Talk about the physiognomy of a man not being a basis to measure his intellectual credentials, then, the Acting Managing Director at the Nigerian Ports Authority, Mohammed Bello-Koko, is a worthy example. His years in the private sector, obviously, didn’t go to waste. A blend of both his private and public sectors experiences is currently responsible for the striking step-ups at the NPA, even though Bello-Koko has only been in office for a few months. That he boasts the right aptitude – academic and attitudinal – is evident in the leadership he’s so far provided. Even more endearing, is his understanding of the issues in the agency, dimensioned by his projections for a more efficient and functional NPA. Giving what could pass as a situation report during a recent interaction with THISDAY, Bello-Koko, although still in office in an acting capacity, is determined to leave office with his prints of stellar performance all over the NPA. Excerpts:
It’s been over six months since you were appointed in an acting capacity as the Managing Director of Nigerian Ports Authority. What has it been like?
Well, it has been exciting. We have had to contend with contemporary issues, but these are issues we have been used to and they have been recurring. But what has been most important has been that management needs to take immediate action on all of these issues and I am sure you appreciate the fact that the port system involves a lot of key players and there is a lot of inter-play, both by private and public sectors, individuals and meeting their needs and demands is an onerous task. What we have done is to try to bring them together and we have also improved stakeholder consultation in order to bring efficiency to the ports and we have seen that it has improved efficiency.
To achieve the objective of operational efficiency, since I commenced as the acting MD, we have placed emphasis on stakeholder engagement with a view to making them key into the vision of management. This has given birth to improved collaboration between the Authority and sister agencies, with an overall improvement on port Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).
Recently, you released your revenue numbers and it was robust. Can you share what happened in the six months that gave birth to the revenue you posted?
As of September, we generated about N256 billion as against the projected figure of N214.7 billion, and we remitted to the CRF about N89 billion within the six months that I have been acting. First of all, what we did was we started holding the port managers responsible for revenue at their port locations in terms of revenue generation and collection, because there is a difference between what you generate and what you collect. We started having virtual meetings and at those meetings, each port reports the revenue they have generated and what they have collected; who is owing them and we hold them to account.
So, it is like an MPR, like what they do in the banks, where at the end of the month, everybody sits down to give an account of what they have done and what they have not done. We also have improved monitoring in terms of collections. The billing system has also improved greatly. We have blocked loopholes and leakages and that has increased the revenue too. This was achieved because the top management team was all encouraged to do more. It is a joint effort, the Board, the Executive Management have all been very supportive. Eventually, I believe at the end of 2021, we would surpass whatever revenue target that we had set for ourselves.
What have you been doing differently that was not done before, that has led to such an increase? Also, what exactly do you mean by the proposed digitisation of the ports and how do you intend to go about it?
You see, the port of the 21st century must embrace IT and its operations must be IT-driven. We are taking deliberate steps and investments are being undertaken by the Authority, to create a fully-digital ecosystem in all the country’s port locations by 2025. In 2011, the Authority reviewed its ICT strategy in line with its new role as landlord, following the concession of port terminals in 2006. The primary focus of the new strategy is on enterprise computing and heavy dependence on network infrastructure, along with a centralised and shared database.
We have also deployed a portfolio of systems and infrastructure towards the actualization of our ICT objectives. These include Oracle Enterprise Business Suite for financial and human resources planning; Billing/Revenue and Invoice Management System (RIMS), to fast-track billing processing; Customer Portal/electronic Ship Entry Notice (eSEN)/Manifest Upload for shipping traffic management; Hyperion Budgeting for management of annual budget; Command, Control, Communication and Intelligence System (3Ci) for maritime domain awareness and management of vessel calls; Truck Call Up and Gate Access Control for the control and schedule of trucks to the ports as well as manage truck traffic around the port corridor. Our next priority is to harmonize all the standalone platforms and integrate them with Terminal Operators and shipping lines with a view to having digital communication to facilitate efficiency. Currently, we are in the process of linking the shipping line EDI platforms to the ETO, to improve traffic management along the port corridors, particularly the export products.
The data must also be available and you must be able to query it and prove that it is good. We also need to integrate and have a centralised data system that can be used by everybody. By the time we do that, it is going to improve the relationship between the private and the public sector. This is where the Port Community System (PCS) comes into play. The Port Community System is a ‘change management’ project rather than an IT project. It enables change, therefore, the PCS though simple in concept, rely on support from all the stakeholders from both private and public authorities.
What it does is that it brings everybody into one platform in such a way that whatever information and process you need from the entry of the ship to offloading of the cargo, to clearing of the cargo, so stakeholders in this port community system will be the NPA, port users like shipping companies, terminal operators, haulage companies, clearing agents, freight forwarders and so on and so forth. We are currently also trying to integrate the Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) system of the shipping companies to Eto (Electronic Call Up System). That way, there will be synergy in that. So, what we are doing is deliberate investment with a timeline to achieve something. There is a roadmap, the same way you have roadmaps in various things.
