Unending wait for Ports and Harbours Bill passage

Nearly eight years after the completion of Nigeria’s port reform programme, which signaled the coming on stream of private terminal operators, stakeholders are still in an unending wait for the passage of the Ports and Harbours Bill. This bill is to give a legal backing to the programme and also create a commercial regulator. In addition to creating a regulatory vacuum, the failure of the National Assembly to pass this bill has also given right to imposition of arbitrary charges and attendant high cost of operation, reports FRANCIS EZEM.

To say that the reform of Nigeria’s port system was one of the best things that happened to it is to state the obvious. Goods delivery at the various seaports in Nigeria was before now characterised by long queue of vessels waiting to berth due to the low turnaround time of the vessels, which was in excess of 15 days.

In reaction to this, these foreign shipping firms had also imposed additional shipping freight charges for all consignments meant for Nigerian ports to make up for the time wasted while waiting to berth or discharge.

In addition to this and other major challenges, it took between 30-45 days for a cargo to be cleared out of the ports. This was partly due to the inadequacies of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) which was saddled with the responsibility of handling cargo being a civil service agency with attendant bureaucracy and delays.

Thus in deciding to reform the ports through a landlord model fashioned after the Port of Antwerp, Belgium, the government argued that the programme would enhance efficiency, reduce cost of operation and bring about efficiency especially with the coming of world-class terminal operators who took over cargo handling from NPA, among several other factors. Most of those opposed to the programme then were actually not comfortable with the seeming haste with which the government intended to go on with the exercise, which they believed might portend danger in the future.

Many of them had canvassed a situation whereby the institutional and legal framework would first be put in place as is the case in other climes before the main exercise, which fell on deaf ears. For instance, the Bureau of Public Enterprise (BPE), which supervised the exercise ignored recommendation by the World Bank Consultant; Haskonings, hired by the Federal Government to work with the BPE to ensure a smooth exercise.

The consultant had proposed that Nigeria should adopt a staggered programme over a period of five –10 years, under which it canvassed a pilot scheme, which will be monitored for a while. It was in what appeared a belated change of mind that Chief Olusegun Obasanjo government forwarded an executive Ports and Harbours Bill to the National Assembly to give a legal backing to the programme and also create a commercial regulator, which will oversee the activities of these private terminal operators, whose only language is that of profit maximisation alone.

Regrettably, though substantial gains have been recorded in terms of achieving the core objectives of the programme, the cost of doing business has remained significantly high due to the absence of a regulator to monitor charges and fees. Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Marine Transport, Mr Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi who spoke in an interview, had hinted on some of the reasons for the undue delay of the passage of the bill. According to him, the bill was in the process of being passed into law when some stakeholders came up with some serious issues.

“Everything about the passage of the Bill went on fine until it got to the public hearing stage when the stakeholders adopted a position that would conflict with other fiscal laws of the country”, he disclosed. He noted that if such a position is taken, NPA would have to depend on annual appropriation, which would starve it of funds, which would not be good enough for the system considering the kind functions performed by the authority.

He had however assured that most of such issues had been cleared and that the bill will be passed in no distant time. But a dangerous twist to the expected passage of the bill when Permanent Secretary of the Federal Ministry of Transport, Mr. Nebolisa Emodi, while speaking at a joint public hearing on the auction of overtime cargo organised by the House Committees on Finance, Marine Transport and Customs, disclosed that the ministry was working on a new Ports and Harbour Bill. He said: ‘‘The Federal Executive Council will soon submit a bill to the National Assembly, seeks to repel the Nigerian Ports Authority Act of 1999 and enact the Nigerian Ports and Harbours Act”.

The proposed bill envisages the provision of ownership, management, operation; development and control of ports and harbours make the Ports and Harbour Authority the technical regulator and promote private participation. But in what appeared a public outburst, the chairman house committee on marine transport, who was also present at the meeting, questioned the rationale behind the preparation of another bill when had been around for some time and had actually passed second reading state.

He questioned rather angrily: “Why is the executive producing another Ports and Harbours Bill when we already have one here at the National Assembly? Are you people not aware that there’s a Ports and Harbour Bill here sponsored by the Deputy Speaker and co-sponsored by me, and, which has passed second reading? So, is it your own that the Senate will pass or the one sent from the House to the Senate?”

The direct implication of this collision between the legislature and the executive over the bill is that stakeholders might need to wait another 10 years for the bill to be passed into law. This is because if the National Assembly passes the old bill, the Presidency may never assent to it and if both parties agree to harmonise the bill, it implies that the bill which had taken eight years to get to the second reading might be withdrawn to pave way for a fresh bill.

One of the effects of the non passage of the bill is that most of the private sector operators do not have the total confidence over the safety of their investments. For instance, some concessionaires had expressed fears over the non passage of the bill, which would ultimately legalise the port concession programme concluded more than eight year ago.

This obvious and genuine fear has remained a compelling factor for the concessionaires to want to recoup their investments quickly In line with this feeling of insecurity and uncertainty, many of them have introduced some illegal exorbitant charges, which the clearing agents promptly resisted.

A top executive of one of the terminal operators while reacting to the non passage of the bill once said: “ I do not really feel very comfortable when I remember that there is no form of legislation to cover all these massive investments because of the non passage of the Ports and Harbours.

It was in a bid to avert a major collision between the concessionaires and the agents that might lead to closing down the ports that former Minister of Transport, Alhaji Yusuf Suleiman in 2010 directed the Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC) to abolish some illegal charges imposed by some of these concessionaires on port users.

These illegal charges include service charge, bank charge, concessionaires’ service charge, tally clerk charge, Commission on Turnover (COT), port administrative charge and sorting charge, among several others.

Most stakeholders are not comfortable with the regulatory vacuum in the Nigerian maritime industry. One of them is the executive secretary/ chief executive officer of the NSC, Mallam Mr. Hassan Bello, who is charged with the responsibility of protecting the interest of importers and exporters.

While underscoring the importance creating a regulatory framework for the industry just like other sectors, he said: “The Federal Government regulated the insurance industry, the banking sector and even the telecommunications sector so the transport sector should not be different”.

It has therefore become expedient for the government to create a regulator for the maritime industry, the second revenue earner, especially at a time it is insisting on passing the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) to ensure effective regulation for the already regulated oil and gas sector.

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