With the Nigerian oil and gas industry facing an uncertain future - erratic oil price fluctuations and the advancement of possible, more eco-friendly sources of energy - the time for policy makers to pay attention to other sectors of the Nigerian economy is long overdue. The Maritime Industry is one of the sectors with the potential for unprecedented success in terms of revenue generation, employment opportunities and economic expansion with barely a quarter of this potential being currently harnessed.
Once upon a time, the Nigerian Maritime Industry was poised for great global economic impact; we had the largest fleet in the African waters and must have been a source of envy to other African states. But all of that changed with poor management and the emergence of successive governments; each one armed with poorly-thought out policies that crippled the industry and plunged it into a deep dark decline. This decline cut across all the government agencies in the industry.
However, a ray of hope shone through and the Maritime Industry began to witness visible changes when, about five years ago, Hadiza Bala Usman was appointed by the President as the Managing Director of the Nigeria Ports Authority. Everyone held their breath, expecting the 'same old same old'. Soon enough Ms. Usman proved everyone wrong and she did so admirably, to those of us that longed for such a positive change!
It is no secret that a lot of government-owned establishments are akin to Lagos market places where it is a free-for-all affair, or dirty roadside cafeterias rank with the lingering smell of food and characterised by a tinge of abandonment: broken windows, doors, office tables and chairs and non-existent or dilapidated office equipment. One of the first things the new NPA boss did upon the commencement of her tenure, was to sanitise the NPA headquarters building in Marina. She had the entire structure redesigned and fitted with aesthetics befitting of a respected government-owned organisation, immediately setting it apart from its sister agencies - first things first! Offices were equipped, order restored, and merit driven performance management systems introduced to improve employee and organisational capability & productivity.
This new environment birthed a sense of pride among industry experts, a sense of ownership, and rekindled the desire to perform. Following the renovation of the complex, Ms Usman's administration immediately embarked on the most impactful Human Resource Reform in NPA history within its first 18 months: massive promotion of staff, review of salary structures in an effort to correct inherent anomalies in the organisation, better conditions of service, upward review of pensions/gratuity as well as terminal benefits for staff.
Although the ports were concessioned since 2006, no one looked at the agreement which should have been reviewed biennially. In order to ensure transparency and due process, Hadiza Bala Usman solicited the assistance of the World Bank in establishing a standard template for assessment of the performance of both the NPA and respective terminal operators which is now in place.
She has created a level playing field for all terminal operators by removing bottlenecks that hinder healthy competition in the industry. An example is the de-classification of some ports as strictly oil and gas. For a nation's ports to function optimally, it needs to have navigable waters, deep enough for large vessels to transit. For many years, only vessels of a limited size could come into our shores because our waters weren't deep enough. What this meant was that shippers brought their goods in smaller vessels, which also meant that they couldn't take advantage of economies of scale, and so shipping and landing costs to Nigeria were higher, and invariably retail costs were higher too. Ms. Usman's administration tackled this problem head-on. The NPA commenced the dredging of the waters at the Lagos channel and ports and continually maintains them to this day, keeping them in constant depth and navigable state. While not in its direct purview, the NPA acquired 4 patrol boats for the Marine police to enhance security at the ports, and soon after, her team constructed a standard marine simulation centre - a facility where NPA pilots will undertake training which hitherto was carried out in Antwerp, Belgium thereby saving the country millions of dollars.
It may come as a surprise to non-industry experts to learn that in the last thirty years, the Nigerian Ports Authority could not boast of owning operational tugboats or pilot cutters at any of its ports - essential equipment that makeup a functional port. Under Hadiza's leadership, the NPA acquired and commissioned 4 new tugboats for Lagos pilotage districts, thereby raising the bar to those obtainable in developed economies.
As an indirect approach to addressing the Apapa gridlock and incentivized ship calls to the Eastern ports (Delta, Calabar and Port Harcourt) her management approved a 10% rebate on ship dues to vessels calling at those ports, and further deployed tug boats, pilot cutters and initiated dredging works of those channels to ensure safety of navigation.
It is worthy of note that in this month of May 2021, a vessel belonging to Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), berthed at the Federal Ocean Terminal, Onne and offloaded 1,297 containers, whao! According to the words of the Managing Director of the terminal, "It has been a pleasure to work with the Nigerian Ports Authority to realise this project. Berths 9-11 had been languishing, lying virtually unused for the last decade. Now, in partnership with NPA, we are bringing the area to life, adding capacity and competition to Onne Port. This is sorely needed as the port is currently experiencing acute congestion with respect to container traffic".
