The port concession programme of the federal government is in its second year in some ports while it is less in others. This means that it is about two years since the running of the nation’s seaports was transferred from the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) to the private sector.
The port concession policy itself is one of the cardinal programmes of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). It is an integral part of the totality that is called privatisation and commercialisation that is being supervised by the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE).
While government was canvassing port concession as a palliative for the dwindling fortunes of NPA, it promised to create a regulatory agency for all operators; an organ that will stabilize business relationships among the various stakeholders.
The ports have since been concessioned to the private sector, but government has refused to fulfil its own portion of the agreement by establishing the National Transport Commission (NTC).
The commission, as envisioned by its proponents is to mediate in commercial and operational disputes that may arise between the major actors, including the Nigerian Ports Authority, the many terminal operators, shipping companies, licensed customs agents, the banks and others that may be connected with the long process of shipment, clearance and delivery.
Surprisingly, in spite of appeals by critical stakeholders including the managing director of NPA, Mallam Abdusallam Mohammed and others like the chairman, Shipping Association of Nigeria, My Val Usifoh, the National Assembly is yet to give any serious thought to it.
Between 2005 when the first set of terminals were given out to private operators and now, it is on record that members of the marine committees of both arms of the National Assembly has been to the ports and the NPA head office to perform their oversight responsibilities.
It is also on record that on each visit, stakeholders pleaded for the establishment of the transport commission, yet the lawmakers have continued to treat the request with levity, probably because they are ignorant of the import of the bill or of the volume of transactions that take place daily in the ports and the possibility of frictions in these dealings.
For instance, a typical transaction is likely to involve the shipping agent, the terminal operator, the importer through his licensed customs agent and the NPA. Certainly, a complex business relationship such as this comes with frictions and disagreements.
The purpose of the NTC is to ensure that such frictions do not degenerate into situations that can disrupt commercial harmony or that may lead to litigations
While the issue of NTC was being pondered, one fear that was raised is that of the tendency for the commission to duplicate the responsibilities of the transportation ministry. But stakeholders also pointed at what obtains in the telecommunications sector where there is the National Communications Commission (NCC) superintending the relationship between all telecomms operators.
We are of the opinion that ministry has nothing to do with the NTC bill’s fate having sent it to the legislature as an executive bill. It is also not in the interest of the supervisory transportation ministry for the bill to still be in the cooler at the legislature.
From all indications, accusing fingers are being pointed at the National Assembly, which had (at about the same time that it threw out the NTC bill) also refused to pass the new Ports and Harbours Authourity bill.
While the legislature may have genuine reasons to throw the new port Authourity bill into the trash can, its actions regarding the transport commission bill may not have been taken in the overall interest of the maritime sector and the larger interest of the nation
If the lawmakers had conducted a public hearing they would have discovered that the National Transport Commission is the only missing chain in the well thought-out port concession programme.
We appeal to both the Senate and the House of Representatives committee on marine transport to live above sentiments and pass the much-needed bill. Only then will the gains of the port reforms be achieved and stakeholders in the port system encouraged.
And if the National Assembly requires more information, it should conduct a public hearing to feel the pulse of maritime industry players.
The present crop of marine committee members probably need to be reminded that their predecessors gave the maritime sector the Cabotage law, reviewed the ancient national shipping policy, midwifed the birth of NIMASA, and domesticated many conventions and that is why they are being sung today. They too will be writing their names in gold if they can ensure that the National Transport Commission Bill is passed for the good of the ports and their users.