Bello: FG Should Set Up Commission to Audit Port Operations

In this Interview, the former Executive Secretary, Nigerian Shippers Council, Dr. Hassan Bello, opined that for the nation’s ports to be as efficient as what obtains in other maritime nations, the federal government should  set up a High Powered Commission  to carry out forensic audit to unveil roles, rights of   operators/stakeholders, including their  Standard Operating Procedures  and provide sanctions or actions arising from non-observance. Bello also spoke on other maritime industry issues. Excerpts:

Sir, what is your view on the Maritime Seminar for judges which the Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC) organised in collaboration with the National Judicial Institute (NJI)?

What gladdens all of us in the industry is the resumption of the seminar. There was concern when it was not done for three – four years. We are back again.  That is very important. Secondly, the frontier of the seminar has been expanded with a number of resource persons from all over the world – not restricted to Nigeria. That is also pleasing.  We have five countries here representing. It is a good step and you have seen the attendance of judges, the Supreme Court judges, judges from Court of Appeal, Federal High Court and from the states. So, I think the fire has been ignited and we cannot go anywhere but forward.

Over the years we have had this seminar, how has it helped in adjudication and fast delivery of maritime cases?

It is faster now. Cases linger in courts for a very long time because neither the judges nor even the advocates have knowledge of the maritime law which is technical. But now, we have trained over a thousand judges. Everyone has an elementary or   rudimentary knowledge of laws or principles of Admiralty law. So far, now judges or shippers or parties don’t complain of cases delay in courts and that is pleasing. You heard the Chief Justice say that as much that the seminar is updating the knowledge of judges for action on judgment so that they understand what they are ruling on and  also speedy judgment.

Are there peculiar issues raised in the seminar that you think government needs to address urgently?

Yes. Government can address port operations for example. Despite all the efforts government should set up a high-powered Commission to look at forensic audit of port operations so that we identify the parties, we see their responsibilities and we enforce them. There is need for us to domesticate certain international conventions like the liability of terminal operators so that everybody will know who are the parties who you can sue, what are their obligations, rights of parties involved in port operations. Port operation is critical to the economy of this country. You can have a fine port, you can have a big deep seaport, but unless its operations are first technologically driven, they are modern, they are fast, they are efficient, then you have ports that are mere relics.  It is important government sets up a high powered commission to come out with the ways we can entrench and protect the rights of everybody, including terminal operators, shippers, the role of freight forwarders, the role of customs. I think we need to advance   the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and provide sanctions or actions arising from non-observance. It is not just enough for you to say this is the SOPs of an agency or party, no, you have to make sure that the SOPs are enforced.

What is your view on the call by participants that the seminar should be organized every year instead of every two years?

You see the NSC has sacrificed so much and you can see the event. It is better every year. Now, this one is the most beautiful. It is better than the ones we used to have when I was there. That is the spirit of the new administration and everybody is so happy because of the standard. But then there are financial outlays and I see no reason why NSC should not seek for sponsorship of the event from rich operators. NSC is no more cargo centric. It is for the shipping companies as much as they are for cargo owners, freight forwarders, terminal operators and so on. And I think NSC with that sponsorship should be able to make it yearly. The more frequency of the occurrence of this seminar is very important. I support it, it should be done but because of budgetary concern NSC will have funding problem. But I think  it  will be creative to make it yearly.

  The essence of the seminar is to improve on the maritime industry, but other agencies are shying away from  this and if they are not here to know what is going on, it will affect what the seminar is going to achieve, do you agree with this?

I alluded to  that on the first day of the seminar. But I think it is going to be addressed. There is a meeting of Chief Executives of Maritime agencies and to be fair the DG of NIMASA wants to collaborate with NSC so that this will be one seminar. Others will follow suit. Because as you said it is important what they do.  I think they (agencies) will make it in an agenda to come and collaborate with the NSC. NSC may be the coordinator.

So you are saying all those in the industry should be part of the sponsorship of the seminar?

Yes. You are right again. It is an industry thing and all in the industry should come together and make it as maritime or transportation seminar for judges.

It would appear that the responsibilities of the NSC have increased but without enough funds or increase of funds for execution of such responsibilities, as the former ES of the NSC, what is your view on this?

