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HASSAN BELLO INTERVIEW

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HASSAN BELLO

Executive Secretary/CEO, Nigerian Shippers’ Council

DRIVING THE NEW ORDER IN NIGERIA’S PORTS

 

Until his appointment as the Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Shippers’ Council in 2013, Hassan Bello was the Council’s Director and Head, Legal services. He joined the NSC in 1998 as a Deputy Director, and Head Legal Services, from the Sokoto Investment Company Limited, where he rose to the rank of Acting Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer. Having previously served in the Sokoto State Ministry of Justice, Bello is a firm advocate of the need to reposition the Nigerian maritime industry for improved productivity and ranking among the maritime nations of the world. He is a fellow of the Nigerian Institute of Shipping (NIS), the International Dispute Resolution Institute and a member of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators (CIArb). The Shippers’ Council boss is also a member of the ministerial panel of inquiry into the affairs of Niger Dock Plc, and a member of the Ministerial Committee on Cabotage Policy and Law, among other important responsibilities.

 

Recently, Mr. Bello had a conversation with Gloria Ireka and Moses Ewa of NEWSWIRE Law & Events Magazine on the role of his organization in repositioning the Nigerian maritime industry. Excerpts:

 

What influenced your decision to study Law?

Law has always been there right from the moment. The house I grew up in, my father being a judge, while my mother was a charity worker, so the settlement of disputes was always a very fascinating issue for me. When I went to university, I saw Law as a tool for social engineering as a weapon that could be used to bring about changes in the society. And even at that young age we could see many people changing Nigeria. It was of course a very important decision to study Law, even though we never knew the whole implication of doing so. But exposure to Law was helpful, and I realized that I could use my talent for deduction and analysis of world affairs. Also, our teachers were not abstract; they teach us Law but related it to our society as well as giving us independent thoughts and action. So Law has always been a guide to us to ventilate our thoughts, to criticize the society, and I think it has been worthwhile.

 

You said recently that the Nigerian ports are now very efficient. Can you throw more light on that?

Our ports were not efficient before. This was because we had monopolies surrounding them. The old NPA (Nigerian Ports Authority) were in charge of the ports; just like how Nigerian Airways was in charge of the entire aviation industry, so people had no choice, people had no options, and it is either Nigerian Airways or no other airline. And if you’re old enough to know at that time it was struggle getting flights. That was public monopoly. The same thing obtained when NPA was running the show at the ports. Things were very expensive and there was no infrastructural development at the port. Nigerian Ports were expensive, inaccessible, and inefficient. But in 2006, the Nigerian Government had a masterstroke, to privatize operations at the port, and invited through the private sector a very clean process to take charge of cargo delivery at the port. This masterstroke has been responsible for what is happening today in terms of efficiency. It is revolutionary. So now we have about 26 terminals in Lagos State being run by the private sector. It is expected that there will be competition, because competition drives efficiency. Just like the airlines; I always like to make comparisons with the aviation industry. When you have many airlines you’ll be competing for customers instead of the other way round. So we hope this will be sustained. Today, the terminal operators and the shipping companies have changed the way we do business at Nigerian ports. They have made a positive impact, but there are still issues to be enhanced.

 

How were you able to resist attempts to in­crease charges and decided to say no to impunity and decadence at the port?

That was one of the issues, even though there was a revolution, to give terminals to private sectors. There ought to be an umpire to regulate the various interfaces between the various stakeholders. The port is a community, comprising people with many divergent interests, and all in pursuit of the same goal, but you need a coordinator, an umpire, a mediator, and a regulator or moderator, so as to bring the needed equilibrium and symmetry, and a level playing field for everybody to operate. That is the role of the Nigerian Shippers’ Council; even though it ought to be have been done at the beginning when the ports were concession, there ought to be an economic regulator. One of the things we said was ‘no impunity’ – which simply means no to non-accountability – where you do something unethical and get away with it, even to flaunt it. So this has a multiplier effect on not only the agreement they signed, this is the level of compliance, not only by them but by the government also, because the government also owes terminal operators some certain things. For example, terminal operators are not linked with the electricity grid; they have to provide their own power, and you can see that the running cost is high, running into millions of naira. We want to see that the roads that lead to the terminals are being built and maintained by government because it is their responsibility. So we are on everybody’s case. We want to see changes in other auxiliary and important services. The truckers, the people who bring goods – now and then, you see their rickety trucks breaking down, containers falling and killing people, obstructing cargo delivery. We cannot afford that. We must have good registered companies, each one with a minimum of six good vehicles registered. They would be the only ones allowed to bring in goods to the ports or take them from the ports.

