Ms Hadiza Usman’s appointment as the managing director of Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) elicited the usual reactions of surprise about such appointments from outside the maritime sector. Maritime professionals are wont to clamour for ‘insiders’ to be appointed to headship of transportation parastatals on the hypothesis that practitioners would do a better job of tackling the technical problems in the sector. However, such ‘doctrinaire’ positions fly in the face of the reality that sometimes the ‘outsiders’ come with fresh perspectives or special determination to renew the system. In fact, Ms Usman’s vigorous aptitude in the new job means that she quickly mastered the learning curve to respond determinedly, as in the handling of last month’s freight forwarders’ strike, called to protest the impassable roads of Apapa. She raced to the fray with her management team and luckily a reported rescue fund of N100bn was raised, said to be contributed by major stakeholders for the repair of Wharf Road and other exits out of Apapa. The strike came to an end with hopes that the bad roads would be repaired. But the incident underscored the typical assignments of NPA’s chief executives.
How ever Ms Usman came to the post, her reputation for achievement and hands-on efficiency preceded her. She also came with a few firsts, including being the first female MD of the organization since the Ports Act of 1955. Thus, aside from any political undertones and the usual snide comments by industry professionals about another ‘outsider’ being appointed to learn on the job, many observers admit that Ms Usman came eminently qualified for the job. All over the world, visionary leaders and astute managers of society and business now search for youth in succession planning, especially well-educated, upwardly mobile or intellectual go-getters. If they are as experienced as Ms Usman, whether in academia, business or social work, the better for the tough demands of a rough new world where the old rules are in cybernetic flux, changing by the day. Macron’s election in France last month highlights this point.
Thus, in Europe, Asia and the Americas, youthful leaders are the vogue, a trend that seems to have been lately grabbed even by the first-class traditional ruling houses in Nigeria. In fact, the contrary is such an aberration that the Western media right now are engaged in the interrogation of why, despite the overwhelming young population of Africa countries, her leaders are mostly old! Thus, in Usman, NPA and, inferentially, Nigeria, found a youthful icon to lead the next phase of change for the all-important parastatal whose fortunes benchmark Africa’s fledgling ‘largest’ economy and her international trade. But what skills did she bring to the job? With regards to her success in life, some have described her as an extrovert. Also, she has a high profile education and respectable parentage, as the daughter of the late Marxist lecturer of ABU Zaria, Dr Bala Usman. Is she therefore imbued with political activism and does this connect to the stint at BBOG? It’s possible. From this pedigree, however, perhaps strong political connections can also be safely inferred. Then, there is the work experience at BPE and similar insights gleaned from engaging with international organizations. Would NPA be in need of these capacities? Certainly yes. For, although the ports remain indestructible, NPA presently needs all the help it can get.
After the glorious port reforms of the new millennium which ushered in 25 private concessionaires in 2006, the landlord of Nigeria’s maritime gateways needs to reposition her port system to contend with rivals in the league of aspiring cargo hubs in the West and Central African sub-regions. Currently, with Angola overtaking Nigeria in crude oil production and Abidjan taking the lead in the development of deep sea ports in the region, Nigeria is in danger of virtual relegation in the scheme of things. For NPA, unless her ongoing network of deep-sea and deep water port constructions at Lekki, Badagry and Ibom can make sense to the mega shipping lines such as Maersk, MSC, CMA CGM, Cosco, China Shipping Line or Hapag Lloyd, for example, Abidjan can clinch the position of hub port for West Africa anytime from 2018 when its newest port on the sea is projected to come into use. On the other hand, the port systems of Angola and Cameroon could naturally combine to oust Nigeria from hub status for the Central African sub-region, especially in view of the legendary high cost of our ports coupled with delays, long turnaround time and the inscrutable Apapa traffic which makes hinterland connection tasking. These challenges could leave Nigeria in the doldrums or, at best, playing second fiddle despite basking in the old glory as Africa’s largest economy – served by her smaller maritime neighbours!
