Government Economic Policies Killing The Seaports

PIX: Princess (Dr) Vicky Haastrup

Princess (Dr) Vicky Haastrup

Recently, Princess (Dr) Vicky Haastrup, the directing mind at the ENL Consortium Ltd, operators of Terminal C and D, Apapa Port, made history when she was inaugurated as the first female president of the Certified Institute of Shipping in Nigeria (CISN).  In this exclusive interview with BMWA, she assesses current operations in the seaports and blames the government for formulating policies that kill activities in the sector. Excerpts.

As the first female to become the president, Certified Institute of Shipping in Nigeria (CISN) in a male-dominated society, how do you feel?

To me, being the first female to bag the presidency of the CISN, it’s a great honour. It’s an honour to me, my family and women in general. It is not only an honour to the maritime industry, but in every sector of the Nigerian economy. It shows one thing: women are occupying their rightful places in every sector that the economy of Nigeria can be run by anybody. Gender is not and should not be a problem.  It could be by a man or a woman. It should be run by whosoever has the ability and capacity; someone who’s suitable for the particular position. So, I really thank God almighty that I have this great privilege by God almighty and the people who nominated me to occupy this position.  I am the first female in Nigeria to occupy a position like this particularly in this sector. It is a great honour. I will not take it for granted. I am occupying the position with all sense of seriousness; I’m going to be dutiful and give it all it takes to excel. I’m going to bring about great improvement to the Institute. I’ll add value and see to it that it won’t be what it was a year ago, two years ago so that after my tenure, I would have left a legacy other people will be happy to build on.  It’s a position of service and I am occupying it with all sense of humility and seriousness.

It is recalled that some years back, you commissioned the Institute’s gigantic edifice in Badagry.  In very clear terms, what is your vision for the CISN?

My vision is to sensitize the CISN to groom young men and women to be sound and have quality education in shipping in Nigeria. The maritime industry occupies a central position in the economy of Nigeria so much so that you need to groom and educate people to operate in the sector. It’s a very viable, important and strategic sector. Like I always say, the port industry is the gateway to the economy of Nigeria. When the economy is good, you will see this through activities in the ports. Now, we’re talking of improving the economy of Nigeria through exports. Where will the exports pass through? It will go through the ports. So, the port is very strategic to the economy of any nation. To the grace of God, Nigeria will soon become an export nation; it is an import nation now. With government putting a lot of emphasis on agriculture, very soon, we’re not going to be importers of rice any more. We’ll even be exporting rice, groundnuts, vegetables, etc. So, the maritime industry is such a huge industry; under it you have the ports. So, the port is very strategic in booming the economy of Nigeria. It is important to train men and women to enable them operate within this industry. If you lack knowledge, you will not know the ABC of shipping. People need to be well trained; as you cannot run a port without being well trained. There are different aspects of shipping such as logistics, port operation, harbours and all that. Even to work in the NPA, you need technical skills to do jobs. So, the institute needs to have the capacity to develop such young men and women. My role as the President (of the Council) is to see that the Institute is fully developed and is giving quality education and training to people who want to be trained in all aspects of shipping in Nigeria.

As someone grounded in shipping activities, comment on the present efforts by Nigeria to float a new shipping line after the demise of the NNSL years ago.

