscape of our nation is littered with well-conceived projects, big and small, envisioned to move us as a nation from point A to B and from B to C, etc. The movement is quite often hobbled by a lack of consistency such that whatever a previous administration embarked upon is abandoned by a new administration. It is only in our country that the country begins again with each new administration at federal and state levels.
The Defence Industries Corporation of Nigeria was created by an act of parliament in 1964. I am told this was also the time its Brazilian equivalent was set up. Ours was cynically neglected. Think of what difference it would have made to our national defence had its factory continued to hum since 1964. Brazil is a success story; Nigeria is a story of failure that grates on our collective nerves.
The late Alhaji Lateef Jakande, the acting governor of Lagos State, decided to do for the Lagos metropolis what similar cities do to ease transportation by constructing an underground railway. But when the military returned in 1983/84, the project was scrapped, not because it was ill-conceived but because it was conceived by a civilian administration. In keeping with the well-oiled military propaganda, it must have been wrong and it must have been corrupt. The Tinubu administration in the state revived it as a surface railway to achieve the same purpose, albeit at a higher cost to the state.
Think of the Peugeot, Volkswagen and other motor assembly plants conceived as a first step towards eventually making our own vehicles the same way that India and Brazil approached the same challenge. I need not go on. The Naval Dockyard was saved by Nyako fully supported by Babangida. And we are all crowing. The lesson from our rise and fall is that great minds have great visions and small minds have destructive visions. I say no more.