 

We have to look at the freight forwarders, the customs agents, and ensure that they consolidate and also run professionally. They have to be trained adequately, to remove touts amongst them because they have important functions as the agents of the shippers and sometimes agents of the carriers. They are the intermediaries. It is very important that they are qualified professionals            . So we are working with their agencies to see that all these things are streamlined. In the port system, you can’t touch one link and forget the other. There must be symmetry and coordination. If one of the links is weak, then you have to start all over. There are many aspects of reforms designed to overcome that. We want a freight forwarder with an office, who would clear the goods from the port – he doesn’t need to be there. We don’t want a battalion – we want one freight forwarder for one container, six freight forwarders for six containers. It’s time to adopt international best practices, so that we can have efficiency and effective service delivery.

 

What framework is being put in place to guard against the importation of fake goods? And how would it benefit neighboring ports?

That area is actually for the Standards Organization of Nigeria (SON). This is another organization that is also embracing technology. It is very important that you use technological advancement in the things you do. I just got a letter from the SON informing me of recent issues, because we all work together. They are doing a very wonderful job in trying to see that Nigeria is no longer a dumping-ground for inferior goods or products. First of all, if the goods are all inferior, there would be wastage of foreign currency and also congestion of the ports for goods that are not even worth the time and energy being spent on them. More importantly the industrial sector would be stifled with dire consequences on the economy. So it is very important that we work together in that direction. The whole issues to enhance revenue to the Federal Government through the port. The port sectors have potentials of failing lost of revenue failing oil prices. NSC thinks that if the ports are properly structured and this means introducing technology excellent trade facilitation modernization, Nigeria will attract more cargo than any other country and it will attain a hub status. Trade facilitation simply means simplification trade and standardization of initial processes.

 

Effective regulation requires much more than just competent economic and financial analysis, so how do you manage often complex interaction with the regulated firms, consumers, courts, the media, and the rest?

That’s what makes our regulation necessary. First of all, as a regulator, I think you have to be a democrat. Gone are the days when regulators cram their policies down the throats of the people they regulate. You have to have Nigerian consultation and sensitization; you have to come together and discuss issues. Sometimes these issues you want to discus are mutually beneficial to most of us, but because of misconceptions it may not be well taken. Hence the need for openness, which is the hallmark of a good regulator. In everything the Nigerian Shippers Council does, we need to share that information and interaction with stakeholders. Not only that, we have to come and meet with them so that we get their buy-in. It is important that they are taken along. A regulator is not a headmaster or headmistress, no; a regulator is a democrat who consults all the time. That is why sometimes because of the array of stakeholders, the Nigerian Shippers’ Council many people see us making a case for terminal operators, and they would ask us, ‘Why are you making a case for them? We thought you were supposed to be regulating them!’ We are making a case for them because of their high operating costs. We are also making a case for shippers because sometimes they’re not so strong. We are also for making a case for truckers, because the whole economy rest on them. If the truck driver goes on strike, the entire whole economy collapses. These drivers are doing a wonderful job, driving long distances without rest and no place to freshen up, and so forth. We are taking care of a whole array of interests, and we’ll make sure all these things are democratically done. Right now we have a project; ‘A Cargo Tracking Note,’ which is a trade facilitation issue. For some time now we’ve been going to the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN), NASSIVA, the Shippers Association, Terminal Operators, Shipping Companies and many other interests. For over two months we have gathered a lot of issues to make it better, because that is consultation. For a regulator, I think the most important thing is to be a democrat, try to get the buy-in of all stakeholders, and consult most of the time.

 

Apart from providing a level playing field amongst competitors; what are the major reg­ulatory challenges of the Nigerian Shippers’ Council?

We have regulatory challenges everywhere. In Nigeria there is fear of regulation – perhaps because regulations are not well explained, or perhaps because the legal and policy frameworks are not clear. A regulator is the one who helps in bringing the cushion, so to say; he’s the midwife. If you’re in labour, you have to be delivered (of the baby). That is what a regulator does, and he helps the people he regulates. He doesn’t emasculate or oppress them, he helps iron out the issues. The government has a clear policy on port regulations – efficiency, more tonnage coming to Nigeria, more revenue. That’s what the regulator ensures. And of course, there would be some friction, because some will not accept the regulations. Look at the NCC (the Nigerian Telecommunications Commission); they’re regulating telephones, they have problems and they are in court with telephone companies. The Nigeria Shippers’ Council is regulating ports; we’re in court with some companies. If we look at the Nigerian Electricity Regulation Commission, the Insurance Commission, the National Lottery Regulatory Commission and even the Central Bank of Nigeria, they all have problems in court. What we have is what I call the regulatory deposit; some people think Nigeria is over regulated, and others think otherwise. I think the problem is in the manner in which you go about your regulation, your level of transparent and predictability. We often criticize government for its policy flip-flops, but a regulator must be independent, independent of even the government that appoints him. If the government has a responsibility it has to be pointed out. What we are telling the government is to be consistent in its policies. We have people who are adversely affected by changes or policies of government, and that is not good. So, you try your best to be an unbiased umpire; don’t lean on one because of the other. Try to be as fair, as just, as predictable, as honest and as transparent as you can. And be scientific, because there are scientific issues as far as regulation is concerned. Your policy framework must be direct and clear. You are bigger than the law that appoints you – that must be cleared and must be justifiable as far as these issues are concerned. So regulation, or simply moderation means instituting balance for level playing field, equilibrium and coordination.