I don’t think any government has business running its own business. It’s not done anywhere in the developed countries of the world. America does not have its own national carrier; Britain doesn’t have any national carrier. We’ve had it before; it was a total failure. One of the reasons Nigeria is what it is today is because Nigeria was running its own business. Why did Nigerian government decide to buy into the culture of commercialization and privatization? It is because by and large, it is recognized that people in government see it as a government thing from where they must take part of what they call the national cake. The commitment is not there. And that is why government enterprise like the Nigeria Airways failed Even when we brought another airline from Britain to merge with them and run the national carrier, it still failed. Virgin Atlantic was so frustrated that they left in anger. Why? Because of the attitude of civil servants in Nigeria; because of bureaucracy.  Everybody saw it as the national cake; they wanted to eat a piece of the cake! It is not that we don’t have the ability to run it; it is because of something we’re accustomed to: corruption. So, I do not think Nigerians (civil servants) are reformed enough to run a national carrier. It will be a total failure. Government might decide to get foreign investors to merge with local operators. It will still not work because of the Nigerian factor and bureaucracy. That was exactly what happened to Virgin Atlantic: to get a single approval that would take one minute, it would take one week. People would go round and round because some people would want some kind of gratification or the other; officials would frustrate them because of what they would get. They would not allow them operate and deliver on their job. These are the things we need to look at. To run a national carrier does not cheap, unless we’re ready to invest in this (a national carrier) and make it another …… My take is this: government should allow investors to run a carrier that will carry our national flag and call it the Nigerian carrier. In all aspects of running the business, government should really hands off. The present government or minister may mean well. Under him, things may run well. But when he leaves, what happens? There are no assurances that it will be operated well! To me, it (the national carrier) is going to be another bad project. I really don’t think that should be the focus of the present government. There are other areas that need critical attention than forming a national carrier.

How did you start your journey in the maritime industry?

Under the concession arrangement, ENL won the terminal C and D in 2005. We were not able to commence operations until April 4, 2006. That’s when the journey began.  I thank God almighty for where we started and where we are. ENL started port operations in Nigeria from a little beginning: the mustard seed that was planted.  I remember when we started on that day, I went round the port.  What was running through my mind was would something good come out of this? It was such a big task to start from a completely run-down system.  When we took over, nothing was functioning. The machines and equipment were not just there, they were carcasses. Every good component inside the plants was removed: they were carcasses. Several of them were cannibalized; NPA was using them to service their machines. We met a lot of equipment that were being leased to discharge and make delivery. They would simply remove machines of NPA packed and use them to repair their own equipment. When I saw it, we made up our mind: for the first one week, we didn’t remove them. That was the period when NPA was transferring and we were taking over. But after the one month, we sent out of the terminal those plants that were not owned by NPA but certain individuals within the system. I started to repair those machines that were seriously cannibalized. Potholes in the terminal could even swallow up a trailer. We fixed all the adjoining roads and did complete resurfacing of the roads within terminal C and D. As a matter of fact, doing this took a huge amount of money for the excellent structures we see today. We fixed the quay apron that was not completed by the NPA. We created a new look for the terminal. When you look at the terminal today, it is a great change-over. We thank God on where we are today; it is by his strength and our determination as a management in ENL.

Up till now, government has not seen reasons to relax her tough stance on the import prohibition list. What do you think?

That makes me feel very bad. As I’m sitting here, I run ten berths at ENL Terminals C and D.  Since the last two days, we don’t have a single ship. For a whole week, there will not be any ship. That’s very scaring! That gives room for a lot of concern. That shows that the economy is indeed in a very bad shape. From what we hear, next year will be worse than this year. I’ve said it over and over that the issue of the 42 banned items should be critically looked into if government does not want to kill this industry. A lot of these policies being made should be made with human face. It should not be something that you completely wipe out in a day. It should be a policy that will be implemented on a gradual basis so that the Nigerian people will not suffer unnecessarily. This (import prohibition) has inflicted a lot of pains on us as a company; even the maritime industry as a whole. I can tell you that if the maritime industry collapses, then Nigeria has collapsed. With the opportunities in the maritime industry, it is bigger than oil if the right attitude and programmes are applied. All government needs to do is call us for a round- table conference. ‘Critical stakeholders in this industry, let’s talk; let’s brainstorm. Where do we go from here?’ I don’t think it calls for somebody to sit in one place and advise government without taking critical … of people operating in this vey central and important sector. They need to have a feel of what it is; they need to hear the truth from us. We need to tell them our experiences; we need to make suggestions. Per adventure we have things to say, these might be of help (to government decisions and policies).  Nigeria is critically in need of help and anybody that can offer this, the government should take it. Government needs to hear from every segment of the maritime industry if she wants to reap from this sector.  All government needs to do is compare customs duty three years ago - how much revenue the ministry of finance was making and what they’re getting today.  A situation people working in shipping companies, port operations and even freight forwarders are losing their jobs is not good. Apapa used to be a beehive of activities. People no longer come to Apapa because there are no activities, nothing! Where are the trucks? At ENL, as I’m talking, no single ship for a whole week. Something is wrong.  We can manage these things better if right policies are made, if government listens to wise counsel from people who are operating within this sector.

