Bello Hassan is the Executive Secretary /Chief Executive Officer, Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC), the economic regulator of the nation’s shipping industry.
He joined the Council in 1998 as Deputy Director and Head of Legal Services. Before being appointed as its CEO , Bello had also served as a director in the same department where he distinguished himself by giving the NSC a facelift. Prior to joining the Federal Civil Service, Bello had worked with Sokoto State Ministry of Justice and the state’s Investment Company Limited where he rose to become Acting Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer.
Speaking in this interview with the editorial team of The Sun Publishing Limited, led by the Managing Director/Editor- in-Chief of Mr. Onuoha Ukeh, at the NSC corporate headquarters in Lagos, Bello said Nigeria needs modern transport infrastructure, especially at the ports, adding that that a seamless transport system that will link all of the nation’s ports, was the only way to grow the economy.
He spoke on efforts being made to improve ports efficiency and attract more maritime trade to the economy, insisting that Nigerian ports are not porous compared to port facilities in other countries . Excerpts:
Auditing terminal operators
Auditing of the ports is part of our regulatory functions considering that the economic benefits of these ports are more important to us.
For instance, when we have terminals that are not performing, what we do is that we go there to find out why they are not performing or what led to their non-performance. Once we find out the reasons, we also address those reasons to guarantee the economic benefit of the nation as well as their investment.
Some of the issues that contribute to this non-performance or low performance is the quality of their equipment. If they don’t have the right equipment, it sometimes affect their operations. All them are required to ensure that their equipment are in top shape so that they can perform optimally in the terminals.
This particularly true in the area of cargo turnaround. We ensure that they all perform optimally so that both parties’ investments are guaranteed. In that case, the nation earns revenue and the owner of the terminal is also happy and they can get their cargo out at the right time.
In addition, the private sector is now at the centre of port operations and that means there must be some regulations which include oversight. So we want to go to the ports and see, for example, how many cranes they are supposed to have? How many forklifts? All these equipment support port efficiency. If the ports should have only one instead of two cranes, there would be delay in discharge of cargoes. If the boxes, that is the containers are placed for examination, and one agency is not there, which is the case before, that means there would be delay. We want scanners at the ports so that we desist from 100 per cent examination of cargo, which is primitive and not done anywhere in the world. So that is why we are at the ports. We have to find out what is happening and also look at the terminal operators to find out their problems so that we can intercede sometimes and help them with the problems. They (terminal operators) perform very well and why we commend them is because they have changed the way we do shipping. But they still need to do more.
Border closure/cargo diversion to neighbouring countries
Some of these issues have been addressed. Two years ago, we recorded some gains because some importers started taking their cargo to some ports to escape security scrutiny and duty because some of the goods are banned here. You can’t bring rice, if you bring rice, the duty is high and then they want to evade taxes. So they are bringing contraband or what they called dangerous items. So it is not that other ports are fundamentally more efficient than Nigerian. It is easier for them to use the other ports because other ports are porous and Nigerian ports are not. We have to really understand that Nigerian ports have changed over the years. Even the issue of payment is now done electronically and that is what we are pushing that there must be some automation at the ports. We want Nigeria to be the preferred destination for every shipper. And if we have our infrastructure right, you will see that these things will happen very soon.
As to the closure of border, it is the prerogative of the Federal Government to take such decision which aims to audit the economy. Let’s just say the Federal Government is auditing its economy and soon you will see a lot of things happening because the government at one time must take a closer look at its economy, which include the port lines, including the weaknesses and try to fix its shortcomings. The closure of the border is a temporary thing. I’m sure the border will be opened some day but let everybody know that this is the standard of the Nigerian government. Honestly, we have been taking advantage of by our opened borders. Look at America now, it is looking at its borders and Turkey is looking at its borders also. We cannot have it opened and the trading is not equal. We have to send this message.
Effect of AfCFTA
The African Free Trade Continental Agreement (AfCFTA) should not be trade without negotiation. You can see what is happening between United Kingdom and European Union (EU). They are discussing and negotiating. Nigerian Government should negotiate more with our trading partners. But all the same, we equally look at the closure of the border because there are lots of plans here in Nigeria to lose control of West Africa. Even with the border closure, we won’t be able to export to other West African countries. I’m sure that the Federal Government would have equally giving some windows, more especially for the products that we are producing for West African markets. I totally agree with the Federal Government’s decision because if you go to those borders and see what is happening there. It is appalling! Abinitio, there was an agreement between Benin Republic and Nigeria that all cargo transit emanating from Benin Republic to Nigeria should be exported and Benin told Nigeria they don’t have the vehicles for escorts. Federal Government bought vehicles and gave them, they did the escorts for only two weeks and they abandoned it. We banned the importation of rice into Nigeria and yet the rice we are eating in Nigeria are all foreign rice.
