Our correspondent DAPO OLAWUNI brings you these excerpts from an interview with the Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Shippers Council, Barr Hassan Bello.
In this interactive session with select journalists, Bello said the task force recently set up by President Muhammadu Buhari is not the permanent solution to the traffic gridlock in Apapa.
He also spoke on the non-passage of the National Transport Commission (NTC) bill by the 8th National assembly, among other issues.
Q. What has been the latest successes of the Presidential taskforce set up to decongest the Apapa port areas by the presidency?
A. What we are having now in a short term is to establish a system whereby there won’t be congestion anymore, the congestion as you know is causing the country a lot of money, the port is unsightly, the ease of doing business has suffered and the nation cannot just take it, this is why we are combining the three approaches, one is to restore discipline, law and order, this we have been able to do around the immediate environment of the port, you could see traffic going in and coming out of the port.
The second is to establish and sustain the call-up system, to restrict the freight market that is all over Apapa, so many people are coming in without any business to conduct, this leads to a lot of gridlock.
Now, we are restricting the approach to Apapa for only trucks that have business to conduct, that is either dropping or picking of cargo, this is responsible for the relative peace we have found now. The idea is to continue with it, when you mix it with the medium term, then you will achieve success but it is not a one day thing, it has to be done over a period of time.
Q. In your opinion, what is the permanent solution to the gridlock?
A. The permanent solution is to go back to planning, I have heard many intelligent people say that it is lack of planning, when the port was built in the 70’s, what was the population of Nigeria? Maybe 60 or 70 million, but now it has tripled, with the 2.5million population growth, if we are to plan, we would have foreseen that the roads would not be there.
Secondly, the capacity of the Apapa port have been stretched, they were built to certain capacity, and now the capacity has been overstretched.
Again, the unimodal approach which is using the road only to evacuate cargo is bound to fail, we need multi modal approach for the evacuation of cargoes, especially the rail, waterways and pipelines, if we had pipelines, we wouldn’t be having tank farms and petroleum tankers coming into Apapa port, the whole of Apapa should be owned by NPA as a matter of fact, it should have the whole port area under its control, but because of the confusion and chaos and the seemingly attitude of not obeying rules, many things were built, you cannot build a single block of anything, a gas station or anything without consulting the NPA because they are the landlord and they should have the port plan so that we could have ease. Right now we are paying for chaos and for our lack of respect for authorities, but I think this would be mitigated very soon.
Q. The truckers unions are pleading to continue the assignment
A. We cannot continue to have task force, the task forces not the solution to Apapa Gridlock, the solution is to establish a system, you could do that by refusing access to freight seeking truckers, they line up to get load to take goods, this doesn’t happen anywhere, but in the system that we are now going to establish, the Nigerian Ports Authority is on the top of it, they are working on a call up system which regulates the approach to ports, unless you have something to do at the port, you would not be allowed access.
Q.One major concern for port community in Apapa is decayed infrastructure, what is the committee doing to repair the roads?
A. The committee has noted the deliberateness of the government to face the situation, this government has really tackled the situation deliberately for the first time. The Creek road is already being done, we have the Liverpool road which is under construction, once you open the roads you would see the flow of traffic, even most importantly, we need to have trailer parks where the trailers can wait for their turn in order to go and drop or pick cargoes, we need holding bays also.
So, the architecture of the port infrastructure is very important, we have also seen the private sector coming in, Floor Mills, Dangote and NPA constructing the Wharf road, this is what is needed. The federal ministry of works also have a trailer park opposite the Tin Can Port, if this is handed over, then you would see improvements.
The Lagos State Government is also very important in this situation, and the response from the Lagos State Government gladdens the heart.
So, you need synergy, you don’t just leave the job to one organisation.
Q. Shippers Council was trying to construct Truck Transit Parks, what is the latest in this regard?
A. We have always been on top of the situation, we have had to conduct a study on why do we have so much gridlock in Apapa port, we conducted a study called; Lagos Logistics Ring which was done by a world class consultant, the facts are obvious that 7,000 trucks everyday come around Apapa, Orile, Mile 2 axis, but what we really need is 2,100 trucks, so what are the rest doing?
They are just vagabonds coming to pollute the place, the port environment must be restricted.
Q. On the National fleet
A. The National fleet is also very important to us, we ought to have Nigerians owning and operating ships, we have lost a lot of money on freight to foreign companies, billions of dollars, if we had ships, these billions would have effect our growth, employment, open up ancillary services like ship repair yards, nautical colleges and so on.
The national fleet is a three years plan so that we can have it in Nigeria. In doing this, there are so many laws that has to be reviewed and this is what the fleet is doing. There are also incentives we have to offer private sector, don’t forget that the national fleet is a private sector thing, the government would not be involved, it would only look at laws and policies that could mitigate against investments, especially in that sector, we are talking about tax holidays, relaxing of certain procedures and the overall conducive atmosphere for the investment to fly.
Q. What is the task force doing to speak with terminal operators, maybe to give task holidays if they can also invest in road construction
A. The idea is to take it one after the other, we need a comprehensive and integrated system, we need modern traffic management, so right before the ship comes, we already know what is happening, this is why we have advocated for International Cargo Tracking Note (ICTN) so that we could know electronically what is coming into the country, so we make adequate efforts to confirm the date that vessel would berth, and two weeks before it comes, everybody is ready.