The responsibilities have increased. The primary source of funds for the NSC has been the Port Development Levy, which is really an administrative arrangement. If you look at the law setting the NSC it is Port Development Levy. Now the Port Development Levy was 1 percent. We were able to push it to 2 percent but it is still not sufficient for added responsibilities. NSC now has its hands in every activity in and outside the ports. I think there should be more creative funding. But what is needed is the passage of the NTC Bill into law which has totality of bringing out the multiple or multi-sectoral agencies to deal with, drive maritime issues in these ports. If we have NTC, the issue of economic regulation will be advanced which means it will look at competition, which is lacking. Have you seen advertisement from ports… like come to my terminal. So something is wrong. There should be intra-terminal competition like what happens in the telecommunications sector, where there is such advertisement. Everyday you open the TV or Newspapers, you see one advertisement or the other which means a spill over.    The TVs are good, earning money from that, the newspapers too.  The port industry is bigger than this communication industry. That is what is surprising. I am not saying that there is collusion in that but then it is not competitive, but competition is a hallmark of economic regulation which means the consumer is the king.  You remember how much  you bought your old sim card several years ago when the GSM came up,  about N20,000 or N30,000. But now they give you sim free because competition has driven prices  to a reasonable level. That is a key issue that the NSC should look at. Look at the competition. I am happy all the agencies are making progress in the maritime industry. We don’t have issues of piracy even now. NIMASA has done a lot to see that this is tackled. And they are just bringing the infrastructure for the maritime security issue. NIMASA is doing what it is supposed to do.  So, I think the cost of shipping to Nigeria will go down. Consequently we will not have such charges like war risk clauses and all that because security is getting better. The NPA, you see what they are doing, the eco-management system is reducing dramatically the bad traffic situation. NPA is having tremendous improvement.  NIWA is driving the private sector for carriage of goods in the waterways on barges. We have the NRC with so much responsibility and you can see what they have been doing.  CRFFN is going back to the basic, taking the freight forwarders to training instead of this long time flight of fancy…    Look at Maritime Academy of Nigeria; foreigners will next year start coming to have their seafarers training. NITT, you see the quality of what they are doing now. Before it was just dry something, no link to the economy. But now they are issuing certification and if you don’t have certificate, your professionalism is in question. All our agencies are doing well. I think the Ministry of Transport should be commended.

 Taking about having    a  $7bn industry, how possible and soon can  this be?.

I think it is an evolution in the sense that port reform was the right step to take. The NPA has given cargo clearance to the terminal operators. They have increased efficiency. The port reform has really helped but then we need to also step up. We cannot be in the same place at the same time after so many years. We got to move on. No parking, no waiting, just move on, make a change. This is important.    But we need that Commission, a Special Presidential Commission to be set up immediately to look at all the something, sift and say this is it.

When you were in office CEO of NSC, the Council spearheaded the war against illegal charges by multinational shipping lines with the involvement of members of the African Shippers’ Council, to what extent did this bring succor to Nigerian shippers?      

It was a great thing. It was not only NSC but everybody came together to protest. Of course, that is what is expected of Shippers Council to do. NSC cannot exist without stakeholders. It is the most stakeholders’ sensitive agency of the government because when you have stakeholders you cannot now be wrong. The contribution from everybody, from all aspects, from the providers of shipping services and consumers, even pharmaceutical industries, manufacturers associations, NACCIMA at that time even stevedores were all involved. These stakeholders confer authority and respect to the Shippers Council.  What is happening in NSC is an advancement. Things are being done which we were not able to do and you can see from the little time Mr Jime is on the saddle, he is concerned about achievement. His power of persuasion, you heard the speeches he made. I mean nobody could do it better than he did. It is good we support him and make sure that these goals are achieved.

You have been out of government job for more than one year, how has it been like?

It has been very challenging and rewarding. I never knew that I will get respect from the industry after leaving office because there was some fight. But in my consultation as a consultant and also as a lawyer, I have had tremendous respect from shipping companies and terminals. I give you an example of a client, when I consulted for him. When I went to this particular shipping company, the management came out and welcomed me and I was surprised, is this me? And they yielded to me with speed. I am busier now than when I was in office. I have many cases in court. I have many consultations all over. If you don’t see me in Kano, Abia state, you see me in many places.  It is rewarding. So we are continuing what we did for the private sector.

The Ports Task Team headed by the Council recently cried out over attacks by those in the ports for fighting against corruption, what advice do you give the team?   

The NSC should be steadfast. It is nothing new. We have faced that in the past when we were trying to introduce the Cargo Tracking Note. There was death threat from operators who were swindling the government. So it happens. There are challenges in telecommunications and in many industries. You want to bring sanity, you want to bring order, corruption will not just stop you but fight you. But I am sure the people we have, the management of NSC will not be intimidated. That I know very very well. It is not business as usual. It will have to go into fight. But sometimes technology stops some of these things.  Technology is the illumination. Once you put it there, it will illuminate all over the rats, the cockroaches will all run away. So technology is the answer to fight against corruption in the ports. NSC should be steadfast, they should incorporate  technology, if they automate all the system, digitalise the ports, you have less problem.  What you have is contact, contact ports. Many people go there for doing nothing. The payment is electronic you clear the cargo in your office. That is what NPA is doing. With IMO, NPA is promoting that. Just like in many other nations, there should not be rivalry between agencies. Is not like.. this is mine.  There is nothing like that.  Are you not going to be out of that system?  This thing belongs to me, you are doing my work, is needless. They should come together as agencies under the port community system.

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