Engr. Omar Suleiman

My scorecard in one year

Managing Director of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), Engr. Omar Suleiman, assumed the post at the tail-end of December 2010, recently clocking one year in office. In this interview with a group of journalists in Lagos at the twilight of last year, Suleiman spoke on his tenure thus far, reeling out achievements within a year of being at the helm of affairs at the blue-chip organisation. He also revealed plans to reposition the NPA for greater efficiency and productivity this year. Bolaji Akinola was there for Ships & Ports.
Excerpts: 

On his first one year in office.
The one year has been very interesting. When I came in. we had so many laudable things we intended to do. We have achieved a lot of them and there are still some in which the work is in progress. I still have the proper restructuring of the staff, so that we could have our staff for maximum use; that one is still in progress.
There is the fact that Nigerians are expecting a lot from the maritime industry, to the extent that the Honourable Minister of Transport has given a mandate to ensure that we increase our revenue collection and generation at the Nigerian Ports Authority. This alone will make us to put in a place a proper monitoring structure. We are on it and, I believe, by the first quarter of next (this) year, we should achieve this.
The other issue, which is very important, is the ports access roads, the Tin-Can Port access road, the service lane, the Kirikiri road, which were in very bad shapes, all the roads in Tin-Can Island Port have been addressed. The issue in Apapa is the Lilypond road, which we were able to address. The most difficult one was the one of the I.6 kilometres, which we were able to get the award from the Federal Government last week. So we were able to close on the roads, which was very important to us.
We went further to address the rail system inside the port. I wish one of you should have the photograph of the construction going on. The whole idea is that we will be able to move cargo from the port expediently. And with the coming of Nigerian Railway (Corporation), we said that, for us to gain maximally, we should have our rail system inside the port, because they are under the purview of the Nigerian Ports Authority.

We also had a lot in deepening of our channels and removal of wrecks, which, I think, by March or June last year we were also to get a vessel of 13 metres draught which came into the port and has given us an economics of scale.
We were also able to push government to agree with us on multi-agencies at the port that was a very big problem for me because everybody was talking that Nigerian ports are very expensive but the reason was in terms of cargo clearance due to multiple agencies at the ports. I cried to Mr. President in a presentation and he asked the Coordinating Minister of the Economy, and you saw what happened and we were able to streamline the agencies at the ports. And we are enforcing that, because this is not the first time it is happening because at the end of the day they find their way back into the port. But with this new government’s commitment, it is going to work and those that are out will be invited when the need arises.

We have also put pressure on the terminal operators through what we signed with them as development plan in terms of cargo handling equipment, stacking areas, dismantling of the warehouses. We were able to achieve a lot and things have further gone down. You can find out that the berth occupancy is now less. You now find out that vessels are not staying longer in the ports again. The waiting time outside bar is not as much as before again, the turnaround time have been reduced to sometime a day. The only issue that is a problem is the dwell time, which we are not 100 per cent in control of. We have the other agencies such as the Customs; the clearing system is one of the areas where we are recording low, because the dwell time is still about 20 per cent and above. We are talking about 48-hour cargo clearance, but we should know that, the world over, the average cargo dwell time is about five days. If by the end of the year dwell time come to about five days that will even double our cargo throughput.
So that is just a brief summary of what we have done so far.

On actualising 48-hour cargo clearance. 
48-hour cargo clearance is something we are hoping to achieve and one of the steps government has taken is the 24- hour port operations which have started in all the ports. Customs now work 24 hours, Nigerian Ports Authority has been working 24 hours, because, as you know, we can leave a vessel outside bar when it has arrived So our own has been 24 hours, but the cargo administration and clearance are still waiting. So now that we have 24 hours cargo operations, we hope that the movement of cargo will be faster and we will be able to get there, because it is something we are hoping to achieve, because, anywhere in the world, the average cargo dwell time is five days.

On the fight against corruption.
As you understand the port is a multi-agency operation. We at the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) had set up years ago an anti-corruption agency, which include Customs and other operators such as shipping companies. Corruption is one of the things we are trying to bring to the barest minimum, and that was the reason why we concession to see that other people are doing the job rather than the government agency doing it directly. We have anti-corruption body which has been working with other agencies and our hope is that we bring corruption to the barest minimum in our ports,because the corruption is what is making cargo clearance long and may be increasing the cost to manufacturers and the shippers. But there is work in progress to work on that.

