BY CHUKWUDI OBI
Since its appointment in July 2016, the Hadiza Bala Usman led management of the Nigerian Ports Authority has drawn ceaseless attention to itself.
Readers would recall that at her appointment, criticisms about her youthfulness and lack of experience in the maritime sector were rife. However, Bala Usman and her team comprising Executive Director, Finance and Administration, Mohammed Belo Koko, Executive Director, Marine and Operations, Dr. Sokonte Davies and Executive Director, Engineering and Technical Services, Prof Idris Abubukar have gallantly taken on their responsibilities achieving results that many stakeholders imagined impossible.
Principal targets that the Bala Usman team set for itself include institution a tradition of transparency in all port locations, ensuring that port locations outside Lagos become functional and seeing to it that all companies transacting business in the country operate in accordance with to the laws of the land. And the team has made tremendous progress on all of these fronts, especially as it concerns reducing corruption.
There is the story for example of a company that has done a multi-million dollar business with the NPA for close to two decades. A very prominent Nigerian who holds a position of influence in this company told our reporter that payments to his company was delayed, sometimes for years anytime the organisation refused to grease the palms of people at the NPA.
“And I tell you in all confidence that this was not just about any particular level of staff. It started right from the very top to the lower rung of personnel. It was either you played ball or your invoice gathered dust in their files but that changed when this management team came. All our outstanding payments were cleared and we have since then been paid when due without having to go appease anyone. It is one of the most inspiring things that I have seen in this country in the past five God knows how many years.”
But more significantly, the NPA has in the past two years taken two specific steps that has shaken the maritime sector and the Nigerian business community as a whole. What is more inspirational about these decisions is that in spite of their political undertone, Bala Usman and her team stood their grounds on the decisions, of course with the backing of the President and at the end of the day, they were vindicated, in spite all of the blackmail.
After studying operations within the sector for a few months, the NPA decided that the categorisation of certain port locations in the country as specific destinations for oil and gas made no economic sense, put the country at security risk and above all, ran against the initial concession agreement between the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) and the 25 terminal operators that emerged in 2004. The number came out of the 94 that were pre-qualified from 100 bids received for the three major categories of cargo that were established in accordance with practices across the globe.
The categories were containerised/or container cargo; Bulk Cargo, Multi-purpose or general cargo. These categories were specified at the inception of the exercise but it was discovered that, after the execution of the agreement, the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) added a fourth categorisation which it called “oil and gas.” The NPA consequently designated the Onne Port Complex, Warri and Calabar Ports to receive oil and gas related cargoes.
This unusual categorisation had drawn the attention of this administration and it sought to uphold the liberty of importers of oil and gas cargoes to operate from any port of their choice in the spirit of free enterprise and healthy competition amongst all concessionaires. The Authority consequently sought and obtained the approval of President Buhari on the reversal of this wrongful categorisation. Upon receipt of the approval, the NPA immediately reversed the exclusive oil and gas status of some terminals. All hell was let loose as all sorts of meanings including the political were read into the new policy but the NPA stood its grounds and today, Nigeria can boast of dividends like the reception of the Egina FPSO, at the Lagos Ports in January 2018.
The second industry shaking decision taken by the Bala Usman administration was the notice of termination of the service boat contract issued on Integrated Logistics Services Limited (Intels).
The termination notice followed about fourteen months of correspondence between the NPA and Intels on the need for the company to comply with all Treasury Single Account policy of the Buhari administration. Contrary to the policy that all revenue received on behalf of the government must go into the TSA, Intels has consistently held on to such sums, deducted its commission and then remitted what it considered to be the entitlement of the Nigerian government to the Accounts of the NPA. The Authority provided evidence that it had written Intels since June 2016 and when the company, kept bringing up excuses for its non-compliance, the NPA in October, 2017, issued a notice of termination of contract for the service boats operation.
Again when the issue got into the public space, insinuations about a political undertone was rife. Even the House of Representatives got involved in the matter accusing the NPA of taking moves to scare investors from the country. Bala Usman however made it clear that contrary to speculations, Intels was the one guilty of politicizing the issue. She maintained that the NPA was not going to allow any company no matter how connected they are to flout the laws of the country and that the issue was only about the failure of the company to remit revenues as due.The NPA was soon vindicated when the erring company eventually wrote a letter of apology to the NPA and committed to complying with the TSA policy.
On July 14, 2018, the NPA announced a ten-day suspension of the operation of four shipping lines in the country. The shipping companies including Maerskline, Cosco APS, Lansal were sanctioned for flouting the utilisation of empty containers holding bays. The Authority noted that its checks revealed that these companies either failed to utilise their holding bays at all or do not have adequate capacity to handle the volume of containers that they deal with. This, according to the Authority was contrary to an agreement between it and all shipping company and terminal operators, a result of which sanctions were meted out. In addition, the shipping companies were also accused of having turned the country into a dumping for containers having been found in the habit of importing a larger number of containers than empty containers exported. This action, which took the industry by surprise went a long way to show that it was no longer business as usual with the effect of beating a lot of the operators into line.
So in its two years, operators in the maritime sector testify that Bala Usman and her team have instituted a level of sanity that has not existed at the ports without fear or favour. Bala Usman says she is committed to bequeathing a legacy of accountability and efficiency on the industry and stakeholders would tell you that the NPA is very much on its way to the accomplishment of same.
Obi, a maritime business analyst, wrote in from Lagos