Deep Blue Assets: “The government has taken the right step in trying to tackle this menace”
Otunba Kunle Folarin; the Chairman of Nigerian Port Consultative Council, in this interview with Shipping Position Daily, speaks on many industry issues.
The year 2021 is gone halfway what do you think about the maritime industry midway?
The maritime industry is the pillar of the economic zone in the nation. Therefore, we must look at it from all the angles that affect the economy and also look at the angle that affects the security and safety of the Nigerian maritime space. We must also look at how much it could contribute particularly at this time we are looking towards diversifying the economy. Therefore, we would have to do a benchmark using these parameters as indicators. In terms of maritime security and safety, I believe the government has started on a very good note to address the issues affecting the Nigerian maritime territory, particularly now that piracy and armed robbery were prevalent in the Gulf of Guinea. The present initiative of the President, Minister of Transportation and NIMASA; the agency that is driving the process is appropriate, timely, and should be encouraged. Still on the safety, when you look at the maritime economy, we can see that the pandemic slowed us down throughout the last quarter of 2020. But it is picking up now. This calls for greater attention in managing the port. The port must be well-managed to take advantage of recovery and also not to allow us go to recession again. I believe the maritime industry is now in a position that is particularly looking at how to deal with the port corridor that is affecting the economy of the country through the port operations. Finally, we ought to look at the maritime sector as a key component and therefore must not be micro-managed. It must be managed in such a way that the development process becomes apparent and can be supported by stakeholders in the economy.
One major innovation that we saw in the earlier part of 2021 is the introduction of the electronic call-up of trucks into Lagos ports. What’s your take on this?
The electronic call-up is unique in addressing the issue of the flow of traffic in and out of the ports. The electronic call-up is an innovation in this country, but it is prevalent in many economies and ports systems in the world. The problem we have with the Nigeria e-call-up is essentially that the infrastructure to drive the process is encumbered by the environments in which the ports are located. The city has grown into the port. It is only in Nigeria that we see various commercial and industrial buildings within one or two kilometers at the port entrance. It is never done. What should surround the port is a free access to the port entry and exit. Also, the use of multi-modal transport to address the issue of congestion at the port entrance becomes a very strong key. Having said all that, the e-call-up has already been introduced. We must have some hiccups because it is new. The technology to drive it is also new to the Nigerian port environment and it was to address an already created challenge. It was not introduced where there is free access or warehouses or marshaling points or truck terminals ready. Truck terminals and marshaling points were being created simultaneously with the eCall-Up system. That is the problem.
What is the way out?
The way out is to address those components that are inhibiting the eCall-Up system to work. For example, let us have access and entry into the ports not encumbered by various establishments like residential and commercial houses within the perimeter of the port entry and exit. Two, we must establish a very strong truck terminal that could be a kind of resting position for all the trucks instead of waiting on the roads to come into the port, but waiting in a particular designated place for them to come in and out. We must also address the issue of change in attitude. The call-up system came when there were issues. It didn’t come as an innovation to address the issue of traffic. It came to address an already created challenge of congestion at the corridors of the port. So the way out is to strengthen the truck terminals and ensure that all encumbrances on the exit and entry points of the ports are cleared. There must be continuous surveillance of these infrastructures. Finally, the change of attitude of stakeholders as they note that this is the new norm. It cannot be business as usual again.
The National Transport Commission was to have been created but was truncated. Do you think it is still necessary?
The National Transport Commission will come to be. It is to regulate and bring sense into how maritime space is administered. Nigeria has a cargo throughput of over 100 million metric tonnes per annum, over 2Million TEUs of containerized cargo. Nigeria is an import-dependent economy. Stakeholders in this space are large. There must be regulation of the process, the way things are done, and the structure of port operations and services. For example, there should be interconnectivity among all the stakeholders, there must be a port community system that links all the stakeholders and key actors in the port space together; their activities must be regulated according to known principles particularly the issue of tariffs, port costs, port charges, and also the quality of services that are being rendered. There must be a balance between the cost of service and the quality of service. Stakeholders in this space must be protected for the service they demand and the delivery of service they desire. That is why the economic regulator can say the commercial regulator is right. This is quite different from technical regulation. Technical regulation is in the port and harbor space, but economic and commercial regulation is in the marketplace. It is very strong that attention should be given to this otherwise, we might find out that the nation disburses so much money to source goods and cargo, and at the end of the day, they will be short-changed because they mismanaged the process in the system. The economic regulator is the conscience of Nigeria’s economic and commercial activities.
One of the reasons that were given why the president refused assent was because there were some parts of the act has overlapping functions. What’s your reaction to this?
Let’s look at it this way, it is not new that functions are defined to be performed within the same space. The agencies that can have conflicting interest or mandate will be agencies who perform functions in the port system like the Nigeria Customs Service, Nigeria Port Authority, National Inland Waterway Authority, and other security agencies that function in the port. That is why we could expect that there should be some overlapping of the functions clashing with the mandate of the agencies but there is a way out. The first thing to look at must be a port committee system. In a situation when you have an overlapping mandate or function, once one function has been performed by one of the players in the port community system, it is taken as done. It will not be duplicated or repeated. It will not cost any more money to the importer or exporter. There will be a linkage in their activities. There will be a synergy in their principles, and there will be a collaboration in the ultimate goal which they all seek. After all, all the players are seeking one goal; which is to give satisfaction to the stakeholders and also deliver to the federal government of Nigeria.