Concerned with the advancement and expansion of the Maritime Industry, the Nigerian Ports Authority under Ms. Usman's leadership have completed remedial dredging works at the Escravos access channel as well as the concession of Terminal B of the Warri Old Port, a project initiated at the beginning of her term. This will increase the inflow of ocean-going vessels into Delta Ports and also impact positively on the socio-economic development of the area with respect to increased trade and commerce, and employment opportunities.
For the Hadiza led administration team, revenue generation, accountability and transparency has been their key features as exemplified in the NPA being the first MDA to open its budget to the public with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with BudgIT Open Budget System Platform and Implementation of a Public Data Dissemination programme. Under this administration the tariff regime of the Authority has been published on their website for the whole world to see. A Revenue Invoice Management System aimed at improving service offering, partner relationships, creating an efficient payment method, maximizing revenue and eradicating loss associated with fraud and revenue leakage was also launched.
Let us also not forget that NPA under Hadiza's leadership signed an MOU with FMWH for the reconstruction of the Port access road and contributed the sum of 1.829 Billion Naira to ensure it was actualized. That singular effort resolved the major bottleneck to the Apapa gridlock.
Poised to serve clients efficiently now and in the foreseeable future, Hadiza Bala Usman has achieved in five years what several others couldn't in thirty years. Like the balance found in all great and natural things, there has also been a human side to the NPA's growth under her leadership. For the first time in the NPA, a commendation dinner was held in honour of retiring senior leaders (GMs and Asst. GMs) in recognition of their years in service. The Long service award was re-introduced while a merit award for deserving employees was also introduced, a crèche was also established at the Lagos Ports Complex, so nursing mothers and fathers can have their children close by, helping them focus on their work, for longer.
Following the wisdom that health is wealth, this management has renovated and equipped the Bode Thomas Sports ground, reintroduced the Nigerian Ports Sports Association Games (NIPOSA), encourages a compulsory one day fitness day exercise and has purchased ambulances for all its port locations.
There has also been recruitment of staff to replace the aging workforce. After decades of poor management, it is safe to say that the industry finally got something right for the first time, by bringing in the right person for the job.
However, following the announcement of the presidential spokesperson on the 6th of May 2021, regarding the suspension and investigation of Ms. Usman's management of the NPA, I fear that all of the progress made so far in the Maritime Industry and the endless possibilities of what could be, are about to be derailed, yet again.
With the commencement of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA), we have been offered yet another opportunity to grow economically and to reclaim our spot as the giant of Africa. But this will be achieved only through grit and by placing love for country above all else. Already, a lot of foreign companies are moving to Africa to take advantage of the emergence of this new trade deal. In positioning ourselves for this opportunity, we need to take a step back to fix our national image, and we can achieve this by portraying a nation strong on its merits, its love and respect for excellence and above all, a nation that uplifts and celebrates its successes and innovation wherever it is found.
The endless list of this management's accomplishments is testament to hard work, service, and dedication. But even in excellence, sometimes we make mistakes, and if there is anything I know, it is that mistakes are only a proof of our humanity. No one throws away a baby alongside the bath water.
However the ongoing investigations on the person of Ms. Usman turn out, it must be said that her time so far as NPA boss has engineered numerous reforms that have brought about an increase in revenue to the economy and foreshadows a bright future for the Maritime Industry!
I have been in the industry for over thirty-five years, long enough to know that if we lose this trajectory by truncating the course which Ms. Usman has already charted, the industry is likely to suffer stagnation and serious setbacks, as few have shown this level of dedication and consistency to our beloved industry and country. We should also remember that we now live in a global village with the rest of the world bearing witness to our every move.
"I am disheartened to hear about the suspension of Nigerian Ports Authority MD, Hadiza Bala Usman, who I have known to be an accomplished leader and dedicated public servant. I urge adherence to the rule of law and fair and equal treatment as the situation evolves," says former Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in her twitter post of 15 May 2021.
In the interest of saving our maritime industry and ultimately saving our economy, key actors and policy makers should recognise the impact of their actions and decisions on the bigger picture. Sadly, most of the policy makers are not industry players and may not really understand what is at stake. We are the labourers, we face the obstacles caused by inconsistent policies that are never right, policies that continue to stifle the industry. We know what happens here, but our voices are never loud enough. So we are ignored.
This is how to kill an industry in Nigeria - force feed it poor policies until it chokes and then kneel on the neck of its progenitor.