E-mail reveals ‘Akolo wanted sweetener for Ramanlals over cargo ship deal

An e-mail by a former Finance Minister Lisiate ‘Akolo has revealed that the Tongan government urged a potential buyer of the MV St Theresa to help pay the owners’ loan with their bank in New Zealand.

‘Akolo asked Mosese Uele, director of EZI World Cargo in Auckland, to pay  10 – 15 percent in advance for the owners, the Ramanlal family, as part of a settlement payment to their bank.

The Minister also made it clear he would regard Uele’s purchase of the ship as a boost to his own plans to develop export markets for Vava'u.

The St Theresa was eventually bought by the Friendly Island Shipping Agency (FISA) for about TP$1.5 million (NZ$950,000)

The 35 year-old boat was re-named the MV Niuvakai by His Majesty King Tupou VI yesterday.

The purchase fuelled speculation and suspicion in Tonga and many people took to Facebook to raise their concerns.

‘Akolo said in the e-mail that the government was negotiating with the bank to defer any action on the ship because the government was helping possible buyers, including FISA, purchase the ship.

‘Akolo strongly encouraged Uele to buy the ship.

“We have talked to their NZ bank to stall taking action on the ship as we (Government) are assisting you (and others like Friendly Islands Shipping Agency) to buy the ship,” Akolo wrote to Uele.

“Needless to say, that your positive comments would help the Ramanlal's bank to save taking action on them, and takeover the ship. It will then be difficult to guarantee access to it as the bank could sell to other customers in the shipping market,” he said.

 “The Ramanlals are given the 17th December to sell the ship, and reduce their debts… let me know immediately so that we (including government) try to negotiate with FISA and other likely potential buyers to take over the ship”.  

‘Akolo told Uele the Ramanlals would appreciate an advance payment which would ease their financial problems.

This would mean there would be no need to negotiate with FISA or other potential buyers like the Eua Shipping Services. ‘Akolo said he was thinking of asking the government to help Eua Shipping services if FISA did not become involved.

“Please let me know of this possibility to pass on to the Ramanlals to be included in their negotiations with their bank in attempting to stall the sale of the ship to other buyers,” ‘Akolo wrote.

The former Finance Minister told Uele he was  “very keen that you get the ship, not only to boost your cargo/trade business but also help me, Viliami Latu and Samiu Vaipulu in a joint effort to develop export markets for Vava'u. This is one of the things they need most and it would be easier to work with you than FISA and others.”

Uele’s response:

Uele did not deny the e-mail obtained by Kaniva News was his, but said he did not intend to buy the ship because of what ‘Akolo told him about the Ramanlals.

“I was not interested in the Ramanlasl and their loan,” Uele said

“I was only interesting at seeing if I could buy it to help my company’s service.”

Uele told ‘Akolo he had been advised against buying the St Theresa. 

He said he was “open for further negotiation at a cost of not more than one million TOP but that too remains uncertain”.

In his e-mail to ‘Akolo, Uele said the ship’s crane could only lift 4.5 tons and the cost of re-fitting a 10 ton crane would be a serious factor in considering the price being asked.

He said the biggest problem was that the ship could only make a profit if it was restricted to voyages of three days.

Calculations based on the cost of fuel, operational costs and cargo carrying capacity meant it could only profitably sail to neighbouring countries like Fiji, Samoa and American Samoa, Niue and Wallis and Futuna.

He said the only reason he was interested in buying a cargo ship was for voyages to New Zealand and the St Therese would be guaranteed to lose money because it would take a minimum of five or six days to sail there from Tonga.

FISA

FISA’s CEO Vakautaupola Vi told Kaniva  News the shipping company turned the Ramanlals down the first time they tried to sell them the St Theresa.

He said FISA only bought the St Theresa because the price of  other ships they looked at, including one in the Caribbean, were  either too high or because it would have cost too much to bring them to Tonga.

Vi denied FISA bought the ship to help the Ramanlals with their struggle to pay back their loan for the ship.

He said the newly re-named ship would take food crops and produce from Tonga to other neighbouring countries.

When he was told a company in Auckland had turned down an offer to purchase the ship because it would lose money on voyages lasting longer than three days, Vi said FISA had tested the ship and he had recommended it. 

An expert has told Kaniva News the MV Niuvakai as the St Theresa is now known,  would take four to six days to travel  to Samoa and return to Tonga.

The MV Niuvakai does not have a crane that can lift 20 feet containers and many people have questioned FISA’s statement that the ship would transport building materials to Ha’apai, which suffered severe damage in the recent cyclone.

Tongans in Auckland who wanted to send material to Tonga to help with reconstruction faced a problem when they discovered there is no ship that can take their containers to the outer islands. Not many ships serve Tonga from Auckland.

Vi said FISA would unpack loads on big containers and put them into smaller one before taking them to Ha’apai.

“Ha’apai does not have the infrastructure to cater for the 20 feet containers, so there is no use of having a ship with such capabilities,” he said.

The Ramanlals

When asked why the government became involved in the Ramanlals’ private business, ‘Aholotu Palu, Acting Secretary to Cabinet told Kaniva News to contact the Ministry of Enterprise.

The Minister of Public Enterprise Service, Hon Fe’ao Vakata did not return our call. 

The Ramanlal brothers were close friends of the late King George V while he was a Grown Prince and then when he became king.

The elder, Joseph Ramanlal, has a court case pending after he was charged with attempting to smuggle inland goods without going through custom authority at the wharf in 2012.

The goods, including food for Joseph Ramanlal’s son’s birthday were transported to Tonga by the St Theresa, which anchored off shore. A yacht belonged to the Ramanlals brought the goods ashore, where customs officers and police were waiting.

According to the Customs Act, people convicted of smuggling can face a 10 year imprisonment term or a fine of a TP$100,000 (NZ$63,000) or both.  

Facebook

Tongan Facebook users have criticised the deal, saying the government should have supported private shipping companies like Uata Shipping.  

They also referred to other transport disputes, including one with Fly Niu and one over an alleged monopoly of shipping between Vava’u and Auckland. 

Some said the King has been degraded as he had been invited to name the ship yesterday yet he did not know what’s behind the purchase.

‘Akolo responded to Kaniva’s email and said he is attending a meeting and respond this evening. We will update you with further development.

The main points

  • The government-backed Friendly Island Shipping Agency (FISA) has bought the cargo vessel St Theresa for TP$1.5 million (NZ$950,000.
  • The 35 year-old cargo boat has been re-named the MV Niuvak.
  • An e-mail leaked to Kaniva News has revealed that the then Finance Minister, Lisiate ‘Akolo tried to persuade a potential buyer to make an advance payment to the owners.
  • However the owner turned down the request and the chance to buy the 35 years-old vessel because it would lose money on any voyage lasting more than three days.

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