The cargo dwell time we have is good, but because of infrastructure decay and failure, so the dwell time is now getting uncomfortably longer and this is not good, don’t forget that we are competing with other ports and we need to make our ports efficient, but with the way the government is going now, I think all the challenges will be a thing of the past.
What we are doing now is to ensure that shipping companies have accounts operated and sent to them by their principals instead of them using a local thing to operate.
The terminals are going to make sacrifices that for the three days free days period, they are extending it to eight days, this is also what we call sacrifice, as for the shipping companies, they are extending their free demurrage periods from five to 12 days. We are also talking with NPA to also relax and make the charges and give 30% waiver of certain charges within the period contemplated, this is a temporary measure, but this is what I call general average sacrifice in order to save the situation.
When a ship is about to capsize, we have a general average situation where the heavy cargoes are jettisoned and thrown overboard in order for the ship to survive.
This is what we have been doing, everybody is coming along. Why the usual taskforce failed at that time was because there was no coming of minds, it was just touching of one thing, meanwhile the problem of the port is an hydra headed monster, when you cut one, another three will spring up.
Q. What is the latest in terms of promoting trade within west African sub region?
A. The trade between African nations is abysmal and terrible, it cannot be compared to Asia or Europe, we need to trade among ourselves, can you imagine that if I want to take a product to Ethiopia, the product would first of all be shipped to Spain and then transshipped to Ethiopia because there is not direct link within African countries. This is also due to lack of infrastructure.
The Nigerian Shippers Council has seen this problem and has worked assiduously with NEXIM Bank to establish the Sealink Project, this project with NIWA is a regional Cabotage and it is by AFRI-NEXIM Bank to encourage trade within African countries.
Shippers Council is always looking at the barriers to trade, the checkpoints, the issue of common currency, divergent of trade systems and so on.
We have the Border Information Centre at the Seme Border, it is an office where we formalise the informal trade, we have a similar one at Jibia Border in Katsina State, the idea is that smuggling would be reduced when you establish a formal trade. Since we opened these offices, people have been coming for enquiries, people have in the past suffered giving bribes when they can actually do their business formally through Nigerian Shippers Council.
Very soon, we are going to meet with the Benin Shippers Council for us to rejig an MoU which we entered into a long time ago, we would rejig the whole architecture of cross border trade to ensure our trade facilitation mandate is laid in a good direction.
Q. People have been looking at the Shippers Council as the most relevant agency to transmute into NTC, how prepared are you for the assignment?
A. The National Transport Commission (NTC) Bill is not a Shippers Council Bill, it is an industry bill to tackle economic regulations as opposed to technical regulations, Shippers Council would have a say into it, so also would NPA, Railway, Aviation and many others.
There has been some issues that were not well addressed, the latest we have is that the NTC is being reviewed again, the government is in the best position to know which law to accent to or not.
Government cannot accent to laws unless they align it with other laws, this is why we have the Federal Ministry of Justice, the moment a law comes, they carry out a “legal impact assessment” to see how it aligns, it is a very good law but Shippers Council is just one among the many agencies.
Q. As port economic regulator, your effort is to get shipping companies fall in line , but many of them still believe they are above the laws
A. It is not for them to “fall in line” , we are not headmasters, in port management, there are some shipping lines that are recalcitrant and we have had to go and shut down their premises, but the issue of charges is no longer there because we have understanding that they cannot increase charges unless they come to Nigerian Shippers Council. So, we have stability of charges for now, which is very important, they are our partners and we need to talk to them, they are investors, they have the option of going to other countries, but we are here to stop the arbitrariness of not just the shipping companies but many other operators.
It is not a uniform thing, there has been shipping companies who have made tremendous contributions, there are some terminals that have upgraded their terminals and there are those who have not, what we do is make them fall in line, it is important that they make profit or return on their investment so that they can employ our people, increase wealth and so on.
Q. Reforms in the port system, especially freight forwarding?
A. There must be reforms in freight forwarding, freight forwarding is an important profession that must not be left to the whims and caprices of touts, they must be really trained, and they have to expand it to be in tune with the logistics architecture that we have, they must be freight forwarders rather than Customs Clearing Agents.
It is a function of the economy, but I want a situation whereby a freight forwarder would be able to hire or chatter a vessel, we want them to have warehouses, fleet companies where they deliver goods to the door step of the shipper or the factory, we want them to be involved in the whole transaction.
We want them to negotiate with the carriers about fees and charges, we want them to be strong.
But what we have now is proliferation of one person, you see a single container with five freight forwarders working on it, we don’t need that in our economy.
Q. Another source of concern in the freight forwarding sector is foreigners dominating the sector
A. If you don’t reform the sector, the foreigners are meant to take it over, I know that this is of concern to NAGAFF and ANLCA, we have discussed the idea that we really need to reform the freight forwarding profession.
How it would come? This is left to the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN) as the ultimate moderator.
The associations have done much especially on policies that are not good, they have been outspoken, but the idea is to have professionalism in freight forwarding, it is a weak link and we need to reform in this direction, by reform, I mean there must be consolidation, there must be a minimum share capital for them to operate, if they are structured, we wouldn’t be having what is called container deposits, who do you entrust your container to as a shipping company when he doesn’t have address, email or anything to identify him?
This is why the Shippers Council is registering all service providers.
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