There is no economy that can survive on that because what it means is that Benin will import the rice, collect the duty paid and then consumption will take place in Nigeria. There is no responsible Government that will sit down and watch that kind of a thing happen. We will let the neighbouring countries agree to our trade terms, then the borders will be opened at least ECOWAS is a free trade zone and now we are talking of Africa becoming another free trade zone.
The security issue is very important. Federal Government just relied on more than this reason for the temporary closure of the borders. And the issue of smuggling dangerous weapons and other things coming into this country. There are ways government is looking at securing it territory and when that is established, the borders will be opened again. Things like automation mechanism such as the Cargo Tracking Note (CTN) that Shippers Council is pursuing will solve a lot of smuggling of weapons and dangerous cargoes coming into the country. And when that is fully established, every cargo that is coming in will be traced because the Cargo Tracking Note (CTN) will reveal everything that is coming even from the port of origin into Nigeria or into any other West African country and eventually through the borders to Nigeria. The International Cargo Tracking Note will be able to reveal them and these are some of the electronic ways of solving these problems. I believe that once this is established; the issue of closing border will be reviewed.
Meanwhile, the companies trying to go to other countries to produce and bring them into Nigeria is another thing the government is surely looking into and that is through improvement of production environment in Nigeria. Volkswagen won’t just go to Ghana and produce if the cost of production in Nigeria is reasonable. No! It is not that cost of production is more reasonable there than in Nigeria. So they are now leveraging on this free trade zone to go and produce cheaply in Ghana and then sell in Nigeria. I’m very sure government will take advantage of this short period and look inward into what can be done to improve the production environment in Nigeria to be able to attract the companies that have left Nigeria to other countries to come back. Not necessarily to block them from coming in but through improving our environment to bring them back. . If the environment is improved, they will like to come and produce in Nigeria.
Effects of advanced cargo information system at the ports
We need to be more competitive as I said earlier. Government must make the atmosphere a little bit friendly. Many times, people have said it costs X in Ghana while it cost Y in Nigeria. This is because it is easier to operate in Ghana sometimes than to operate in Nigeria.
But this is the government that addresses comprehensively for the first time all these aspects. We are talking about the ease of doing business and we have seen the movement through our association with the World Bank. The progress we have made and that of the Shippers Council is part of the progress that pushed Nigerian ranking higher because we insisted that certain things should be done which included that the manifest should be electronically forwarded. If we have the advanced Cargo Information System, which is also called ICTL, we would be having the manifest or whatever is coming to Nigeria is known from the port of loading before the ship sails. What will it do? It will enhance government revenue because 80 per cent of goods coming into Nigeria are under -declared. That is not their true value and that process will also address concealment because if you look at this concealment, there are so many things that are hidden and they are not declared but with ICTL, there is no hiding place. Besides, NPA will have more revenue because the manifest will not be tampered with. NIMASA will have more revenue because the tonnage of the vessel will not be under declared. So I want you also to support the establishment of the operations of this advanced cargo information system. This system is done by almost all African countries expect Nigeria. Which country will allow everything not known to enter its country? If we have ICTL, we have verifiable data and data is very important in the trade economy we are trying to establish.
Non-implementation of Cargo Tracking Note
Let me say sometimes off the record, we started operating the Advanced Cargo Information System. I think i was done for a month. The first thing we saw was a ship coming into Nigeria with arms, ammunition and bomb. We were able to see that the ship was coming into Nigeria and there was alert.
Of course, because everything was ready and it belonged to the Army, we knew and the Army came and they cleared the thing. Now you wouldn’t do that with others because there is no ICTL, so nobody will know what is coming into the country. The ammunitions and weapons all these kidnappers, armed robbers, smugglers are using in Nigeria is because we don’t check. The Controller General of Nigeria Customs Service came here and we discussed about the Advanced Cargo Information System. We are about to use it but it was suspended. We suspended it because we are not satisfied with the mode of operation.
Besides, it was started with NPA before it was properly transferred here because this is Cargo Tracking Note; it is not Port Tracking Note. It was brought here. I hope in the next two months, it will be resolved and it will start working. That means we are taking control of our international trade.