Port reform in Nigeria was necessary but crammed without regard to other sectors – Hassan Bello


A former Executive Secretary/CEO of the Nigerian Shippers’ Council, NSC, Barr. Hassan Bello has said that the port reform in Nigeria was necessary but were crammed without regard to other sectors. This is even as he said that port is integrated associated with other sectors hence it cannot work in isolation.

Bello who made this assertion in a paper titled, “The Pains and Gains of Port Concession”, which he delivered at the MARAN at 34 anniversary and Awards organized by the Maritime Reporters Association of Nigeria, MARAN in Lagos last Friday added that all the intended changes must take the Nigeria Customs Service, NCS, shipping companies, freight forwarding companies, Ministry of Works, inland dry ports and other critical stakeholders into consideration.

He maintained that the reform was critical but not comprehensive and ran the risk of being derailed, curtailed, distorted or even reversed hugely because the legal framework was not dynamic and wholesome.

Bello recalled that the port reform was instituted in 2006 by the federal government necessitating the creation of twenty six (26) terminals out of the five (5) existing port complexes in Lagos, Rivers, Calabar, Delta and Onne.

Speaking on the gains of the port reform of 2006, the former NSC boss averred that the reform was short of revolutionary, changing radically the dynamics of the port operation in Nigeria. According to him, the impact was noticeable, almost palpable, relative to what was replaced. He maintained that the port reform brought a lot of improvements for the port including efficiency in port operation largely because of the private sector participation as well as increased port revenue.

Citing the increased cargo throughput following the port reform, Bello said, “NPA generates N172.3 billion in the first half of 2022, remits N78.5 billion to the coffers of Nigeria. Within the NPA Management, structural re-organization was carried out with emphasis on increased contribution to the economy. Management also infused technology in port operation like the Electronic Ship Entry Notice, electronic call up system etc. There is a shift of focus from import to also export (export terminals licensed) as well as access to the port – rail and barge operation.”

On the pains of the port reform of 2006, he observed that efficiency was not optimal as port operations were characterized by delays, inertia at high cost, transparency had been the watchword but there were still opaque areas in charges like rent charges, hidden, under the table payment still persist making doing business at the port difficult and costly, cargo clearance procedures still primitive, tedious and comprised, the port is still being run as mostly a manual port even though some terminals were operating digitally, the port is still plagued by human contacts which is inimical to transparent port and delays of up to 21 days cargo dwell time which is very long a time.

Speaking on the gaps noticed, Barr. Hassan Bello opined that the port reform was timely and necessary but were not comprehensive and neglected issues like multi-modal access to the port namely: rail, road, inland waterways which according to him, had hampered quick delivery of cargo and had caused perennial congestion of the port and threatened to roll back the clock.

He further said that government had not been able to match the private sector in improvement of critical infrastructure like rail and road and access to the port for import and especially for export was hampered as well as absence of clarity and inclusiveness in the regulatory and legal framework.

“The concessionary agreement was shrouded in secrecy. Critical stakeholders (demand side of shipping) were excluded with disastrous consequences. Little or no impact were sought from importers, exporters, freight forwarders etc. In 2019, NSC was appointed economic regulator but loosely bound regulations were not effective even though NSC regulatory was noticeable and endorsed by the the Judiciary, the government and even the operators. There seems, therefore, a lack of effort by the government to carry out structural reform in related sectors to enhance inland connectivity. There is no deliberate linkage or integration of transport infrastructure as ports were haphazardly cited without regard to logistics dynamism”, he stated.

Bello, however, recommended that government must perform its part as a major driver of the reform adding that it must build and enhance critical transport infrastructure on which the port reform was anchored. “Ports are not merely waterfront harbours. Ports and port operations transcend port limit and have greater influence on the economy. Those critical infrastructure must be deliberately sited to make for co-ordination, linkages etc, especially concerning the inland connectivity. Transport infrastructure cannot be located haphazardly, anyhow.

“Federal government must provide conducive operating procedure, ease and cost of doing business and fight debilitating corruption that threatens to put a break on reforms”, Bello submitted.

He further insisted that port reform must be clothed in a dynamic, lucid and comprehensive legal and regulatory framework that is democratic and that provides clarity to the responsibilities and rights of the active parties. According to him, “The regulatory institutions must be assigned specific roles, unequivocal. Concessioning is give and take, the involvement of stakeholders is necessary not only in drafting agreements but in monitoring the tenetes of the the agreement.

“There should, therefore be a review and enactment and guiding reform bills like the Ports and Harbours bill, the National Transport Commission bill, the Nigerian Railway bill, the National Inland Waterways Authority bill etc.that have been abandoned at the National Assembly or at the Presidency. But all these bills must be aligned and related. These bills must be assigned achievable, realizable objectives and must reflect a certain context of making the transport sector alternative to the oil (mono) economy. The transport sector must be concertedly looked at and positioned to wean Nigeria from oil and provide diverse and more certain and sustainable economic sector. I recommend that a Presidential Committee be set up to take up this assignment in a short time.

“Critical government agencies should be headed by qualified managers, trained and competent, able to achieve set goals and meet with targets. Already, legislations setting up these agencies contain minimum qualifications which unfortunately, are ignored when making these appointments. The derogation of these appointments as political trophies have and will continue to cause havoc.”

Bello also recommended a crystallization of the standard operating procedures with strict adherence and penalties for infractions addin that those internationally believed standards must be set and agreed by parties and enforced and operated upon. “This would be the base and source of reliable statistics or data for progress and planning. There seems to be discretionary behavior and subjective standards which may not enhance regulatory agenda”, he opined.

He continued,”Strengthening the bargaining position and power of parties – more often than not, the consumers of shipping services are the weaker party, less organized, disjointed, inequalities of bargaining power is dangerous to the desired or needed equilibrium and may not provide the level playing field that is desirous and necessary for a dynamic port sector.

“Effective competition is needed in the industry. The consumers of shipping services have no choice mostly and therefore, no option. The ultimate is to goal is ‘to get many containers out’ there seem to be a friendly arrangement or understanding by the terminal operators in terms of price, quality and innovation. Lack of competition stifles efficiency and transparency.

“The terminalization of our ports (26) was to encourage intra terminal competition. The terminals are competing units offering. Again, terminals carry out specific cargo to be handled eg container, bulk cargo, RORO Reefer cargo, general cargo, oil and gas, wet cargo etc. It is important to revisit these categorization to guard against abuse of dominant positions”, he submitted.

While stating that port reform must be continuous, Bello observed that there was need for constant review and re-alignment especially in the light of international trade and commerce. “We cannot stop or even pause. The challenges are vast and varied but the prospects are enticing. The maritime industry must be comprehensively executed and strategically run as a fundamental economic factor with the target of contributing massively to the economic growth of the country “, he concluded.

Photo: L-R: Honorable Minister of Transportation, Engr. Mu’azu Jaji Sambo; and former Executive Secretary of Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC), Barr. Hassan Bello (first from right) MARAN 34th Anniversary and Awards held in Lagos Friday.

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