Stakeholders in the shipping industry have called for the transformation of the Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC), into a commercial regulator in the industry, reports Francis Ugwoke
One of the high points of the Public Hearing on Ports at the National Assembly during the week was the urgent need for a technical and commercial regulator at the nation's ports and border stations. Stakeholders who attended the forum in Abuja had voiced out their concern about the continued absence of an effective regulator in the ports industry about six years after the concessioning programme. The concern was probably triggered off by the statement from the Minister of Finance, Dr Mrs Ngozi Okonjo Iweala that the reform in the ports should be sustained by the early passage of the Ports and Harbour Bill. Transport Minister, Senator Idris Umar had explained that the Bill is being fine-tuned for presentation to the National Assembly. Idris, who spoke through the Permanent Secretary, Mr Nebolisa Emodi added that the Bill seeks to repeal the NPA Act of 1999 and enact the Nigerian Ports and Harbours Act which will provide ownership, management, operation, development and control of ports and harbours. The Bill will seek to make the Harbour Authority the technical regulator and promote participation. Shipping industry experts who were there welcomed the moves but stressed the need for government to hasten action on the Bill.
Drawing from the experience in the telecoms industry, shipping industry stakeholders who spoke to THISDAY after the Public Hearing said the federal government should be seen as accelerating progress in the efforts to have commercial regulator in the ports. A shipping expert and consultant, Dr. John Adebowale, said that the technical and commercial regulator needs in the ports should be like the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), adding that the Commission through quality regulation has improved development in the telecoms industry.
Adebowale added that the body should be fully equipped in terms of international tariff regulations, expertise in ports operation, including the problems being suffered by importers and exporters as a result of the excesses of multinational shipping companies and terminal operators. Another participant and cargo consolidator, Mr Ikechukwu Okafor, argued that what is happening in the ports currently is a situation where the shipping companies and terminal operators are having a field day in introducing excessive charges without being challenged.
Stakeholders who spoke to THISDAY said that the federal government through the Ministry of Transport should facilitate the transformation of Nigerian Shippers' Council (NSC) as the Technical or Commercial Regulator. They argued that this was based on the strategic position and structure of the council in the industry. NSC has over the decades been involved in settling disputes between ports service providers and consumers of such services. These include shipping companies and terminal operators as service providers in the ports and importers and exporters, including freight forwarders as consumers of shipping services. The Council had in the past been assigned by the Transport Ministry to investigate cases of illegal charges by shipping companies. When this was proved, the shipping companies were dragged to court and forced to stop some of the excesses. While some companies obeyed, there were others who continued with the illegal charges. The matter was later settled out of court. But the problem has been that the Council does not enjoy the powers to sanction the service providers, and this has often been to the advantage of the shipping companies. A maritime expert , Mr Mathias Ogbodo said that the Federal Government should not go too far in the search of a regulator with the presence of Shippers Council. Ogbodo said that the NSC has the qualified human capital and structure to carry out the assignment.
"The Council has the structure and expertise that government needs for such assignment. It will also save government the cost of starting a new body because of the logistics involved. There are well educated personnel that can carry out the functions of a commercial regulator. The Council understands the ports industry very well and knows how to make the industry efficient. It has played several roles in the past that are not different from what is expected of a commercial regulator. All it needs is that as a regulator, the law setting it up or transforming it gives it the teeth to bite so that it can set rules of the trade, sanction erring service providers, either as a terminal operator, shipping company or even consumers of shipping services", he said.
Former Rector, Maritime Academy of Nigeria (MAN) and International Maritime Organisation (IMO) Representative for Nigeria, Engr. Olu Akinsoji told THISDAY in Lagos that the need for a commercial regulator for the ports cannot be over-emphasised. Akinsoji argued that now that everyone has realised that there cannot be accelerated progress in the ports industry without a regulatory body, government should move fast in establishing one. He joined other stakeholders in calling for the transformation of Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC) by the government through necessary regulation as a regulator. "I cannot see any reason why Nigerian Shippers Council cannot be transformed as a regulator because they are not directly involved in any of the sides, they are not operators and not the landlord.
They are already on ground as a government agency, their interest is in the facilitation of freighting and that will compliment the purpose of establishing them as a regulator. So, instead of re-inventing the will and setting a new body , I don't see any reason why Shippers Council cannot be", he told THISDAY.
Akinsoji, a renowned shipping expert, added that all government needs to do is to accommodate this in the new Harbour Bill that is being forwarded to the National Assembly with enough provisions to act with true authority of the nation.