By Opeoluwa Lawal
It is no longer news that Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, suspended the Managing Director of Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), Hadiza Bala-Usman.
To be sure, Ministry of Transportation supervises the NPA. Hadiza is passing through a baptism of fire, for the first time in her public service career.
The only other time she came close to open public inquisition was when she was a Special Assistant to Malam Nasir el-Rufai as Minister of the Federal Capital Territory between 2003 and 2007 and the Senate could not come to terms with the fact that Hadiza and one other were being paid N1m as monthly salary. el-Rufai who was the one on the spot had put up a robust defence of his decision to remunerate them handsomely.
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But this time, Hadiza is the one directly in the eye of the storm and she would have to throw in everything to defend herself, decisions, actions and inactions, and reputation against being deliberately clobbered and dented for whatever reasons- be they personal, political or arising from proximate association with a foe.
This, without a doubt, is a reputational battle, given her pedigree- as the daughter of the radical Nigerian academic, politician and historian, the late Professor Yusuf Bala Usman.
Hadiza is one of his seven children.
The consensus is that having been well brought up by the respected Bala Usman, Hadiza would not want to engage in official acts that would call to question that pristine pedigree.
It may appear relieving to her fans that the Ministry has narrowed the scope of Hadiza’s supposed original sins, which began with non-remittance of operational surpluses to the Consolidate Revenue of the Federation (CRF) to one infraction, to wit: failure to obey directive to procure equipment for clearing of channels instead of giving the job out as contracts. For this reason, she was suspended. The ministry was piqued that the NPA had continued to award the clearing of channels as contracts to companies instead of procuring necessary equipment and executing the contracts in-house. But, then, this a somewhat recondite issue.
The probe will shed light on it and possibly raise other issues.
Agreed that if that had been strictly done, as canvassed by the ministry, cost effectiveness and savings would be achieved and the nation’s revenue base would have witnessed some huge accretions. But who says the method adopted by Hadiza is not utilitarian? The ministry’s suggested approach and Hadiza’s approach make a smart economic sense.
Procuring necessary equipment and executing the contracts in-house are not too dissimilar form the extant approach. But this is a simple issue that could have been quietly looked into and resolved without the ballyhoo in the public space. If there are other infractions that may be played up, the probe provides the opportunity to do so and for Hadiza to put up her defence.
Talking about quiet resolution, it may have become impossible as it were, having gone past the intersection of reasoning together to the expansive market place where they are now involved in a macabre dance. It has now become a matter of necessity for both parties to defend their integrity.
Unlike Michael Jackson in one of his popular hit tracks, “Beat It” wherein he admonished foes to: “Just beat it…No one wants to be defeated. It doesn’t matter who is right or wrong; just beat it…”, here it matters to know who is the victor and the vanquished in this gritty reputational battle; it matters to know who is right or wrong.
Whereas one still ponders the possibilities of amicable resolution of the impasse, certainly not in the interest of any of the gladiators or protagonists, but in the national interest amid fears that are looming like a veritable bugaboo about the hurt this face-off could cause to the economy. A plethora of questions continue to play themselves out: In what ways will this feud, which is largely about personal greed and ego, benefit the national economy?
Will it bolster foreign investors’ confidence in the maritime sub-sector of the economy? And, what implications would it have for domestic trust capital in the management of the nation’s ports? What legacies do they want to leave behind against the backdrop of the fact that this would be the first time there would be a face-off of this nature between a serving minister of transportation and a sitting (now suspended) managing director of NPA?
Sans the festering feud, there would be a soothing calmness in the atmospherics and the nuances of management of the nation’s ports through the instrumentality of the NPA and the robust supervisory role of the ministry of transportation.
This is the irreducible minimum that is expected from the operators of this sub-sector to bolster the national economy. I am not sure if officials are very conversant with this philosophy that undergirds the operation of the revenue-generating agencies of the government.
This is another theme for another narrative for another time.
But Hadiza’s thinking is in pari materia with the NPA’s philosophy of running strictly as a business/revenue-generating authority.
Hadiza knows very well how the ports over which the NPA superintends are strategic base for economic development.
At The Nation newspapers’ Economic Forum on Thursday, May 4, 2017, she said that the strategic role of ports in economic development was that they functioned as gateways to international trade and, accordingly, were regarded as major accelerators of local economic development.
Quoting the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), she noted that “the Netherlands has been able to sustain a relatively high economic growth rate because of the Port of Rotterdam, in spite of the intensely competitive environment in Europe. The success of Singapore is equally attributed to the Port of Singapore, which has developed a transport logistic centre and has successfully been able to attract foreign investment.” These are quite instructive referrals.
They signposted clarity of thoughts, vision, possibilities and destination, where she wanted to take the Nigerian Ports to through her superintendence at the NPA.
Her essential summation, to the effect that the maritime sector, as an essential component of the transportation system, is crucial for wealth creation, continues to enjoy eternal approbation. But her warning then in 2017, is what is rearing its head in 2021.
It is to the credit of her knowledge that the NPA on her watch realized that the function of a port is not only limited to the traditional activities but has expanded to a logistical platform.
According to her, “Ports not only platform the basic operations, they provide inland access and intermodal connections as well as complementary services to shipping carriers.” In her further summation, she had declared that the need to adequately explore the port sector as a road to boosting economic development in Nigeria could not be over-emphasized.
One is at great pains, therefore, to fault Hadiza’s passionate commitment to the development of the nation’s ports, which she was working at before the suspension. She said developing the ports was very crucial for realizing the lofty but achievable development objectives of the Federal Government, stressing; “our port infrastructure like the quay walls and aprons would need to be reconstructed and reinforced to make them fit to handle anticipated heavy solid minerals cargo.
For agricultural produce, we would need specialized and refrigerated warehouses, etc. The channels must be constantly dredged and maintained and deep seaports must be developed to address the dynamics in trade and transport demand.” It is the constant dredging of channels that has become her undoing.
Consider yet another significant take from her stable: “Improved port infrastructure will bring about improved port activities, which would stimulate economic growth and in turn would impact positively on the economy.”
The sole claim of how to dredge channels, which is standing one leg, may soon collapse like a pack of cards, but the concern now is the negative effect this feud is having on Port’s operations in terms of operators’ comfort, confidence and trust in the system during the pendency of the probe. I so submit.
•Lawal is a professional mariner based in Lagos.
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