HADIZA BALA-USMAN: NPA Wants to Achieve 3,000-Capacity Truck Parks in Lagos

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Hadiza Bala-Usman

With the electronic call-up system (ETO) introduced by the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) to solve the Apapa gridlock, sanity is gradually returning to the road. Before the electronic call-up system’s commencement, the Managing Director of the NPA, Hadiza Bala-Usman, spoke with editors of national newspapers on how the process will work. Eromosele Abiodun presents the excerpts.

Early last year, a businessman said it cost N60,000 to clear anything out of the port. But within last December and January, that same truck cost him N1,000,000. The reality is that the more you try, the harder it gets to do anything. Security operatives’ deployment to Apapa is like doing business in the Niger Delta. It is the most lucrative posting for security men in Lagos today.

Regarding the cost of moving cargo, it has been years that it was N60,000. I don’t know at what point that businessman was moving containers out from Tin Can at N60,000 probably before I came here. But I know from January there was huge congestion that we had to set up another team that reduced the cost to about N300,000 to make it cheaper and easier. But the key issue you mentioned, which is what we strive to do, is that posting for the policemen to Apapa is a beneficial posting. So that corridor Apapa-Tin Can is where they are milking out, so nobody wants the place to be sanitised. It is interesting that we requested through the Ministry of Transportation to have a mobile police command sent to facilitate Tin Can Island decongestion. This thing you are talking about was actually sanitised by last month. Then it came back. We must have designated truck parks, if you don’t have designated parks, they are going to park on the road, and if you say you don’t approve of any of the truck parks being inspected and certified, then you find a replacement one that we will use but what is important is that there must be truck parks.

You cannot have sanity with movement into the Apapa truck parks without that, so that is an issue. Yes, I go there. I have been there. I receive calls every day about congestion. I receive videos of what is going on. I am familiar with the congestion. I want us to push through and see how this e-call up will be deployed and how effective it will be. As you say, the security officers view the Apapa-Tin Can Island posting as the posting where they will make money, and all of them scrambling, hustling that it remains an area where they can make money.

The congestion we have is man-made. What’s being done to stamp it out?

I will explain our responsibility inside the port. NPA ensures that when vessels come into Nigeria from the fairway point, which is the waterways’ entry, our pilots will board the vessel and navigate the vessel using the tugboat. We ensure that the channels are navigable; there are no wrecks in the channel. The vessel now comes and its berth safely, alongside the terminal. The key sides are strong enough to anchor the vessels, and the terminal operators now offload the cargo onto the terminal. When they offload the cargo unto the terminal, our job is to ensure the terminal operators’ equipment are efficient to offload in a timely manner.

We have to ensure that the channels are deep enough, that there are no wrecks. We have to ensure that our pilots and our towage service and our pilotage services provide the necessary towage to bring the boat in and mow it effectively. So, when they offload the cargo and put it at the terminal, then agencies that are required to clear the cargo now come into play. They now take the cargo, place them for inspection. Your container is placed for inspection in an area; Customs is invited to lead the other agencies. They come; they open your cargo. They check, and they let you go if your cargo is deemed cleared and you have made the necessary payments. Once your cargo is offloaded and kept on the terminal, our responsibility ends as the Nigerian Ports Authority. The terminal operator’s role is to ensure that Customs efficiently screens your cargo, inspects it, and gives you clearance to go.

That is a major stumbling block that we have. Customs have committed to providing scanners in 2021. They have done the procurement. They commit to having the scanners delivered this year. We will have scanning services done. Now they do it physically. If we have 1.8 million or one million cargo coming into Apapa and Tin Can Island inspected physically, you understand how inefficient that will be. My key performance indicators are tied to the key performance indicators of Customs and other people. Our role ends when the cargo is efficiently offloaded. We need to ensure our terminal operators have efficient equipment. The inner yard is efficient enough for us to put the containers and move the cargo off the vessels and onto the vessels efficiently.

In addition, we’re concerned about screening inspection. We also have a situation where cargo remain in the port, and the port becomes a warehouse. We have this running battle with Customs that, overtime, cargo just remain in the port. We have had to move almost a thousand containers to Ikorodu for Customs to auction, now Ikorodu is full. Customs have still not auctioned, and the terminals now will be full because you have overtime cargo. Ideally, if cargo is overtime, you quickly check it, take it, and auction it, and that is gone, but they seem to have a cumbersome process. I have written to the CG Customs. He said the process would require a gazette. I have told him that it’s interesting Customs is quick to auction vehicles; seized vehicles are auctioned on time. But containers on random items, they are not excited to auction them.

