By Kenneth Jukpor
Dr. Osita Chukwu is the Coordinator of Save Nigeria Importers, Exporters and Freight Forwarders Coalition (SNIEFFC), an advocacy group in Nigeria’s port sector. In this exclusive interview with MMS Plus newspaper he shares his thoughts on several pertinent port sector issues.
Six months ago the Nigerian Ports Process Manual (NPPM) was introduced at the ports. It was tipped to reduce corruption and enhance efficiency. How would you rate that initiative?
NPPM was rolled out as a vision to provide added value to the existing Port operations. Nigeria likes immediate actions and speedy results, but we might need to give some time to enable the process to work. It would probably take a longer time to see the effects, demerits and merits of the policy. I have confidence that NPPM could guarantee added value and better processes at Nigerian ports, but we have to give it some time.
We need leaders to be more strategic in measuring the impact of policies and initiatives. There should be reviews and an alignment of policies before we start exploring new ones. In a nutshell, I’m saying it’s too early to measure the success or impact of NPPM.
NPPM is really not a new development as it simply itemizes the processes that each port operator should follow. Few years ago, the emphasis was on developing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for all port stakeholders. There aren’t striking differences between SOPs and NPPM and these initiatives were tipped to kick out corruption and enhance efficiency at the ports. Is it too early to see some signs of progress with NPPM?
Well, the government isn’t helping matters because these are the policies that should have been available long ago. In other countries, these initiatives are already functional but we are just trying to introduce it in Nigeria and those who benefit from doing things the wrong way will kick against it.
Ideally, there should be a think-tank group to evaluate issues before they are rolled out as policies but in Nigeria that doesn’t happen. The consequence is that policies are introduced as soon as a good suggestion is made. Sometimes, there are already existing initiatives that could be implemented to achieve the same goal but the fanciful thing is to start a new one.
There is also the issue of bureaucracy in government which is excessive among agencies operating at the ports. Sometimes it takes months or years for a simple memo to be acted upon because a Port Manager has to get approval from the Managing Director. There are numerous things that a Port Manager can’t do with his or her initiative because it could lead to a query from the superiors. So, why do we have authority delegated to people in offices?
Look at Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) for example, the Managing Director has to turn to the Transport Minister for directives on little issues and it was probably anxiety to get things done speedily that orchestrated the exit of Ms. Hadiza Bala-Usman.
I loved the administration of Hadiza at NPA because she was dogged and result-driven. When confronted with situations where lots of criticisms were poured on her or on NPA, she was always keen to provide results that are tangible. She wanted to solve industry problems and she won’t be deterred by any challenge. This is the kind of leader required in Nigeria today, but we have seen the unfortunate events that led to her suspension.
We can’t rule out the problem of over bureaucracy in the port system as agencies delay actions on things because of approvals from higher authorities and sometimes they are unwilling to push for speedy responses from their superiors so it doesn’t look like they have a special interest in such cases.
However, we have to remind such public servants especially Managing Directors that the President actually gave them powers to act and they need not rush to the Minister or President for approvals on trivial issues. These delays make port business slow and tedious. As port users, we aren’t happy with the state of affairs at the ports, especially the delays.
Almost every quarter or yearly, several programmes are introduced at the ports for efficiency or automation and they end up without benefits. I hope that NPPM wouldn’t be like that.
Nigerian seaports, especially Lagos ports were notoriously dirty until the administration of Bala-Usman as Managing Director of NPA. She came in and brought some degree of sanity and orderliness. The ports kept getting cleaner and cleaner; however, the situation has quickly turned around for the worse since her suspension a few months ago.
Since the new man came in, he hasn’t organized an engagement with stakeholders, let alone visiting the ports unannounced as Hadiza did on several occasions. How will Bello Koko know what is happening at the ports if he only works from his office in Marina.
Freight forwarders have also been accused of posing threats to the functionality of NPPM. Would you differ on this?
Well, as I said before, one of the biggest challenges in this industry is that we don’t give ample time to see if an initiative will work or not. On the other hand, you can’t really the impatient stakeholders because we have seen a lot of failed policies over time. Ordinarily, a programme like NPPM should be allowed to run for a year or two years to allow the industry really understand and utilize it before we measure the impact. At that point, we can extract the merits and demerits that would be vital in assessing the programme.
I have observed that the problems in this sector are always blamed on freight forwarders. Do freight forwarders collect bribes? If not for the higher demurrages and additional storage charges, no freight agent will be willing to give bribes. Freight forwarders are compelled to give bribes because of the tough economic environment. I can argue that the bribes are given under compulsion, because there is no escape route.
When you have importers demanding their goods and you have done all the necessary requirements, you would be forced to give bribes to prevent additional demurrages and ensure you please your client. There’s no other benefit for a freight forwarder that would make him willingly give bribes.
Given these challenges, what solutions would you proffer to curb bribery and make freight agents unwilling to give bribes?
The situation of freight forwarding in Nigeria is unfortunate because freight agents are held responsible for problems that are beyond them. If the system was such that the agents get some reward based on the appropriate duties paid through their licenses, every freight forwarder would be willing to damn the consequence of losing an importer because he is looking at the reward for being compliant and the monetary benefits that would accrue to him after the year, based on the duties paid with his company.
You can find this template available in some countries around the world. If the government could decide to pay a percent of the duties collected by a compliant freight agent, most people would rather comply than do the wrong thing. Practitioners would rather choose to become rich by compelling their clients to pay the correct duties and getting the reward from the government. When you find a client who has under-declared or paid the lower duty, you will be keen on getting that person to pay the actual duty because you are also looking at the percentage to get back from the government.
Today, we have freight agents that are just managing to survive in this business; yet, we are accused of giving bribes. The person giving bribes hasn’t got enough to take care of himself, family and workers, so what joy does he or she derive from giving bribes? Bribes are given by freight agents to evade demurrages; they don’t like to do it.
At Apapa port, freight agents give bribes to dispatch cargoes and also after examination. If these monies aren’t given, the officers will delay the job. On several occasions I have had heated arguments with the officers and sometimes they allow my workers after the quarrel. How long should one continue to engage in such confrontation just to clear cargoes? It is time to get things done the right way, because things are getting worse at Nigerian ports.