Alh. Hassan Bello is the Executive Secretary of Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC). Fielding questions from some Editors when he visited the corporate headquarters of LEADERSHIP newspapers Group Limited recently, he spoke on some of the Council’s activities under the Buhari administration, including what they are doing to sanitise the country’s ports and the planned establishment of Truck Transit Packs on the highways across the country.
What has been going on since you took over at Nigerian Shippers’ Council?
Nigerian Shippers’ Council is trade facilitated, which means we have to put up certain things, to protect certain things, so that our international trade will be very positive. We are also in the transportation arena trying to be the Ombudsman. As you know, transportation drives the economy, especially now that we are forced by circumstances to diversify our economy. You cannot find a better place for diversification than transportation. Somebody has always said that if we get our transportation policy right, we might as well go and close the oil wells because transportation will be able to finance the budget of this country.
We have contributed in no small measure to the ports where we are the economic regulator. When I came here two years ago, I said we are doing a lot of things to sanitize what is happening in the ports. We started with standard operating procedure and I am happy to announce that this has been done to the extent that every agency in the port know what they are supposed to do according to international standard. This has been launched by the vice president- t that time he was not the acting president. Before then, there is the position of this Standard Operating Procedure being enforced by ICPC which was pantry.
We also have ports supports systems where all complaints from the ports are now done online. These were developed by Nigerian Shippers’ Council. It has been adopted by the Ease of Doing Business Bureau in the vice president’s office. It is now an industry system and one will be able to trace all the complaints or comments as far as the post system is concern. What we are trying to do is to introduce efficiency, transparency, friendliness and competition of Nigeria’s ports so that Nigeria will become the hub or the centre throughout the West and Central African sub region. We will handle more cargoes than our ports because we are in competition with other ports, especially Cotonou and we won’t allow that to happen. Sometimes, as I have said, diversion of cargoes to Cotonou (you have heard about it), is the choice of the shippers.
The Shippers have the right to take their cargo to any port and it is mostly an economic decision but I am happy to tell you that since Shippers Council assumed this regulatory role, we have been bringing cargo to Nigeria. Even our neighbours like Niger and Chad are now bringing cargoes through Nigerian ports. Hitherto, they were bringing cargoes from Ghana, Ivory coast and Togo. So, the need for competition is very important and there is need for us to have efficiency. Many things are going to be instituted and we have the support of the Federal Ministry of Transportation and Nigerian Ports Authority, together with our critical partners like the terminal operators, the shipping companies, the fret forwarders, the truckers and many other interests in the ports.
There is the need for us to get automated ports, ports that are linked with the transparent system. One does not need to go to the port to clear his goods as there should be less physical interaction. We are going to do what is happening all over the world where you can sit down in your office and clear your goods from the ports and we are on the path of doing that.
We are having cooperation from Nigerian Customs Services and we are also having cooperation from the Nigeria Police Force. Only last week, an Assistant Inspector General of Police was in our office where we discussed issues of mutual interests and the economy.
Now, the reason why LEADERSHIP Newspapers Group is critical to us is because we have seen the focus of LEADERSHIP- some rich economic contents. The quality of pages are now more economic than political and I have to congratulate you on that because economy is the main issue now. I think we have done so much politics and so we should do so much economics and I have seen the editorial of LEADERSHIP which is influential and reminds me of New Nigeria of the old where the editorial policy influenced government decisions. We will like the newspaper (LEADERSHIP) to continue like that.
So, what are the major projects the Council is executing at the moment?
We have two projects now and we are not just talking of the sea ports but other projects that Shippers’ Council is promoting and we want partnership with LEADERSHIP. The first one is the dry ports. The dry ports are located in inland. They are ports by all definition, just that they don’t have water, but this is meant to decongest the sea ports and to bring shipping at the doorsteps of shippers internally. We have this dry port in Isialangwa in Abia State, there is one in Ibadan, in Jos, in Kaduna, in Maiduguri, in Funtua and in Kano. We are also proposing one in kebbi State and possibly one in Minna. The process is to bring shipping to the doorstep of people who are here. You don’t need to go to the sea port, either Lagos or Calabar, to clear your goods, especially export. It is going to open up hinterlands for export. In Kaduna State for example, we have about 90 per cent completion and these ports are handled by the private sector. There is rail connection to it and soon we will start export and import. So, if you have goods in Kaduna or the environs, you can have a bit of relief that you import your goods from, let’s say China, direct to Kaduna and the Customs and all other paraphernalia of the port will be there and you will pay your duties there.
In export, you could see the dimension, the economic importance, the impact and the influence it will have on the local economy and even at the international level. The agricultural sector has been still because there is no outlet for export. Along these dry ports, we will have clusters of industry that will process agricultural products and export them, and I think this will bring about the much needed infrastructure for export. Export is another source of diversification but you need modern infrastructure for you to be able to do that. We cannot have import dependent economy all the time. There are a lot of things to export and if we are doing the export, we would not be having this problem of foreign exchange. These are crucial things, they are the game changers and we want LEADERSHIP to support this in appealing to the economic impact it will have. This will bring more industries, more warehouses and this will mean more employment. The employment content of the dry ports is particularly important because our youths need to be employed. We are talking about having three to five thousand direct employment depending on the volume of trade and if this is stimulated, it will even be more. We do not need to drive a truck to Lagos facing degradation because there, it is already degraded but you can export your ginger, you can export your mineral and you can export so many things because you have a port right at your doorsteps where you operates. We have had corporation from the state governments and we want LEADERSHIP to be the advocate of this support and as I have said, these are some of the issues the federal government should focus on.