The system will enable: (a) a neutral and open electronic platform enabling intelligent and secure exchange of information between public and private stakeholders in order to improve the competitive position of the sea and air ports’ communities. (b) Optimises, manages and automates port and logistics efficient processes through a single submission of data and connecting transport and logistic chains.
Our goal is to leverage technology to close the gap between us and the major international ports. A digitalised port helps in making better informed operational decisions, increases efficiency, improves collaboration amongst stakeholders, lowers port costs and ultimately helps to meet the ever-increasing customer expectations in a timely manner. A five-year plan is now being implemented by the Authority for the attainment of a fully-digitalised port system in Nigeria. We hope to achieve our target earlier than five years.
Apparently, the port is very well-digitalised from what you have narrated. But how much efficiency has that brought in and how much more do you hope to achieve with your new digitalisation plan, because there are still delays at the port – unacceptable delays that cost companies a lot of demurrage and all of that? So, talking about this other digitalisation, how much efficiency will that bring to the system?
I like the fact that you said partially, but what we are trying to do is full automation now, and what we have deployed has increased efficiency and currently, ships calling into Nigerian Ports do not need to fill forms manually, because there is what we call electronic ship entry notice and our billing system also is very easy now. It is easy to bill clients, send in the bills and so on. But what we are now trying to do is to bring everything together from the handling of the cargo, from the entry of the ship – that means the harbour department gets to have information that they need at the right time – right down to loading of the cargo and also the trucking companies and the logistic companies and that would improve efficiency exponentially.
So, what exactly causes delay in the clearing of goods at the port and why does it cost so much, since delays lead to additional costs? Again, the Chairman of BUA Group, at a function in Paris, recently, said it cost more to transport a container from Apapa, Tincan ports to Kano than from China to Lagos. That comparison was very striking. Why is it that no matter how much you do, things just seem not to work in this country?
While one is not into any argument about this claim, on our part at the NPA, we are constantly in search of cheaper and equally safe means of transporting goods from the port. We have licenced and have encouraged the use of barges for transportation of goods into and out of the ports. While doing this, we are also not unaware of the seriousness that the federal government is attaching to construction and rehabilitation of the roads leading to Lagos ports
In addition to this, the introduction of the electronic call up system has greatly reduced the cost of haulage. I am aware that since the e-call up was introduced in February, cost of haulage has gone down drastically.
Yes, there are delays at the ports and to answer your question about what causes delay at the ports. Currently, the ports are operating far beyond their installed capacity, that is, the ports of Tincan and Apapa. The landmass in Tincan and Apapa is the space that has been there forever and it is not going to increase, but what needs to change is the efficiency – what are the IT deployments, what are the equipment the terminal operators have deployed, how quickly can you take out your cargo? It is the same road size now, though it is bigger, the delay starts from when the cargo comes in and of course, the vessel comes in, offloads its cargo and how long does it take to clear that cargo? When does the cargo get out of the port? How long does it take the Nigerian Customs to inspect this cargo and release it? We have been seeing an improvement in how quickly people can clear their cargo as cargo duel time has actually reduced. But there is room for improvement and that is the essence of digitalisation and if you digitise the port, you will ensure that there is little or no human interference and it means that other things will reduce – whether it is corruption, or delays in clearing cargo.
Would you say the security agencies at the ports are hindering the free flow of goods or helping the system? From the complaints of importers, they seem to be hindering the quick clearing of goods. For example, after doing 100 per cent inspection, one would have thought that should end it, but when the container is moving out, another security agency stops the container and another round of inspection begins, sometimes by the same customs, who just completed 100 per cent inspection of the container, all in a bid to extort.
All the agencies at the ports – their responsibility is to assist in ensuring safe delivery of cargoes and clearing of the cargoes. They are also ensuring that only cargoes that are legally allowed into the country come in and of course, contrabands and so on should be stopped. However, we have had instances where activities of some government agencies had hindered the speedy clearing of cargoes. On the issue of 100 per cent cargo inspection that has been set by the Nigerian Customs, we have had a meeting with the Controller General of Customs, and the Customs Commands here. We have been having regular interfaces with them. It is not an efficient way of doing things, but I can tell you that in the last few weeks, the Nigerian Customs has deployed one mobile scanner in Tincan and one in Onne; the one in Apapa, we are working to ensure that enough space is provided for it, these will greatly improve the process of cargo inspection at the ports.