Following the current situation, how have you been sourcing cargo?

The truth is that there aren’t too many cargoes out there.  We know people who are loading Nigeria-bound ships in different ports of the world right now. A situation where people cannot source for foreign exchange, it’s difficult. The importers cannot source for forex. It is the dollar. If they cannot source for dollars, when they go to the parallel market, what is going to be the landing cost of such cargo? Who has the capacity to buy such cargo? At how much? What most of my customers do today is ‘siddon look’, watching what happens tomorrow. But as at today, it is a no-go area. Most of the cargoes coming in are steel cargoes for projects that are being done by government like ones involving many Chinese companies handling government road and railway projects. People do not have the cash liquidity to import. Even if they bring, who has money to buy? You wouldn’t even find me on seat this time of the year if there were cargoes. The fact is that there are very few cargoes now either containerized or those coming in boxes as general cargoes.  In those days, container ships that used to bring 4,000 boxes now bring 400. It is indeed a very challenging period for the maritime sector.

Give us your latest view on government’s auto policy

I will say it loud and clear that it is one of those bad policies implemented by the immediate-past federal government. It was passed over to this government and this government has continued it. I don’t think it is a good policy. The federal government should look at it again. The question is: are we producing cars in Nigeria? The answer is no! Are we assembling cars in Nigeria? To some extent, yes! CKD - completely knocked down - that’s all we are doing.  If we are to produce cars in Nigeria, what are the things needed?  To have a cheap automotive industry, you need power. Do we have enough power and steel industry? If you don’t have all these in place and you are saying you want Nigeria to be a car producing country, it is not going to work because the landing cost of such goods will be unaffordable to Nigerians. The running cost is huge. Even as we sit here today without ships, we are burning diesel. The generators have to keep working. How much is diesel? N200 per litre! Even when you don’t have activity, you continue to spend money. Talking about production of vehicles, what is the landing cost?  Nigerians can’t afford to buy such vehicles. At the end of the day, what we are trying to project is not working because it will further inflict pains on Nigerians. The benefits we would have derived from imports, if we continue it, we make it a gradual thing; in phases. There should be a projection, say five years. The present power minister, Fashola, is working assiduously to resuscitate the power sector. The effect cannot be visible because of the level of damage that has been done to the industry. But it takes time. You cannot be an automotive operator when you don’t have power. So, we need to get the power source resuscitated.  When you ban such goods (automotive) what happens? Republic of Benin benefits. You know what; those cars are still coming to Nigeria through the more than hundred illegal routes between the two countries. They don’t want to hear the truth but we must say it. Now, Benin has enlarged her berths from two to four. Always they have many ships laden with Nigeria-bound cargo lining up to berth at their port. Republic of Benin is flourishing; Nigeria is suffering. Government should look into this. What is not ‘bannable’ now, don’t ban it unless you have an alternative for Nigerians. Ordinary Nigerians are only looking for their tummy. That’s all! If you take food away from the common people, you have denied them everything.  Anything that will affect their quality of living, government should look into it.  Government needs to go back to the drawing board and think about this policy.

Princess (Dr) Vicky Haastrup

On the STOAN/Shippers’ Council court matter, do you support out-of-court settlement?