Thus, the NPA indeed needs all the help she can get to emplace a futuristic, competitive and user-friendly port infrastructure development plan that excites the international maritime stakeholders to line up behind Nigeria on account of her dominant market in the sub-region. For example, the AP Moller deep water port project at Badagry need not be deep water if it could be re-designed as a deep-sea port. The latter prospect would represent competitiveness. In its current design as a facility to serve 8,000-teu vessels, it does not compete well with the Ivorian behemoth which can berth 18,000-teu mega ships. Nevertheless, with Nigeria’s large market as the destination for over 65% of West Africa’s ocean shipping traffic, an 18,000-teu capable deep-sea port would invariably make Nigeria the de facto hub port of West and Central Africa, all things being equal. If the complement of user-friendliness in tariffs and smart customs procedure for 24-hour goods clearance are added and the government is made conversant of the role of politics in shipping, then Nigerian could claim her natural supremacy in the port industry of the Gulf of Guinea. Cargo diversion would be a thing of the past and with tighter border controls, more revenue could accrue to government coffers.
Unfortunately, the converse is now the situation, where our politicians pretend that they do not understand the dynamics of pricing and global best practices in shipping services and thereby continue to lose our sea trade, including transshipment businesses, to our smaller but smarter neighbours in Lome, Cotonou, Tema and Abidjan on the west and Douala and Luanda, on the eastern flank. Thus, the coming of Usman to the helm of affairs at NPA could be the game changer for the organization and the nation’s port sector. With the strong family and political connections to policymakers and the legislators, Nigeria’s port policies could adopt an aggressive marketing and development mode which successful maritime nations use to build their shipping and port industry brands to the taste of the major global carriers.
Without equivocation, NPA has attained tremendous re-development milestones since the new millennium. But for the black spot posed by Apapa’s decrepit road network, the port industry outperformed all other sectors and recorded the best concession programme by value and volume since the era of the commercialization and privatization in the country. For example, as against the paltry $1.425bn which Nigeria realized from selling five telecoms licenses in 2001, the port concession bidding rounds five years later yielded over $6.5bn from 25 private terminal operators. Of course, the revolution began with the port reforms of 2001 when Transport Minister, Chief Ojo Maduekwe, routed the indiscretions of the Comrade Uzoije Ukaummuna-led Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria and the effrontery of the unruly dock workers. Their nefarious activities, including the fraudulent dock-worker scheme known as “akube”, held shipping operations in a lockdown of delay. Next the infamous 17 tables of Customs goods clearance procedures were drastically slashed to four and the maritime community cheered the Obasanjo Presidency to high heavens. Could it be that a similar radical leadership is needed to address the sorry state of Apapa’s road network? However, the final clincher of the reform programme was the concessions which brought international standards of operation, relieved NPA from port development, improved safety and security of goods at the ports, introduced excellence through inter-terminal competition and opened new vistas for green port development.
The NPA Brand: Dredging to the Rescue
Nevertheless, the common denominator of NPA’s renascent achiever status is the dredging programme which keeps the port channels and berths faithful to advertised draughts. The dredging strategy for the moment comprises a systematic campaign to maintain the depths in the critical port gateways at the Western and Eastern zones, especially Lagos, Port Harcourt / Onne, Calabar and Warri. Of all the major ports in the system, only the Warri port has not been invested with a channel management company. However, the dredging of the Escravos channel is imminent to remove the sand shoal impeding the passage of big ships.
After all said and done, a port is nothing if the access for ships to come in is constrained. Before the port reforms, grounding of ships at the Nigerian ports was rampant. Even the moderate depth of 8m chart datum boasted by the Lagos ports prior to the reforms was hard to keep. The problems at the time were tied to the bureaucracy of the former NPA structure where the Harbours Department operated its dredgers to maintain the depths around the port complexes with its own staff. Due to the civil service overhang in NPA’s operation at the time, they required paper approvals from the Federal Ministry of Transport for too many daily or routine activities. The resultant shallow drafts partly explains why bigger ships could not come into the harbours. Consequently, shipping companies dared not fix deep-drafted vessels for Lagos lest they ran aground. That was the period when a very large percentage of Nigeria-bound cargoes was diverted to Cotonou and Lome ports and smuggling flourished.
