The Executive Secretary/Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC), Mr. Hassan Bello though a lawyer is a man versed in shipping. After being on the saddle and experiencing the intrigues and demands of the seat, he told John Iwori that managing the contending interest in the port was not an easy task. He submitted that the present position where NSC was an economic regulator in the nation’s seaports placed an enormous responsibility on the Council which had been protecting interests of shippers over the years. He also spoke on many other national issues
The Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC) was eestablished in 1978, charged with the responsibility of protecting the interests of Nigerian shippers across the country. It carries out this function through the provision of what it called “adequate and up-to-date trade information” to Nigerian importers and exporters as well as the international business and shipping community. One of the ways it executes its roles and responsibilities is the provision of an avenue for port users to ventilate their grievances. It is called the Shippers’ Complaints Unit (SCU). The SCU attends to the numerous needs of shippers. To ensure that this gets to it target public, it has provided an enabling environment for the establishment of Shippers’ Associations all over the country.
These aside, NSC had also taken on other responsibilities that are adjunct to the execution of its immediate mandate. One of such is the conceptualisation of Inland Container Depots (ICDs) and Container Freight Stations (CFS) across the country. It was also the arrowhead of the creation and nurture of the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN). However, its efforts to protect interest of Nigerian shippers have created the desired impact as not a few port users erroneously perceived it as a toothless bulldog. These importers and exporters see it as a council that only bark but not bite. Why is it that many stakeholders in the cargo clearance chain see it so? What is the council doing to change the present narrative as it has now been given a fresh mandate by the Federal Government as the economic regulator of the nation’s seaports? These and many more questions agitate the reporters mind as he climbs the staircase of Shippers Plaza, the imposing multi-storey building that serve as the corporate headquarters of NSC to see the man that calls the shot this faithful afternoon.
Bello who has served in several capacities in NSC said the council was not leaving any stone unturned in its quest to execute its mandate. “We have been embarking on retreat and strategic plans on the way forward”. Giving an insight into the council’s plans, the NSC boss who hails from Birnin-Kebbi in Kebbi State said: “We had a three-day management retreat where we had a three year strategic plan for the council and the whole issue is that the council should work closely with the private sector to ensure that government provide enabling environment for their operations. It is important that government have well-articulated polices, government should give framework of operation to the private sector to ensure to profitability and attract more investments”.
He stressed the need for Nigeria to begin to compete for investments due to the dwindling price of crude oil in the international market. He explained that this would not only give Nigeria an edge but also place her in a vantage position to get out of the woods earlier than envisaged.
His words: “We should be competing for investments. We need to attract more investments to Nigeria. This is more feasible now because we need to have alternative sources of revenue and diversify the economy, we think that the maritime industry is one of the major sources of such diversification. It is important that the Nigeria Shippers Council work with the private sector closely this is what we are poised to do. It is important that the value chain should be intensified and articulated, the council will articulate its new port order and the hallmark of the new port order is continuous consultation with the private sector operators and all other stakeholders in government such as Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC), National Agency Foods and Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC), and the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS).
On what NSC intends doing in this regard, He said: “We want to increase the comparative advantage of Nigeria. We want to streamline the cargo clearance procedure, so that they are in tandem with the world best practices. We want to encourage the deployment of appropriate technology in our ports, in order to allow for increased efficiency and transparency. Once you have appropriate technology, underhand dealings and corruptions will disappear”.
He hailed the concessionaires, shipping lines and other stakeholders in the maritime industry for the strides they had made since the conclusion of the concession programme during Chief Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration.
“The terminal operators and shipping companies have contributed their investments in ports and they have also changed the way we do business, so what is needed now is for the government to have consultation with all concerned. So we reposition the maritime sector. We are happy with the contribution of certain agencies, such as the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) and Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA). We want to ensure that they redeploy appropriate technology for doing business. They are in tune with their maritime services because they dredge the ports as we have bigger ships coming”, he said.
The NSC helmsman did not limit his commendation to the concessionaires and shipping companies. He was full of praise for the Federal Government for its support and co-operation to build deep seaports and ensuring that the day-to-day running of the nation’s seaports was successfully handed over to private investors.
Said he, “The Federal Government must also be commended for having deep sea ports. These deep seaports are solutions to the problems we are presently facing in the existing port. This is because we have large volumes of cargo. Now the trade is very low because of foreign exchange issues. Overall, I think government should put appropriate structures in place to see that we are competing favourably for cargo and Nigeria will be the preferred destination for cargo in the West and Central African Sub-Regions”.
Bello who cut his teeth in the legal profession in the Sokoto State Ministry of Justice as a Pupil State Counsel from 1981 to 1986 before his foray into the maritime industry debunked speculations in some quarters that government agencies were not on the same page on the way forward for the industry.
