Bello Gwandu: Unveiling an Accomplished Public Servant

He is one of the illustrious Nigerians whose Midas touch in public service is unequalled.  Unassuming and a man of few words, who retired but not tired as his expertise is still being sought after by corporate entities, meet Mallam Bello Gwandu, former Managing Director of the Nigerian Ports Authority. The Kebbi State-born maritime magnate in a recent encounter with Funke Olaode relayed his life and career trajectory and his wishes for Nigeria as the year unfolds

Hello Gwandu, former Managing Director of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) was thronged into national consciousness by dint of hard work in the early 80s. And until he retired two decades ago, he remained a man of untainted integrity.

Gwandu had his primary discipline in Port Management from the University of Birmingham after which he joined the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) as a Cadet. He rose through the ranks to become an executive director, ports operators and later became the managing director from August 1999 to September 2001.

At NPA, he demonstrated intellectualism and patriotism. Today, he has written his name on the sands of time.  A man of modesty, he possesses infectious humility despite growing up in an affluent background before forging a successful career path in one of the nation’s lucrative parastatals.

Gwandu had a privileged beginning. His descendants are from the famous  Islamic scholar, Usman Dan Fodio’s lineage. He would later toe the line of western education with dedication and commitment, the move that eventually placed his path on the pedestal of success in public service.

Recalling his privileged beginning with a sense of modesty, he said he belonged to a family of achievers.  “My growing up was a very humble beginning and elitist. I am from the royal family of Gwandu in Kebbi State. And I have the privilege of growing up as an ordinary person without any air about us.”

He continued. “I was never disadvantaged. I grew up in a ruling class. My great, great parents, Abdullahi Fodio, was the younger brother of Shehu Usman Dan Fodio. So my family has never been in what you can call a deprived state when it comes to learning or teaching. Abdullahi Fodio was one of the foremost Islamic scholars that actually wrote so many books. So I did not come from a background, where I would say that I am looking for ambition.  I am already privileged. Part of the principles of Usman Dan Fodio was  simplicity.”

His fire of intellectualism was ignited first at  Birnin Kebbi Secondary School. After his secondary education, he had a brief stint at the Revenue Office. He later moved to the United Kingdom which eventually opened the window to his career.  In the UK, he attended the University of Swansea and got a Diploma in Social Politics and Administration, then the University of Birmingham where he acquired a Master of Science degree in Social Impact of Science and Technology.  To ensure he was well grounded in his field when he joined NPA, he went for another certificate in Boat and Harbour Management specialising in Container Terminal Operation. Then of course he went to the United States and did Human Resources Development.

Has the Kebbi prince been a gifted child considering his academic trajectory?   “Not really, I wouldn’t consider myself the most intelligent. I was just an average child just growing up. And you know education can be a mix of a variety of things. I had business, and social issues then, and I also now specialise in ports. So basically I think you don’t have to be very extremely smart as long as you are willing to learn a variety of things. So it is quite an interesting life, those days things were much easier, you get scholarships from state governments.”

Looking content in his white agbada during a recent encounter with this reporter, Mallam Gwandu hasn’t lost his sense of humour and his down-to-earth nature. He has remained true to himself despite his accomplishments.

It has been over two decades since he left NPA, but he kept to himself, doing his own thing.

“I am very simple and at the same time, a private person and that is what life is supposed to be. If I have been in public life as the managing director, and it was a very hectic life, I have been exposed, and now I am retired, so you have to spend your part of life, you don’t have to always run here and there and give stress to yourself.

“I am not being elusive. I played my part in public service and I grew up in a very prominent industry. I come from a very prominent family, so really I don’t see what is elusive about it. The fact that I don’t go about beating my drum and shouting and being seen by your colleagues in the press, is not necessarily that I am being elusive, no. There was no need for it, when I was in the public office, I was in the public. But now I am a private person, I should conduct my life as a private citizen.

“I have been on the board of a few companies. I have been in property development. I have also been engaged in some logistics companies, where I give advice. So you have to really make a distinction if you want your life to be loud and when it becomes loud, what is the end? What is the purpose? I tried to run for office during Obasanjo, but I did not succeed. I have basically contributed my part to the development of this country. Right now I consider Lagos as a  home.  I have been in Lagos for 27 years, so I am almost an indigene of Lagos. Most of my friends come from Lagos, so my life is centered in Lagos, Abuja and then the village.”