On plans to boost activities at the Calabar, Warri and other ports that suffer low capacity utilisation.
The issue of dormant port is the issue of preference on the part of the shipper or the cargo owner, as the case may be. The cargo owner always dictates where his cargo should be taken to by the shipping company. All NPA needs to do, such as what we are doing, is to improve the infrastructure, make the infrastructure attractive and the clearance process to be attractive to the importer to now go and sign the bill of lading and send it to Calabar, Warri, Port-Harcourt. So the maximum NPA can do is to ensure that we update our infrastructure in terms of logistics inside, outside and in the sea, so that we will make it attractive for people to carry their cargoes there. So that is the much we can do on that.
On deep seaport, our ports were designed mainly to handle cargo of about 40 million. In 2010, we handled about 80 million. And last year, we handled about 100 million. The ports are over- capacitated; they have all exceeded their designed capacity. And the ports designed then were designed for a maximum of may be 13 or 14 metres draught, and now, for you to remain relevant, you must attract bigger vessels of 10,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) with about 16 or 17 metres draught. Our ports are not designed for that. So we need deep seaports and that is the only way shipping cost will be reduced. Because in economies of scales when a vessel carries 4,000, as against 10,000, you will see the difference in terms of commercial value. And that is why we are campaigning and working hard and government is assisting us so that we have a deep seaport that will help the nation to remain very very relevant in the shipping business in West and Central Africa.

On dredging projects. 
For Lagos, Bonny and Port-Harcourt channels, we have a channel management company that we have assigned the job and they are doing that and there have been a lot of improvement in our channels, because the maintenance of the channels and the buoys are all going well in these channels. And that is why in future, all the other channels we are going to do we are not going to dredge them and leave as we did previously. We should be able to put a proper management structure for the channels, so that immediately after the dredging, the sweeping, which is the maintenance, including taking care of repositioning the buoys if they are knocked out, we have to put that into the contract as a whole, so that it will continue such as the one we are having in Lagos. We have gone far on the Calabar dredging and there is work in progress. This year in our budget we will ensure that we dredge the Warri-Escravos Channel.

On the proposed Ibaka Port.
On the Ibaka Port, we have got the land. We have consultants working there, already bringing out the necessary design of the breakwaters, the quay design. We get all these, it is then we are going to do the finance model or the business model that we are going to build the port with. NPA is driving that and we have many other countries partnering with us. China has come up. Poland has come up. Korea has already spoken with us. So by the time the consultants finish, we will get the business and financial model we are going to build the port with and we will invite them, whoever that is going to give us the best value for the country and then we will go ahead.
Ibaka Port will not replace Calabar Port; Calabar Port will still be relevant, designed for the function which is to cater for very well. Calabar Port has its own deficiency, because you cannot dredge more than 10 metres because of the ecology of the place because the width of the river limits you to how deep you can dredge. While Ibaka Port can be dredged up to 20 metres with the design, because.Ibaka is just five kilometres to sea. So Calabar Port will continue to function as servicing port. While may be a lot of cargo that can come to Ibaka Port will be carried to Calabar, as we are doing now. So it does not mean that we are going to close the port. Operationally Ibaka Port is going to be profitable, because the services, like what is happening in the oil servicing industry, it is going to be profitable because we can also put industries there.

On reversal of recent deployments. 
That was one of the things definitely we have to do, but, you know I am working in a government, I am not a private company, so there are certain issues that made that one to be stepped down. But it will be revisited again. Very soon, we will come back to that; we are working out the modalities on it.

On NPA revenue.
I cannot give you that until the end of January, but I was given the target of increasing the revenue by about 50 per cent.

On projects for 2012.
A lot! And I have said some of them. Dredging of Calabar Channel, Esravos Breakwaters, deepening of the channel in Lagos, dredging of Warri Channel are coming up. We have other serious projects. There are some that are about to start, such as the quay walls in Warri Port. They are very bad. We are going to build these properly, and other engineering and marine projects that are going to bring value to Nigerian Ports Authority and Nigeria as a whole. But, as at now, we have to increase our revenue and put the structures in proper shape to see that we are able to get the revenue which we are asked to get.

On NPA Headquarters rehabilitation 
I am going to give way soon as soon as they finish one wing, so that they finish the other wing. And at the end of the day, we will have a better looking headquarters, because this does not befit Nigerian Ports Authority.

On Presidential Committee on Ports Monitoring and Evaluation 
We have been crying about the number of overtime cargo at the ports, recently government came out and gave us a mandate that we have to move them to Ikorodu (Lighter Terminal) to create space for cargo to move freely. But I was able to ask them in future, how do you handle this. We have agreed with Customs that at the end of every week, after we finish this operation, they will give us the list of containers that are now overtime and we remove them immediately to Ikorodu, and not waiting until they clog the place, as we have now.
So we have a measure in place to keep that running, same also with the Mile 2- Apapa road that we are clearing up to Leventis, which will are going to continue doing. If you go to Apapa now, the service lane is quiet clean and we must have moved about 500 trailers from that place and we are going to keep doing that. Empty container is the business of shipping companies and we have insisted that every shipping company has a holding bay for empty containers and it has to be close to the port so that when there is a vessel it will not take time for it to load because demurrage on vessels is very high and most of them have places inside the terminal. But it is just that at times we get so many of them, because we are not an exporting country. So this is one area government and all of us should look at. Because if our export increases, the issue of empty container will go down. Because the economy of empty containers is very low, that is why our people do not want to carry them because it takes you the same time, energy to carry a laden container which will not be paid the same amount. So these are the issues.



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