However, in 2005, in the spirit of the reforms, a joint venture (JV) procedure was approved whereby the Harbours Department was partially demobilized and its functions ceded to competent technical partners of international repute on 60-40 basis in favour of NPA. After the competitive bidding round to select the preferred technical partners, Special Purpose Vehicles in the form of new limited liability companies were formed, dedicated to the task of managing the major gateway channels at Lagos and Bonny, and later at Calabar. They were tasked to maintain the depths at the port channels and berths through capital and maintenance dredging campaigns; carry out quarterly bathymetric surveys; maintenance and surveillance of aids-to-navigation such as buoys and lighting; planning and management of dredging operations; wrecks management; pollution monitoring; and, management succession training.
Thus, the Lagos Channel Management (LCM) and the Bonny Channel Company (BCC) were formed in 2005, while Calabar Channel Management (CCM) was set up in 2014. The LCM was formed out of the JV between NPA and Depasa Marine International Ltd and charged with managing the dredging of Lagos Ports Complex and Tin Can Island Port access channels and berths. As part of the JV agreement, three NPA dredgers, namely, Sea Lion, Gumel and River Challawa, were chartered out to LCM for the exclusive dredging operations at the Lagos ports. From the 8m chart datum of the port system prior to the JV operations, new draught targets have been developed for the Lagos ports as follows: entrance channel, -15.4m; Commodore Pool, -13.5m; Apapa channel, -13.0m; East Badagry Creek, -13.5m; and, West Badagry Creek, -12.5m. LCM claims a minimum depth of -12.5m for majority of the port areas under its jurisdiction.
On the other hand, BCC is the JV company formed between the NPA and The Channel Management Company (TCMC) consortium made up of Dredging International (DI), Vinci, IPEM and Dapesa Ltd. Dredging International is a subsidiary of the Belgian group, Dredging, Environmental and Marine Engineering NV (DEME). BCC’s areas of operation were defined as Port Harcourt Port (Abonema Wharf), Onne Port, the Bonny Channel and the Bonny River, with a combined area of 110 kilometres. In addition to its normal dredging activities, BCC contends with the spate of piracy attacks and insecurity which are rife in the Niger Delta region and as at 2014 claimed the following achievements: depth of Bonny channel increased from 12.50m to 14.30; width of Bonny channel increased from 215m to 230m; capacity utilization for traffic of Bonny channel raised from 192 LNG vessels to 480 LNG vessels per annum; depth of Onne channel increased from 8.50m to 11.00m; depth of Bonny River increased from8.00m to 10.00m. In the subsequent capital dredging campaigns, BCC widened the Bonny River to accommodate two LNG vessels moving in opposite directions at the same time. Before this time, only one vessel at a time could transit through the river while the rest queued up and took turns to pass.
In fact, although it may sound pretentious, it is true to say that without the dredging arrangements put in place with the concession programme, the current high cargo throughput figure of 84.9m tons recorded by all the Nigerian ports in 2014 would not be realized. Note that before the concession, the throughput was 44.9m tons in 2005. Despite the contribution of other factors such as better corporate governance and smart managerial techniques, the ultimate decider of gross tonnage for any port is whether big ships can gain access and berth to discharge /load cargoes. In this regard, the dredging and hydrographic solutions deployed by the NPA at post-concession empowered many a concessionaire to bring in bigger ships in the sure knowledge that unlike the past situation, the channel management companies knew their onions and were up to the task.
In the ten years from 2006 to 2016, the LCM has removed 53,583,546 cubic metres of spoil and not less than 30 wrecks from the Lagos channel. The BCC, on its part, has executed 43,537,000 cubic metres of spoil and 39 wrecks from the Bonny channel. As well, the dredging activities of the LCM in 2014, aided the ship call of the biggest container vessel in West Africa, the 261 metre-long, Maersk Cadiz, which drew a draught of 13.8m and carried 4,000 containers. The same vessel also called at Onne Port courtesy of the channel deepening activities of the BCC. This 2014 call of the Cadiz was not a solo event. The story began three years earlier after Maersk Line took notice of the groundbreaking performance of LCM in the Lagos waters. Maersk changed the rotation of their Far East Wafmax vessel which was initially programmed to call first at Abidjan. She was instead fixed to call at Lagos first and arrived on 8th February 2011 with 3,500 containers, drawing a draught of 11.5m and length-over-all of 232.33m. This service also recorded a new first because it reduced the sailing time from the Far East main ports to Apapa by five days. Thus, the Maersk Cadiz began a weekly call at Apapa directly from the Far East to Apapa, in a seeming dress rehearsal for hub port status.
