In 2006, the Federal government, after several years of horse trading and meticulous planning, decided to privatise port operations for efficiency and high revenue yield.
Consequently, the nation’s ports were balkanised into 25 terminals whose operations the Nigerian ports Authority (NPA), ceded to private owners.
As good and desirable the concession programme was, its process has been a subject of controversy.
The exercise was said to have been conducted in opaque manner, steeped in irregularities and secrecy.
More worrisome to the teeming agitated stakeholders, of which we are among, was that the concession agreement between the NPA, the statutory custodian of the ports, and the concessionaires, was said to have been shrouded in secrecy.
Over the years, stakeholders in the industry have asked the NPA to make public the concession agreement to enable all the players be on the same page.
They have argued, and rightly too, that knowing the contents of the agreement would afford them to know the rights, duties and obligations of the lessor which is the NPA and lessees who are the terminal operators.
This, rightly too, will make them to know who is to be held liable in case of any breach or lapses in the discharge of their obligations in the agreement.
But the NPA, the custodian of the agreement, had inexplicably, held the agreement close to its chest.
This has therefore made the contents of the agreement subject of wild speculations and conjectures among the stakeholders.
We align with the thought and agitations of worried stakeholders who have unequivocally condemned the secrecy surrounding the agreement.
The Nigerian ports are common patrimony of all Nigerians and so the agreement over which they were ceded to private owners should not be subject of speculations.
That is why we became one of the fans of Hadiza Bala Usman, the incumbent Managing Director of the NPA when she vowed to review what has now become the secret document.
Ms Usman, when she took over the mantle of leadership at the agency, had not hidden her intention to carry out a comprehensive review of the agreement which she said, and rightly so, was fraught with irregularities and flaws.
We had then thought that the review exercise would now bring the secret document into the open as the membership of the committees would cut across the broad spectrum of relevant stakeholders in the industry.
But how wrong the review exercise has proved us to be when the exercise was equally done in a controversial manner.
We were not only disappointed as many stakeholders are, but equally puzzled by the exclusion of the Nigerian Shippers’ Council from the review committee.
We are yet to fathom nor come to terms with the exclusion of the Council which is not only a government agency but also one of the critical stakeholders in the industry.
To us at the nigeriamaritime360, it is an unpardonable error of omission that rather than make the Council an active participant in the review exercise, it was made to observe the process from the side-lines.
We are compelled to align with the dominant thought and speculation in the industry that the Shippers’ Council was deliberately excluded by the NPA because there is something to hide.
As the industry’s economic regulator, the crucial importance of the inclusion of the Council in the committee cannot be over emphasized.
But as the review exercise has since been concluded without the Shippers’ Council on board, it is then clear to the discerning minds that the NPA has something to hide.
Or how else can one explain that an agency which regulates the economic activities of the concessionaires for which the agreement was drawn would not be part of its review.
The non-involvement of the Shippers’ Council in the review exercise has not only rendered the whole process invalid but robbed it of the desired credibility.
We may be forced to assume that the exclusion of the Council was a deliberate attempt to castrate the agency and make it ineffective and inefficient in its statutory duties as economic regulator.
How would the council be able to effectively monitor the economic activities of the concessionaires if it does not know the contents of the agreement of the concession programme or be part of its review?
At best, the council will be made a toothless bull dog that will be at the mercies of the concessionaires.
We are greatly disturbed by the continued veiled attempt of the NPA to undermine the activities of the Shippers’ Council.
We can vividly recall that on September 12, 2019, during the third maritime stakeholders conference in Lagos, Hassan Bello, the Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Shippers’ Council, made a startling revelation about the ways and manner in which government agencies in the industry are working at cross purposes.
By inference, Bello pointedly accused the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) of undermining the efforts of the Council to crash the shipping charges at the ports.
He had then complained about how the NPA normally goes to the Ministry of Transportation to get approvals for charges without recourse to the council for harmonisation, a move which he said made nonsense of efforts to streamline plethora of charges in the sector .
Even though Bello, at a later exclusive interaction with this platform, tried to mitigate the enormity of the revelation when he declared that the development was more of an overlapping function than inter-agency rivalry which we believe the situation suggests, we feel this does not make the whole situation less alarming.
If one was skeptical about the allegation of Bello at the third maritime summit against the NPA, the exclusion of the Council in the all important Port concession review committee now lends credence to the hushed talks among the stakeholders that there is love lost between the two agencies.
It beats our imagination why this should be so as we believe there should be a healthy rivalry among government agencies in the industry.
But to our dismay, what we found out is that these agencies are strange bed fellows whose activities are rather to compliment one another but instead work at cross purposes.
We call on the Minister of transportation, Rotimi Amaechi to, as a matter of urgency, intervene in the odious manner the Shippers’ Council was inexplicably omitted from the review committee of port concession in order to give the review exercise the expected credibility and make it popular among the skeptical stakeholders.
We also urge the NPA to regard the Nigeria Shippers’ Council as a partner which plays complimentary roles with the port authority.
As sister agencies, the two organizations owe the industry and its operators a robust and cordial working relationship that will uplift the sector.
The industry can ill-afford a silent war of attrition and supremacy battle between the two sister agencies, especially at this critical times when all hands must be on deck to salvage the industry and reposition it for efficient service delivery.
We equally find it curious why the Shippers’ Council should leave it this late before it cried out over its obvious marginalisation in an exercise it ought to have had a commanding presence.
We understood the review exercise has been completed and we are waiting to see how the Shippers’ Council will be able to fare in its roles as an economic regulator with this revised agreement in which it has no input.
It now behoves the Minister of transportation to mitigate the adverse effects this inexplicable error of judgement could have on the concession programme.
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