An Amazon Takes Driver Seat in NPA

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Bala-Usman

As Hadiza Bala-Usman takes over as the new boss of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), industry stakeholders highlight the challenges and way forward for the authority and industry. Francis Ugwoke reports

About six days ago, the federal government announced the appointment of Hajia Hadiza Bala-Usman as the new managing director of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA). For the maritime industry stakeholders, the timing of the appointment was certainly not a surprise. Stakeholders had expected it for obvious reasons. First, it is common for any new administration to make changes where necessary. Secondly, stakeholders were of the opinion that the NPA had derailed for a long time and there was a need for change. However, what was a bit of surprise was the appointment of a young woman who is seen as having no industry background to head a major organisation like NPA and the sack of all the executive directors and appointment of new ones to replace them.

Brief on Bala-Usman

From records available, the new NPA managing director is a vibrant and intelligent personality. She was part of the Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG) campaign for the return of the over 200 girls that were abducted by the Boko Haram insurgents in Borno over two years ago.

Born on January 2, 1976 in Zaria, Kaduna State, she holds a B.Sc. Business Administration from Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria and a Postgraduate in Development Studies from University of Leeds, UK in 2009. Bala-Usman worked with the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) from July 2000 to August 2004 as Enterprise Officer. She also worked with the UNDP in the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) and from October 2004 to January 2008, she was Special Assistant to the Minister on Project Implementation. She was Director of Strategy of Good Governance Group, from 2011 to 2015 in a Non-Governmental Organisation co-founded by the Governor of Kaduna State, Ahmed el Rufai. Until her appointment, she was el-Rufai’s Chief of Staff.

Tasks Ahead

Away from the past job in Kaduna state, the new managing director has a more serious job to do in Lagos. This is even more so with so much expectation that the maritime industry is the hope for realising as much as what is needed in funding the national economy. NPA is a big organisation and its annual budget is more than the budget of many state governments. It is a revenue spinner if well managed and this explains why many would want to work there.

On the new task for Bala-Usman, she will come face to face with maritime industry issues bordering on technical regulation of terminal operators, infrastructure rehabilitation, channel management, road network rehabilitation within the ports environment, among others. After the ports were concessioned exactly 10 years ago , NPA was left with the statutory responsibility of ownership and administration of land and water within port limits; planning and development of port operational infrastructure; leasing and concession of port infrastructure and setting benchmark for tariff structure; nautical/harbour operations and hydrographic survey; marine incidents and pollution; maintenance of safety and security at the common user areas and monitoring of operations and enforcement of relevant sections of respective agreements.

For some years now, many in the maritime industry believe that the NPA has not performed its statutory duty well. At a point, it did not appear that anybody in the industry knew the direction the NPA was heading in this national assignment. Everything appeared to have come to a standstill. The situation was worsened when the former administration fired Habib Abdullahi and brought in Sanusi Ado Bayero, a royal prince from Kano, in what was simply seen as a political move. The appointment only lasted few months and Abdullahi was again recalled. But many believe that Abdullahi came back without adding any noticeable value. It was the same docility as industry watchers would say. Perhaps the only identifiable project carried out by the NPA in the past few years was the rehabilitation of its head office in Marina.

Many economic projects were put on hold, including those of the deep seaports in Lekki, Cross River, Badagry. Even the state of the Calabar port dredging project which contract was awarded over 10 years ago is not clear now after the contractor had allegedly collected about N20 billion as at two years ago. As at the time of filing this report, a source in NPA said only a portion of the job was done. The channel stretches 84 nautical miles to the high sea. President of the Nigerian Shippers Association, Cross River State chapter, Mr. Mike Ogodo, was last year quoted to have lamented that the contract had been awarded three times in the past three decades.

The former administration had flagged off the project two years ago. Perhaps what can easily be noticed is the failure of the NPA to carry out effective road network rehabilitation within the ports environment throughout the country. Apart from Lagos, it is the same in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, among others. Last year, terminal operators had complained that this problem was affecting ports operation.

Industry stakeholders point out that among the task for the new MD is to study the report of a ministerial committee released last year, which membership was drawn from the Transport Ministry, NPA, BPE and Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC). The committee, in its report, said that while some progress have been made in the port reform exercise, the critical issue of reducing cost by 50 per cent has not been possible. The committee said the NPA must live up to expectations in its statutory obligations, such as in the area of dredging, maintenance of common user facilities, access to utilities, maritime services, navigational facilities and quay wall and aprons. The committee while noting its efforts in the past charged the landlord to intensify efforts in this regard as government representative.

