.“Rivers Port Is Now Very Safe” ..Port Manager, Dele Alabi
For about three weeks, we scheduled and rescheduled this interaction; somehow, it couldn’t take place. Because we both wanted it in Port Harcourt, it was difficult finding a convenient time for both of us. For an interview that lasted about one hour, I flew into Port Harcourt and left immediately it was over. But I had enough time to assess this old port; a port that I first visited in 1994 as a very new entrant into maritime journalism and which, due to dwindling patronage became almost a shadow of its old self. That is gradually changing – thanks to the concessioning policy of government and the determination of a purpose-driven port manager who worked in that port when it was bubbling and who is now saddled with the responsibility of reviving it.
We are very appreciative that you created the time for us to visit your port and to also speak with you
Thank you very much, too. I must say that the management of Rivers port is very much grateful to you your media house for the good work that you are doing within the maritime industry and in particular trying to report a event around the port here and for taking time out to come here.
Naturally, our readers will like to know more things about you beside the fact that you are the port manager in charge of Port Harcourt port
I am Dele Alabi. I serve here in the capacity of the port manager of Rivers port; I have been here for a year and a couple of months. Before I got to this position, I have been a career officer in the NPA having served for these years at the Nigerian Ports Authority. I am from the traffic department which happens to be the technical department of the port, during my carrier I have been privileged to work in a couple of ports, majority of them in Lagos, I started my career in Lagos ports complex in 1982 September 13th to be precise, and I started as a traffic officer ‘two’ during that period I served as berth officer in various berths and later as officer in charge of documentation. I have also worked in other port locations like Kirikiri Lighter Terminal; phases 1 and 2, I worked in Tin Can as personal assistant to the port manager, I was also at a time the officer in charge of the Container Terminal way back in 1991 at the ‘Bull Nose’ terminal before I came back to Lilly pond and then back to Port Harcourt here as a personal assistant again to an executive director, in the eastern port; I am the first person to occupy that position by the grace of God and I was here for nine months before I finally moved back to Lagos to serve in the same position again as the personal assistant there until 1995 after which I proceeded to RoRo ports and I took charge of some key operations in RoRo ports in 1996 through to 1997, and in 1998, I was the terminal manager in charge of the main terminal in RoRo and in that capacity I was also privilege to take charge of ports operations and I served in that capacity up till 2004 when I became the traffic manager in charge of administration in Tin Can following which I came to the office to work again as personal assistant to the general manager, Western port and later I was at headquarters in Marina before I got my posting to be here as the port manager. So in all of this, one will say that having been around for a while by the grace of God, I have been able to familiarize myself with the core business of the authority over these years and I am happy to be here today to serve in this capacity so that I can also contribute my quota to the growth of the economy of this country.
Having come this far in the corporate ladder, how will you describe your movement?
I will say that in the public sector is unlike the private sector and the business of handling cargoes and attending to ships is a highly technical and professional business so I will say that it has not been easy; there have been challenges, but by the grace of God, one thing I can not deny is having the privilege almost all the time of finding myself working within in a good team either as a team player or in other capacity. To that extent, I will say that NPA as a work force is a family and that is the more reason why any port locations and facilities that you visit all around world is the same structure that you will find and we get to know ourselves so well. I think it is a good thing and it is a strength in the system and I believe that as a manager, I am always committed to that, it is a positive thing and the organization has a wonderful work culture and I feel happy to be working in NPA and to have risen this far.
How will you describe eastern ports then (when you were posted) and now that you are a port manager?
It depends on the context; in terms of the role that port the authority played, I will say that there is a very sharp difference in view of the fact that the authority was in charge of everything by the time I came to work here and being a service ports like you are aware implies that the port authority was in charge of all the core businesses of the ports as provided for in the Port Act, including provisions for maintenance of the harbour and the channels, provisions and maintenance of port facilities, cargo handling equipment, there were other responsibilities such as workshop and dock yard responsibilities and in indeed cargo handling which is the major aspect of core operations. But today, by the desire of the government, all that has changed; we now have ports concession where the role of the Ports authority has now been limited to that of the landlord and that is what we are today. To that extent, I will say that there is a big difference. But, in terms of infrastructural improvement, I will say there has been a great improvement. The ports came into being in 1913, which was when the first set of piers and quay structures were put in place and since then, all through the civil war years and beyond, the port has never witnessed any major rehabilitation until now. The present concession process started in 2006 and between then and now, we are delighted to have witnessed a lot of changes; even in terms of culture and the way we do things and run port business, I will say without any fear of contradiction that it’s a lot more flexible today because you have to hybridize your response by lacing it up with some commercial ethics; not necessarily the civil service approach whereby if you must get an approval, you have to go to the head quarters, from there you go the ministry and from ministry you have to go to the Presidency and you wait for months before you commence repair work on a plant. For instance, plant maintenance does not fall within the purview of the Ports authority any longer, so the terminal operator believes and is convinced that he has to travel to bring cargo handling equipment, they are at liberty to bring in such things to add value to their operations and there lies the strength of the system, we are happy about it, we are confident that there is going to be improved turn around time and that is the beauty, the port is going to serve as home for vessels. To that extent, I will say that it has been better, in terms of staff motivation, welfare and all that.
