Following President Muhammadu Buhari’s directive on the suspension of Ms. Hadiza Bala-Usman as Managing Director of Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) last week, stakeholders have been offering their assessment of the performance of Nigerian ports in the past four years under her, even as they commended the President’s action, describing the embattled NPA MD as a square peg in a round hole.
The operators argued that the suspended NPA boss has not succeeded in positioning Nigerian ports as a hub in West and Central Africa, as the country continues to lose freight and shipping traffic to ports in neighbouring countries. They posit that port competitiveness and cost of doing business at Nigerian ports have skyrocketed far above either regional or continental average, especially with regards to cargo dwell time and clearance costs.
In their view, due to muscle-flexing and unnecessary rivalry, the NPA boss allegedly failed to carry major stakeholders like the Nigerian Shippers Council along in the review of the port concession agreements with terminal operators, knowing fully well that the Council is the statutory economic regulator of the port industry. While the Authority under her struggles to effectively play its role as technical regulator, although without cargo to handle or release, the Nigerian Shippers Council as the port economic regulator is well regarded for its intervention to moderate ports, however the Council enjoys little support from the port administration, thereby putting the livelihood of Nigerian cargo owners and other port users at the mercy of terminal operators and foreign shipping companies.
Stakeholders seem bemused by the cry wolf tactics of the suspended MD, who at every interview, media discussion or engagement with stakeholders is quick to attribute the “successes” recorded by the Authority to herself alone. She has never recognize the contributions of other members of the management team or the supervising Ministry. Why would she at this time now want to drag other members of the board to be part of her failures, they retorted.
Freight forwarders and trade groups have also argued that the Nigerian Port system remains unfriendly to business, coupled with inadequate port equipment and exploitation by terminal operators and shipping companies, due to quality of leadership at the Authority .
Industry stakeholders equally decried the level of insecurity around the port area, despite the famed command and control centre she commissioned in 2016 (an inherited project of the previous administration), but remains non-effective in the battle against armed robbery and attacks against visiting ships. The port command and control platform is more or less a white elephant project, with no significant value to the industry, they quipped.
Speaking, Alhaji Rilwan Amuni, a freight forwarder and Co-ordinator, Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) at Tin Can Island Port alleged that the suspended NPA boss seems unfit for such a high public office. In his words, Madam Hadiza Bala’s stay in office has become rather questionable, because several months before the expiration of her tenure, she appear to have hastily lobbied to be given a second term.
He argued that rather than concentrate on building Nigerian ports to an enviable height, she allegedly was busy servicing her “godfathers” who brought her into office with proceeds from the port.
Speaking, he further alleged: “to me, ignominy trails her path because she has joined the lane of those office holders who have proven to lack integrity while in office. Her appointment from inception and the hasty second term of five years granted her, you will not be in doubt that she has to keep servicing some certain ‘godfathers’ to hold tight to her position. Because of these frivolous contracts, they have amassed a lot of wealth and even began to cripple the businesses of their perceived enemies”, he said.
Also, in his reaction, an importer who does not want his name printed, said the suspended NPA boss appeared overwhelmed by the responsibilities attached to the job. According to him, there was no new reforms emanating from her on how to revolutionize Nigerian ports, “those bottlenecks facing the port that will make the stakeholders carry out their duties smoothly were neglected by NPA under her leadership”, he said.
Recall that a port activists group – Congregation of Registered Freight Forwarding Practitioners of Nigeria (CREFFPON) recently accused Hadiza Usman of attempts to permanently kill the Eastern Ports, especially with the introduction of the electronic call-up system for trucks.
The group in a statement said that it carried out a careful study of international trade activities with regards to shipping traffic and cargo clearance through the port system in Nigeria, and adequately observed that failure to upgrade the Eastern ports and decentralize operations in the face of a congested and overstretched Lagos ports have resulted in longer dwell time at these ports, as well as promote unbridled extortions.
In the statement signed by Forwarder Edwin C., the group specifically took a swipe at the NPA Truck Transit Park (TTP) and the electronic call-up system for trucks (ETO), the pet project of Hadiza Bala-Usman, describing both projects as “modernized extortion via ICT applications”.
“The payment of Ten Thousand Naira per truck that uses the platform, (also note that, from our findings, each transport company are made to pay additional #43,000;00 at commencement or entry point by the opening of e-wallet), surely this is an indication of a revenue driven platform, not majorly a value adding platform as proposed. It is a clear pointer to the high level and mindless extortion, carefree attitude of the promoter.
The CREFFPON stated that “the two projects indicate a calculated stand point that further suggests why the Eastern Ports will be administratively and operationally unviable, thereby sustaining uneven competition in the entire port system”.
The statement added: “If Ten Thousand Naira is paid by trucks to use the platform, you can imagine what is realized per annum using a minimum average container throughput of 800,000 TEUs in a year (although available statistics estimate annual container traffic at the Lagos Port to be 1.2mTEUs). Indeed this is an extortion enterprise” the group lamented.
In his contribution, President of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), Chief Increase Uche, described Hadiza Usman’s removal as a setback to the campaign for women inclusion in government and the maritime industry in particular. “May be she is being prepared for a higher position, but if otherwise, that will seriously damage the promotion of gender sensitivity in the position of authority in Nigeria’s maritime space. We pray that it is good. We pray that she did not commit any crime. The industry needs to be rejigged to improve maritime operations,” he said.
Increase charged the new Managing Director, Mr. Mohammed Bello-Koko to immediately swing into action and focus on measures that will improve efficiency and continuation of port infrastructure development.
Recall that President Muhammadu Buhari had last week approved the indefinite suspension of Hadiza Bala Usman over alleged financial infractions in the award of contracts running into several billions of Naira and violations of public service rules. An 11-man probe panel has already been constituted to investigate the matter and come up with a report.