Executive Vice Chairman of ENL Consortium Limited and Chairman, Sea Terminal Operators of Nigeria, Mrs. Victoria Haastrup, in this interview with John Iwori, reasoned that the passage of the Port and Habour Bill, and removal of import restrictions on certain items will boost the economy among. Excerpts:
Port and Harbour Bill
The Port and Harbour Bill has been in the National Assembly for years with each successive legislative assembly failing to pass it into law. The bill is at various stages of passage in the lower and upper chamber of the National Assembly in the seventh assembly. However, it was not passed into law until the lawmakers ended their session. You are aware that the bill, which has provisions for various aspects of port operations, especially the roles and responsibilities of key players in the nation’s seaports, also suffered the same fate in the sixth assembly. You will agree with me that the maritime industry is suffering because of its non passage.
That is why I want Mr. President and the in-coming Minister of Transport to work hard to ensure that the Port and Harbour Bill is promptly passed into law. In short, the Minister of Transport must work harmoniously with the National Assembly, especially the Senate Committee on Marine Transport as well the House Committees on Maritime Safety Administration and Education, and the Port Harbour and Waterways to ensure that the bill is pass into law.
I strongly believe that if the Minister of Transport and the relevant committees in the legislative arm of government work closely, the passage of the bill into law would no longer suffer any delay in the hallow chambers of the National Assembly.
Restriction on Rice Importation
There is no need to place any restrictions on the importation of rice into the country as it does not make any economic sense to do so. It is common knowledge that neighbouring countries such as the Republic of Benin and Togo rather Nigeria are the ones benefitting from the restrictions on the importation of rice into the country. Since local rice producers cannot meet the present demand for rice consumption which is 1.7 metric tons per annum, it makes no sense to restrict the importation of the stable commodity. I agree that we must look inward as a nation but it has to be properly planned. It has to be gradual so that we do not lose the revenue accruing from import duty on rice to the ports located in our neighbouring countries.
As I speak to you, all the rice imported into the Republic of Benin and Togo end up in the Nigerian market as a result of the porosity of our borders. Even if we keep security operatives at the land borders 24 hours, smugglers will still bring in the rice into Nigeria through the numerous illegal routes all over the place. We should not deceive ourselves. We cannot be losing huge revenues while our neighbours are gaining. Yet, we say Nigeria is broke. This is the time we need all the money to take care of our basic needs. We should not hold the short the end of the stick through acts of omission and commission.
Go to the ports situated in our neighbouring countries, they experiencing high activities. They are filled to the brim with rice laden vessels. They are even trying to expand some of their terminals to take in more rice laden vessels. Nigeria is where the market is. Therefore, all those bags of rice imported through the ports in the Republic of Benin and Togo end up in the Nigerian markets. Go to the open markets, you will see different kinds of assorted brands of foreign rice on display. Where does this foreign rice come from? Your guess is as good as mine.”
Idle Loading Bay
The gridlock in Apapa and the poor state of the port access roads is a shame. It is only in Nigeria you can see that kind of thing. I have no doubt in my mind that the building of holding bay or parking lot will help to decongest the port access roads. It will also ease the traffic snarl in Apapa and its environs. However, it is my belief that it is not the responsibility of terminal operators to provide loading bays to the trucks coming inside the port to do business. That is the responsibility of the truck owners. They are in business to make money. All the truck owners should come together and provide a loading bay for their trucks. They should provide the loading bay for their trucks because it is not proper for them to use their business to hamper other business operators in the Apapa and its environs.
By the way, government can show them the way to go. What happens to the loading bay that is 95 per cent completed opposite Tin Can Island Port Complex (TCIP), Apapa? Why is the federal government not putting it into immediate use to solve the gridlock in Apapa? Though the idea of asking the trucks and other articulated vehicles to move on one side of the road while other motorists move on the other lane is a temporary relief but to me that will tantamount to creating another problem in a bid to solve another one. Has the authority considered the implication of allowing those heavy duty trucks parked for days in some cases for months on the bridges and the roads? Apart from the security implication, do the authorities take cognizance of the heavy weight of these vehicles on the bridges linking the roads to Apapa? Have they taken a look at these bridges and the roads?
