Nigeria’s seaports operating far above installed capacity – NPA boss

Mohammed Bello-Koko is the acting managing director of Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), in this interview, tells journalists that since his appointment about five months ago, he has worked round the clock to ensure that the seaports work efficiently. SULEIMAN IDRIS was there.

How operationally efficient are Nigeria’s seaports? Are they competent enough to prevent the congestion we see outside?

The two seaports in Lagos, the Lagos Ports Complex and Tin Can Island Ports Complex, are currently operating far beyond their installed capacity. What it simply means is that if they were built to handle 500,000 TEUs, for instance, probably they are now handling about 700, 000 TEUs. You will also notice that the city has caught up with the ports, so there is no space to expand them. What we need to do is to improve on the activities in the ports, in terms of efficiency. In 2006, when NPA concessioned the terminals, there was a Development Plan between the NPA and the terminal operators and that development plan included both physical development and then deployment of equipment. 

The terminal operators have met those agreements and everything has evolved, but there is a need for bigger and more efficient equipment, better information technology (IT) systems and so on so forth. So, we have seen an improvement in terms of efficiency, there is increase in efficiency. But there is still room for more. We have observed system downtime in one or two of the terminals, especially the APM Terminals, which is one of the terminals. Whenever APM terminal system is down, it causes a lot of backlog at the back in terms of traffic. 

Actually, what we have done was to sit down with the terminal operators and tell them that they need to improve on their operations; we have Monitoring and Regulatory Department in the NPA, which has an index that on a monthly basis we look at the operations of the terminal operators and we grade them based on their operations and we also go ahead at the end of the quarter to sit with them and tell them where they have decreased and where they have improved. And we have seen a better synergy between what the terminal operators are doing and the shipping lines, because some of them also have affiliated shipping lines working with them. 

To improve the operations within the port we came up with a policy that established empty container holding bays and we mandated all shipping lines to ensure that they have a holding bay outside the port premises for their empties. This is to ensure that you, as an importer, when you take away your cargo from the port, you go to your business premises or warehouse and you offload it; you should not bring the empty container into the port, you should rather take it into the holding bay.

The second thing is that we mandated that for every vessel that comes into Nigeria, when it is sailing out, it must take away at least 80% of the total quantity of containers it brought in either as empty or as export cargo because we were beginning to see that Nigeria was being turned into more like a dumping ground for empty containers and, to a large extent, that has worked because those empty containers have been removed. But we are ensuring that regularly, that is being monitored and efficiency has increased.

How did you feel when you assumed duty as MD with this seeming intractable congestion on the roads?

The first thing I did on assumption of duty was to look at the current system in place which is the electronic call up system, also called ‘Eto.’ I paid a visit to the main truck park itself which is located at the Lilly Pond Terminal, Ijora, to see what was happening. I went round and I went into the ports. The idea was for me to have first-hand understanding on what the problem is and we held a meeting with TTP, which is the company that deployed ‘Eto’ system platform on behalf of the NPA, and we analysed what has been happening from February to May.

We observed lapses one of which was the non-deployment of the electronic call up system information technology (IT) system that should have been in place in some locations in the satellite truck parks. We also looked at the non-deployment of physical infrastructure such as the bollards, the automated gates and we sat down with them in several meetings. We gave them ultimatums to deploy the infrastructure or lose the contracts. The essence of ‘Eto’ was actually to streamline the movement of cargo in and out of the ports, reduce human interference, and speed up the process of cargo delivery. As long as there is human interference there would be delays, there would be extortion and so on.

What we need to do is to work on the human interference, stealing of Eto tickets and so on, because we  have a situation where a trucker is along the route and he has his Eto ticket and at the next bus stop, a security agent stops him to say let me see your Eto ticket and the Eto ticket number is 123456 and probably he is so many kilometres away and they cram that number and the call a truck that is ahead that doesn’t have an Eto ticket and give that truck that same Eto number and that person will enter a certain building around Apapa and probably in 15 to 20 minutes they also get a number plate printed for them and they merge it and get access into the port. Shortly after, the real owner of the number now shows up and his ticket has been used and that is why we have now requested that TTP should change this to QR code, when you have a QR code we will be able to scan it and you go through, you can just cram a QR code.

We also read recently that there is N100 million extortion daily at the ports. How can you track those behind these?