We have also noted the issue of another Customs Command inspecting containers as they are about to exit the port. It is happening in Tincan and Apapa and it is also happening in Onne, and I am sure the Customs Service is doing something about it. The time it takes Customs to inspect a container, let’s assume that it is 30 minutes, and I am sure that 30 minutes is enough to electronically scan about 10 containers, so, you can see where some of these delays come from and the other delay actually has to do with the mode of evacuation of the cargo.
First of all, the roads were in a bad state, but the federal government has repaired the roads out of Apapa while the ones from Tincan are under construction and we hope that very soon, it will be concluded and one of the reasons for the delay as it relates to evacuation of cargo is the space within the ports. There are lots of overtime cargoes that are still at the ports locations. They are supposed to have been moved to Ikorodu, but Ikorodu is filled up, and the Nigerian Customs has said they have started e-auction, (electronic auctioning of the containers). We have pleaded that they should auction the containers on-site if possible in the ports, this will help create enough space for inbound cargo. Very recently, I visited Ikorodu and saw how the place was filled up and we are in discussions with the Nigerian Customs on how to rearrange/reorganise the place in order to create more space to move overtime cargo from the ports in Lagos.
Is the 100 per cent inspection actually the model around the world?
As I said earlier, digitalisation and IT is the way to go. Once human contact is reduced, the opportunity for extortion and abuse of the process is extremely reduced. We are working towards that.
No, it is not the model in the world except when there are suspected items in the container, then, you can physically inspect. I think it is because of the lack of scanners. I also understand that they are being deployed by the Nigerian Customs and we know that some of them have been deployed already. A mobile scanner has been deployed in Onne, one in Tincan, the one in Apapa, we are waiting for it.
Why is it that every new government would promise 24-48 hours of clearing, but always falls short of that policy projection?
The ports still operate round-the-clock. However, there are issues of safety of cargoes, even when cleared out of the ports. Truck drivers are not usually eager to freight cargoes at night. So even when goods are cleared, their consignees and the drivers will have to wait till the following morning. Also, there is a Nigerian Port Process Manual which relevant stakeholders in the port system subscribe to, and which clearly spells out the dos and don’ts in cargo clearance and delivery process.
So, if you want to do a 24-hour clearing, it means that once the ship comes in, it berths on time and then it is offloaded on time, the goods are manifested for exit quickly, the trucks come in quickly and cargo inspections in-between need to take place quickly and if we are able to reduce the hours or the days it takes to do all these, then, we will achieve that. But it is not possible to achieve that if all the players do not actually work in tandem.
There appears to be remarkable improvements in traffic in Apapa, how do you hope to sustain this going forward?
Thank you for acknowledging that there has been an improvement. We will continue to look at what is happening currently as it affects the electronic truck call-up system. We normally have regular stakeholder meetings. We hear their complaints and once we hear their complaints we tweak the system and ensure that it is made more efficient. I personally go there and I have taken motorbikes to those locations to see what is happening there. I have taken bikes up to three times. I go there because I want to see it firsthand and I do not want someone to report to me and what we do is that, there is also a virtual meeting we hold weekly between the NPA and the operators of the Eto system, that is Truck Transit Park (TTP) Limited. The essence of the meeting is to look at customer complaints, look at how many trucks went into and out of the ports, how many export containers got to the port, etc. We will keep doing that, and one of the things we did was to introduce a time belt.
Time belts for various types of trucks to go into the ports and come out. That has improved the free flow of traffic into the port and the roads are no more chaotic and you know we have also licenced a number of truck terminals outside the red zone. There is a place we call “red zone” within the vicinity of the port and we have also requested that they (TTP) deploy IT equipment and other physical equipment to ensure that only trucks that have been manifested to enter the ports actually come out and we know that enforcement is still going on and there are still lapses, but we keep working to ensure that that there is free flow of traffic. So, it is not just about Christmas, we are ready for any type of traffic situation and also going forward, we will ensure that we keep working day and night to ensure that the intractable gridlock does not come back.
Also, our collaboration with enforcement agencies will be sustained to ensure that breaches are minimized. The creation of various time belts for movement of different types of trucks for specific operations is a major initiative at ensuring orderliness in the movement of trucks in and out of the ports.
Talking about rail connection to the port, recently, the Minister of Transportation, said there was a certain blockade that needed to be removed before work could continue. What’s the situation report now in terms of rail connection to the port?
There is a scanner that was positioned such that it impeded the rail. However, after a series of meetings with the Customs, a decision has been reached for the Port Management to provide a suitable location where the Scanner would be moved to. I think it has been dismantled and I also think they are taking it to Ikorodu. This is to allow the rail to continue. The rail system is a very important and integral part of the port system, and it is so everywhere in the world. It is in tandem with the inter-modal means of transportation. First of all, the rail is good, because of volume and between February and September, I think we have done almost 4000 TEUs and that was probably just like a test run.
