By Paul Oloyede
MORE out of curiosity, I chose to watch Television Continental’s TVC Breakfast‘s interview with Hadiza Bala Usman, Managing Director of the Nigerian Ports Authority NPA, on Friday, July 14.
Candidly, I have never been a fan of Hadiza and her petite but almighty godfather, Governor Nasir el-Rufai. When she was appointed, I, like many other Nigerians did not see what qualification the young lady, who is said not to have held any significant responsibility out of the el-Rufai circle all her working life, possessed to manage an all-important institution like the NPA.
This particular appointment to an agency which superintends over facilities where about 75 percent of the nation’s imports berth seemed like a long stretch from President Muhammadu Buhari. But learning that she would be a guest on TVC Breakfast, I chose to see how much the political patronage that brought her into office would have helped her achieve. I am glad I saw the interview and humble enough to confess that I have been wrong about Ms. Bala Usman.
What I found most compelling about the interview is how much the lady seemed to be in full understanding of her duties at the ports within such a short time. She called maritime and shipping terms without notes or effort and spoke with conviction about all of the reforms that she has embarked on.
Apparently, privy to the forthrightness of Hadiza Bala Usman, President Buhari was convinced that he could go to sleep having someone like her at the helms in a strategic organisation like the NPA. This was easily revealed as she answered the first question about what her priorities have been.
She mentioned these things, namely: Revising a lot of third party agreements that were skewed in favour of the third party against the interest of Nigeria and the citizenry; entrenching transparency in the operations of the authority towards demystifying the processes of government and removing the patronage of government officials and defining a workable debt recovery mechanism.
As the interview progressed, a question came up which seemed to have addressed the point about revisiting some of the agreements that have been entered into on behalf of the NPA in the past. She spoke about the designation of some of the port terminals as exclusive recipients of oil and gas cargoes and a recent presidential approval that breaks such monopolies. Nigerians interested in the maritime sector would have read reports about a dispute between the NPA and Intels Nigeria Limited and all of its alleged political motivation.
Speculations have been rife that the decision of the Buhari administration to reverse this monopoly was an attack on the political ambition of former Vice- President Atiku Abubakar, who is a shareholder in Intels. But the NPA managing director said there was no such sentiment in the policy announced by the federal government. She explained that the policy was geared at ultimately giving cargo owners the freedom to decide where their cargo should berth irrespective of what their products may be. She explained that the initial concessioning agreements did not contemplate the monopoly and that the reversal was in the interest of the country.
It was good to know that the NPA under Ms. Usman is spearheading the renovation of access roads to the Lagos Ports and other ports across the country. When news broke about the intervention of the Dangote conglomerate on the access roads to the Lagos Port a couple of weeks back, it looked like it was a project entirely sponsored by the billionaire businessman and his company but this interview changed my perception.
The NPA, realising the importance of road infrastructure to its operations actually contributed the sum of N1.8b to the total overhaul of access roads to the Lagos ports. Bala Usman also showed the presence of mind about the need to provide alternative routes while construction is going on and the need to make these alternative routes navigable before they are put into use.
She spoke about having drawn the attention of the Federal Ministry of Power, Works and House to the importance of intervening in the reconstruction of the bridge that links the Calabar Ports to the North Central and North Eastern Part of the country. This, in addition to conscious efforts to develop intermodal transportation systems across the country, will, according to her, encourage more people to use the sea ports in the country as against the growing preference for neighbouring West African countries.
She appeared committed to improving operational efficiency at the ports. She spoke about the single interface examination scheduled to take off on July 18, the collaboration with the Nigerian Customs and Excise to deploy scanners that will eradicate human interactions with the dual purpose of improving efficiency and dealing with inducement of operational staff of agencies of government as well as efforts to make 24-hour operations, which is already on at the Lagos Ports safe for all stakeholders.
At the end of her five year tenure, Hadiza Bala Usman said she would love to have instituted two things at the organisation. The first is a culture of transparency in which the books of the NPA would be open to anyone who desires to see them and a culture of operational efficiency that will elevate ports in Nigeria far above any other around in the region.
The greatest take away for me is that there is really hope for Nigeria in the quality of her youths. Even if this young lady had no idea what she was going to be dealing with at the NPA, she acquitted herself as a serious minded and honest human being who had acquired so much knowledge within the few months that she has spent at the head of the organisation.
It was good to hear her dare vested interests with these words: “There have been circumstances where people have threatened me but I confronted them and made them understand that I cannot be intimidated by anyone.” However, she must know that in the political space in Nigeria, your greatest enemies are a lot of times those who are closest to you. She must not get carried away and must watch her back from being stabbed by obvious enemies and not succumb to the selfish interests of political merchants who may want to use her for their own selfish gains.
Until now, Nigeria has suffered from weight of the compromises that political patronage bring on our systems. Hadiza Bala Usman presents the hope that the Nigerian youth is able to put an end to this unproductive tendency, but that will have nothing to do with the momentary success that she has made of this one year.
It is only by remaining focused and committed to all the ideals she is currently professing that ultimate success can be guaranteed. One can only wish her the best in the interest of our dear country.
*Mr. Oloyede, a public affairs commentator, wrote from Lagos.