The committee’s report also showed that some terminal operators had complained that NPA had not been carrying out regular dredging of berths/channels of their terminals in line with the advertised depth. They said this has in turn affected the bigger ships that call at the ports. Some of the terminal operators had equally accused the NPA of not showing effectiveness in the removal of some of the wrecks on the waters. However, the NPA had in turn complained about the non-payment of penalties by port operators for failing to meet projected Guaranteed Minimum Tonnage (GMT)/unilateral application of incentives by those who exceeded their GMT. It was learnt that 80 per cent of the terminal operators had refused to pay the penalty for failing to meet up their projected GMT. Some of the operators that exceeded their projected GMT were said to have unilaterally applied the incentives while some ignored it without recourse to NPA.

Revenue Generation

The new chief executive is coming to inherit the annual target of N500 billion set by the Transport minister some months ago. Amaechi had set the target for mainly NPA and Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, NIMASA. Although, this is clearly unrealistic because of the policies of government that have stifled international trade, many interpreted that what the minister was expecting is an improvement on what he met on ground. Some stakeholders had even told him that the sector could comfortably finance the entire nation’s budget with at least N7 trillion revenue every year. But this is impossible with the current low traffic at the ports occasioned by foreign exchange policy that has thrown many importers out of business.

The Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), which revenue target for this year is close to N1.2trillion from every indication will only be lucky if it gets as much as half of that target. Already, the Comptroller-General of Customs, Col. Hameed Ali (rtd), has raised alarm to this effect. The ports sector is suffering economic crisis as a result of the foreign exchange regime that denied at least importers of 41 items from benefitting from official foreign exchange from the banks. Those importers have to source their foreign exchange from the black market and this has reduced the level of trade and also affected every agency of government collecting revenue at the ports. The terminal operators and multinational shipping agencies are not left out. Industry stakeholders believe that for the new MD, bold efforts must be made to recover some of the money being owed by the NNPC and indeed some terminal operators in lease fees and others.

Agenda Setting by Stakeholders

For the stakeholders in the industry, the new managing director has a lot of task ahead of her. They urge her to be full of determination and political will to do what the industry expects as far as the statutory obligations of the NPA are concerned. A former General Manager, with the NPA, who pleaded anonymity, said the new helmsman should focus on what has become the core mandate of the organisation after the reform exercise and ensure that the authority excels in those areas.

He identified continuous maintenance, dredging on daily basis and quay walls and aprons for easy navigation of vessels. He also said the Bala-Usman-led administration must promote capacity building among staff as well improve on the automation programme of the authority to make services faster and easier. President of the National Council of Managing Directors of Customs Agents, NCMDCA, Mr Lucky Amiwero, while noting that the former leadership of the NPA had been docile, said Bala-Usman needed to improve on the access roads to the ports and other infrastructure that will make the ports more efficient.

Amiwero said this will make the ports compete with those of the neighbouring ports of Cotonou, Ghana and others within the West and Central African sub-region. He also said the NPA leadership should pursue the passage of the Ports & Harbour Bill now before the National Assembly. In their reaction to the appointment of the new MD, the Spokesman, Seaport Terminal Operators Association of Nigeria, Mr. Bolaji Akinola, said it was a good development.

Akinola also joined others in advising the new MD to focus on rehabilitating the “ port access roads and reversal of certain policies that are not friendly to our ports.” He added, “We will also urge the new MD to work with the Nigeria Customs Service, the Central Bank of Nigeria and the Ministry of Finance to review policies that have taken cargoes away from our ports. The policies include the National Automotive Policy, the fish quota system, the hike in rice import duty and the CBN policy which excludes 41 items from accessing foreign exchange through the official window.”

He added, “We are confident that she will do well. Her experience at the BPE and as Chief of Staff to the governor of Kaduna State will certainly come handy in the discharge of her responsibilities at NPA. We want to assure her of terminal operators’ maximum support and cooperation.” President of the League of Maritime Editors and Publishers, Mr Ovie Edeomi, also said that part of the rehabilitation of the ports access road should include an expansion since 85 per cent of the goods that come through the country were through the seaports.

Edeomi also said the entire infrastructure in all the concessioned ports need to be improved in line with the concession agreement. According to him, some concessionaires make money without commensurate infrastructural development. Noting that there is an existing ban on private jetties, Edeomi called on the new chief executive to work on getting the federal government to unban the use of private jetties for proper security scrutiny and revenue generation from there.

With activities in 275 jetties, he said the NPA will realise revenue from the jetties. In so doing, he said the authority should reactivate the Warri and Koko ports for economic dividends. Former President of National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders, Dr. Eugene Nweke, simply advised the new NPA boss to borrow a leaf from the Director –General of Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, NIMASA, Dr. Dakuku Peterside.

Nweke said Bala-Usman should call for a stakeholders’ summit where a roadmap would be drawn on the way forward for NPA as far as the ports industry is concerned. Having done this, she should go ahead with a management retreat where the inputs of the stakeholders would be subjected to debate and thereafter the release of a work plan or blueprint on the authority. Nweke advised that Bala-Usman should do this before embarking on the traditional tour of facilities round the NPA establishments or ports.