The advantage is huge. From the issue of volume and safety as well being in tandem with the need for intermodalism. Once the ports are fully linked by rail, the current pressure on our roads will be off. Of course, the rail makes it easier for the ports to link up with the hinterland, through the inland dry ports that are springing up in different parts of the country.
You said earlier that it was impossible to expand the port as it is now. How do you get big ocean vessels to the ports – is it by dredging or what?
When I said it’s impossible to expand, it isn’t that it is impossible but you are going to take over people’s homes, offices, and pay compensation to expand the land mass. I am talking about the dedicated land mass, both Tincan and Apapa, are not going to expand, at least not in the near future. Look at it this way, the only way to bring bigger vessels is of course by deepening the Channel as well as the Quay walls. Currently, the Quay walls have design limitations of 14 meters. This has made it impossible to dredge the Channel and Quays below 13.5 metres and for you to bring bigger vessels of say 16.5 or 20 meters (which by the way are the modern-day vessels sizes because of economies of scale), you have to reconstruct those Quay walls. The channels must also be dredged deeper and that means there has to be a financial cost-benefit analysis on the cost implications and then, what is the revenue that is likely to be driven for such decisions to be taken.
So, that has to be done and that is being done presently. We have in recent times, instructions from the Honourable Minister of Transportation, that we look at the possibilities of the reconstruction of the ports and we have been holding stakeholder meetings. A Committee was set up to explore the best way to do it. Do we reconstruct the ports in Lagos maintaining the same Quay walls at the same depth? Or should we deepen it? A Consultant has been engaged to look at the whole of Tincan and Apapa and look at where there are the physical deficiencies in terms of the integrity of Quay walls; what are the civil engineering works that need to be done. And what needs to be done to modernise the ports is, first of all, in terms of physical infrastructure before the IT infrastructure will be discussed. The idea here is to take a decision to determine how it is carried out while we also look at the funding options.
The NPA is currently looking around for multilateral agencies that would fund such projects. We do not have approval for it, but we are only being proactive trying to look at the funding options. Do you first of all, get a multilateral agency to fund it on behalf of Federal Government/NPA and you pay them or do you get the multilateral agencies to fund the terminal operators or do you ask the terminal operators to fund it and then you amortise overtime or you extend the tenure of their leases? But whatever the terminal operators bring, we will have to sit down and look at it. But what is the implication in terms of the cost of dredging and maintaining the channel to that 16.5 metres and then what is the cost of reconstructing the Quay to the depth of that 16.5 or 17 meters?
Is Nigeria not losing businesses to her neighbouring countries with modern ports that are much deeper?
First of all, do not forget that the ports we have in Nigeria are river ports and yes, we are losing businesses to them because of the size of vessels, the economies of scale are setting in. But that is why we are happy that the Lekki deep seaport will soon start operations and the first phase of the Lekki deep seaport is 16.5 metres and the second phase eventually, will be over 20 metres deep. Badagry is coming up and it has a natural draft that will also take large vessels. Yes, we are losing businesses to other ports, because of the draft limitations of our ports, but we are looking forward to Lekki deep seaport and by the time it commences full operation by the third quarter of this year, some of the ship-to-ship businesses being done offshore Lome or Cotounu will start coming to Nigeria and we will be having bigger vessels calling to our ports. We are doing everything we can to improve efficiency of the ports to make them more competitive and attractive to users. The Nigerian Customs Service is also working towards deploying more scanners in order to reduce the time it takes for cargo to leave the ports. We are working with the Terminal Operators to fully automate too.
You set up a commission to investigate Port Harcourt and you have an existing report on Port Harcourt, which advised that the Port Harcourt has failed and that the cost of rebuilding it would build a brand new port offshore. What is the state of Port Harcourt?
If you recall, recently, we went to Bonny with the Honourable Minister of Transportation to identify a location for Bonny Deep seaport and this is a direct investment by a Chinese company. The location has been identified with a natural draft of about 15 or 16 meters that might serve as an alternative to Rivers Port. However, going back to your question, a section of the Rivers port is supposed to be rehabilitated by BUA (a Terminal Operator). We have been discussing with them (BUA) and they have already submitted interim designs in terms of reconstruction of the Quays. As recently as last week, they submitted the final designs. The designs are currently being reviewed by our team and once that is concluded, Management would consider the recommendations for approval, so that they can start the construction of the Quays that have collapsed. Unfortunately, there is a draft limitation at that port, thus, we are looking at it to determine whether we will allow them to construct deeper or they should maintain the existing depth. If they go deeper, what it means is that we have to think of the need to dredge the channel deeper (which comes with huge capital outlay). But, as you said, the Rivers port has reached the end of its useful lifespan, though it is still in use. It just needs some rehabilitation for it to be functional.