An Acting Managing Director has just been appointed for Nigeria Ports Authority. Can you please set an agenda for him?
The Nigerian Ports Authority is a key player in the Nigerian economy. You would see that 80 percent or more of the goods by value that come into the country come through the seaports. The port is a critical factor in developing the economy. It affects not only our industrial development, but also our domestic development. So it is key. I will say the NPA should continue to look at issues on the following lines. One, on infrastructure. Infrastructure in the port system is key. The key infrastructure must provide an opportunity for 24 hours,7 days a week work. There must be utilities of telecommunications, power, and road connectivity in common user areas in the port. Infrastructure is a key driver to the operations of the port. The second thing they should look at is superstructures. Superstructures will deliver in the area of the provision of warehouses. This is not the function of NPA as it were related to cargo, but if they can provide a kind of rules to follow and support to develop such superstructures that may be needed to aid and speed up the operations in the port. They should also look at the issue of declaring some parts of the port as industrial areas while others are commercial areas. So that there will be no conflict in the way operations are carried out in the port. Don’t forget that certain operations require more space than others. Some require open spaces while some require closed spaces and that is why it is important that there must be designated areas in the port for certain operations. Also, I will expect him to develop the already existing plans of the authority, which we call master plan. There’s an attempt to have a 25-year master plan. If that plan is designed and is followed, then he will designate some certain areas for the expansion of the port. The port must expand and they must be the looking forward to it in five years’ time. What depth do we need for our waters here? What machinery do we need for our operations? Do we need a dry dock? What can we look at in the next five years; then the next 10 years? It is very important that operations are planned and executed based on discussed and agreed parameters. Finally, port security and the safety of workers in the port should be looked into. This is because when we talk about piracy and armed robbery, it is in the Gulf of Guinea, Nigeria territorial waters and Nigeria Economic Zones. We are looking at a situation whereby there is a possibility that it will go into the port arena itself and then there will be a combination of issues to tackle (port and territorial security).
President Muhammadu Buhari recently came to Lagos to officially launch Deep Blue Assets for anti-piracy war. Do you think this is the solution to tackle piracy in the Gulf of Guinea?
Certainly, you must start from the known to the unknown. What we know today is that there are incidents of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. We also know that there are several attacks on international shipping that are destined for Nigerian ports. So we must start somewhere to deal with that issue. Don’t also forget that this issue of piracy and armed robbery attack at sea started with Somalia and other Somalia areas in East Africa and before then in Malaga strait in the Far East. Now it is in the Gulf of Guinea. This affects the economy and sovereignty of the country. It also affects the social life of the people in the country. So the government has taken the right step in trying to tackle this menace and the first step has been taken by providing integrated infrastructure that will be allowed to provide surveillance and also deal with the issues as a deterrent for those who are involved in these pirate attacks. I believe they are going to rise up.
Nigeria is currently pushing for re-election into Category ‘C’ of the IMO, do you think we need to go that far again?
Let me start from the Nigerian domain. Nigeria has the longest coastline in West and Central Africa, the largest Exclusive Economic Zone, and probably the largest territorial waters. A population of 200 million people are residents in this country. The economy of Nigeria is more than 60 percent of the economy of the whole of other countries in West and Central Africa. It is very important that Nigeria represents and has a voice in the International Maritime Organization, a voice; not only a participant or a member but a voice as the deciding circle in the International Maritime Organization and that is the IMO Council. Nigeria should be there because they have obligations not only to Nigeria but to other countries in West and Central Africa. Nigeria’s steps in dealing with the issue of piracy and securing the entire Gulf of Guinea and the step they have taken in making sure they develop sea manpower, creating an environment for young people to have the skill and be part of the system that works in the port and also at the maritime sector of the country. Nigerians must also be in the team as a very strong candidate to be in the council. Above all, Nigeria provides corridors for more than four landlocked countries in West and Central Africa. There could be no other justification than to say Nigeria deserves not only to be in the council, but to provide leadership as a leader in the council.
Recently, Mr Hassan Bello exited from the Nigerian Shippers’ Council as the CEO. What’s your appraisal of his eight years’ tenure?
Hassan Bello is a quintessential gentleman. He is a thorough professional, a legal mind that impacted the agency he headed for eight years. He is an innovative personality. He likes and creates ideas. He intervenes in issues that affect all stakeholders; whether importers or exporters including the ship owners and I believe that Hassan Bello has created a platform for the agency to grow. He has followed the initiatives he created; including the Inland Container Depots with zeal and passion which is beyond the call of duty. I salute Hassan Bello because he has done a lot and his talent will still be needed in the maritime space. I wish him good luck.
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