Exclusive interview with Barrister Hassan Bello, The Executive Secretary, Nigerian Shippers Council
DDH: What are the main initiatives or the core mandates of the Council since your tenure to bring solutions to the industry, such as ICDs & TTPs?
ES: You know Nigerian Shippers Council has broadly two mandates, first of all as an intervention agency to make sure that there is balance in the transactions between the supplier and the users of shipping services. This equilibrium is needed to create a fair playing ground for all, because if one side is stronger than the other it will emasculate the other and they will not see the prospect of shipping. We must operate under very fair circumstances. There should also coordination because of many factors, many players entrust in shipping, and that’s what Shippers Council does. Shippers Council is also a trade facilitator. If you look at the functions of the Council enumerated in its Act, it will advise the government on adequacy of services, whether shipping services are adequate or not. It will advice the government on the class of vessels to be used in transportation. It will advice the government on the quality of these vessels.
What that simply means is that Shippers Council will try to provide the balance between the supply and the demand side of shipping. And this I think we have been able to do very successfully. This could be seen in terms of increase in tonnage that we have recorded and the operability in functions and so forth. On trade facilitation, the international trade of Nigeria is translated in the oceans, and we have to make the transport facility very efficient, transport and infrastructure up to date, so that Nigeria’s international trade would rest on world standard pedestal. This we have also been able to do. The ideal of bringing private capital into shipping, what we call concessioning, started in Nigeria Shippers Council. Nigeria Shippers Council advised the government of the participation of the private sector in shipping, and that’s what we have been doing for some time. It is also important to note that the Nigeria Shippers Council is an economic agency that has interest in what shipping can contribute to the GDP of this country. So overall this is what Shippers Council is all about.
DDH: On ICDs, what have you been doing?
ES: On dry ports, which are also an initiative of the Nigeria Shippers Council, the idea is to bring shipping to the door steps of shippers, wherever they are, including the hinterland. The port is not a receptacle for cargo, it’s a transit area. After all, a substantial percentage of users of the cargo is in the hinterland. We want to develop ports where there is no water. The modern definition of a port is where cargo is either discharged or loaded. It needs not to be a sea port. That’s why we have airport, that’s why we river port, and now we have a dry port. What we are trying to do is to stimulate the economy, the areas where these ports are located, that will reduce the transportation cost, the transaction cost, then we bring shipping as I said closer the community. The Kaduna dry port will soon be operational. Already there are goods being consigned to Kaduna inland port by rail. We are hoping for it to be an international port, a port of origin and a port of destination, so that you can consign your goods from Liverpool to Kaduna; the seaport just being a transit area.
DDH: That means that the railways is critical?
ES: Yes, railway is critical and we are working with Nigerian Railway Corporation and other developers of the railways like the Chinese. They are clearly aware of the ICDs, the dry ports. We are working to see that all these things are integrated.
DDH: Closely related are the TTPs because some cargoes go on trucks.
ES: The TTPs (Truck Transit Parks) is also one idea of Shippers Council, to modernize the transport infrastructure in Nigeria. This is an off-the-road common-user facilities where the trucks or the cars or whatever vehicles could be parked, instead of having them on the shoulders of the highways where they degrade the environment, cause accidents, cause delays in delivery of cargo. These are modern facilities where you have state-of-the-art facilities like hotels, hostels, restaurant, gas stations, police stations, hospitals, everything will be there. And we are going to operate them with Federal Ministry of Transport on PPP [Public-Private-Partnership] bases, so that we also abide with certain ECOWAS protocols on inland transportation of goods. We have got a land in Enugu State at Obolo-Afor. We have also got from Kogi State Government at Lokoja. We have already obtained a transaction adviser, who will lead us, advice us and we would soon have investors coming in.
DDH: These activities will galvanise a lot of private investment…
ES: Yes, private investment. We have realized, and government is in tune with our realization, that the private sector should drive most of its economic activities. The public sector is also good, but we need transparency. But we need private capital to galvanise these things. What we need is for us to contribute more in terms of employment, in terms of wealth creation.
DDH: Especially if good corporate governance is there…
ES: Yes, like the ICD in Jos, for example, it’s expected that it will generate about 5000 jobs, 2000 jobs directly and 3000 indirectly.
DDH: ICDs can also bring back our transshipment business from being diverted.
ES: Exactly, very important, so that we could have transit trade. The adjoining landlocked countries like Niger and Chad are anxiously waiting for these inland ports to come into operation. They will use them, the ports, as the centre for their inland transfers.
DDH: How is NCS contributing to the success of the National Single Window project?
ES: The National Single Window (NSW) is a very splendid idea of the Federal Ministry of Transportation. The Minister was dismayed when he came to the port with the delays in the port, the archaic structures at the port, and he thinks that modern trade facilitation is the panacea. 48-hour clearance of goods at the port is our target. So, while individual organizations may have their local single windows, what we need is a National Single Window, whereby all the interface and integration of all systems, maybe, to be run by the private sector. Now, it’s happening. There is a committee, Nigeria Custom Services, Nigeria Port Authority, Nigeria Shippers Council and some other relevant organizations under the PEBEC [Presidential Enabling Business Environment Council], the ease-of-doing-business organization under the Vice President, which is looking at the National Single Window, to demystify the system so that we can stop leakages, remove opaqueness, create transparency and simplify documentation.
DDH: Yes, because if you to go Cotonou and the neighbouring ports, these things are very easy?
ES: Yes. What we have to realize is that we are competing with other ports in the region and our port must be efficient for us to attract cargo.
DDH: That ties in with our next question because you were tasked with chairing the committee on the implemention of modalities for refloating the national fleet. How well is refloating project going?