What is the NPA doing about the Eastern ports? You talk about rebuilding Tincan and Apapa and there was no mention of Eastern ports. Nigerians from that part of the country actually import most of the cargo coming into the country.
I want to address this by first of all giving you the general problem of these ports, before I tell you what we are doing. The ports in the east just like the ones in Lagos are river ports, and the distance between the fairway buoy to the port is very long. So, when a ship comes from the high sea, the beginning of the channel to the port in Warri is about 110 kilometres, so a ship needs to stem about 110 kilometres just to get to Warri port and that of Calabar is about 101 kilometres from the beginning of the channel to the port itself, Rivers port is 90 kilometres from entrance of the channel but the ones in Lagos are just about 10 kilometres. That is the first issue.
The second issue, let me take Delta. Delta port or Warri port, has what they call Niptide and Niptide is when you have low tide. It is natural and there is data that shows when that Niptide sets in and at times, it lasts for almost a week. So a certain size of vessel will not be able to enter Delta port during this period. The third issue with Delta port is that, there is an NNPC pipeline that is active and buried 7 meters or so below, you cannot dredge below that. There also is a man-made structure called breakwaters and the breakwater is supposed to be built in the sea to reduce migration of silt into the channel, but it collapsed about 10 years ago. The NPA has appointed a company called Royal Haskoning to do an investigation to find out what we can do with the collapsed breakwater: do we reconstruct it or do we build another one?
But, from the estimates we are getting, it is going to take hundreds of millions of dollars to reconstruct that breakwater. Also because of security issues in that part of the country, our pilots are not able to take out vessels at certain times. So, these limitations have made the eastern ports unattractive business-wise, and not just because of the length of the channels, but also because of the breakwater and high siltation and drafting limitations at the Quay walls. However, what we have done is that we have actually introduced some rebates in terms of tariff reductions to encourage people to import their goods through these ports. We have also deployed marine crafts there, to ensure quick entry and exit of vessels calling to those ports. We are also working towards remedial sweeping of the escravos bell mouth that has been silted, because of the collapsed breakwaters. Calabar port has a channel that is 101 kilometres, the main challenge is that of dredging of that channel, there is currently a court case between NPA and a certain company that was asked to dredge that channel. So, we haven’t been able to dredge the channel for so long.
The Quays there also have draft limitations. Meanwhile, for Rivers port, we know how old it is and its channel length is about 90 kilometres, which is far off the high sea. That too has draft limitations and the channel draft is not that fantastic. The Quays themselves have draft limitations of about 9 metres and what we have done was to also offer tariffs incentives like in Calabar and we are reviewing it now, while encouraging the use of flat button boats into those port locations and whatever it takes, we will do it, the same way we are doing with Tincan and Apapa. That they have their limitations does not mean they should be abandoned. But, let me finally say this, we cannot determine for an importer, where to take his/her cargoes to (i.e. which port to use).
Most of the importers have (30 to 40%) businesses between Lagos and Ogun states and it does not make business sense to bring your cargoes all the way from Calabar or Warri to your factory in Lagos or Ogun State. However, we have been holding stakeholder meetings at the port locations to encourage those that have businesses – whether it is in Nnewi or Onitsha to start thinking of Calabar or Warri preferably. The North East and the North Central are the closest to Calabar port and there have been businesses from that part of the country to Calabar port. What it takes is more engagements to let people know that there are other available locations, but, first of all, you must have the quantity of cargo you need for a vessel to call at those ports. If, for instance, a vessel can take 10,000 containers and there are only 3,000 coming to say, Calabar, you are not going to get a direct call. What the vessel would do is probably call in Lagos, then, do a trans-shipment with probably smaller vessels to Calabar. So, we encourage Nigerians that have businesses in those parts of the country to explore the possibilities of using the ports in the East.
Are you considering measures to encourage non-oil exports so as to boost revenue earnings at the ports?
As a measure to boost the government’s Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP) through the promotion of non-oil exports, the Authority has taken several initiatives towards facilitation of non-oil exports. As the administrator and manager of the country’s major gateways, the Authority has keyed into the economic diversification agenda of the federal government through the promotion of non-oil exports, with the establishment of dedicated export terminals or export parks in partnership with the Nigerian Export Promotion Council (NEPC) and other sister agencies.
The initiative is aimed at the processing, packaging and certification of exports under a one-stop shop platform that houses all relevant agencies responsible for quality control and regulatory validation of exports before shipment. The objective is to enhance and fast-track Nigerian export cargo for shipment at the export parks without any further port clearance protocol. A pilot scheme has commenced at Lilypond and four (4) other terminals should be ready for deployment by the end of February 2022.