So that is a problem we have. Those are the challenges – inspecting the cargo and releasing them to leave the port. When they also leave the port, we now have another inspection at the gate, so the same people inspect inside, inspect at the gate, and inspect on the highway. But the Nigerian Customs have been insistent that they have been able to make many arrests of items smuggled through these different layers of inspection that they have put in place, so these are the aspects. It’s difficult. The NPA cannot force Customs and the other agencies to do their job. While we have synergy, we also have the challenge of operating on different wavelengths. This is what obtains inside the port locations. The operations are not in isolation of the headquarters. We have a port manager in each location, and they supervise the activities of the terminal operators and report to headquarters. I meet with the terminal operators on their equipment and what is required: any terminal that does not meet up with what we expect from them in terms of terminal equipment; in terms of deployment, we sanction them.

It is a hopeless situation if NPA and Customs cannot work together. No major change can be expected; is that a fair conclusion?

The Customs need to be abreast with what they need to do; their obligations. If you know you need scanners, you should procure them in good time, and you should ensure that they are efficient. If your staff are supposed to come for inspection, what time do they come? Do they come at 9 am and close at 4 pm? Do they work at weekends? What is it do they need to do to improve? When are other agencies coming into the picture? These are the things we need to improve. It’s more to do with every agency upping their game in delivering on their obligations to have improved efficiency. The NCS also reference that the scanners are not off the shelf. They are manufactured specifically for their requirement, and the approval was given when Kemi Adeosun was the minister of finance. I remember the meetings we had with Kemi as minister of finance. This was how many years ago? They still have not acquired the scanners. She submitted that memo to FEC for approval, and in 2021 the scanners have not been delivered. I have been pushing Col. Ahmed Alli, and they say it will be ready this year.

Where are the truck parks located, and what’s the timeline for us to query the system’s effectiveness?

We have a list of the truck parks. They are located within the port environment, and one is in Lillypond, MOB in Tin Can Island, and Bola Tinubu Truck Park. We have them on the e-call-up app. I will also encourage some of us who have an interest in this to download the e-toll app on Google Playstore. You will be able to see all the locations of the approved parks. They’ve all been logged into the app.

When is the right time to start looking at how efficient it is?

We started on 27 February; if you can give a month into implementation, you will see where the hiccups are. Trucks park is a very good business. If you have a park that can sit 200 trucks and every truck coming to the port must go into your park, it is money. So, I am curious why they were telling me ‘NPA should go and buy land;’ ‘NPA should do this and that.’ It is not our duty. Also, for the Lagos state government to be going back and forth on the truck park issue is not encouraging. In fact, the motor park is a local-state government affair. It’s not a federal government affair.

The motor park is what a truck park is. You designate and say the land used for this place is for a truck park. Then, the private investor will make the payment needed, do the fencing, provide the necessary security, and then log you into the app. It’s a win-win situation. But you know that this corridor is known for how much it benefits you keep going back and forth, back and forth on it. I’m hopeful that we have reached sort of the end of the challenge. Between February and the next three months, we will have many teething issues with the e-call-up. But I believe we will succeed in its implementation.

Should NPA and NIMASA be contracting in dollars as against the naira?

The revenue in the shipping industry is denominated in dollars. If you earn naira, you are shortchanging yourself as a country because shipping companies collect cargo payments in dollars. They make payments in dollars. If you collect naira, you are the one depriving yourself of revenue in foreign currency earnings. At the same time, we have also looked at ways to balance our USD inflow to our dollar outflow to reduce the dollar’s pressure. So our F&A are working on developing ways to reduce. For every commensurate dollar we receive, this is the outflow, and we reduce the USD inflow and increase our NGR outflow. This is what we are trying to do to assist in reducing the pressure on the US dollar. Any payment that we don’t do in the dollar we want to do them in naira. Any monies we don’t have to receive in the dollar, we receive in naira. We are working on that framework to see how we can ease the US dollar’s sourcing and ease pressure in the foreign exchange market. But for shipping, we need to realise that they will make money and we won’t.

What are the challenges in the e-call-up system, and what’s been done to deal with them?

We have challenges in making sure that the available truck parks meet up to the standard. We have seven truck parks. We will need more to enable us to get to the level where we have 3,000 truck park space for trucks within Lagos. The seven parks have not reached that stage, so we want to have more. The other challenge is compliance, meaning any trucks in the port corridors that don’t have the e-call-up app are impounded and kept in the Impounding Yard and will be made to pay. These are the envisaged challenges that we see. But we believe that we might probably have more.

Can you bring us up to speed about the Olokola seaport project, which seems moribund?

When I joined the NPA, there were documentation on the Olokola port, but that was historic. Ogun and Ondo decided to come independently. Ogun submitted a proposal, and Ondo submitted a proposal detailing what they want to do. I told the representative of Ogun, go and work with Ondo. We did the same with Ondo. That port cannot be divided into two; the place is for one operation. For environmental issues, for competitiveness, you cannot have two separate ports in that location. You have to work together. I told them in a meeting you have to work together. I keep receiving a separate outline business case from both Ondo and Ogun. Last year, I wrote letters to them, stating specifically that this was a proposal. It was a historic concept that has both of you working together at Olokola. You have come separately.