ES: It is going on fine, except that there is a slowdown in international shipping. This is because we have more ships than we have cargoes. But all the same, the committee has discussed the modalities, a transaction adviser will soon be appointed. It’s a private sector thing; Shippers Council is just to bring the private sector together. Government will not invest its money on the national fleet, but we will provide the atmosphere for it to grow. Government is the catalyst in this issue and you can see the advantage. I mean, this is another extremely creative idea of the Minister of Transportation. We need to earn freight. We need to develop our associated industries such as ships building, ship repairs, we need to have our cadets trained by our ships and unless you control the means of transportation, you may not control all these things.
DDH: Does your role in this project not support the view of proponents who argue that the NCS should transmute to a regulatory agency or something like that?
ES: Nigeria Shippers Council has been a regulator since 1978, it has been regulated in different ways.
DDH: Is that how you call it, especially in view of the protection of shippers’ interests? You used to be in the middle but this is a call for the agency to move to one side?
ES: Regulation simply means moderation. There is no organization that is built for regulation like the Nigeria Shippers Council and that’s what we have been doing. In fact, two years back we have been appointed as interim regulator. It’s not by accident or coincidence, and we are equal to the task.
DDH: As well, the National Transport Commission (NTC) Bill, we heard, has been passed by the House. What’s the situation now?
ES: There are some legislative processes still going on. The Ministry of Transportation, that’s the government, is fully behind Shippers Council being transformed into the National Transport Commission. The stakeholders are fully behind Shippers Council being the National Transport Commission and so is the National Assembly.
DDH: How will that transform the way Shipper’s Council is run?
ES: It’s for us to acquire added capacity, because in all the agencies of the government, NPA, NIWA, NIMASA, they have regulatory experts. It is expected that these staff will form the core staff of NTC, it is not only Shippers Council, it includes Nigeria Railway Corporation. We just look at the best and bring them together.
DDH: That means there is going to be some secondment of staff from other MDAs?
ES: Yes, if you like for for the core staff. But you don’t throw away the baby with the bath water. So the core staff of NTC will be staffs that are qualified, taken from various organizations or agencies.
DDH: A school of thought has also brought up issues of conflict of interest. Before, Shippers Council was protecting shippers, with NTC it would seem to be going the other way.
ES: Shippers Council was protecting shipping, because for you to protect shipping, you have to protect shippers. Every regulator, is it the NCC, NERC, NAICOM or CBN, they have consumer protection role. That’s what we are doing and it’s not different.
DDH (cuts in) : Are the shippers still going to have confidence in it?
ES: The core reason is to build the shippers so that they can negotiate themselves. If we have a segment of shipping, a party that is very weak, then we would have problems. So, we have to build the capacity of shippers so they can negotiate. You know this thing is comprehensive. That’s why, for example, the judges, our legal system must support reforms, they must support economy vibrancy. That’s why we have the Judges’ Seminar. Now our judgment in shipping is internationally recognized. Before that, nobody will come to Nigeria because the legal system is weak. But now, we have a judiciary that is well entrenched in admiralty law. And now the National Assembly has ordered Nigeria Shippers Council to institute a similar project or program, Legislator’s Seminar. So, this will increase the capacity of legislation and legislators, so they know what it is, what are these laws to an Act, what are the international conventions to ratify and domesticate. There is also something we are doing with freight forwarders. You know, freight forwarding is one of the most important professions in shipping and so Nigeria Shippers Council is also organizing training and retraining for freight forwarders. Same thing with truckers. So it’s a comprehensive thing. If there is one place that is weak we have to strengthen it.
DDH: This is like a super agency, are you very proud of your activities and achievements?
ES: Am very proud of the staff of Nigeria Shippers Council (general laughter), because they are aware. Awareness of the challenges is the first thing. They are aware of planning. They are aware of the challenges, they are aware of their mandates and they are resolute that they are going to execute these mandates.
DDH: The Cargo Tracking Note is another area that is very promising but also very challenging?
ES: Yes, the Cargo Tracking Note is another Shippers Council initiative, but not only Shippers Council in Nigeria but the whole Shippers Councils in West Africa. It is their idea so that we know what is coming into our country. So it serves as also a very important trade facilitation material. It will block the leakages in revenue and also increase transparency. It will assist the clearances of goods, because manifest is transmitted before the ship sails. So, even the customs could work out what the custom duties is before the ship arrives. What we have now is when the ship is within the port environs, we start running helter-skelter. But there is no transportation document like the international cargo tracking note, ICTN, it will solved a lot of problems. You know, everything that’s comes to Nigeria would be known. We would know the quality, the weight, the origin where it is coming from and also know the value. So this is what I call the card reader.
DDH: Like the issue of concealing arms imports …
ES: Yes, it will be a thing of the past. And we are just interrogating the system because we have to bring stakeholders to look at it and am sure it will soon be implemented.
DDH: Is it going to be driven by Shippers Council?
ES: Yes, it will be driven by Shippers Council but it’s also a combination. Shippers Council doesn’t want to own projects. There’s going to be an implementation company or committee made up of the NPA, NIMASA, Nigerian Customs Service and Shippers Council. So the idea of owning, that this thing is under me is gone. It has to be a centrality and coordination.
DDH: You must feel fulfilled personally, because so many things are coming in and much progress is being recorded?
ES: Yes so many things are coming, but we also have a driver. You know the government has been now very conscious of what is happening. Because, there are so many things happening in Federal Ministry of Transportation. Look at the railway project, it is going to transform this country like we have never known before. Even the ICDs, their success depends on rail, as you said. Now, every place you go, one rail project or the other and I think the Ministry of Transportation is answering its name. Trade facilitation is there, automation of the port is there, inland water ways is coming up. Look at what happening to NIMASA. You know, NIMASA just hosted the world about two weeks ago. So, you see this is the Ministry where things are being galvanized.