Peter Uzoho: Opening Nigerian Ports to Public Scrutiny

The Nigerian Ports Authority has signed an MoU with BudgIT to promote budget transparency, making it the first revenue-generating agency of government to open its books to public scrutiny. Is this the beginning of reform of public service finances as promised by the President Muhammadu Buhari administration, asks Peter Uzoho

When Ms Hadiza Bala Usman, was appointed Managing Director of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) by President Muhammadu Buhari in July, she promised one thing at the ports: transparency. Revenue generating agencies in Nigeria often operate an opaqueness that is difficult to decode. If anyone took Usman’s promise with a pinch of salt, it would be in order. “Transparency” and “Nigerian ports” are hardly found in the same paragraph, much less in the same sentence, or even next to each other.

However, Friday, November 11, 2016, was not just one of those days at the NPA. It may just be the beginning of another era in the management of public agencies in Nigeria. On that day, NPA signed a Memorandum of Understanding with BudgIT Information Technology Network for the development of an open budget system platform and implementation of a public data dissemination programme. The aim is to open up the income and expenditure of the agency to public scrutiny, to demystify the secrecy around the operations of the agency which earns a lot of money for the country.

For those who don’t know, BudgIT was instrumental to the unravelling of the padding of the 2016 federal budget. The national outrage forced President Buhari to withdraw the Appropriation Bill and present a re-worked replacement. This was a first in Nigerian history. Although it caused national and international embarrassment for the country, the right thing was done in the end. The budgeting process is now being sanitised and Nigerians would expect a more transparent and credible process henceforth.

In her speech at the signing ceremony, Usman said: “The significance of the role of the Nigerian Ports Authority in the efficient management of all 24 Port Terminals for the development and economic good of Nigeria cannot be overemphasised.” She underlined the critical position the agency plays in the national economy. Nigeria is import-dependent, and in this era of low oil prices which is affecting the way government does its business, there is a heavy revenue burden of expectation on the NPA to efficiently manage the ports and generate alternative revenue for the government. Much more, though, is the expectation that Nigerian ports would be transformed to be among the biggest and best in Africa.

Usman employed interesting statistics to drive home the point that transparency at the agency is a matter of urgency. As at close of 2014, she said, Nigeria, in terms of Ports and Maritime activities ranked fourth in the industry in Africa by size with more than a million annual 20-Foot Equivalent Units (TEUs). Over the last five years, Nigerian Ports have seen a Gross Tonnage of 144.2 million. In spite of the economic recession, an annual growth rate of about 2% is expected through the next five years. The direct contribution to GDP presently stands at 0.01%. Revenues have seen growth from N57 billion in 2005 to N184 billion in 2015. It could be more, she said.

“The NPA can create more wealth for Nigerians. The NPA is committed to making operations at Nigerian ports seamless, efficient and world class. We are moving rapidly towards a 24 hours port operations and 72 hours cargo clearance. We are automating payments. We are committed to increased investment in port marine infrastructure and improving traffic on port access roads. In the same vein, we are in advanced collaboration on several Greenfield Port developments. The industrial outlook and prospect for maritime transportation and logistics in Nigeria is both ambitious and positive,” she said at the ceremony.

Usman, in seeking to justify the need for openness at NPA, tied her resolve to the recent changes in the governance direction of Nigeria. She said: “Since the ascension of the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari, the Government has set out to change how our governance systems run and instill a new culture of integrity, transparency and accountability in public administration. Our institutions have been poorly managed and we are all guilty. Today, we are out to walk our talk and depart from the morally flexible and opaque practices of the past administrations by moving towards information democratisation, budgeting transparency and open governance.”

BudgIT started operations in 2011 and has been credited with achieving revolutionary feats in the space of socio-technological advocacy towards opening up of public budgets for citizens’ comprehension and information. This is raising the bar on accountability and transparency in government and facilitating simplification of data for public good. “While serving in the Government House in Kaduna, we embraced the noble technological concepts of BudgIT many months ago. And I must say that we were better off as an administration for it,” she explained, recalling her days as Chief of Staff to the Governor of Kaduna State, Malam Nasir el-Rufai.

Deploying technological tools, BudgIT will help NPA to open its budgets to the public, instill a framework for transparent budget provisions of the Authority, encourage participatory governance by way of feedbacks and stakeholders’ inputs, and create an enabling and transparent environment to encourage foreign investment. The collaboration is also expected to ensure that “key researches, industry policies and innovations are effectively communicated” — in the words of Usman, who also said the critical data generated are made accessible for policy makers, private sector actors, stakeholders and the public. She promised to do more “as necessary” in the direction of transparency, accountability and proactive disclosure of public data and information.

The partnership is at no cost to NPA and BudgIT, which is a non-profit organisation. BudgIT’s aim is to “redefine participatory governance” by presenting government data in engaging formats: simple tweets, interactive format or infographic displays. BudgIT says it believes that in a democracy, “every citizen has the right to know how taxes are expended in the delivery of public infrastructure and services.” The organsation offers mobile, online and offline solutions, to trigger discussions around the budget “and take the budget beyond being a news item, to becoming a focal point of debate among Nigerians.”

With this agreement, BudgIT will develop an online portal for the Open Agencies Budget System with a “Follow the Money” approach, providing linkages with other civic tools, as identified by both partners. It will also identify key public policy issues in NPA focused areas relevant to private and public sector stakeholders, effectively communicating the transparency initiatives of the NPA. It will identify relevant initiatives and channels (media programmes, policy dialogues, policy briefs, interactive websites etc) to engage policy makers, private sector stakeholders and the general public with the achievements/programmes of the NPA concerning transparency and accountability.

BudgIT will lead conversion of research and analysis of these initiatives into relevant engagement formats for the general public, the media and civil society, as well as the development sector, as well as encourage the NPA to take steps to institutionalise proactive disclosure of public data and information, including the enactment of relevant laws such as the Fiscal Responsibility Act, Freedom of Information Act, Public Procurement Act and also an Open Data system. The two bodies will develop and execute relevant engagement programmes.

Branded an “activist in public service” when she was appointed, Usman made history as the first female chief executive of NPA. At 40, she is also the youngest to be MD since she was born. Initial opposition to her appointment has died down as she has quietly gone about doing her job at the NPA, reshuffling the top management for greater efficiency and outlining her vision for where she hopes the ports would be during her time in office.

The memorandum with BudgIT is a major signal of her intention. As she said at the signing ceremony, “This collaboration will ensure key researches, industry policies and innovations are effectively communicated. It will also ensure that critical data are generated and made accessible for policy makers, private sector actors, stakeholders and the public. As we progress, we will be doing more as necessary in the direction of transparency, accountability and proactive disclosure of public data and information.”

This piece was originally published in ThisDay newspapers.