We want you to go back and bring it as a joint submission from the two states, and we will have one port in that location. We cannot have two. I signed off these two letters to the governors. I’m hoping we will receive an appropriate response for them to work together. I want them to work together at the Olokola port to get to the next level. But you know you can’t just have two ports in that location. I honestly do not see what the challenge is in collaboration because the port will develop. There will be a clear revenue-sharing formula, joint shareholders, joint seats on the board. I don’t see the reason everybody wants to work alone. I await the feedback. As you said, the port’s location is excellent. But as they drag their feet, it might become uneconomically viable because, within this environment, we can have Lekki, Badagry, and Olokola, all of them in that location. So whoever breaks through first will grab the market. That is the challenge with that port. I believe it’s the right thing for them to work together to enable that port to happen.

How much will it cost to have the three deep ports become operational?

The government is not funding it. It’s funded by the private sector. I don’t have the figures. But it is in billions of dollars, maybe a billion thereabout. I don’t have the figure. Lekki deep port will be completed in the first quarter of 2022. There’s no timeline yet for Ibom and Badagry. We just got FEC approval for Ibom. We are developing a concession agreement and the details in the next month, and we will be able to have our timeline. We are also hopeful that all of them will come to play by the end of 2022 or early 2023.

Now that Intel and Atiku had parted ways, are you ready to do business with Intels?

We have never refused to do business with Intels. As I said in several forums, we sought to have Intels comply in the same way like every other business complies with federal government policies. Intels did the politicisation of the matter. For you to think that you are above the law, you will not make payment to TSA. You will not comply with regulations means you are the only one using your political influence to refuse to comply. We never had any issue with not working with Intels. They have terminals; they have a concession with the Nigeria port. They had a service boat operation; the contract expired in August 2020. They had another water regulatory agreement with NPA, which is ongoing. We never refused to work with them. We sought to have them comply and operate within the environment as every other company. For us, it’s not whether Atiku is part of Intels or not. What is obtainable is for every company to operate within the laws of the federation.

There are multiple agencies at the port; most of them perform similar functions.

They have different duties. Let me clarify that. What is important is that some of them don’t have to be physically present. That is why we have worked so hard to try to establish a single window, which failed. That single window will enable some agency to remain in the office. You don’t have to be physically present at the location. Suppose a single window and scanners are all together. In that case, you scan the cargo and send that to all the agencies. They will see what is in the container, make an inspection and do it with that scanned documents. They will now send that back to say this is what we have done, and the cargo will be released or not released based on the virtual inspection. That hasn’t happened yet. But we will continue to have those agencies within the port. There is no duplicity in their roles. They all have different roles. But they need not be there physically. It is not efficient to have those agencies coming physically.

What’s the update on the Calabar channel?

We are still in court to reclaim the $15 million we paid them for services not rendered. We have not changed our position. We remain consistent. The contract remains terminated.

What are the hopes for Baro, Onitsha, and Port Harcourt ports?

Those ports are under the Nigeria Inland Waterways (NIWA). The Nigeria Ports Authority does not control them. We don’t have any information or knowledge of their state. George Moghalu will answer those questions. He’s the MD of NIWA.

Why is NIWA in charge of some ports and NPA is in charge of others?

NIWA supervises the inland waterways port. By that, we mean the Onitsha port, Baro port, all the ports that arise from inland waters. So, the ports that NPA supervises are the ports that arise from the coastal line.

How is the e-call-up app going to be managed? There have only been 500 downloads.

People are still sceptical. They are wondering if it will happen or not. But we keep on; when they see the reality that you can only access the port with the e-call-up app, we believe more people will download it and utilise it. In the mind of anyone, they think what they don’t believe in won’t happen. It will take at least a month for them to see that they can’t go into the port without complying.

There have only been 500 downloads. Is there enough awareness?

We actually did a lot of consultations. We had stakeholders’ consultations over the last two months. We invited the association of truck owners, freight forwarders, transporters for a series of stakeholders’ workshops. We have done a radio jingle. We have done banners. We have done a lot of media campaigns around it. We have even had a town hall meeting. We invited them to come with their phones to help them download; show them the step-by-step process of downloading. We have done a significant amount of media awareness on it, and this media awareness is targeted at the app’s specific users. We made a conscious effort to do that. I recognise we need to do more. We are going to the second phase of the media campaign.

We probably need to amplify it, to put it on billboards, on lamp posts within the port corridors. While we were working on the app’s deployment, other people told them it would fail: ‘Don’t waste your time. They are going to come back to the task force. Don’t bother yourself. It is the task force that will work.’ That scepticism is not allowing them to do what is required. The several layers of beneficiaries of the various inefficiencies are campaigning actively to see how it will fail.