MR Hassan Bello is the Executive Secretary, Nigerian Shippers Council, NSC. In this interview, Bello, a lawyer of long standing shares his views on the powers of the council, the challenges of regulating the maritime sector, the challenge the Apapa gridlock poses on ports operations and sundry national issues.
By Innocent Anaba
THE Federal Government recently appointed the Shippers Council as economic regulator in the maritime sector, how far have you gone with this assignment and what are the challenges of this responsibility?
The appointment is a confirmation of the fact that Shippers’ Council has always had some regulatory powers. The Federal Government has shown so much concern about activities at the ports, the government has realised the importance of the ports to the economy of this country.
So, it has made efforts to ensure that our ports are efficient, competitive and positioned to contribute to the national economy wellbeing substantially. According to the concession agreement, there ought to be an economic regulator right from the onset, but coming right now, it is not too late, but you will agree with me that we have a peculiar task because the game had already started when we were introduced. But all the same, because of our pedigree and experience at the NSC, we have been able to brace up to address the situation.
How are you going about this responsibility?
The first thing we did was to have wide consultation with all the stakeholders and this consultation has yielded a lot of positive results. Because we have been welcomed warmly, we are now an arbiter, the referee, we neutral and transparent. But most of all, we are scientific. All we want to do is to sanitise the ports to make sure that our ports are friendly and efficient; to make sure that our ports are competitive and ensure that Nigeria becomes the hub of the trade in the region. Since that time, we have been on it and we have met with all the segments of the ports system and even beyond. We are talking with the truckers, the freight forwarders, the terminal operators, the shipping companies, the Nigerian Ports authority, NPA, Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Authority, NIMASA, Nigerian Customs Service, Immigration and so on. We have gone to them and explained our roles in the system and now we are consolidating.
How are you consolidating?
We have started actual negotiation with the Shippers. We now want to remove arbitrariness, a situation where people or some section fix prices without reference to the Nigerian Shippers Council, be you NPA, terminal operator of a freight forwarder, it must now be understood that there is an economic regulator. We are on the right path, it is not a quick fix and I also know how impatient Nigerians are, they should give us time to firm up our activities before the results will manifest.
Already, we have abrogated certain charges and this will go a long way in consolidating our position, but ours is not just to abrogate charges, but to make sure that each participant or player in the port industry does its work properly, efficiently, with high level of transparency within the ambit of the law in the overall interest of Nigerian economy.
What level of support have you enjoyed from the government and operators in the port system in pursuance of these objectives?
We have had tremendous support from the Bureau of Public Enterprises, BPE, they have given us tremendous support. We also have had support from Nigerian Customs Service, the Immigration, players like the shipping companies and terminal operators, the freight forwarders. So, we are going scientifically, systematically, openly and transparently to do these things.
A corollary to good port system is a good and efficient transport system. Apapa road has become a nightmare of a sort in recent times, how does this affect your regulatory role in the ports? What steps have you taken to make sure good are seamlessly moved to and fro the Nigerian ports?
The Federal Government is so concerned about what is happening in Apapa that they have taken practical steps to find a solution to it.
The Special Assistant to the President on Valuation and Monitoring of project, Prof. Monye Sylvester together with the Special Assistant to the President on Maritime Affairs, Mr Olugbenga Oyewole, Shippers Council, NPA, other stakeholders had a meeting recently. The role given to us was to co-ordinate how to us out of the problem.
Some part of the road are motorable, there is no call system or any system at all put in place to make sure that only trailers that need to be there are there. So, what you have is chaos and chaos will not bring sanity at all, it makes the port environment unwholesome, so the Shippers Council has been given the same role of coordinating to free the road and we are now talking to the Federal Roads Maintenance Agency, FERMA. A task force that has been set up, we are talking to Lagos State Government and so many other agencies.
It is the whole system of traffic management that has to be overhauled. We have trucks, most of them unserviceable trucks coming to carry goods, there is so much accident on the way, the trailers, the containers are not latched to the body of the trailers, now these are some of the infringements. The containers fall on the roads and block everywhere, this cannot continue to happen.
There must be a well regulated system, which Shippers Council is right now talking with the Federal Government.
How do you intend to do this?
We want to make sure that even the truckers must have a system. For example, you cannot for example register unless you have a number of trucks, you must have an office, you must have a tracking system and other facilities.
What we have now is one man with his motor boy, it is the motor boys between 17 and 81 years of age that drive those trucks. The owner is somewhere sleeping and waiting for his motor boys to bring money to him, that kind of things can never happen again.