If you don’t mind, can you do an appraisal of port concession as a port manager?
As I always tell people, concession like every other major human activity in life should be seen as a process and not an event, concession can never become an event; if it to be an event, that means at the take off point, you expect everything to be perfected and concluded but because it’s a process you have the latitude to learn the ropes, improve your stocks and the rest, bearing in mind where we were coming from, even in developed countries like the port of Belgium for instance, the Royal Hascony that was the major consultant to NPA as at the commencement did say that based on the Belgium experience that it took them about 50 years to start this process and by the grace of God the government was able at that time with the management and the ministry to put this in place and kick start the process. We have a number of outstanding issues here and there, but I will say it is very much a plus and we are hopeful that things will get better in the future.
How has it been; managing Port Harcourt port?
Some of the things that affect the premier port of Lagos may not exactly be the situation here in terms of cargo traffic and morphology and in terms of type of vessels coming to this port. It’s a different setting all together but what one is sure about is that there is a direction, whatever we do in the ports substantially reflects the focus of government’s economic policies. For instance, a couple of months back, government gave licenses to importers of cement and I must say that we have benefited from that, we had about three major operators in that system, we are happy to bring in substantial traffic and to that extent, the port has been very busy. In the same way, not long ago, there was a time last year that government gave concession to importers of rice and some duty were waived, the effect was good for us and so what we do is intimately tied to the policy of government. It is a multi-purpose port and as such it means that we can handle all types of cargoes; ranging from bulk cargo to containers and we are happy about that. We want to compete with our sister ports and we also want to compete regionally with neighbouring ports in Douala, Gabon and Cotonou and to be able to compete in the areas where we have specific competitive advantage. It is an old port and you probably would have observed that our access road is quiet narrow and there is only one access to the port unlike most other ports. We are trying to make use of what we have so that we can have the best. We are very optimistic and we have the support of the management of NPA in all that we do.
What is your relationship with other port operating agencies and organisations like?
I would want you to cast your mind to the reaction between landlords and tenants, we are a landlord port and because we are a landlord, we carry out the usual landlord responsibilities, we meet with them, there are formal meetings to sustain the structure and enhance the administration and management of the ports; like the berthing meetings which holds daily where the harbour master meets with the members of the shipping community and where vessels are declared and after that, certain decisions are taken, the berths are allocated and if there are complaints, through that forum we solve them. Of course, on some occasions, we have received complaints about inadequacy of crafts and we have always risen to the occasion and apart from the berthing meetings we have the port’s security committee meetings that also holds once in a month, it is an umbrella body and its a forum whereby the ports security officer to whom that responsibility is delegated takes charge. You will agree with me that since July 2004 when the International Ship and Port facility Security code came into being, and especially also in this port, few things have changed in terms of redefining the baseline standard of our security management, operations and the rest of them. So, at that forum the issue of security concerns are tabled, in that body we have Immigrations, we have the Customs, we have the Port Health and we have some other security agencies too.
Since you have mentioned security, I want to ask you about the impact of youth restiveness on your operations.
Again, I want to say that we receive tremendous support from the state government and the Joint (military) Task Force (JTF) and other security apparatuses and to that extent, we have been able to significantly have stem the tide. Port Harcourt can compare reasonably well with other big cities in the country like Kaduna, Kano and to some extent like Lagos. So Rivers port can provide an alternative commercial outlet to Lagos; most people who don’t want to do business in Lagos ports might find it convenient in Port Harcourt, so I will say that with what we have seen, the situation has improved though we still witness skirmishes and hiccups once in a while, especially on the channels, but the commander of the security outfits like JTF, NNS Pathfinder are doing so much and the security situation has improved very well.
By all means, at the moment we contribute about 10 percent to the business portfolio of Nigerian imports and exports traffic in the country and we will be happy if we will rise in the future to 50 or 20 percent and we are happy that the terminal operators are gearing up for that and relevant strategies are being put in place to achieve this.
Don’t you think that it will seem like you want to be competing with Onne port, will you not be threatened?
There is no basis for that. Like I told you, every port has its specific areas of business interest, so for us, we can never feel threatened, Onne port is our sister port, if for anything, we are to complement ourselves; whatever Onne can not handle, we are ready to handle, whatever traffic Lagos or Tin Can can not handle, Port Harcourt can handle. So it is not a case of competition with other ports, it’s a complementary situation whereby we complement one another’s efforts, we don’t handle the same type of cargo; in Onne it’s more of an oil and gas terminal.