First of all, what we have discovered is that there are security officials that have been working within that area, we call it the red zone, which is the Tin Can- Apapa area that has probably been posted there for four, five or six years and they are still there. We have requested that they should be posted out of that location and bring in a new set of people that will actually and truly work for Nigeria. We have had cases where we tried to establish proof of the people that were said to have been extorted because you need to have proof but there is none. So, what we have now done is to look at how many checkpoints should be on the roads, we held a meeting with all the security agencies about three weeks ago and we said, let’s go and set up a team and identify how many checkpoints we should have along that corridor. So, let’s assume we identified six checkpoints, it means that when you wake the next day and you find 16 checkpoints, that means there are 10 illegal checkpoints.

It was also agreed that it is only right that any of the security formations, be it LASTMA, Police, Army or NPA, that is posting security operatives to the checkpoints should have the names of officers posted to each checkpoints. We believe that if we do that, and there is proof of extortion on a certain date, at a certain location, then we should be able to know the officers involved in it. But the interesting fact in all of this is that things have evolved now. You now have area boys they call ‘ECOMOG boys,’ who do the collection for them. A few weeks ago, it was even more like a battle on who extorts at which location. They stand by the side and be extorting while others are by the side waiting to receive their share.

Let me also state this clearly that we have had the cooperation of the Navy, Army, Police and everyone that is involved in this; they have made efforts to ensure that this stops and I know that actions were taken by the Navy and I thank them for that, I know that Police also took action to reduce that, when you have errand officers at times that are off duty and they show up in uniforms with guns and they perpetrate destructions. We also punished some NPA security men that were indicted.

How far have you been able to curtail the Apapa gridlock?

I can tell you that with the deployment of infrastructure under the Electronic Call-Up system for trucks, we have been able to eliminate the Apapa gridlock by more than 80 per cent and this is verifiable. In addition to the deployment of the Eto platform, we are currently promoting multi-modal transport systems through the use of barges for the movement of cargo in and out of the ports; this development has tremendously reduced congestion at most terminals, thereby improving port efficiency.

The little remnants of the gridlock in some areas in Apapa are due to the very poor state of the Tin Can Port-Mile2 corridor, which is under construction and when the road rehabilitation is completed, the little traffic you see now would be completely eliminated. Following the deployment of infrastructure under the e-call up system, traffic on the Apapa-Ijora axis has reduced by over 80 per cent; you can take a trip to that corridor, but as I said earlier, most of the road networks on the Tin Can, Cocoa Nut –Mile 2 axis, are at various stages of reconstructions and so the infrastructure has not been deployed in the area.

As part of efforts to deploy the electronic call up system, at least 27-29 truck transit parks were developed across Lagos State with the collaboration of relevant stakeholders including the Lagos State Government. Out of these figures, only about eight have fully deployed to infrastructure which include automated gating systems and other Information Technology IT equipment.

Apart from some of the challenges we enumerated earlier, which border on human interference, the e-call up has been able to streamline cargo evacuation and truck movements, thereby bringing a level of sanity to the roads in Apapa.

As I also told you earlier, the disappearance of the Apapa gridlock could be attributed partly to the new policy on empty containers, which compelled shipping lines to take at least 80 per cent of the loaded containers that they came with for every voyage in terms of empty containers and export cargo. We are monitoring this to ensure that they take this number of containers before they sail away.

Over time, we discovered that Nigeria was becoming a dumping ground for empty containers, but we introduced the policy whereby shipping companies were directed to take back 80 per cent of the loaded containers they brought to the country from the stock of empties and export cargo, which also reduced the number of trucks laden with empty containers that were waiting on the roads. What this means, in a lay man’s language, is that if a vessel brings 100 containers for instance, such vessel must take back at least 80 containers, which must be empties or export containers, without which she would not be allowed to sail out of the ports.

On the movement of cargo out of the ports, when we approved the deployment of the barges, we soon discovered that many of them did not have communication equipment and we directed them to install such equipment. We also insist that these barges must be sea worthy before they are allowed to sail so as to forestall a situation where they breakdown at the middle of the channels, which would cause disruptions. We also insist that they meet the minimum Standards Operating Procedure (SOP).

We are also developing an electronic call-up system for the barges, just like what we have for the trucks on the roads so as to ensure that we streamline their operations. There is a department in the NPA that handles the regulation. In the last few weeks, we have also received proposals on the deployment of larger barges, we are being careful, but we are studying all that, the PPP unit of the NPA is working on it.