 

Why did the NSC increase the free storage period in Ni­geria from three (3) to seven (7) days? Is it a normal practice all over?

It is a punitive measure. That is why, as I said, a regulator must not be biased. The Nigerian Shippers’ Council has made the port have a storage facility. When their goods come they will not clear, because it’s cheaper to put it in the port than rent a warehouse. That causes congestion at the ports. And when we have congestion, many things will go wrong; the dwell time for cargo is higher and there is confusion. The NSC says people have to be punished for that, in the sense that even when your goods have been uploaded from the ship, you should be ready to take your goods out of the port because the port is not a storage facility. But the Nigerian importers think otherwise, they keep their goods at the port, sometimes for as long as it takes them to find buyers. Then we said, look, if you do that you would have to pay for it. And I think this has made the issue very clear, that there is a price to be paid for turning our ports into storage areas. It’s called progressive storage charge – the more you cargo keep, the more you pay. This will deter them, so that immediately their goods come in, they go and clear them.

 

How effective are Nigeria ports?

Very effective. The Nigerian Shippers’ Council has been accepted and acknowledged. We are dealing with many organizations – the Standard Organization of Nigeria (SON), and we have a perfect working relationship with the Nigerian Customs Service. We are all trade facilitators and we have a platform where all the Comptrollers of Custom in Lagos come to the Shippers’ Council for monthly meetings. We bring in the importers and the terminal operators. With that we’ve been able to eliminate problems through understanding because we are just an umpire. If the importers are having a case or issues with the Customs they say so, and we discuss it. At the end of the meeting, we say, ‘You Customs, do this or that, and you terminal operators this is what you should do so that we can have a perfect harmony in the issues.’ You need to streamline processes and procedures. And that is what we’ve been able to do as an umpire. We’re not apportioning blame to anybody; we are only trying to ensure responsibility because there are laws to be obeyed, you cannot be a law unto yourself. We are against impunity. This is a trade zone; the image of Nigeria is at stake, and we have to really see that things are done here as they are done in other climes.

 

Tell us about your days at the law school?

My Law school days were very good. I have lots of friends that I went to school with. It was a good time for us because we were young and idealistic. And even then in the Law school, we were teaching other people and delivering education to certain sections of the population. My good teachers and good friends had good discussions. The Law is an issue that you discuss, prudential and otherwise. I hope those old good days will come back. What I would like to see is a society that is accountable. People must be accountable, especially when in public office; you owe the Nigerian people an explanation about what you’re doing. If something has been entrusted to you, then there must be accountability. That’s why it is important that you have your internal control and external issues. The Freedom of Information Law is an important instrument that will gauge the level of our democracy. Some people treat public institutions as their own property, but now with freedom of information we can say no – explain to us what you have done and how you run your office, and we are obliged to know it. These are the pillars of democracy. More of such social engineering laws should be strengthened so that people know that they are accountable to the larger society.

 

As the Chief Executive Officer of Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC), tell us your new vision for the council?

The new vision is to be an internationally-acknowledged economic agent that will bring much needed reforms into the ports and the shipping industry as a whole. I want the NSC to realize the enormous potentials of the maritime industry, its contribution to the economy in terms of GDP, modern infrastructure, and in terms of employment. I want the NSC to be a reference-point as far as shipping, as well as the integration of Nigerian economy to the world economy through shipping, are concerned.

 

Tell us about your predecessors?

As an institution, The Nigerian Shippers Council is blessed in the sense that those chief executives that had been here before, built a strong institution. The first chief executive of the NSC was seconded from the Central Bank. That emphasizes the economic nature of NSC. And we had two or three more chief executives, and each of them has worked hard to see that there is a strong institution. We are lucky to reap from what they have done. That’s why the Nigerian Shippers’ Council is a very serious organization where you find economists, lawyers, and other experts everywhere. The NSC is the intellectual hub behind the shipping policies that you see, and we are building on that. We want to continue in that regard, giving advice to the Federal Government, and making Nigeria’s economy grow.

 

It’s a great pleasure talking to you sir.

It’s my pleasure.

 

(Pix 1) Hassan Bello, Executive Secretary / CEO, Nigerian Shippers’ Council

 

(Pix 2) Deacon Dele Adesina, SAN and Hassan Bello

 

(Pix 3) Hassan Bello, Executive Secretary / CEO, Nigerian Shippers’ Council

 

(Pix 4) Roro Port, NPA

 

(Pix 5) Hassan Bello and Hon Justice Daisy Okocha

 

(Pix 6) NPA Terminal

 

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