Also, a special window has been created for export cargo movement on the ETO platform and Port corridor through a scheme known as time belt for export movement. The Authority has prioritised intra-African trade; all our seaports are being repositioned as efficient and reliable gateways, in line with the drive to optimise Nigeria’s trade interconnectedness with other African countries under the AfCFTA.
How safe are the Nigerian oceans given the deployment of the deep blue project?
The Deep Blue Project has really impacted positively in terms of improvement of security, reduction in piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and other locations, but our responsibility at the NPA is to ensure safe passage of vessels as they come into the country and because of that, we have been deploying buoys along the water ways to ensure safety of vessels; we have also reconstructed and renovated the control towers (Apapa and Tincan). These control towers were constructed in the 70s and the radar and communication systems had gone obsolete. We just commissioned one not too long ago in Apapa and the one in Tincan will soon be completed also, and that has improved communications, thereby improving safety of vessels coming into the country. We are also laying buoys in Calabar and Delta ports and other channels that are necessary for the safety of vessels.
Furthermore, as it relates to safety of cargo within the port, what we have done is to work with other government agencies involved and operating within the port. We have also deployed more security apparatus within the ports and I am sure you have heard about the massive decline in theft of cargo within the port. It is because we have taken the issue of security seriously and under ISPS code, we have our responsibilities and we are taking those responsibilities very seriously. One of the issues we realised was that access to the ports needs to be restricted and that was why recently, we did the 360-degree clean-up between Tincan and Apapa port areas and we removed all the shanties, illegal businesses and car parks around the port locations and very soon, we are going to fence Tincan as a whole. The whole of Tincan will be fenced and there will be a security gate and access control at the gate. We have already started building that in Onne and there will be one in Tincan. Apapa has one but it will be modernised. So, once we have that, it means if you do not have any business in the port or an identification card that will enable you access to the port, you will not have access to it.
What’s the status of the Secure Safe Anchorage Area (SSAA)? Is it still in operation?
The SSAA does not exist anymore. With the approval of the President, that has been cancelled. What we are saying is that every anchorage is safe, as long as it is designated as an anchorage. You cannot differentiate between them and when you say one is secure, that means you are saying the other is not secure. This safe anchorage location was being managed by private companies before it was cancelled and currently, you have not heard of any case of piracy at the anchorage. But outside the anchorage, you hear cases. The Nigerian Navy is working closely with NPA and NIMASA and that anchorage is safe without necessarily calling it SSA actually.
So, the SSAA was just a point, where people were making easy money, basically?
I would not want to comment so much on that because it is something that has been going on for so long. When we came in, we realised that when vessels come in, they go there and when they berth, they pay so much money and the money does not go to government. So what was the reason for that, when the Nigerian Navy has the capacity to monitor and secure those locations or any anchorage that is so designated? We felt it was wrong and the Minister of Transportation wrote to the President, who gave the approval for the cancellation of the SSAA.
The electronic call-up system has come to stay, no doubt. What’s the overview of the system?
I can without any equivocation say that the Eto call-up system has improved the travel time for trucks accessing the ports in Lagos. We are aware that some of the challenges are yet to disappear, notably along the Tin-Can Island Port corridor, but by and large, the system has restored order and also brought down significantly the arbitrary haulage charges imposed on shipments being transferred out of the port. I was part of the team as Executive Director Finance and Administration that midwifed the Eto system before my appointment as Acting Managing Director. So I was part of it from the beginning. However, our approach when I was appointed Acting Managing Director, is to analyse what had been happening from February to May, and we identified some lapses. One of the lapses we observed was the limited deployment of access and control systems that should have been in place at the satellite truck parks, we also looked at the non-deployment of physical infrastructure like bollards, the CCTVs and automated gates, so we sat down with the system managers and we gave them a deadline to deploy these things.
The essence of ETO is to streamline the movement of truck cargo in and out of the port, reduce human interference, and speed up the clearance process. For as long as there is human interference, there will be delays, there will be extortion and so on and so forth. And when we did that, all the deployments, not immediately, maybe a few weeks later, everything that should be deployed particularly on the Apapa axis, had been deployed. And I can tell you that we have been able to reduce the traffic gridlock around Apapa and residents can commute and get to their homes without suffering several hours in traffic. The long queues at the Apapa Wharf end have been addressed, the concern is at the Mile 2 to Tin-Can Island Port where the road reconstruction is at the final stage. As soon as the entire stretch is completed, the Apapa gridlock will no longer be a reoccurring headline.
To further improve cargo evacuation, the Authority is set to introduce an electronic call-up system for barges, similar to the one for trucks, to ensure standardization and to monitor their movements while delivering or evacuating containers to and from the ports.
