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Bello: Ports process manual, CTN will improve efficiency, curb corruption

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Hassan Bello. Photo: SHIPSANDPORTS

As part of efforts to improve efficiency and curb corruption in Nigerian ports, the Federal Government has begun the implementation of the Nigerian Port Process Manual (NPPM), which aims at addressing all vulnerabilities in the ports system. The government also plans to re-introduce the Cargo Tracking Note (CTN), which will reveal all cargo information that has been discretional all these years with the consequence of huge losses of revenue to the government. The ports economic regulator, the Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC), spearheads the two projects. The Executive Secretary/Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Council, Hassan Bello, a lawyer, spoke with some journalists on the two policy instruments and other industry issues. The Guardian’s ONYEDIKA AGBEDO was there. Excerpts:

In December last year, the Nigerian Shippers’ Council was made the lead agency to oversee the Nigerian Port Process Manual (NPPM), which is targeted at achieving efficiency in port operations in Nigeria. Can you give an insight on how the Council has executed this national assignment?
IT has been a very fascinating experience; we need a lot of stakeholders’ support. But what we have been doing is not new is that we have developed the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for all stakeholders in the ports. That is the issue of ‘when, where, why, how’ things should be done at the ports. So, we are just supervising and reporting. Many stakeholders abide by their SOPs.

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Contrary to what people think, we are not doing the operating procedures ourselves; we are monitoring. The SOPs have already been set; we need to monitor, supervise and coordinate and so far it has been quite challenging but very good.

We have had tremendous support from stakeholders. First of all, the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) has seconded two senior staff to work with us. They have been quite cooperative. We also have within the NPA the Harbours Masters, some pilots, and Port Managers. We have had meetings with them and they have been very, very supportive. The terminals, shipping companies, and many operators have been exemplary.

We have had discussions with the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), National Agency for Food and Drug Administration And Control (NAFDAC), and many others who have one thing or the other to do at the ports. The issue is to do it based on international acceptability; do it on time so that our ports will be efficient. So, it is about the efficiency of the ports and the reduction of corruption. We have made some arrests on the issue; we are taking one issue at a time even though it is holistic.

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Take, for example, the issue of boarding of vessels; it should be done by specified agencies. So, we have stopped some agencies from boarding vessels; there should be joint boarding. Before now, agencies boarded at separate times, but we have been able to get them to board the vessel jointly and the time allocated. It will not be more than 30 minutes and we are out of the ship because delay is dangerous. What we are waiting for is continued coordination of this.

Again, we are grateful to the NPA for providing the necessary machinery so that we have joint boarding. We are also grateful to the NCS for cooperating with us because Customs by their law could go and board the vessel separately. But they have, in the spirit of cooperation, agreed to do it jointly. We have Port Health also working with us and some other agencies. So far, we are trying to reduce the time. We have made arrests of people who go into vessels and demand bribe; we are investigating the issue. We have seized some money and this will be an example to everybody that things have changed now; it will send signals that it is not business as usual. What we want is validation from stakeholders so that internationally it will be known that something is happening in Nigeria. 

You talked about some agencies that have been stopped from boarding vessels. Can you be specific by naming the affected agencies?
The agencies to board vessels are Port Health (which can board separately because they will be the first to go and check health status), Nigeria Customs Service, Nigeria Immigration Service, and NDLEA; they will go jointly. We assemble at 8.30 am and go from 9.00 am. By 9.30 am, we are out of the place. We monitor to ensure that nobody demands a bribe or anything because there are unhidden charges that make Nigerian shipping very costly, even the freight.

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Can you talk about the changes brought about by the NPPM following your involvement as the agency in this national assignment?
The changes are palpable. Masters or owners of ships or charterers are apprehensive because of serious demands, serious delays. If we conquer that, it means the cost of shipping will be reduced. Secondly, the turnaround time for ships will be reduced because we will not delay any ship from coming. There are SOPs; that is what we want so that Nigerian ports will be in competition with other ports in the world.

