Tunde Babajide writes that the new helmsman at the Nigerian Ports Authority, Mohammed Bello-Koko has demonstrated capability to take the agency to greater heights of achievement

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In June 2021, the Nigerian Maritime Industry was taken by surprise following the suspension, probe, and eventual removal of Ms Hadiza Bala-Usman as Managing Director of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) over allegations of financial irregularities, corrupt practices, and instances of insubordination against the Minister of Transportation, Hon, Rotimi Amaechi.

Hadiza’s removal, which was approved in a Presidential directive, occurred barely one month after her tenure that was yet to expire was hastily renewed for another five-year period to the chagrin of stakeholders who revolted against the development. While her suspension came as a surprise, it was even more shocking to discover how hugely unpopular Hadiza had become along the corridors of power and among industry stakeholders.

The industry was yet to come to terms with the seismic changes at NPA when Mr Mohammed Bello-Koko, Executive Director, Finance and Administration, was appointed in acting capacity to replace the suspended Hadiza Bala-Usman.

Not knowing what to expect and just like his predecessor, discordant tunes greeted Bello-Koko’s appointment as stakeholders bickered over his professional credentials, technical capacity, and industry connections considered as key indices required to land the top job.

Whatever intrigues might have influenced his appointment, Bello-Koko inadvertently assumed the unenviable and mine-laden responsibility of manning the gateway to Nigeria’s economy; a task he has administered over the last six months, with clear understanding and unwavering commitment to NPA’s viability and competitiveness.

While some industry watchers have described him as a child of Providence considering the circumstances leading to his appointment, other stakeholders reckon that whether he has chosen the path or the path has chosen him, the honourable thing would be to make the most of the opportunity and write his name in the sands of time.

Notwithstanding Bello-Koko’s unprecedented achievements so far, industry watchers are of the opinion that his pedigree as a financial expert is not reflective of the core competencies required to execute the mandate of the NPA. In some instances, stakeholders have likened his appointment to Hadiza’s in the sense that they both seem to have ridden to power on the backs of their political godfathers in Rotimi Amaechi and Nasir el Rufai respectively.

It is however instructive to note that since his appointment to the position of Executive Director, Finance and Administration in 2017, Bello-Koko has availed himself of seminars, trainings, conferences, and other initiatives aimed at consolidating his knowledge and competencies in port administration, project financing, and human capacity management. Over time, he has honed these skills and brought them to bear on his statutory responsibilities leading to increased all-round performances across the cadres of the agency.

With over two decades of experience in the upper echelon of Nigeria’s financial sector, Bello-Koko’s track record of prudent resource management is well documented and has been evident since he assumed the helm of affairs at Marina House. In the same vein, he has also accumulated an expansive network of high-profile contacts across various sectors of the economy. In his extant role as Acting Managing Director, Bello-Koko has consistently leveraged this vast pool of technocrats to optimize operations, improve efficiency and increase revenue at the NPA.

In a short time, the former Zenith Bank manager has shown that he is a team player capable of accommodating divergent views and opinions, while also pushing his own vision for a more productive NPA. His open-door policy has introduced a new era of direct engagements between management and stakeholders leading to a cross-fertilization of ideas and seamless information sharing.

Bello-Koko has also taken lessons from his predecessor’s mistakes and is not likely to repeat them. His humble disposition, willingness to learn and loyalty are his strong characteristics – especially considering that Hadiza Bala-Usman lost out to issues around disloyalty.

While President Muhammadu Buhari shops around for a permanent apex officer for the NPA, concerned industry stakeholders have observed that appointing a new helmsman who will have to learn the ropes afresh will be counterproductive for the agency and the sector. Instead, they advise that selection should be based on familiarity with the industry, competence and achievements recorded so far.

Six months ago, nobody gave Bello-Koko a chance; yet his brief tenure has recorded remarkable milestones that cannot simply be glossed over. Focusing on low-hanging fruits, Bello-Koko set his sight on cost-optimization and quality service delivery, while maximizing business value for port operators and users.

The short-term results of this approach include a 120 per cent increase in NPA’s Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) between January and September 2021 from NGN214.65 billion to NGN256.28 billion; and a reduction of operating costs by N10.39 billion. The NPA has also forecast that its 2021 revenue projections and the projected transfer to the Consolidated Revenue Fund for the year 2021 which is expected to be over N80 billion, would be the highest in the history of the Authority.

In Bello-Koko’s next major assignment after assuming office, his team consulted a series of stakeholders across the top hierarchy of the Armed Forces, Police and other security agencies, the Lagos State Government, and other critical industry stakeholders to address the fundamental issues affecting the seamless operation of the electronic call-up system for trucks known as ETO. They among other things launched “Operation Green” to remove and clear all illegal structures and shanties on the Apapa and Tin Can Island Port access roads. The outcome is evinced in a significant improvement in travel time along the Apapa port access roads in Lagos.

In a related development, management has also reviewed the modalities for registration and operations of barges. The new regulatory framework which includes a new Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) took effect from September 2021. It provides for enforcement of the safety and operational standards including the requirement to install radio communication equipment on-board to facilitate the sharing of traffic information. Furthermore, the Authority is in the process of deploying an electronic call-up system for barges to streamline their operations. It is worthy to note that the NPA has recorded the movement of over 200,000 TEUs by barges in 2021.

In the area of process automation to improve overall efficiency of the country’s ports, the Bello-Koko led management is collaborating with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to consolidate all its electronic platforms under a unified Port Community System. These include Oracle Financials and Human Resources Planning; Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP); Revenue & Invoicing Management System (RIMS); e-Ship Entry Notice (e-SEN); Customs portal for online submission of bills; Hyperion budgeting; 3CI (Command, Control, and Communication & Intelligence); Truck Call-Up Access Control; and Harbours System Linked with the 3CI for harmonization of vessel operations.

Concerning operational infrastructure, management renovated the Control Towers at both Apapa and Tin Can Island ports, while new communication gadgets have been installed to ensure prompt and effective communication with vessels coming into the port channels.

In the area of security and compliance with the ISPS code, NPA is addressing identified areas of security vulnerabilities with the deployment of Electronic Access Control in Apapa and Onne ports as pilot projects, while the procurement process has commenced for the full perimeter fencing of Tin Can Island Port area to total compliance. This is in addition to 13 newly procured Security Patrol Boats (SPB) to be deployed across all pilotage districts including the establishment of Marine Police units in Calabar and Delta ports where none currently exist.

Preparatory to commencement of the African Continental Free Trade Area initiative and in support of the Federal Government’s economic diversification agenda, NPA under Bello-Koko is working with the Nigerian Export Promotion Council (NEPC) to establish dedicated third party export terminals or export parks to be located in Lagos and Ogun states. The initiative is aimed at processing, packaging and certification of exports under a one-stop platform for all relevant agencies responsible for quality control and regulatory validation of exports before shipment. A pilot project has been established at the Lilly Pond Container Terminal in Lagos, while 10 other exports terminals are in the process of being certified to begin operations by the first quarter of 2022.

Staff and stakeholders bear witness to inclusiveness in Bello-Koko’s administrative style. He has earned their trust and in return, they pledge unwavering support for his administration’s initiatives.

Nothing happens by chance and every incident occurs at the precise moment for which it was meant; usually, when it will have the greatest impact on our lives. For Bello-Koko the above statement rings true and aptly describes the path destiny has laid out before him. Few choices exist but to seize the moment and steer the Authority into viable and profitable waters, with the overall objectives of entrenching a business-friendly port system and positioning Nigeria as a hub for maritime trade in Africa.

* Babajide is a social commentator based in Lagos