Eromosele Abiodun: Examining Hadiza Bala Usman’s First Year Of Reforms At Nigeria’s Ports

On July 12 last year, THISDAY exclusively reported that in a bid to inject a fresh pair of hands to run the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), the Minister of Transportation, Mr. Chibuike Amaechi, had submitted Ms. Hadiza Bala Usman’s name to President Muhammadu Buhari to take over as the new managing director (MD) of NPA.

A few days after, THISDAY’s report was confirmed as Buhari appointed Bala Usman the MD of the NPA. With her appointment, Bala Usman, only 40 then, became the first female chief executive of a top tier federal government agency and of the NPA.

She took over from Alhaji Habib Abdullahi, who was reinstated by Buhari in August 2015 as the MD of NPA, after he had been shown the exit by former President Goodluck Jonathan in April 2015.

However, the news of her appointment rattled the maritime sector as many feared the radical change the co founder of the Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG) would bring to the industry.

Some critics had argued that she did not have the experience to run such a huge enterprise having only worked at the Bureau of Public Enterprise (BPE) before being appointed chief of staff to the Kaduna state governor.

Some critics were not convinced that Bala Usman possesses the required skill and experience to pilot the affairs of such extensive and multi-faceted organisation. However, all the doubts now appeared to have been put to rest as the NPA boss has, in her first year, in office recorded significant achievements.

Top industry players in the maritime sector believe she has performed well, stressing that the maritime sector will never be the same again given the reform embarked upon by Bala-Usman.

That is not all, Nigerian ports said to be one of the most expensive in the world and have frustrated stakeholders and businesses over the years, are now changing as those issues are being addressed.

Implementing Executive Orders

In line with the executive order issued by acting President Yemi Osinbajo, Bala-Usman has taken steps to make doing business easier and cheaper across the nation’s seaports. In an interview with newsmen recently, she said the NPA, under her leadership, would review the tariffs charged by terminal operators in order to reduce the cost of doing business at the ports.

The NPA, she revealed, was working on a review of the concession agreements entered with terminal operators about 11 years ago, to align the agreements with global best practices.

According to her, “Our port concessions have been a success story, we need to acknowledge that the Landlord Model that has been in place over the last 11 years has been successful. But we are working to review the concession agreements, as we have said. There are various sections of the agreements that are not being adhered to.
“There are various areas of obligations that both parties have not adhered to. To the extent that the NPA has critical obligations within the concession agreements that we need to abide by,” she said.

NPA boss added that the concessionaires also have critical obligations, which in certain instances, they have not complied with.

Anti Corruption Fight

One of the key mandates given to the NPA boss was to rid the agency of corruption and restore sanity. She has been doing so. The MD disclosed that some of its technical partners in its joint venture companies recently sanctioned in a Swiss Court for bribing NPA officials to defraud the federal government would be investigated and prosecuted by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).

Bala-Usman said NPA had asked for guidance from the Attorney General of the Federation on its continued relationship with the entities in view of their sanctioning in the Swiss Court for corruption.

Swiss prosecutors had recently named four former Nigerian government officials in a multinational bribe scandal relating to contract awards at NPA. The former Nigerian government officials were indicted alongside Dredging International, one of the technical partners that was sentenced to a fine of one million Swiss Francs and directed to refund 36 million Swiss Francs in illegal profits for allegedly making the illicit payments to the Nigerian officials. Dredging International Services is one of the technical partners of Bonny Channel Management Limited (BCML) that runs the Bonny Channel Company (BCC) with the NPA in a joint-venture – public-private partnership.

Speaking on the issue, Bala-Usman said: “Recently we had a situation where one of our technical partners in our joint venture companies was sanctioned in a Switzerland court for being said to have bribed officials of the NPA over a period. We have obtained the Swiss court sanctioning and forwarded same to the EFCC for further investigation on the persons and the entities that were said to have benefited from the graft. We have also forwarded the Swiss court documents to the AGF office for them to guide us on our continued relation with this entity in view of the sanctioning that it has gotten from the Swiss court for corrupt practices with NPA officials.”

On the measures put in place to fight corruption at the nation’s ports, she stated that, “For every corrupt practice that we identify, we forward to the EFCC to investigate and determine what prosecution process they will embark upon. When we identify a legal concern whereby there is a lack of clarity on the role of government or there is a seeming disadvantage that has been provided to the Nigerian people, we have forwarded to the Antony General to provide legal guidance on how we can exit some of these relationships.

“A lot of the corruption practices that we have identified within the port operation are attributable to certain contractual obligations the NPA has entered with entities whereby the federal government is short-changed. We are working at reviewing such agreements and we are working on terminating some of the agreements. We have reached out to the relevant agencies and communicated our position on this.”

Open Budget System

Another major achievement recorded by Bala-Usman is the implementation of open budget system and implementation of a public data dissemination programme.
In a bid to rid the agency of corruption, the NPA, had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with BudgIT, an information technology network firm to provide Nigerians with all the necessary information during its budget preparation and implementation.

The MoU, which was signed not too long ago by the management of the NPA and BudgiT, will assist NPA in promoting transparency and accountability in all its operations.
Speaking at the occasion, Bala- Usman said that the partnership became necessary for the development of an open budget system platform and implementation of a public data dissemination programme that would help the agency in blocking revenue leakages.