You talked about challenges in carrying out this national assignment. Can you identify them?
The challenges we have are funds because this is an additional function the Nigeria Shippers’ Council has been saddled with. We are doing it within our own resources, but we also need logistics. We are talking with Customs to give us vehicles as an auction. We talk to our parent ministry, the Ministry of Transportation, which is responsible for the assignment we have been saddled with. Secondly, we need the cooperation of everybody. Some of the shipping companies have cooperated; we need them to do more.

We understand that there are plans to reintroduce the Cargo Tracking Note (CTN). How soon will it take off?
The soon is that we are going to the procurement process. All these things will have to be in accordance with the procurement process Act. Once we do that, the Minister will roll it out after approval from the Federal Executive Council (FEC).

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Has the Council been able to meet the stakeholders again on the planned return of CTN?
We have talked with stakeholders. We were operating the CTN until it became a subject of an investigation by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) following some alleged actions by other agencies. We had no option than to stop. Investigation is over now and EFCC said we could go ahead; that is why we got the presidential approval to do that. Soon, we will roll out. We will sensitise the shipping companies, the shippers, the terminals, freight forwarders, and all the important stakeholders.

What changes are expected in the ports once CTN is re-introduced?
CTN will bring changes in four important places. Number one, it will stop revenue leakages in the industry. Nigeria is losing a lot of money. Now Nigeria needs revenue more than ever before and we have to do that because we are going to block under-declarations of cargo; we are going to block concealment of cargo. We are going to make sure that all revenues are paid and the CTN gives the information. We will stop discretion and go by the books. That is what CTN will do on revenue. And it’s not only the revenue that will be generated by Customs. The NPA revenue will also go up, so also NIMASA’s because declarations of the tonnage of the ships will not be discretional again. Also, manifest is not going to be discretional.

Secondly, the issue of security is very important. There is nothing that will be imported into the country without Nigerians knowing what it is. We know the value, the weight, the destination, and the date of manufacture. We will know almost everything. There is no shipping document that can reveal this except the CTN. So, we are free from the principle of ‘said to contain’ in the container (neither the master knows nor the carrier nor even the shipper will say this is what it contains, but it is said to contain). That means you are relying only on the information given. And this is one of the information we send to the National Security Adviser (NSA) ‘said to contain’. Now we will know what the containers contain so that we take necessary actions to stop the illegal trade in arms. For example, any dangerous cargo or prohibited cargo could be done away with because we know what is coming. I am happy; Customs will be very happy with it. Security organisations will also be very happy with it.

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Thirdly, it will give a veritable, rich source of data and that is where Shippers’ Council is so proud. We know whatever comes; we know what earnings we have made and can make projections. So, we know that because of our imports or exports we need to build a port; we need to build our infrastructure. So, this will be meant for development planning.

What is the latest on the planned out-of-court settlement between the Council and shipping companies with regard to the case on shipping charges?
Some of the shipping companies are trying to settle out of court. The Attorney General of the Federation is leading that together with the Ministry of Transportation. Offers and counteroffers have been made and we think this settlement will be done soon. Only one shipping company, Maersk, has opted to do. Others have made offers but we have not gone into concrete negotiations.

The Council recently held meetings with the barge operators where you stressed the need for them to register. How have others embraced this?
Many stakeholders are registering now. There has been registration but I am not satisfied with it. There is about 40 per cent registration. I need to push the registration to 80-90 per cent. All the regulated services are the ones involved in registration. Such registration is contained in the law. They include shipping companies, shippers, and freight forwarding companies; they should register with the Shippers’ Council.

What does it really take to register with the Council?
Nothing, except that some people are suffering from inertia; but there are also sanctions if you don’t register. First of all, such companies will not benefit from services offered by the Shippers’ Council and they are considerable. Secondly, you have to know your customer basis (KYC).

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