By Samson Echenim
It is no longer news that the Nigerian Shippers’ Council is driving private sector investment for building of transport infrastructures across the country. In this interview with SAMSON ECHENIM, Executive Secretary/Chief Executive Officer of NSC, Barr Hassan Bello speaks on the council’s determination to see to the completion of these infrastructures. He also spoke on the Council’s role in the Ease of Doing Business plan of the Federal Government, which has seen it through series of consultations with port stakeholders and advocacy for a fair pricing regime and healthy competition in Nigerian port.
The NSC as an agency of the Federal Ministry of Transportation is responsible for the coverage of the entire transportation chain and now working on huge infrastructural projects like the establishment of the Track Transit Parks, TTPs, to keep trucks, tankers and trailers off our highways. How far have you gone with this?
Yes, we have appointed the transaction advisers. Now we are in the processes of procurement. Some notices will be issued for interested investors to come and develop these parks and two of them in Ogbulafor, Enugu State and Lokoja, Kogi State State. Two of them will be like models. We had a presentation on the project recently. Again, this is a transport infrastructure the Nigerian Shippers’ Council is promoting; we are not the one building it, but it is going to be on PPP basis. We are just the enablers; we like the private sector to lead in this investment. This is a park, where you have hotels, garages, repair yards, restaurants and all the amenities relevant to the business. We’ve had tremendous enquiries from investors, who are willing to invest in the projects. We want to work with partners such as the Road Safety Corps and we have executed an MoU with them, because enforcement is very important. We are working most importantly with unions in the transport sector: National Union of Road Transport Workers, AMATO, REATAN , NUPENG and the luxurious bus owners. We want them to own the parks; we want them to invest in the projects, because if they own them, they will patronize them.
Recently, President Muhammadu Buhari commissioned an Inland Container Depot, ICD, also known as dry port in Kaduna, the first among many others being facilitated by the Council to operate as centres for shipment of cargo to and fro the hinterland. At what stages of completion are the remaining dry ports and what role is the Nigerian Shippers Council playing to ensure that concessionaires of these laudable projects that hold great promise for revenue generation and employment creation deliver on schedule?
You know these inland dry ports are all being concessioned to the private sector. So each investor has his own pace, even though it is our duty to accelerate the process. So we decided to give them a time frame, within which they are to deliver, or we revoke the concession. But it is not easy to build these infrastructures. I have seen a report where it was said that some have been abandoned. There is no one that has been abandoned, really. There are circumstances which may make a project seem almost impossible. For instance, in Jos, a governor went and demolished the dry port being constructed by a private investor because, maybe he didn’t like the project and then they were in court and so many things happened. However, because of the commitment of the concessionaire, that project is now 75 per cent completed. Yet, this is a port that suffered such a setback.
For the dry port in Funtua, lot of activities are also going on. We will soon embark on inspection of the port. In Abia State, the concessionaire single-handedly paid compensation to locals and they have technical partners. As soon as the issue of guarantee is clear with the state government, work will start at the Isiala Ngwa dry port in Abia State. Of course, we have Ibadan and Kano and we are talking with the concessionaires, because we are always ready to offer technical advice on investment—whether on access to finance or on contracts. The Minister of Transportation has been very supportive. His desire is how many people will get employment; so he is very concerned with the development of the ICDs and we hope this year, we will commission Jos and may be, Funtua. There are others too. We have one in Lolo in Kebbi State and the concessionaire is currently going through the processes of getting approval from the ICRC, as we are working with the ICRC too.
Our target therefore, is to see that there is inter-connectivity and utility of different infrastructure of transportation. We want to see the transport sector drive the economy; we want inclusiveness; we want growth of the sector; and we also want the transport industry to lead the employment content and in contribution to national GDP.
The House of Representatives recently passed the National Transport Commission Bill, which seeks to transmute the Nigerian Shippers’ Council to National Transport Commission, NTC. The bill is awaiting concurrence by the Senate. What should Nigerians expect from the new commission when it eventually takes off?
Yes, what we are going to be looking at is a lucid legal framework. Before now, it is not very clear in the industry on the issue of regulation, so you hear port operators complaining that the industry is over-regulated, because you have many agencies you are answering to. What we need is to be clear of the responsibilities and I think the NTC will do that. Now, if the Shippers’ Council, as the House of Representatives has advised, should be the nucleus of the Transport Commission, it is nothing new, but a validation of what the council has been doing. The Nigerian Shippers’ Council even in it its 1978 Act, has regulatory powers, but this will be enhanced.
You know, because competition is the heart of capitalism, but how you control it is another thing. We have a department called the Regulation Department and it has a unit called Competition, so it is focusing on that to establish competition and to ensure that there is no collusion. It is a kind of anti-trust if you allow people to come and set the prices among themselves. So, we are making an elaborate effort with the shipping companies to come out with a resolution acceptable to the market. We have been negotiating; we’ve been in negotiations for more than two months and we are close to reaching an agreement. In that system, we first of all make sure that no charges will be unilaterally placed on Nigerian people again. If you have charges you want to increase or decrease, you have to come to the NSC and negotiate before it is allowed, that’s number one. Number two, all the charges that were in force then, about 14 of them, have been reduced to four or five now. Thirdly, charges must be tied to services; you have to justify your charges as a port service provider and we have scientific tools at arriving at that. But even more importantly, we are using caps—maximum and minimum, and we give the shipping companies the leverage to choose between the top and bottom, so that the charges may not be uniform. So this is how we are going to attain competition. It will see that within a year, service providers will not go above a set maximum. So, going forward, we will see a situation, where an operator can reduce charges within the charge range to attract more customers. So, this is what we have done and we hope it brings about competition.
Attaining competitiveness among port operators is a core concept we have seen the NSC pursuing, especially since you took over the leadership of the council. How is NSC working to ensure a robust port environment and a level playing field for players in the port sector?
That’s a very good question, because we keep discussing this at management level. We are so focused on attaining competition because competition brings about efficiency. It also brings us to the level of having reasonable charges for port services. If you recall, when these GSM companies came to Nigeria, there was initially just one or two charging over N30,000 for a chip (SIM), but one more competitor joined the market and crashed the cost of chips. That is what competition does for consumers. I have not seen competition in our sector. I have not seen advertisements, where a terminal will say, come to us, we are better than the other operator. So, competition is very important because it means we are not operating a monopoly; it means the consumer of shipping services has a choice or option and the economy will be better for it.
I believe that all these are part of your efforts at securing your role in the Ease of Doing Business policy of the Federal Government. But as the nation’s Economic Regulator for the Ports, how would you properly situate the Nigerian Shippers Council within the Presidential Ease of Doing Business Initiative of the current administration?
Cargoes should not stay more than a day at the port, but be taken to these ICDs for processing and this is what is going to happen. So, the seaport is just a transit point for cargoes and if we attain this, that means we have done well. Ease of Doing Business for somebody in Isiala Ngwa is for him to go to a port in Isiala Ngwa to clear his cargo, instead of hiring a truck, going to Lagos, loading the cargo and coming back to Isiala Ngwa, with the attendant cost of transportation, risk to life and inconveniences. He can have a bill of laden which will show China-Isiala Ngwa and goods will be examined in the port and pay the duty there. And we are talking about building a huge industry in Isiala Ngwa.