Yes, the Electronic call-up system in spite of the initial attempt by some unscrupulous persons to sabotage it has come to stay. Indeed, all key operators have factored into its implementation. I can assure you that we are constantly reviewing the situation to ensure its sustainability.
Now, the elephant in the room: Intels. What is the relationship with Intels now and how has that generated revenue?
Currently, NPA and Intels are in court. I will not delve into the issue.
You obviously understand your brief very well. Are you hoping to be confirmed as the substantive Managing Director of NPA?
For me, I will just like us to concentrate on what I have achieved since I was made Acting Managing Director. We have made tremendous contributions to the Consolidated Revenue Fund (CRF) of over N110 billion since we started and we have exceeded our revenue target within that period and we have reduced cargo duel time as well. We have reduced ship waiting time and the cost of trucking goods out of the port has reduced, because we have micro-managed what was there. We have micro-managed the e-call up system and we have tried to have stakeholders’ meetings, so that everybody marries our vision and they work with us to achieve our vision. So, for now, my focus is on delivery of the NPA mandate as the Acting Managing Director.
Where do you see the NPA in another 10 years if it continues with you at the helm?
The NPA is an institution and we should be focused on that rather than on individuals. So with the current plans, what we are doing is coming on-board with plans, timelines – whether it is in terms of digitisation, port development – we now have a 25-year Port Master Plan that is being developed and whether it is in terms of reconstruction of the ports, whether it is in terms of building new ports, whether it is in terms of staff recruitment, whatever we are doing is now deliberate and I believe that in the next ten years, what we will have in the NPA will be more efficient. The issue of traffic at the ports will be reduced or non-existent and in the next ten years, you should have at least two more ports that are at the sea and not river ports.
With deployment of more IT tools and our drive for full digitalization, there will be more efficiency in the next ten years, and we will be able to take back the businesses we have lost to neighbouring ports. We are losing business, not even because of the inefficiencies that are so ascribed to the ports, but because of the draft limitations of coming into our ports, and then another thing is that, you lose businesses, because some people will just rather take them to the nearest neighbouring ports and then smuggle them into the country. But I see an NPA in ten years that we will all be proud of.
In the circumstances leading to suspension of the Managing Director of NPA, Hadiza Bala Usman, the Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, alleged differences in the non-remittance of revenue generated in the balance books of the organisation. Yet, you were then the DFA. Shouldn’t you know about the movement of funds?
There is a Panel investigating that and we have made submissions as it is, and the Minister has also made clarifications at various fora and I think it is best we allow the Panel to conclude its investigation and come up with a report. But, we have made our submissions to that panel.
A lot of people were actually taken aback that you, as DFA, was appointed in acting capacity for the sins of a management that you were part of, a key member as a matter of fact. So, people have asked if your appointment was appropriate. Why is the Managing Director on suspension and the ED Finance has had to benefit from her suspension?
If you remember correctly after the inauguration of the Panel, it was made clear that what is being investigated is beyond the issues of transfer to CRF. I have had the opportunity of being appointed in acting capacity while the investigation is taking place. My mandate is to pursue the mandate of the Authority and I will rather concentrate on that. The Panel is investigating this and on the approval of the President, this Panel was set up. The Panel will finish its work and submit its report.
Do you not feel morally conflicted?
There is no moral conflict here. It is a responsibility given to me and it is a responsibility I am taking very seriously.
Is it true that you had been snitching on Bala Usman, because you’ve always had the ambition to be NPA MD?
I had a good working relationship with Hadiza, and for anyone to say I snitched on her, because I want to become Managing Director, such a person doesn’t know me. It is not in my character and certainly that is not my upbringing. So, it is a false allegation.
The Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, is said to have a soft spot for you and you have a long-standing relationship with him. Isn’t it correct that this actually influenced your appointment or recommendation for your appointment?
I have read somewhere where they said I was his account officer. You see, the Rivers State government had lots of accounts and they had various account officers and our training in the bank is to develop relationships with the individuals and so on. But go to where I have worked, whether it is in FSB or Zenith, I excelled in everything I did. I have the capacity and I have won awards, gone on training both local and international. I have worked in Banking Operations, Public Sector Department, Credit Risk Management; I have worked in marketing, I have developed capacity.
So, my appointment was based on merit. Account officers are individuals also, and they grow up in the society. The current Central Bank Governor was once an account officer and the one before him was once an account officer and there is a sitting state governor that was once an account officer and many former state governors that were account officers. It just happened that this account officer was appointed to work for the Federal Government as an Executive Director, Finance & Administration and now as an Acting Managing Director, but there was merit in it. I have the capacity. I have managed both financial and human resources in the past in the banks for over 20 years and I have managed branches, human capital, finance and so on. So, it is actually on merit.