I don’t want to comment because it will be subjudice. Settling out of court is good where the two parties are willing to talk. But the question is: are the two parties willing to talk? We have so many areas of conflict resolution. As the chairman of the Seaport Terminal Owners Association of Nigeria (STOAN), I can tell you the fault is not from STOAN.

Do you agree to views that only an intermodal transport system can restore the ports access roads?

To an extent, yes. The rail system needs to be fully operational. It’s only in Nigeria that you have this volume of trucks on the road. People are dying every day. There’s no week you don’t read about a container tripping off a trailer and falling on people. I tell you, if I have a shipload of rice, it takes about 600 trucks (to move it on the road).  Consider the bridges too. On Ijora Bridge, for instance, the pressure is too much. A couple of months ago, the road was cut into two. But through the intervention of the Works Minister, a quick fix was done. That’s why we’re able to be using the road today. So, the is ministers of Transport and Works 

should put heads together and install a workable rail system.  We need to prepare for that time when there will be activities in the ports. 

Proceeds from the Lagos State government’s wharf landing fee are not being used to repair the roads as anticipated……

The truth is do the roads belong to Lagos State? I believe that most of the roads are federal roads and the federal has the responsibility to fix them. I think that when the federal government fails on this responsibility Lagos comes in to get reimbursed later. I think abandoning the ports access roads is the fault of the federal government. This government needs to wake up; it’s not their fault, though.

In your view, what has port concession achieved in the last decade?

Port concession has done well for Nigeria. To me, it’s a good story.  If you compare developments in the ports industry today to what it was ten years back, it is a success story. I believe that there is this silent agreement and understanding by everyone that ports concession is a success story. Nigerian government is earning more revenue as a result of ports concession. We (the concessionaires) spend our money to run the ports. From lease fee, royalty, etc, Nigerian government is earning huge revenue. That’s a sizeable income for the federal government if well utilized. Two, infrastructure development in the ports are enormous. You have electricity which is not supposed to be supplied by us. All the things that government is supposed to do, we’re doing them. The human capacity has also increased seriously. You now have people that are well trained operating in the port system. There is an enabling environment we the port operators have created for ourselves. It used to be a volatile industry where ship operations could be abruptly stopped by the leadership of dock workers. No dock worker stops any ship any more. The welfare package for dock workers has also increased. It is the responsibility of the NPA to provide an enabling environment for us but we have created it ourselves for our businesses. There’s peace in the terminals and in the industry as a whole. Dwell- time of ships has reduced from ten to three days. To me, that’s transformation. Security of cargo is there. There used to be attack from the waterfront by thieves and pirates. That doesn’t happen anymore. We have made sure that Nigerian ports are well secured.

Princess (Dr) Vicky Haastrup

You (operators) still pay dues in dollars. What efforts are you making to do this in naira?

As contained in our concession agreement, lease and royalty fees are expected to be paid in dollars. But that should be revisited now. When we took over, dollar was N125. Now, it is N480 to a dollar. We are expected to pay this fee at the new rate. The problem now is that I don’t earn enough dollars to be able to pay at the new rate. It means many of us have to exchange the dollar in the parallel market. That’s a big challenge. That is one of the things we are telling government to revisit. I do not have any contrary opinion to NPA collecting royalty in dollars. But the issue of paying lease fees in dollars particularly when you are not earning enough should be revisited.

Does the current MD of NPA strike you as a woman who has what it takes to make a difference?

She will! I believe completely in that woman. Initially when she came, we were like ‘what is she coming to do’? But I interacted with her one time and all that opinion changed. She is very intelligent. No doubt about that. Two, she wants to do what is right. Even within her domain, she has charged all her staff on the need to do the right thing. She is living by example. So, tell me which port operator that will not do the right thing? Since she’s started doing things right, there’s no excuse for you not to do things right. She’s very intelligent and passionate about what she does. She wants to leave a legacy; we will support her to leave a legacy.