Shippers’ Council is not a toothless bulldog
Mr. Hassan Bello is the Acting Executive Secretary and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Nigerian Shippers Council. As a lawayer, he joined the council in 1998 as Deputy Director and Head of Legal Services. He became a director in the same department, the position he held for many years before the new appointment. Before he joined the council, Bello had worked with Sokoto State Ministry of Justice and the state’s Investment Company Limited where he rose to become Acting Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer. In this interview, he shares his thoughts on major challenges confronting the maritime industry. Excerpts:
How will you rate the performance of the Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC) in carrying out its mandate of protecting the interests of Nigerian importers and exporters, over 30 years after its establishment?
The most important role of the Nigerian Shippers Council is to protect the shippers. The council was established, as you rightly said, to perform this role because largely there are two parties in shipping. The providers of shipping services – be they ship owners, terminal operators, banks, insurance companies, and on the other hand the users of shipping services. These are called shippers, the consignees. But because of lack of balance between the two parties, while the providers, the shipping companies, are extremely big in a conglomerate, the shippers are not organised. They are not the big and powerful part of the equation. It is, therefore, necessary for the government to come and protect the users and that informed the establishment of the Nigerian Shippers Council.
Has there been any mechanism put in place to protect the shippers?
Yes. The first mechanism that was put in place is the law and the Nigerian Shippers’ Council Act of 1978 is both advisory and regulatory. It is advisory in the sense that shipping, as you know, is a voluntary contract between two parties. The Shippers’ Council has to navigate between these contracts by individuals and try to advise the government to remove impediment in shipping. The most important thing is to provide the needed equilibrium necessary for the success of shipping, because if there is no level playing field then there will be so much distortion.
Apart from the 1978 Act, there are also regulations that empowered the Nigerian Shippers’ Council to protect the shippers regularly. These regulations empowered the council to be the only agency of the government to regulate and negotiate with the service providers on local shipping charges. The regulations also empowered the council to the exclusion of any other agency to publish on periodical basis and as often, all local shipping charges to be paid by importers and exporters.
There is a general belief that the law establishing the council made it a toothless bulldog.
No. The law made the council a mediating agency. So, how can it be a toothless bulldog? Any person who contravenes any of the provision is guilty of an offence.
It has been over ten years since the idea of Inland Container Depot (ICD) came to the fore. Today, how many of them are in place?
The ICDs have historical problem, which has been corrected. The ICDs and some other projects are the guinea pigs of Public Private Participation (PPP). The ICDs were brought under PPP. That was about 10 years ago, by that time it was a new concept. The ICDs came under the concept and that made it to come under a learning process.
However, so many issues have been taken care of – the provision of land by various state governments, the payment of compensation and other things. Now, land has been secured in all the locations. There is the question of legal framework. The ICDs are dry ports. We have to promulgate a law to make them ports of destination and that is being done.
The other issue is the rail. The success of an ICD depends largely on connection with rail and rail transport has been revitalised and goods are now being transported by Nigerian Railway Corporation. This is an added impetus to us to bring about the actualisation of the dry ports.
Intermodal transport is an essential element of trade facilitation and cost reduction for shippers and this is alien to us in Nigeria. How then has the council been assisting the shippers to facilitate their business and at reduced cost since its creation?
The Nigerian Shippers Council had advocated the intermodal transport in many fora and that is why the connection between the rail, ports and sea is ideal. Our shippers need to get their cargo in good time. They don’t need to rely on tracks to take their cargoes. They may rely on rail, which is cheaper. The most important thing is that the council will see to the interface between the modes of transport. I have said many a times that it is not the multimodal transport, but intermodal. Intermodal transport is necessary for trade facilitation.
So you can see that the ministry of transport is developing a lot of these modes. Recently we have the rail, a revolutionary. If you ask me, the inland waterway is receiving careful consideration and attention from the ministry. You know, of course, we have the road transport. In all these, the Nigerian Shippers Council should be the coordinator of all the modes of transport so that we can have interface between them. The idea is that transport, shipping services should be affordable and available.
Is there any form of synergy between the council and other agencies in order to develop these much-needed modes of transport?
Yes. We are going to have a forum with Nigerian Railway Corporation to discuss the transportation of cargoes by the rail and to ensure smooth carriage of goods by rail. We want to develop mediation mechanism to encourage Nigerians shippers to patronise the rail transport. In that case we are interfacing with the Nigerian Railway Corporation.
We will also interface with the Nigerian Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) as soon as their infrastructure allows movement of goods through the inland waterways. We have advocated these and we are on top of the situation. That intermodalism is extremely important. And at international forum, you will recall that Nigerian Shippers’ Council represented Nigeria in the negotiation for a carriage regime, which is called the Rotterdam Rules. This is the United Nations Carriage of Goods by Parties by Sea and it is a representative of multimodalism.
The Nigerian Shippers Council is trying to see that in the next few months that Nigeria ratifies this convention and domesticate it so that the roads that are being developed can be used and that we have a dynamic framework to actualise this.
There has been a clamour for transformation of the council into an economic regulator for the maritime industry. If the clamour is eventually considered by the Federal Government, does the council have the capacity to perform this role?
The Nigerian Shippers’ Council is more or less an economic regulator. It is normal to say so. I know there is a gap; the absence of specified economic regulator has retarded the gains of port reforms and reforms in the entire transport industry.
The enabling Act of the Nigerian Shippers Council needs to be reviewed. There must be some changes here and there so that the Nigerian Shippers’ Council can be empowered to play that role. This economic regulator is needed not only by the shippers, but by the providers of shipping services. A level playing field must be created. Without this thing, the whole industry will collapse.
What are the essential requirements for this transformation into economic regulator?
The economic regulator is nothing but the one who regulates. For you to understand it very well, you have to separate it from a technical regulator.
There are parastatals that engage in technical regulation. The Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency is a technical regulator. The Nigerian Ports Authorities is a technical regulator at the port. The Nigerian Railway Corporation; the Nigerian Inland Water Ways Authority are all technical regulators. What economic regulator does? There are three functions.
Number one, to create the synergy, to moderate the tariff and also to control the quality of service within the industry. The country should have a commercial regulator especially at the port. Why do we have commercial regulator for the insurance companies? Why do we have economic regulator for the banks. Banks cannot operate without an economic regulator otherwise, they will all go under. The same thing should be for the maritime industry. The Nigerian Shippers’ Council has the experience; it has the capacity in staff to play this role. All you need to do is a little adjustment. You cannot use the 1978 law to influence what is happening now because shipping has changed drastically.
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