So far, do you reckon this as your toughest call?
Well, you see, there is a culture shock moving from the private sector to the public sector and the way things are being done in the private sector is different from the public sector. You try to bring in your private sector orientation and at times, there is a pushback. I try to push it in, because it is in the best interest of the country, and I believe that I have added value and improved things here. The way things are being done now is faster. We are faster in our decision-making and there is more efficiency. We are generating more revenue and spending only where it is necessary; staff are also happy.
You said you had a fantastic relationship working with Hadiza and some are wondering, maybe if you had chipped in words for her to say, look, I have worked with this woman, these allegations are really not true, the situation would have changed?
If the need arises, we will have that discussion, but I wouldn’t want to comment on that now.
Shall we talk about the Pandora Papers?
The Pandora Papers is a personal thing, but I would answer it. As I mentioned earlier, I’m a trained banker, who has worked in the banking industry for over 20 years and I have advised people on investment opportunities, wealth management, how to manage risk and so on and so forth. Thus, it is expected that I will guide myself on viable investment opportunities. All these properties were purchased from income from my private business and mortgage loans from a bank in the UK, long before I was appointed to NPA. The properties were purchased as an investment and my account officer at the time told me buying through an offshore company was a better investment strategy long term.
Those companies are not trading companies. They are Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs) for the sole purpose of holding an investment and they were created between 2006 and 2007. The property being claimed I purchased in 2017 was actually purchased off-plan in 2013 and completion was supposed to be in early 2016, but it was shifted to 2017 and by then, I was already working at NPA.
I purchased these properties through offshore companies solely because of the professional advice I got which suggested it was the best way to maximise investment which was the sole purpose of the purchase of the properties. The mortgage loans are payable over 15 to 20 years. Meanwhile, the accrued monthly rent is used to pay off the mortgage loans and these were properties costing £250k to £400k.
So, it was a fantastic investment idea and legit and there was nothing illegal about it.
You kept quiet and everybody assumed that you got the properties from public fund or were the funds from politically exposed persons?
Well, I didn’t want to start joining issues in public. I am a public servant and my utterances need to be guarded and I need to be careful when I speak. But I have cleared the air with the relevant government agencies I should clear the air with.
People see you as the Minister’s boy and that since he made you Acting Managing Director of NPA, he just calls to say he wants this or that person to get this or that contract and you just oblige. They also say because he did not have his way with Hadiza was part of why he wanted her out?
I do not know what these things are, but I can assure you that the Minister is not the type that gets involved in what you do. He will not call you and instruct you. He avoids that and he is very careful about those things. He has not done that to me and I am sure he will not do that. He will not come here to tell you to give anybody anything and after all, I am not in the position to give anybody anything. There is a procurement process here. We advertise, you bid and when you win, you win it. There is no way anyone will say the Minister called you to say you should give a particular person this or that. The Minister will only call to ask about issues related to activities that fall within the purview of the Ministry’s mandate. What people don’t know is that when it comes to work, his passion for success and drive for quick/efficient delivery of mandate are paramount. Those that can remember how he worked as Rivers State governor can attest to that. He accepts no excuses, when it comes to official matters.
Another thing they say is that he likes to be praised and worshiped and you eagerly do that. You won’t confirm this, or would you?
I do not know about him being worshiped and I do not know where people get that impression. So when you say worship, does he have a shrine, where people kneel down to worship him or what? He has never called me to say he wants me to praise or worship him. He has never done that to me or anyone I know.
Another bone of contention between Hadiza and Amaechi was said to be the channel management contract. What is the situation with the channel management contract now, because it’s been due since 2019?
This thing you said, I have also read that there are other issues and that is why the Panel is there to investigate the issues. The channel management contract is actually the existing channel management companies and they are the ones that are doing it long before we came to NPA.
A lot of people have heard about you, but do not know you. Who is Mohammed Bello Koko?
I’ve always been a quiet and withdrawn person and if you worked in the banking industry in those days, maybe you could come across me. I spent over 20 years in banking. I am a goal-getter and I am on the quiet side. I set targets for myself whether personal or official; targets for my personal life and for whatever work I do, I try to excel in it. You can go to where I have worked, I have always been like that. I am a workaholic and I do my best to ensure that I add value to whatever I do. I try to do extraordinary things. I love to watch movies and series. I read a lot also. I can read two to three books at the same time, actually. I am inquisitive. I love nature also, and I watch lots of documentaries and at the same time, I keep abreast with current affairs. For me, I just prefer a simple uncomplicated life and I don’t like too much formalities, I have an open-door policy and expect, as well as accept criticisms. I don’t sit at the back of a car to be chauffeured, I find it embarrassing, and that is Mohammed Bello: a very simple, everyday man.