The Calabar Channel Management (CCM) is the youngest of the channel management companies so far. Formed in July 2013, it has NPA and Niger Global Engineering and Technical Company (NGETC) as the JV partners. The NGETC consortium includes reputable shareholders such as Nigerian Westminster Dredging and Marine Ltd. However, since it mobilized equipment and resources to Calabar, CCM has been engaged in rudimentary surveys and basic services. And to audit the channel management companies, NPA retained the services of Coastal and Reclamation Engineering Services (CARES) to advise it on services being rendered.
In retrospect, the history of Nigerian ports is intricately woven with dredging activities as the first dredger to work on the Lagos channel was placed in 1906 to clear sand shoals which hindered the entrance of ships to the Marina Wharf of those days. Today, of all the 21 regular ports in the country, only the Federal Ocean Terminals at Onne boasts of very deep channel accesses which do not require dredging services to cure siltation problems. The rest need dredging services, being river ports with varying lengths of nautical miles to the open sea. Again, of all the regular non-crude oil ports in the NPA system, only the Warri port appear to be in dire need of capital and maintenance dredging to offset the sand bars at Escravos waters and open Warri for entrance by bigger ships. The contract award process for this project was initiated since 2015, pending further studies and approvals from the Federal Ministry of Transportation and the Federal Executive Council.
Building the Brand
When Ms Usman took up the NPA job, she announced a five-point agenda to take the Authority to a higher kilter of corporate achievement. This includes revenue generation, succession planning, capacity building, operational efficiency, staff welfare regimen and the master-plan for port development. Presently, these subjects seem to underpin the activities of the agency and the jury is out on whether they are being achieved. However, on the question of the economy of the deep sea ports, it is unclear what role the agency may play to fine-tune or harmonize their operation vis-à-vis the question mark on the viability of so many deep-sea and deep-water ports within Nigeria’s single maritime domain. Usually, one deep-sea port ought to serve a very large market made up of multiple port-footprints within the same country or a cluster or even a region like West and/or Central Africa. In Nigeria’s case, there is a plenitude of deep-sea and deep-water port proposals such as Ibom Deep Sea port, Olokola Deep Sea Port and Ogidigben Gas Industrial Park, aside from the two Lagos candidates at Lekki and Badagry and the FOT at Onne. The resolution of their final investment decisions would require the legendary wisdom of Solomon, not to talk of the eventual jostle for the market with the regional rivals outside Nigerian shores.
Moreover, the delay in the promulgation of the Ports and Harbor Bill and the National Transport Commission Bill may hamper the readiness of the country to fructify the advances being made in these sophisticated green field developments. Nevertheless, the coming of Ms Usman to the helm at NPA can become auspicious with the right combination of good fortune and deft decision-making to deploy the Authority’s resources devoid of bureaucracy and the unfortunate spectre of nepotism being widely bandied about the Buhari administration.
No doubt, when the 25-year master plan which the Authority has been working on is fully conceptualized, it may serve to bring some orderliness into the whole gamut of green field developments, especially if it succeeds in laying down the acceptable schema for siting ports. For example, the master plan aims to identify the type of depth and port to construct in different parts of the country based on differential hydrography of the coastal areas. Thus, some of the new deep sea port proposals can be rationalized using the master plan which specifies the marine characteristics of each area, its distance to the projected market and the availability of patronage, according to information already published by NPA. Moreover, the master plan could also rationalize cargo handling strategy for general cargoes as it now obtains for oil-related and project cargoes, in such a way that the comparatively idle ports in the Eastern Zone are allotted certain shipments that are flooding the Western ports with a tendency for congestion. In fact, such a schedule can be strategically composed with a view to recovering Nigeria’s lost opportunities in transshipment cargo throughput which now flows through Cotonou, Lome, Tema and Abidjan.
Arguably, these are some of the areas Ms Usman can apply herself to better the lot of the organization. Nevertheless, whatsoever she does to the dredging regime already established over these many years will be quickly felt across the waters and might begin to define the position of NPA and her ports system in the wider gamut of sea trade in West and Central Africa as well as in ocean shipping dynamics.