“There have been a lot of consultations and the government agencies operating in the ports all have one goal. Nigeria Customs Service has one goal. That is, trade facilitation, increase revenue by blocking leakages and loopholes in the system. This applies to the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), NSC and NPA. Our roles and responsibilities are geared towards repositioning the sector. The council was able to channel this energy through active consultation. The important thing is that there should be collaboration and synergy. This is due to the fact that synergy is key to ports operations because of the chain of interests, issues and stakeholders, no matter there must be unionism”, he said.
He however maintained that the council was central to the attainment of set goals and objectives because of its mandate as an economic regulator in the nation’s seaports.
“This is what the council is trying to do. Presently, the council is central to what ICPC is doing on the standard procedures of every agency at the ports. The council is bringing its standard operating procedures (SOP) and it is contributing to the harmonisation and the procedure will soon be launched, so everybody knows their functions. It has to do with time so that we have efficiency, so we have good turnaround time for ships, less dwell time for cargoes and this we can only do if we are efficient.
“We have facilitated that and we have to thank TUGA and ICPC who are the lead agencies, but shipper’s council because of the involvement have to contribute to the standard operating procedures (SOP). The SOP will eliminate waste, save time and cost of doing business in Nigeria. The ease and cost of doing business are key to the competitiveness of our ports. If there is ease and low cost of doing business, others will be having more cargoes. This is what the council is doing. We are looking at the indices, what the other ports are offering. Then we are trying to fine-tune all that is required so that we become a hub in the West and Central Africa Sub-Regions. Becoming a hub is a function of competition”, he explained.
On the face-off between NSC and terminal operators under the auspices of the Sea Terminal Operators Association of Nigeria (STOAN), Bello maintained that the council was not opposed to out-of-court settlement.
“Trade disputes are better settled outside the courts. It is always the position of Nigeria shippers’ council that such disputes are settled outside the courts. There are alternative dispute resolution mechanisms which are faster and more efficient. It is true we were taken to court and I think the issue is to seek interpretation. This is what you do when you are in relationship. You always seek interpretation. It is not a good thing. We are proud of the fact that we want to have it settled amicably.
“Despite all the cases in court, we have been having intermittent dialogue with the parties because we work in the same industry. Our staff goes to these terminals and they are given assistance to top shippers’ company and this is bided for. There are some industry issue that will arise and they would have no choice than to come together and discuss them”, he said.
Bello stated that the case between NSC and STOAN presently in the Federal High Court, Lagos was a distraction that rubbed off negatively on the statutory roles and responsibilities of the council.
“I think the case is a distraction. However, it is not so much of an inhibition that it will stop us from performing our respective functions. The important thing is what the council is for. It must be neutral. It will serve the shipping company as serve the shipper. It will serve the terminal operators and truck owners. So we need to have independence and neutrality. We have taken the case of the operators to the federal government.
“We have frowned at certain policy flip flop of the government on behalf of the stakeholders. We have realised the contribution of the terminal operators to the development of the economy. If you visit certain ports they are doing great improvements. The shipping companies have added value to shipping in accordance with the agreement governing their concession. Therefore the council is the centre and we will help all the stakeholders so we will have a common purpose. We try to create conducive atmosphere so that the federal government will guarantee the investment of those who invested and the profitability. On the contrary, we welcome out of court settlement, we will rather be out of the court than inside”, he added.
He expressed NSC readiness to continue to partner other players in the cargo chain to ensure that the sensitisation of stakeholders on its functions is carried out periodically.
“We have gone far. We are doing it in collaboration with state government. The Kaduna State government has declared about five places for the truck transit park, they have asked for expression of interests and received biddings because it is done is public private partnership and we think we can assist. Currently, we are talking with the Kogi State government and Enugu State government. Recently, the Senate Committee on Marine Transport made some observations that we should increase and bring more governments to setup parks in certain locations and this is what we are going to do.
“It is a long process but the most important thing is that we have started. Presently, Kaduna State expressions of interest have been concluded. We are aware of and very soon the result will be out. They may have transaction advisers and outline business cases and they are following the process of procurement so that the contract will be awarded. Once they are awarded, I think the gestation is high. That is why there must be collaboration. I just finished a meeting of the road haulers National Association of Transport Owners (NATO), Road Transport Employers Association of Nigeria (RTEAN) and Association of Maritime Truck Owners (AMATO) where I told them that they are key to the efficient operation of truck terminals and we are going to bring them and sensitise them. We cannot have situations where trucks are parked on the roadside. It must be a model infrastructure.
The NSC chief executive enumerated the benefits of having Trucks Transition Parks (TTPs) in strategic locations across the country. “We hope to see a modernisation of truck infrastructure. It will create employment where they are located. It will also be a revenue source because the utilisation will come with a certain fee and improve the safety of cargoes, as the safety of cargoes will no longer be left to vagaries”.