Secondly, we have the Truck Transit Parks. If you are a traveller by road like me, you will see in many of these famous towns where trucks are parked alongside the road and all that is also a degradation of our environment. So, we decided to introduce Modern Parks like 9km off the highway were we are going to, with the partnership of the private sector, build a park where we have modern amenities.
These parks will have hotels or hostel; it will have gas stations, mechanic village, restaurants and all the modern facilities so that a truck cannot park on the shores of the highway. We are working with Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) and other enforcement agencies to make sure that these are the only places where these articulated vehicles or even your private vehicles could park. This is what is done and transport facilities must be modern. We have a big gap in infrastructure and we have to start doing that. Besides, there are protocols for drivers who cannot drive for more than eight hours, especially those pulling cargoes or transferring cargoes from one place to other.
These parks will also generate employments, it will also bring a lot of succor, re-humanize our drivers and stop the degradation of the environment. We are talking with investors like NNPC and other similar investors like Dangote group and so on. We sold the idea to Kaduna State government and Kaduna State government has already done the expression of interest and I think allocation has started like the one on Mararaba – Jos road. I mean that place should not exist like that. If any conflagration happens there, it will be a tragedy. So, these are modern things Nigerian Shippers Council is doing on inland, not to talk about the sea ports. So, we want the support of LEADERSHIP.
Transport drives the economy and if we don’t have modern infrastructure and a modern transport system then your economy will be sluggish. As a matter of fact it will be stagnant. We are inviting LEADERSHIP to also take interest in that but as the chairman said a while ago, LEADERSHIP and Nigerian Shippers Council are in the process of having an international summit on the dry port because dry port is a game changer in our economy. Exportation of goods is also transportation just as the rail industry. The free zones that we are going to create will be a game changer and we thought a lot about it and we couldn’t see a more worthy partner to bring this than LEADERSHIP and after certain preliminary discussion, I am sure that when we finish we are going to have a very staggering, if you like, cogent impactful conference with LEADERSHIP. So sir, let me congratulate you for the editorial heavy weightiness on the slant you have taken LEADERSHIP to since when it was created and how influential it has become. I have seen the editorial on Shippers Council- always mostly economic issues- and I have find a supporter in LEADERSHIP and we will want that to continue.
The National Transport Commission Bill is expected to open up the transport sector. What will Nigeria stand to benefit from this Bill if it is finally assented to by the Senate and the president?
The National Transport Commission is expected to be the economic regulator of the transport sector. What it does is to regulate technical operation from economic regulation. It is the modern economy. You cannot operate and regulate at the same time. You are either of the two. The bill has been passed in the House of Representatives together with the railway, ports and harbour bills. What they do is to free all these sectors from public monopoly.
We believe strongly that the private sector can participate and should be allowed to drive the economy. Even though we pray for responsible private sector, these are also economic legal engineering which the transport sector is undergoing. The Commission, when created will take over the regulation from the ports authority. The roads, railway, ports and, maybe in the future, aviation will be regulated by the Commission. It is a welcome development for Nigeria.
Is the recent Court of Appeal ruling that Nigerian Shippers Council is no more Ports Economic Regulator not sending wrong signal to the international maritime community?
Nigerian Shippers’ Council has never seen the case with terminal operators and shipping companies as adversarial. It is not like something to win or lose or a litigation that will produce winners or losers. I am sometimes shocked by the slant in some maritime newspapers. The truth is that the operators and indeed the whole industry is seeking clarification or regulatory lucidity and dynamism. Investors must be protected and shielded from uncertainty and unpredictability and over regulation so to say. Nigerian Shippers’ Council has always regretted recourse to litigation and we had hoped that these matters are better mediated than litigated.
For over 10 years, about five dry ports were approved by the previous government. What is the delay and why are we talking about just two now after 10 years?
Let me start with the delay. These things are concessioned to the private sector. I think at that time, Shippers Council was a kind of breast feeding the private sector to make them come up with ideas. Then, there was a problem of funding, correct legal framework, name of port, lack of infrastructures. The Council made the mistake of thinking about developing the five ports at the same time. The attitude of the Kaduna state government may be different from that of Plateau and this affected the initial plan. Now, with what we have achieved in Kaduna, when you get there now, cargos are being dropped and loaded. We just need the road to be done and a few logistics.
The last time we went, Jos was about 62 per cent, almost 70 per cent, completed and Kaduna is about 90 per cent completed. You can see that among five, we have two almost completed and this is an achievement.
Isiala-Ngwa has signed a contract with a Canadian company and they will commence construction, probably next month and this will take about 18 months to be completed because as I have said, dry ports must be modern. We have to avoid the mistake that has been made with the sea ports so that we have sustainable dry port that are automated, modern, less congested and with less clearance procedure. Dry ports are even supposed to be built by government and given to concessioners but former President Obasanjo’s regime changed the concept. If you go to Funtua, Kano and Ibadan, there are a lot of activities. Everybody is coming to develop his port because the Council has given a target and if you dont meet the target, the concession will be revoked. If we get three out of five, I am sure you will congratulate us.
Recently, the president gave a directive of clearing cargoes within 48 hours. With the challenges of infrastructures and bad access roads, how are you carrying out the presidential directive?
We are struggling to do that and what is more important is 48 hours for clearance and operations for 24/7. That is the presidential order. If you go to the airport, it operates 24/7 and now we are putting our heads together at the ministry to ensure that the ports do this. There is already the issue of lightening which has been solved. The issues of Customs, banks, security that are supposed to operate 24/7 are also some problems. We have talked with the Police to handle security.