Recently, Port Harcourt port was in the news on account of the face-off between the workers union and Bua Cement, what is the latest?
The management of NPA, in collaboration with other stakeholders like NIMASA as a regulator of dock labour sector has been able to put in place certain actions, directives have also been given and the committee that was set up is on top of the situation and is monitoring it, but more importantly the government has given some specific directives which we are convinced will put the whole saga to final rest.
What specific challenge do you have in Port Harcourt port?
The major challenge is that it’s an old generation port and in terms of port design it does not allow for flexibility of port operations as is required. If you look at the width of the quay apron, for instance, it’s very narrow; just 10 meters unlike most modern ports that is expected to be up to 15 meters or more, so it is a major challenge. These are structural challenges, they are challenges that are tied to the economic history of the nation, in terms of the port approach like I said before, the port is fed by only a narrow access road and you know the port operates like a system. So these challenges are there and we are hoping that the federal government will be able to reactivate the rail sector as it has promised because the port; by design is rail linked and we hope they will be able to activate it again and we hope that the ports will get better such that a port like this can feed some ICD locations like Isiala Ngwa which is some few kilometres from here. So containers might be discharged here and rail down to the ICD and other ICD’s that the government might be able to build and at the same time it will be able to handle exports more effectively. So, strictly speaking, it’s a port that is in a state of transition, it’s just metamorphosing and transforming and we hope that in the nearest future, it will be able to play its role in line with the expectations of government and it will be able to contribute to the bigger vision of the seven point agenda of the government and the vision 20: 2020 in particular. Don’t forget that I did say that it’s a port that will be able to compete with other regional ports from Angola to Togo, maybe not in all the areas, but at least in some specific areas of cargo handling.
What is the average ship turn around time and cargo dwell time here?
I did say that every port is unique, so to that extent Rivers port is very unique, but be that as it may, the business of port management must put into consideration three major factors, the ship we handle is a major factor, the cargo that the ship brings in terms of morphology of cargo, in terms of its packaging and volume constitutes the second class of factor, and we have a string of issues that are tagged together as inter-modal issues. So putting all these together and looking at the way we operate and against the backdrop of the uniqueness of the port, you talked about cargo dwell time, it does not apply here for now, because we don’t handle indirect cargo, every cargo that we handle is straight from the ship and taken out, cargo is not warehoused in the ports for now, but we expect that by the time we start having container vessels coming into the ports we might start having that. We have commenced discussions with the terminal operators to advice them that whenever container traffic starts coming into the port, they should be able to partner with operators, because the ports is meant for only transit cargo, when containers come in we expect that as soon as they land, there must be a means by which they are taken out to destinations where the owners will take delivery of them.
In terms of turn around time of vessels, it is broken down technically into two components, we have the waiting time of vessel and the time spent at berth. Because, we don’t have enough traffic here, vessels don’t necessarily have to wait at the anchorage: it does not apply here like some other ports, indeed we may have some challenges here like I told you before there is not enough pilot quarters to ferry the pilots, but in terms of ship’s time at berth which is a reflection of labour productivity, it is still a port in transition where new work ethics are just being imbibed, we are trying to cast away old practices unlike before when dockworkers were used to a particular system whereby if you wanted to load from a particular hook or vessel, you are expected to load only five trucks in a shift of eight hours and that is only 150 metric tones, but with the take over of the dock labour on the 30th of November 2008, all these things are fast becoming a thing of the past. These are areas that can be improved upon. I also did mention inter-modal issues, by that I mean that before the expected reactivation of the rail lines, for now trucks are being used to carry cargoes from the ports. We are trying to encourage the truck owners to collaborate with the banks and we are also trying to encourage the banks to assist them so that they can procure new vehicles so that we will be able to serve the ports better and it will be better for the system, we wont have a situation whereby the trucks will breakdown. It is a process and we hope that all the public and private players in the sector and the major stakeholders will ensure that there is success.
You talk about an evolving new Port Harcourt Port, what is your vision towards ensuring that this happens?
Whatever vision we might have is encapsulated in the global corporate vision of the Nigerian Ports Authority, but we are looking forward to having a port in the future that will become home to vessels, that will be user- friendly, where users of the ports will be happy to come around, the owners of business now which is the government will be happy, the terminal operators will be assisted and enabled to operate optimally. If we are going to achieve all these, it means that we have a great deal of things to do and we believe that all these are achievable objectives. Within the framework of the concession agreement, certain thresholds were spelt out in the lease agreement which we have not been able to achieve now because of major constraints, I just mentioned the impediment of cargo handling equipment, but I believe that when cargo throughput improves, turn around time will be faster. This is a port that we hope in the future will be able to compare favourably with its pairs.