By Jackson Olali
President Muhammadu Buhari makes no pretence about his desire to deepen and diversify the nation’s economy. The Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), the nation’s ports manager, is a key parastatal in this regard. It is, therefore, of little wonder that the President’s attention is regularly on the activities of the NPA.
The President desires to see efficient ports management across the country. And when in May this year the need arose to appoint a managing director, albeit in acting capacity, President Buhari did not look beyond the precincts of the NPA. He appointed an industry person from within the NPA. Mr. President did not want to experiment. He wanted a round peg in a round role, a fit and proper person. And he found one in Mohammed Bello-Koko, who until his appointment was executive director, Finance and Administration, in the ports management agency. As it has turned out, not appointing somebody from outside the NPA remains one of the smartest decisions of Mr. President. It also showed that President Buhari did not want to leave the appointment of the leadership of the authority to the whims of partisan politics. Instead, the President opted, most appropriately, for professionalism, competence, experience and capacity; all of which Bello-Koko has so far exhibited.
Barely five months in the saddle, he has hit the ground with a strong bounce. Because he didn’t have to learn the ropes, he has fully turned the screw, bringing reforms to both personnel, operations and processes. He is fast changing the ancient landmarks of lethargy and administrative inertia that have stymied the efficiency of the Nigerian ports regulator.
China is the second largest economy in the world with China ports contributing to this. But China ports were not always this prosperous. Deliberate government policy to head-hunt only the best, automate operations, concession operations where needful and above all, re-orientate the psyche of the average Chinese port worker to see himself or herself as working for the common good of the nation rather than working for personal advancement. This change in value system helped to shove China ports operations from deficiency to world-class efficiency.
This is what Bello-Koko is doing at the moment: rallying the NPA staff to a new level of public-spirited orientation, rousing them to patriotism, devotion and commitment to duty. He is reforming the human capital not to see themselves from the narrow prism of personal gratification but as privileged men and women helping to pull the economy of their country from brink to boom. He is bringing automation to drive operational efficiency. He is constantly engaging relevant stakeholders in the maritime value chain, including state governments, on how best to improve port operations.
His recent engagement with Lagos State government on how to tame the gridlock on the access roads leading to the two busiest ports in Apapa was a masterstroke, an evidence that Bello-Koko is more of a pragmatic, front-row leader than the typical armchair wishful thinker. His meeting with Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos turned out a meeting of two great minds seeking solution beyond the knotty issue of gridlock. The meeting also sought ways to curb corrupt practices and alleged extortion of truck drivers by the battery of traffic and security operatives operating along the Lagos ports axis.
This preponderance of security checkpoints stall efficient implementation of the truck call-up system. At the Apapa and Tin Can ports axis alone, no fewer than 30 “toll-points” had sprouted. Investigative media reports have exposed these checkpoints as cashpoints where the security officers on duty allegedly collect bribe before trucks were allowed into the port. Bribery along ports access roads is not new. It’s been as old as bribery in the larger Nigerian society. The difference is that this is the first time that a CEO of the NPA, a government official, would boldly and openly condemn this repugnant act, which not only causes delay at the ports but also pushes up the cost of doing business and invariably the cost of goods and services. Bello-Koko wants government’s intervention on this niggling issue.
The best form of criticism is introspection, self-check and self-evaluation. As an insider, which is a huge asset, he understands the nuances and dynamics of ports operations. Some underhand dealings cannot be effected without the collaboration of NPA staff. Bello-Koko knows this and never shied away from the reality of its possibility. He has pledged to take lawful punitive measures against any NPA staff involved in corrupting the process. But it’s no longer a pledge. He has begun to action it by deploying some suspected staff out of port locations. Beyond that, he insists that after the review of the corruption allegations against this category of light-fingered staff, the guilty would be sanctioned appropriately within the limits of extant laws and rules.
Bello-Koko’s banking experience lends him to critical cost-effective analysis of operations in this all-important authority. It is usually the lot of persons who migrate from the private to public sector. They come well-heeled in the dialectics of critical service delivery. They know how to communicate their vision to the staff. They are adept with managing the figures to maintain a healthy bottom line. Bello-Koko is in this class of corporate voyagers who were directly head-hunted from the private sector ecosystem with all its efficiency into the public sector space. He practices what he preaches: that every staff must earn his or her pay; that public service is not where you reap without sowing but a place to impact on the nation by your little positive actions in whichever station you find yourself.
At a staff retreat, he bared it all to the delight of those who have made up their mind to serve their country with heart and might. Away with corruption. Embrace hard work and you’ll be rewarded. Those were the defining nuggets in his message to staff. It’s the heart’s cry of a man who wants nothing but the best for the country, for the people.
Despite operating in acting capacity, Bello-Koko has carried on with militant zeal. He demands more from his team to position the agency towards greater efficiency, safety and accountability. He has outlined several strategies that would help him and his team place the NPA on a solid pedestal that would help them do more and build the capacity for greater market share.
He lists his strategies to include infrastructural renewal and expansion, introduction of barge operations, automation of truck transit through the electronic call-up system and improvement in the sources of revenue and collection, plugging income leakages, and reducing overhead costs. He also wants to eliminate unwholesome monopolistic conducts within the value chain as well as formulation and implementation of policies aimed to incentivise patronage of the eastern ports. All of this are geared toward efficiency and encouraging competition.
His creed of excellence includes abiding by the spirit and letter of the Consolidated Revenue Fund and Fiscal Responsibility Act, compliance with international best practices, elimination of red tape, boosting workers’ morale through capacity building and welfare, among others.
Bello-Koko has stepped on toes in the course of reforming the NPA for greater efficiency. He needs support and presidential assurance to pull through his vision.
•Olali writes from Yenagoa, Bayelsa State