The Chief Executive Officer of the Nigeria Shippers Council, Alhaji Hassan Bello, has called for the overhaul of the Nigerian port system so that it can compete with its counterparts in both the developed and developing nations. In an interview with ABIOLA ODUTOLA, the executive secretary of the maritime apex regulatory agency urged all stakeholders to sit up and embrace development in the sector. Excerpts:
What was the state of the maritime industry after its privatisation a few years ago?
The reform was intended to involve the private sector in port opera-tions and bring effectiveness and competitiveness and this is what we have achieved to a very large extent, especially in the seaside operations. There are indicators to show that especially, the turnaround time for the ships to return has been reduced. Even the tonnage shows increased efficiency. However, it is the landside operations that are becoming more difficult and threatening the efficiency of our port in the sense that, we have cumbersome clearance procedures. That has not made the ports competitive because we are in competition with the ports of neighbouring countries. If the people know that clearing cargoes and doing business in neighbouring countries is cheaper, they will go there.
What are you doing to prevent that?
What we are doing now is to ensure that the cost and the ease of doing business in the port is up to competitive standards. We have tried to streamline the processes and procedures to modernise it. Our long-term aim is to introduce automated technology into the port system, so nobody has to go to the port to clear his goods; you sit in your office and clear your goods. That means Nigeria will be the hub for all trades in the region; this is the function of efficiency but we are not there yet.
Can Nigeria compete with ports in neighbouring countries in terms of the cost of clearing goods?
The business is about cost; the cost of doing business, some years back, was unbearable. This was why tariffs were set unilaterally and arbitrarily. You can set tariffs without scientific explanations. The NSC has been battling with the cost of doing business for as long as I know. Prior to its appointment as a regulator, the cost has been more than what is obtainable. What we are saying is that we acknowledge that the private sector has invested in the port sector. We acknowledge that they have revolutionised the way we have been doing business; but what is worrisome is the arbitrariness, the unilateral action on any tariff without any justification and without the impact on the users of the services or the regulator. Right away, what we have established is that this is a cardinal thing. Nobody can raise the cost of anything without the consent of NSC. I think this is the beginning of our regulatory power. There have been attempts to raise charges, not only by the terminal operators but also by some goverment agencies. Everyone knows now that you cannot increase cost without our consent.
The cost and the ease of doing business must be friendly, because it is comparable to what is available in other countries. Efficiency is important to us because shippers have choices. Before now, we used to say Nigeria is a hub but now Nigeria can never be the hub because there are other choices. It is the function of choice. This is the cardinal thing we are looking into.
Some agencies have been accused of contributing to the cumbersome operations in the port, leading to their expulsion. But they are back after a short period. What is responsible for that?
That is not true. None of them has returned. The preponderance of agencies in the port is unnecessary. It is not only their presence but at times, some levies, taxes made the whole port environment unsightly. All ports are Customs’ ports. The Customs has the right to invite an agency to the port to carry out an assignment if it cannot handle it. That is the basis. It is not that they are being prohibited from the port but they should not have intrusive presence. It is not a permanent thing because goods need to be cleared from the port, as soon as they arrive without any necessary delay. We still have minimal numbers of agencies at the port.
What are the industrial challenges?
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