Hassan Bello, a lawyer, is the Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC). He speaks on how to strengthen the maritime sector and why the council is organising a seminar for judges, in this interview with Legal Editor John Austin Unachukwu.
. Nigeria Shippers Council has been the Ports Economic Regulator for two years. How would you appraise the journey so far?
The journey has been extremely eventful. The duty of a regulator, as the name suggests, is to find a balance between the expectations of the government and the expectations of the private sector. A regulator is supposed to create a good working environment for the private sector to thrive. The private sector, especially in maritime industry, is the engine room. The government has no business in business and since the government knows this, it went ahead to privatise the ports to the private sector and from that time, the history of maritime sector in Nigeria has changed positively.
What have been the results?
We have recorded efficiency in our services but there is still a lot of work to be done and I dare say that this work is actually in the domain of government. The government has a duty to provide the right atmosphere for the private sector to thrive. I think the government still has a lot to do and that is why the Nigerian Shippers’ Council continues to say that the government has to provide the enabling environment. The government has to protect and guarantee the protection of the investments of the private sector. On the other hand, the private sector on its own, must be reasonable and responsible.
. Why do you say this?
Some of the actions of the private sector need to be reciprocal and proportionate to what the government has been able to do. The terminals have been operating without the electricity, for example. They generate their own electricity; there is the question of access to the ports, there is the question of the gridlock and so many other things the has not made our ports not too friendly. It is the responsibility of the government to come and solve these problems. I advocate that the government would sit down with the operators, the shipping companies, the terminal operators, the Freight forwarders and all the stakeholders in order to fashion out a Marshal Plan for the ports.
. You have always canvassed reducing the cost and time of doing business in our ports. How far have you gone on this?
We are mindful of our global standing, World Bank standing, rating and ranking. Nigeria has to increase her global and index of doing business at her ports. Stakeholders should come together so that all of us will brain storm and have the same target, we must work as a team. But for now, we are going about it in different ways and I think with more empowering of Nigerian Shippers Council, we will be able to bring this together. The crux of the matter is automation, our ports need to be automated, so that we don’t do things manually. Even the presence of people at the ports is a source of friction and also of corruption. If systems are deployed, you will see that everything is transparent. Transparency means that all payments are seen, all transactions are seen. You will be able to assess, evaluate and see what everybody is doing at the same time. Where there is inefficiency, you immediately pick the relevant organisation that is responsible.
. What are the highlights of this year’s Maritime Seminar for Judges?
This years’ Maritime Seminar for Judges is coming up on May 31 and end on June 1. As you know, there are lots of contemporaneous issues that have come up which our Judges must know. The essence of this seminar is to update the knowledge of our judges on contemporary issues in admiralty law, so that they will be conversant with the law. When we have an investor, he will look at how quick or how timeous our Judges will determine or resolve commercial disputes when they arise. What they will do in this very complex issue of admiralty law. Because of the training the judges have received through this seminar, Nigerian judgments are now very well respected internationally and I think that we have achieved that purpose. But the idea is that we are always bringing new challenges to the Judges and I am sure that everybody has acknowledged that this seminar is not just a shop talk, it is a seminar that has influenced policy, it a seminar that has influenced law and it is also a seminar that has made for the domestication of international conventions .
. What do we expect at the seminar?
In this edition of the seminar, we have a lot of issues to discuss. As usual we start with introduction to maritime law, admiralty Jurisdictions for new Judges of Federal High Court. We also have electronic evidence in admiralty practice which is a very novel issue in e- commerce. We want to see how e- commerce is jumping more than legislation and how we have to adjudicate on this. We have a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr. Olumide Shofowora who will speak on this. We also have a topic on addressing African Cyber challenges which will be discussed by the Commissioner African maritime Safety and Security Agency, We have the role of the Council as a port economic regulator. What is even more important the continued international adaptation of this seminar. For example, we have the Chief Justice of Sierra Leone, the Chief Justice of the Gambia, the Chief Justice of Ghana, all coming for this seminar. They have already indicated their interest. The Minister of Transportation, Rt. Hon. Rotimi Amechi will give the Keynpote Address while the Chief Ernest Shonekan will chair the event. So we expect a very robust seminar this year.
. Considering that maritime business is an international business, how do you think international conventions, protocols and treaties affect and influence our domestic maritime trade?
We are talking about international domain, but first of all we always talk of a Nigeria that is for the unification of maritime laws. If maritime trade is international, then its laws have to be unified. You can’t have different countries operating different legal regimes. So what we do is that we negotiate among countries about the laws, trade or carriage conventions that are appropriate tools for our own nature . We are a cargo owning country for now and so, we have to support those international conventions that will give priority to cargo, which will favour the cargo owning countries.
. How is the change agenda of the Federal Government affecting the role of the Shippers Council as a port economic regulator?
The Shippers Council is in sinc with what is happening. It is just the agenda of the NSC. We are happy to have a robust administration up to Ministerial level. If you know the Minister, you will know that he is an action man and so is the Shippers Council. What shippers Council is doing is to be a viable economic agency.
By John Austin Unachukwuon