When virtually all stakeholders in the Nigerian maritime industry had almost forgotten about it, suddenly the once-familiar shouts of Port and Harbour Bill have started reverberating again.
Recently, the Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria (MWUN) and the Senior Staff Association of Statutory Corporations and Government Owned Companies (SSASCGOC) called a press conference where they jointly expressed their opposition to moves by the National Assembly to revisit the Ports and Harbour Bill.
Represented by the duo of President General of MWUN, Mr Adewale Adeyanju and the President, SSACGOC Maritime Branch, Comrade Akin Bodunde, the workers urged President Bola Tinubu to be wary of legislation.
The unions specifically raised the alarm that if passed into law, the new Port and Harbour Bill will lead to job losses.
The second issue which they have, is the security implication of the Bill. They said: “We wish to note that this said Bill if allowed to be passed into law will have far-reaching grave consequences on the security of the nation as it will cede harbour, jetty and terminal operations into private hands”.
Even though the unions did not come out clearly on the details of the Bill, the second part of their grouse, gives a clear indication of where their fears are coming from.
Their fears are about the imminent further concession of the ports. They fear a repeat of what happened when the ports were first concessioned in 2006, an action which led to thousands of NPA workers being sent to the labour market.
Even though the Ports and Harbour Bill was to have come simultaneously with the port concession deal of 2006, it never happened and since then, the Federal Government through the National Assembly has not been able to push the Bill through.
Several sessions of the National Assembly failed to pass it, owing to vested interests from stakeholders, including government and some of its agencies.
We recollect that after what appeared like a stalemate after a public hearing which the lawmakers conducted in 2009, the committee on marine transport held an all-night meeting with a select group of stakeholders in Abuja. At that meeting, the final details and consensus about the bill were arrived at, but surprisingly, the lawmakers subjected the bill to further rounds of debate between them and the Nigerian Ports Authourity (NPA). This led to another delay and it is obviously the disagreements from the meetings with NPA that led to the delay in passing the bill between 2007 and 2011.
This delay was to be carried to successive National Assembly seasons until the 9th Assembly when the Bill resurfaced again.
It had appeared as if the National Assembly was deliberately putting obstacles on the way of this bill, otherwise, it should not have had difficulties in passing it, especially after the last public hearing and the stakeholders’ meeting where it was even agreed that the proposed Port and Harbour Bill should also create an Independent Port Regulatory Commission that will act as the arbiter in cases of disputes between all players in the post-concessioned port system.
From feelers, there may have been a significant amendments to what the lawmakers of between 2007 and 2015 had proposed as the Port and Harbour Bill. But some parts remain unchanged.
One of those parts is the contentious determination to further concession the ports, and this is why the workers have issues with the drafters of the Bill.
The union maintained that the Bill as being proposed, if passed into law would render Nigerian Ports Authority employees jobless and endanger the productivity of other port users.
Yes, concession leads to job losses, the ports inclusive. The experience of 2006 must still be fresh in the mind of the union leaders as thousands of their members were retrenched and paid-off.
Perhaps, it is too early in the day to condemn the Bill, especially since most stakeholders complain that they have not seen its details.
The above is also a pointer to the fact the National Assembly did not subject the current Bill to Public Hearing, which is an essential ingredient of law making.
It is highly unacceptable that the Legislature is pushing out a Bill that will significantly alter the face and fortune of the Nigerian port system, and stakeholders are shut out of discussions that would lead to this decision.
Similarly, the union is justified in its opposition to the Bill, because their inputs were not taken in the build-up to processing the Bill. It is shocking that even the two unions do not have a copy of the Bill, a legislation that will affect the lives of their members!
Of course, experience has shown that Nigerian lawmakers do not consider inputs of stakeholders when deliberating on Bills. This posture has always been condemned by all; and most times, this approach render the Bills counter-productive, when passed.
There are a lot of issues bedeviling the ports that are even more demanding of attention than the passage of a Bill that will further cause discontent in the ports.
The infrastructure in the ports have all decayed. They require funds for rehabilitation and reconstruction. From Lagos to Onne, Calabar, it is the same story of decayed facilities that require funds.
Even though the private sector may be available to provide the funds, this should not be at the detriment of industrial peace and national security, which may be jeopardized when the private sector is handed the remaining parts of port operations, such as the Bill is pushing for.