So, we want to reorganise the truckers for their own benefits. We have to inspect the vehicles together with the Federal Road Safety Corps, the Vehicle Inspection Officers and so on, there must be some conditions and criteria for them to operate, so Shippers Council is bringing the whole system together with the NPA and other stakeholders. Secondly, in respect of our traffic management and our truck management system, we ought to have a tracking base, we need to have an effective marshalling yard so that these trailers are well parked when they are not needed, up to the gate of the NPA, there ought to be some electronic platform, a call system so that trucks are called in only when they are needed, it not like what obtains now where you see a lot of vehicles and people moving up and down, doing nothing actually, we are advocating that there must be a system in place.
People have advocated for the relocation of the tank farms as a solution to the problem, what is your reaction to this?
The tank farms are also causing some obstruction at the ports no doubts, we must also find the best way to manage them. It is not just saying remove the tank farms or don’t remove them. No, we are studying the system to see how best we can handle the situation. Apapa ports are city ports and accesses to the ports are mainly by roads. A port should have other modes of transport, they should have well defined expansive rail system and linkage with inland waterways, so that goods are effectively evacuated, but here, we have roads and these roads are not exclusive to the ports, they also lead to other places and are equally used by individuals. All of us use the port roads, including the trucks and tankers, you can imagine the chaos and the attendant challenges, that will not happen in other ports that we are developing in the country.
How are you coping with the human and material resources to prosecute the transformation agenda of the Federal Government in the maritime sector of our economy?
The first thing that we did was the gap analysis, what do we need internally first as Shippers Council and you know that we have some deficit in terms of capacity and we have started addressing that. We had serious intensive courses for our staff, which is a serious thing because if you are regulating, you have to be more educated and informed than the people you are regulating. We also need a new cultural orientation, the orientation is that we not a travel a cargo biased institution any more, we are now the referee, we carter for everybody in the industry because we need this harmony, symmetry and unity.
Increase in efficiency
The NPA was supposed to add some charges for example, but we had to stop that. We had to talk to the NPA for them to increase their efficiency in the services they provide, the number of tugboats they are supposed to have among others. We are not only hard on shipping companies or terminal operators, no, we want everybody to perform the responsibilities set out for them. We have to realise that the shipping companies, the terminal operators have made tremendous investment in Nigerian economy and since they came, since the ports were privatised, the port system has never the same, there has been tremendous developments in leaps and bounds, it is revolutionary.
We have indicators that show positive developments, efficiency of the ports have increased by indicating turn around time for ships, shorter dwell time for cargo, but we are still not there and that is why Shippers’ Council is making sure that we are there.
Reforms of the ports
All aspects must come through reforms, the reform of the ports is the first thing, the Shippers Council is now the agent of this reform, we are going to advocate reform of the freight forwarders, reform of trucking companies, reform of the stevedores and reforms in many aspects of the maritime sector.
How do you finance these projects and how do you get the corresponding resources to fund the reforms at the ports?
Finance is also a handicap, finance in Nigeria is not easy to come by because of competing demands. What we are saying is that if we are given finance, we will definitely justify that, we will multiply that, enhance more revenue to the government through the Customs Service because when we streamline the procedure, in cargo clearance, access roads to the ports, then you will see Nigeria becoming a hub with the resultant increase in revenue up 10 folds increase in revenue. We will be justified, however, the Ministry of Transport as usual doing its best for us to has added revenue and funding, this has been addressed.
You recently held a conference for judges in the country. How did it go?
The 13th edition of the Maritime Seminar for Judges has been adjudged yet another success, what is frightening is that every time, we had this seminar, the bar keeps on rising. What was unique about the 13th edition of the seminar was that it was organised by a couple of young men in Nigerian Shippers Council, who were my successors in the Legal Department and you could see the difference they brought in, the innovation and this time, we had the highest participation of judges.
We had the Chief Justice of Nigeria, the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, the Minister of Transport, President Court of Appeal, Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, so all the heads of our superior courts of record were there.
Superior courts of record
We had six Supreme Court Justices, 31 Justices of the Court of Appeal, and 30 judges of the Federal High Court, but more instructive is that we about 80 judges from the states High Court. We also had about 54 members of the public, mostly lawyers, who paid a token fee to participate in the seminar.
We also had a representation from the Judiciary of Ghana, the Union of African Shippers with headquarters in Cameroon and also Niger Shippers Council. The chairman of the Senate Committee on Marine Transport, Senator Zainab Kure, was also there and we had representation from a cross-section of the maritime industry.