TBY talks to Hassan Bello, Executive Secretary & CEO of the Nigerian Shippers' Council (NSC), on being the economic regulator for the shipping industry and increasing port efficiency to attract more maritime trade.

Hassan Bello
Hassan Bello is the Executive Secretary and CEO of the Nigerian Shippers’ Council. A lawyer, he joined the Council in 1998 as Deputy Director and Head of Legal Services. He became a Director in the same department, a position he held for many years before his current appointment. Prior to joining the Council, Bello worked with the Sokoto State Ministry of Justice and the state’s Investment Company Limited, where he rose to become Acting Managing Director & CEO.

Could you provide us with an insight into the mandate you have been given?

In shipping, there are those who provide shipping services, and those who utilize them. The two groups are not on an equal footing. The carriers, large financial institutions, and banks are organized and financially robust. On the other hand, the shippers and owners of the cargo are fragmented and often represent small businesses. So there is a tendency for the latter group to be exploited. The government needs to regulate the industry such that both sides can play by the same rules, and shippers' councils worldwide are the spokesperson of shippers. But, over the years, most councils have assumed a form of neutrality, as in practice they represent all parties. As the foremost shippers' council in Africa, this is what the NSC has been doing. The Council is well recognized and respected in the industry for its experience. Accordingly, in February 2014, the President reaffirmed the NSC's appointment as an economic regulator for the shipping industry.

Why did it take the government time to appoint an economic regulator for Nigeria's ports?

To some extent, the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) has handled technical and economic regulations. However, as the NPA also provides services, neutrality is ultimately compromised. Besides, even the concession agreement signed with the private sector has made provision for economic regulation. The ports in Nigeria have achieved efficiency, although there are still some problems, including arbitrary and unilateral ties of one side. Moreover, there is nobody to measure compliance with agreements. Additionally, the clearance procedure for cargo must be international. As a result, there is a greater need for economic regulations, and the government has appointed the Council to ensure this.

How would you assess your success as an economic regulator?

While it is too early to say, the NSC is well recognized by owners in an area of business that was historically laissez-faire in nature, and where you would expect private-sector resistance to a new regulator. In order to acquire a buy-in of all stakeholders, we have been holding expansive consultations with stakeholders where there was acknowledgement and recognition of NSC as a neutral arbiter. Our efforts have been successful; we have been negotiating with service providers and government alike. And now, we are not so much on the side of the shippers as playing a paternal role to all parties. We have to work with the terminal operators, shipping companies, and freight forwarders, as well as Nigerian Customs, the Port Authority, and many other agencies, because our aim is to develop Nigeria into a preferred destination for cargo. Nigerian ports and terminals are in competition with other ports in the neighborhood and we have to attract cargo. Therefore, we are streamlining procedures, such that shippers will have no choice but to bring goods to Nigerian ports because of their efficiency.

NIMASA and NPA are technical regulators. As an economic regulator, how do you make sure that the three organizations do not interfere in each other's affairs?

The scopes of their respective areas' remits are well delineated. The NPA is the landlord in charge of specific tasks such as common-use facilities, access roads, and dredging the channels. We are concerned with tariffs, and the process of cargo clearance at the ports. Automation is the solution to most of these problems. Our ports cannot have primitive clearance systems because we have to reduce the dwell time for cargo moving through them. We want cargo to be evacuated as soon as it arrives at the port, as a port is a transit point, not a storage facility. Nigeria's ports need international processes and procedures for this, which means more than trade facilities. Electronic portals will solve these problems, and we are currently advocating this. The new deep-sea ports will also go a long way toward solving the congestion problems that we are currently facing at our ports.