Its High Time The National Assembly Passed Maritime Industry Bills

About 10 years after midwifing the celebrated port reforms and subsequent transfer of terminal operations from the Nigerian Ports Authourity (NPA) to the private sector, the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) recently admitted that the non-passage of Ports and Harbour Bill, the National Transport Commission Bill and other maritime industry Bills has rendered some critical aspects of port reform ineffective.

It’s acting Director General; Dr Vincent Akpotaire said the Ports and Harbour Act was meant to strengthen the NPA to perform its role as landlord and technical regulator. According to him, the National Transport Commission Act is meant to establish a commission as the economic regulator for all the transport modes except, aviation. He added that the speedy passage of the port reform bills was necessary to establish an efficient, strong legal and regulatory framework to ensure fairness and protect the interest of all port operators.

Can anyone really blame the BPE? No. The blame goes to the National Assembly which has refused to work on and pass these bills for about 10 years.By virtue of its position as a core contributor to the Nigerian economy, the Nigerian maritime sector is one of the beneficiaries of the democratic experience, having been a victim of several years of military rule, during which it (significantly) lost the national carrier; Nigerian National Shipping Line (NNSL) and also suffered severe decay of structures and superstructures.  

One of the most obvious features of democracy is the compulsory subservience (by all) to the activities and supervision of the National Assembly’s various committees and their divergent oversight functions.

At the onset of the democratic experience in 1999, stakeholders (especially port operators) who were not used to what was initially perceived as meddlesomeness on the part of the legislature had kicked against the frequent visitations by the lawmakers, albeit, in the name of performing oversight functions.    

But all that have changed as stakeholders now see the legislature and the legislators as partners in progress, the lawmakers also see stakeholders as co-travellers in ‘project maritime’.  The relationship has blossomed to the extent that the marine transport committees of both chambers of the National Assembly often rely on informed suggestions from stakeholders at their public hearings and through other means as veritable instruments in the law- making process.  

One of the previous sessions of the National Assembly (through its) committees on marine transport facilitated the enactment of certain key bills, such as: the NIMASA Act, Cabotage Act and the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria Act, among others.

But, sadly, the seventh assembly left the Hallowed Chamber without attending to some Bills that are very crucial to the continued success of the maritime sector.  Some of the Bills are: Port and Harbour Bill, Chartered Institute of Shipping of Nigeria Bill. They have all been subjected to the mandatory first and second readings and have also been subjected to public hearing at various times.

As a matter of fact, some of these Bills have been in the National assembly for about 10 years. 

While the House of Representatives held a public hearing on the Chartered Institute of Shipping of Nigeria Bill in 2009, the all-important Port and Harbour Bill has also been subjected to the ritual of public hearing, stakeholders’ meeting and many closed door interactions, all to no avail.

To say that these Bills are very important to the Nigerian Maritime sector is to state the obvious.

For instance, the Port and Harbour Bill (which ought to have been enacted alongside the 2006 port concession programme) is still pending at both chambers. This is most painful because the Bill (as proposed by its principals) would have created an Independent Port Regulatory Commission; the absence of which is currently causing friction among providers and users of port services.

The vacuum of a regulator is what the Nigerian Shippers’ Council is graciously filling as the economic regulator of the port.

While the House of Representatives may enjoy a little sympathy from stakeholders, we are very sure that the past three Senates of the National Assembly lost their respect on account of their apparent nonchalant attitude as regards the current fate of these maritime sector bills.

It is on record that while the House held public hearings on all these bills, the Senate has never had any such interactions with the Nigerian maritime sector stakeholders since the bills arrived at the National Assembly. 

It is also on record that while the House of Representatives actually passed the Maritime Zone Bill and the Maritime Security Agency Bill, the Senate cannot be credited with any of such. The House has also done a significant work on the Port and Harbour Bill leading to its near passage, the upper chamber has failed to make any impact. On the contrary, the Senate did not show any seriousness in the handling of these bills.

From all indications (even though no one is willing to admit), the stumbling block on the way to the passage of the Ports and Harbour bill is the conflict of interest between its proponents and those who have been pushing for the National Transport Commission  is the Bureau of Public Enterprises. 

We also support those who have been pushing for the transmutation of the Nigerian Shippers’ Council to the National Transport Commission. Having done very well as the Economic Regulator of the port, and for administrative convenience and the need to save cost, this is the best option.

But, if this is taken, it will still require that the enabling Act of the Council will be amended to reflect its new role as National Transport Commission.

This is where the need to galvanise the industry and mobilise comes in. We think the Nigerian maritime sector players and indeed members of the shipping community have a right to ask questions as to why ‘their Bills’ are not getting the attention of the lawmakers.