Gwandu was and still is an authority in ports affairs and he gave a glimpse into what went wrong in  NPA and the environmental hazards being experienced. 

According to him,  “What went wrong was that there was growth. The port has remained the same, the volume of cargo going to the port has grown. And we said it before, that if there is no new port in Apapa, the activities in the port will spill to the environment and this is what has happened in Apapa and the town itself. Because the roads leading to the port are the same roads for the last 40 to 50 years. But the volume of cargo going to the port has increased by almost 20 per cent. So how do you expect the environment to survive? The infrastructure is like your heart becoming bigger and bigger and you have got the same narrow vein. So people have not realised that we are operating the same pattern of cargo clearance, documentation is not electrical and the same port is doing two jobs – discharging cargo and clearing cargo.”

It is easy to point a finger but were there efforts made while presiding over NPA as its helmsman? Gwandu with a sense of patriotism said he tried his best to sanitise the system.  “We did.  We informed the authorities. You have to realise that a port is not operating on its own. It is under the provision of the Ministry of Transport and it is an aspect of the federal government. So no matter what your professional perception is, it can only go as far as the government itself realises what is happening. The unfortunate mistake that we make sometimes in this country is that you have different authorities that are coming in, trade organisations that don’t know anything about it. And after every four years, we don’t have a long-term master plan. We have to decide whether we want a regional port or a national port. And the majority of the cargo coming into this country is coming in through Lagos port. And Lagos port has become a major holder of the activities of the Nigerian economy. So we must expand the facilities, we must change our pattern, we must go for electronic operation. You can’t just do the same activity in the same port at the same time. You do clearing, you do discharging, it is too much.”

Speaking further, he added “No matter how much you make provision for, you should do the clearing of goods outside the port. Let the port be purely transit. You open inland terminals where goods can come in and pass. Don’t forget that if you are doing the same activity in Apapa port, all the clearing agents will be going to the port. All the dock workers will be going to the port, everybody will be concentrated at the port. But you should dissect the activities. Who is benefiting now? The nation is not benefiting from the activities, goods are staying for too long, and if you took a loan from the bank, you have to pay too much interest. So people spend days on the road, an hour is being lost and you can’t even plan.”

Gwandu offered a piece of advice. “The way out is to change the procedures which are very difficult. Going purely for electronic and physical movement should be discouraged. Then we have to start doing new ports which they have already started. So you have to develop a combination of too many strategies to address the issue. Our trade is expanding exponentially and you really have to now start to think, we are already losing cargo to other West African ports. So we should look at Nigerian ports as a regional hub. And presently, the way we are constituted, some of our seaports cannot cope. Because for regional ports that are in transit, you need a deep seaport, you need a multi-functional port that is very active and big because of the volume of ships and the shape of a ship that has changed, you cannot really function with our existing infrastructure.”

As an accomplished corporate magnate, Gwandu is also a successful family man. “I am a family man by the special grace of God. Two of my sons are working in one of the major financial institutions. The last one is doing dentistry in Germany.”

On his take on certificate acquisition and skills, Gwandu believes both should walk hand-in-hand.

“The world is evolving. One of the major mistakes that we are making in this country is that skills are not totally embraced.  In the next century what is most important is a skill. People have what they can contribute to society as opposed to just getting the certificate. Of course, getting the certificate is very important because it makes sense and you are able to read and write. But what your skill is contributing to society is extremely important. In the next century, it is the ability to become multi-functional that will lead. For instance,  your housewife can repair electrical gadgets, and she can cook. So because of the technology that is taking over, people’s skills will have to change on all levels. Offices are going to change, it is not going to be this formal office where you are going to put your coat and put a tie on a big table, no it has to be a multifunctional one. And what is going to happen next is that Artificial Intelligence combined with the present technology will make a major significant change in all industries. In the agriculture, entertainment, construction industry, a lot of people are not getting ready for that time. But we just have to get ourselves ready.”

Always appearing relaxed and smart, the secret he said is not solely on a good diet but good exercise, and above all, surrounding oneself with positive and trustworthy friends.

As the new year unfolds, Gwandu’s wishes are enormous as he reeled out a few. “I want Nigeria to be peaceful and should have peaceful elections. And also to experience economic growth.”.

And on the home front? “I want to experience peace in my life and household.”

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