BudgiT, she said, had achieved feats in the space of socio-technological advocacy towards opening up of public budgets for citizens’ comprehension.
With the MoU, she said, NPA would be able to deliver on its mandate and create more wealth for Nigerians.
The MoU, Usman added, would also assist the NPA as a critical organ in the economic artery of the nation to promote effective and efficient management of all its 24 terminals across the country.

Standard Operating Procedure

In a move that stakeholders believe will transform the industry, Bala Usman championed and launched the harmonised Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) and Port Service Support Portal (PSSP) designed to stem corrupt practices and ensure a user-friendly port.

The SOP is a collation of operational procedures of all maritime government agencies, shipping companies, terminal operators, freight forwarders, associations and other stakeholders.

The PSSP, on the other hand, is a complaint management portal‎ for operators to lodge complaints if any agency fails to follow the SOP. This is anchored by the Nigerian Shippers’ Council.

Minister of Transportation, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi flagged off the open air launch of the SOP. Amaechi who was represented at the launch by the Bala Usman noted that this project was a follow-up to the initial launch of the project in Abuja on June 2016.

He said that the SOP and the PSSP were a direct response to a Corruption Risk Assessment (CRA) report on Nigerian seaports released in 2013 by the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) labelling Nigeria the most corrupt port in the world. The report had alleged that it takes over 79 signatures of government officials to clear a consignment from Nigeria’s seaports.‎

The report was the outcome of a four-month corruption assessment study carried out by the ICPC in conjunction with the Technical Unit on Governance and Anti-Corruption (TUGAR) and the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP) with the support of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).‎

The CRA was carried out at the six ports in Nigeria: Tin Can, Apapa, Warri, Calabar, Onne and Port Harcourt. The report, however, recommended that stakeholders should jointly implement integrity plans to strengthen transparency and accountability towards enhanced service delivery.

Ports Infrastructure

For regular visitors to the ports across the country, it is no longer news that decaying ports infrastructure has become worrisome. However, the NPA, under Bala-Usman, has also embarked on efforts to boost revenue generation through the provision of infrastructure and technologically up-to-date equipment at the ports. Part of her plan is to reposition the ports industry to play its key role as the gateway to the nation’s economy.

Speaking at the Executive Business Networking Seminar organised by NIMPORT in Lagos, she said the federal government was making efforts to reposition the ports in line with global trends. Growth in trade volumes, she said, was a strong factor in the need for port investment to boost efficiency, build robust, responsive and competitive port economy in tune with global best practices. She said development and upgrading existing port infrastructure as well as improvement in performance had become imperative.

In countries like North America, Europe and Asia Pacific, she said, growing container market has led to incremental upgrade of the existing port infrastructure with container handling automation already put in place to handle large carriers with up to 18,000 TEU.

To achieve this, the NPA has partnered the Port of Miami, United States, to boost export and trade facilitation programme of the federal government.

Revamping the Railway

In addition, the NPA has taken steps to ensure that goods are moved in and out of the ports through the railway line that stopped operating several years ago. To achieve this, the agency has partnered the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) to improve rail facilities from the Lagos ports to the hinterlands.

During her tour of terminals in the Apapa Port, she said that the effort would necessarily improve the trade chain as the railway can be used to move large quantities of consignments real time.

“Regarding infrastructure, we are keen on ensuring that our rail lines from the ports to the hinterlands function. We want to prioritise the evacuation of cargo using rail. We have had discussions with the Nigerian railway corporation. We are going to continue on that, and we believe that a percentage of our cargo should be evacuated using the rail lines,” the NPA MD said.

Stakeholders’ View

Major stakeholders in the maritime sector unanimously agreed that Bala-Usman has performed well but stressed the need to fix port access roads. For instance, the Executive Vice Chairman/Chief Executive Officer of ENL Consortium Limited, operators of Terminals C and D of the Lagos Port Complex, Apapa and Chairman of Seaport Terminal Operators Association of Nigeria (STOAN), Vicky Haastrup told THISDAY that Bala-Usman has effectively changed the sector for good.

She said: “I not surprised that she has done well in just a few days. I have checked her record and she is an exceptionally intelligent woman right from when she was at the BPE. I have asked people who had working relationship with her and they have all spoken well of her. From what she has done within the short time she has spent and from what I have heard her said, I think she will do well. She is a woman of due process, she believes in the rule of law, in doing things well and she is not biased. I want to give her the benefit of doubt. I went somewhere to lobby about the ban on certain items and I was told she has been there to do the same thing.”

Haastrup added: “I never met her, we never compared records but she is making the same effort to turn around our sector. What I want her to do is ensure that the NPA fulfills its own part of the concession agreement. Pilottage is key to our operation, enabling environment is key. All the things that the NPA needs to do as our counterpart in the concession, she should see to it that the NPA does them.

“I was told she has informed them in house to seat up and stop blaming the operators for everything, comments like that gladdens my heart. I think she wants to come and make an impact. Men have done it in the past but we have a woman now and I can tell you that she will do well.”

Also, the National President of the National Council of Managing Directors of Licensed Customs Agents (NCMDLCA), Lucky Amiwero hailed her for entrenching due process in ports operations.

He, however, called on the NPA boss to pursue the passage of the port and harbour bill currently before the national assembly. He also commended her for making effort to address port concession crisis and putting an end to monopoly in the industry.

via ThisDay