Some of these roads and bridges were constructed over 50 years ago. They were not constructed to carry stationary weight for hours, not to talk of days or weeks? Some of them already have cracks. When last did structural engineers and other requisite professionals carry out a thorough checks and studies of these bridges? If it is true that they have done so, what are the measures they put in place in the short, medium and long term to implement the recommendations made by these professionals? In the typical Nigerian way, we are not asking any questions and demanding for the right answers. We are waiting for one of these bridges to cave in one of these days, God forbid, as a result of these heavy container laden trailers, tankers and trucks permanently parked on the bridges and then hell will be let loose. People will start running helter and skater and then the blame game will start. That is not the way it should be if we want to make a head way as a developing nation, a country to be taken seriously in the comity of serious maritime nations.
STOAN Legal Action with NSC
The executives and members of STOAN are not averse to dialogue on the suit the association instituted against the Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC) in the court. As far as STOAN is concerned, we are not closing our doors against out of court settlement. We are all stakeholders. We want the best for the maritime industry. Therefore, we will not close our doors against the idea of settlement. Our doors are open for discussion. It is also not true that some members of STOAN are opposing the case we instituted against Nigerian Shippers Council. All the stories making rounds in certain quarters are tissues of lies. In fact, they are false and fabricated stories circulated against STOAN and its members. For the avoidance of any doubt whatsoever, STOAN is intact. We are not in disarray as far as STOAN case against Nigerian Shippers Council is concerned.
As the Chairman of STOAN, I can tell you authoritatively that all members of the association are together. While we respect the principles of freedom of expression, we will not watch and allow falsehood and fabricated stories against our noble association spread. We know what is happening and will not succumb to blackmail by anyone or group.
The auto policy of the Federal Government of Nigeria is good. It is a good policy because over time it will help Nigeria and Nigerians to hold their own. It will also arrest capital flight and provide employment opportunities for our teaming youths presently roaming the streets for non-existent jobs. However, the implementation of the policy ought to be in phases and in a gradual process. This is due to the fact that there are many things we ought to put in place before we start the implementation of the policy. For instance, we need to put a structure in place. We need to have the infrastructural facilities on ground. We need a robust steel industry. We need to have regular electricity power supply. This is because if you buy diesel at the prevailing price to power a generator for the production of a car, by the time you add other variables, the cost will be so high that it would be beyond the reach of an average Nigerian. The cost of the locally produced vehicles would be far ahead of the ones produced overseas. At the end of the day, the essence of the auto policy will be defeated.
Presently, we are losing from all fronts. The restriction place on imported vehicles, especially the fairly used ones popularly called “tokunbo” has resulted in the stagnation of the terminals built purposely to handle imported vehicles. That is the roll on, roll off (RoRo) ports. If you go to Five Star Logistics or Grimaldi, they are virtually idle because there is little or no business. Yet the same kind of ports in our neighbouring countries such as Republic of Benin and Togo are booming with big business.
The importers are diverting these used vehicles there. These countries are making a lot of money from import duties and other levies collected from the ship owners and other port users while Nigeria is losing. Yet through smuggling and other shady deals, these vehicles end up in Nigeria because this is where the market is. How can we be losing huge income to other countries when we need all the money to meet demands? As far, as I am concern, it does not make any sense. If it makes any sense to anyone, that person should tell me because I do not understand.
We are very pleased with the awards because we deserved them. We have worked hard for them. For anyone who knows the state of things when we started about a decade ago, compared to the present level we are, will agree that we have added value to the maritime industry. We have spent millions of naira to upgrade the terminal and procure modern cargo handling equipment. We have not rested on our oars. We are still spending.
We are training and re-training our staff and a lot more. That is why we have a harmonious working relationship with our workers, especially the dockworkers. The last time the dockworkers went on strike was not because of terminal operators but the inability of the Nigerian Ports Authority to meet their demands. If you have any doubt on what I am saying, ask the leadership of the Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria (MWUN). In short, in spite of the numerous challenges that trailed the port reforms which led to the concession of the nation’s seaports, we have done well.
There is no doubt about that. We feel highly honoured, coming from those who are familiar with port operations. It was a welcome surprise due to the fact that the nature of the award is such that you will never know you are a winner until you get to the venue of the occasion. It is among the nominees that the winner is eventually selected. We thank God for this recognition. We thank our staff who made it to happen. We commend their loyalty and dedication to duty over the years. There is no doubt that without the support and co-operation of our employees and stakeholders, it would have been impossible to get these feats which are giving us accolades from far and near.