On the components of the TTPs, Bello said: “The truck transition park is a place where you have weigh bridges to measure the cargoes. You have a mechanic workshop for the truck. The important thing is to dignify the drivers. These drivers travel distance and sleep in their cabs. But with TTPS, they have a place where they can stop and rest, fuel their vehicles. They also use the TTPs to check their vehicles and rest their head. This implies that the safety of cargo is central to the operations. We have provided corners in the TTPS for people to pray either as Christians or Muslims. You know as Africans, religion is very central to us. We will also provide a unit to serve as a centre of information in the TTPs. The information unit is for those looking for trucks to carry cargoes and it can be done online. We are working with Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) to make sure the operations of the TTPs is enforced. Therefore, the idea across the country is that TTPs is a collaborative effort between NSC, other government agencies and private investors. At the FRSC, it is very receptive of the new idea. Therefore we need to work with FRSC and other stakeholders to ensure that it becomes successful”.
Bello explained that dry ports and freight stations would not only provide employment opportunities but also ensure sustainable development of the country. According to him, the dry ports also called inland container deports (ICD) had already started in Kaduna. “You have trains carrying containers to the Kaduna dry port. It is the first dry port in Nigeria, but we are still working as to the operations. In this industry, collaboration is important. Therefore, I have asked the minister to set up a committee in order for us to look at all the issues and operate smoothly. Here I’m talking about Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA) the Shipping Companies, Terminal operators, Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC) and others.
Describing the dry ports as consolidation centres, he revealed the Futai ICD which is been operated Alhaji Mutallab had recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with a German firm on its operations.
“They are also working with the NRC to revitalise the lines that goes deep inside the container terminals. For the ICD in Isiala Ngwa, Abia State, the state government is keenly interested and we have already had two meetings. There are other ones in Kano and Jos. By our calculations, we will soon be in Jos”, he said.
According to him, there were many interests because the issue is that we have to export or we perish. This is due to the fact that export is very important to the diversification of Nigeria economy. “This is why the freight rates and other things are very high. We must work in collaboration with the appropriate agencies such as Nigeria Export Promotion (NEP) and the Nigeria Investment Promotion Council (NIPC) and others to attain set goals and objectives. We have just returned from Ilorin, the Kwara State capital where we had a one-day sensitisation seminar concerning the cargo airport. As you are aware, Ilorin is the centre for agricultural products. Therefore there is the need to start exporting”.
On the much awaited Cargo Tracking Note (CTN), the NSC helmsman said: “There are no more changes, except that the procedure is simpler because some agencies have been removed from the being part of the handling process, though it still goes through the Federal Ministry of Finance. The provisions in it are source of revenue itself, but if you know what technology can do you may not have those fears. Whatever is obtained from the port development levy is well known. It is just the transmitting of the funds to various agencies which is faster than before”.
He dispelled the rumours in some quarters that CTN was an NSC affair without the involvement of any other government agency.
His words: “Actually, it is not Nigeria Shippers’ Council affair alone. In fact, our Cargo Tracking Note (CTN) will be administered by many agencies, including Nigeria Shippers Council (NSC), Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA) which was the government agency that handled CTN in the past. Now, there is a technical committee that has been set up to look at this cargo tracking loading such as the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), NPA, Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Nigeria Shippers Council and some other agencies. Therefore it is not housed in one place like it was before. It is more encompassing and more technical”.
He maintained that there was no opposition to the implementation of the CTN in the country. According to Bello, they were not opposed to it. “If you look at it critically, what they are opposed to is the modalities, adding, Working with shipping companies has enriched our work knowledge. We thought it was just something you could just go and do because of its disadvantage. It is done everywhere. So what we asked was that it should not be a burden, which means it shouldn’t add to the procedures of doing business. So it has to be interrogated and it is very important that we have worked with the shipping lines or agents”.
Bello revealed that members of the Manufacturing Association of Nigeria (MAN) raised fundamental issues. He revealed that they asked many questions on the execution of CTN in the ports.
“For instance, they asked how CTN is different from any other transport document. It is going to be an added cost to the shipper? Will it not be added to the cost of doing business in Nigeria? As a result of the fact that we engage with MAN and the foreign shipping companies, they have enriched the discussion. This industry is stakeholders are industry sensitive. We cannot do anything without appropriate consultation with the stakeholders. We need their support”.
Continuing, he said: “I think there was opposition in the CTN because it is not a product everybody knows what it does. It is not opposition, but observations. Now we have opened it up. We have a technical committee who are working to see how the CTN can be perfected. They have brought many options which we are considering and up till now we have not signed any agreement with the technical partners. Every observation we think it is worthwhile, we will consider it to a near perfect system. We will give it a trial period to see how it operates with the assistance of the shipping companies and other stakeholders. These are all things that would make ports more efficient. Implementation of the CTM has been going on and people have keyed into it, so we are giving it as a trial.