Acting MD, NPA, Mohammed Bello-Koko

Five months after his appointment, acting Managing Director of the Nigerian Ports Authority NPA, Mohammed Bello-Koko has recorded landmark achievements in terms of making the seaports more efficient and user-friendly. These range from reducing Apapa gridlock, introducing multi-modal cargo movement system through barge operations and addressing the issue of empty containers, which before now, dotted the streets of Lagos, among others. In this recent interview, he disclosed that NPA is working with the Federal Ministry of Transport to rebuild the existing port facilities, especially in Lagos to address inherent limitations and enhance their ability to handle larger vessels for economies of scale.

What are doing to reduce the pressure on Lagos Ports especially optimising use of Eastern Ports?

There are many other ports outside Lagos. Naturally, we have the Calabar, Warri, Onne and Rivers Ports. Also, let me clear this fact, NPA cannot decide for consignees (importers) where they will take their cargoes to, and we understand that about 70 per cent of the cargoes coming into Nigeria comes through Lagos. There is a high concentration of industries probably whether it is Lagos or Ogun and so on. It is only most likely that any importer of any raw material that is going to those factories in Lagos or Ogun will actually bring them in through the Lagos Ports. However, what we have done is to offer tariff incentives in those port locations so that it will encourage shipping lines and importers to also bring in their cargoes through those ports and it has started working and we have seen a gradual careful increase in the tonnage and we are hoping there will be a jump but we are not seeing that jump yet, however, within this month, we will also start looking at the tariffs that we have offered in those locations, we have encouraged the use of flat bottom vessels to come into Calabar and other locations and we have seen that that has started coming in.

The three seaports have common issues, firstly Warri Port is about 109kms away from the ocean so that means from the beginning of the channel to the port in Warri is about 109kms, the Calabar Port is 101kms, Port Harcourt Port, Rivers State is bout 69klms and Lagos is about 9.2kms. The implication here is like you travelling from the fairway buoy which is a market where you say this is the beginning of the ocean and this is the end of it and that’s where NPA’s pilots brings in the vessels to berth at port, it means travel time is longer, maintaining the channel is more expensive, siltation is also very high and it also means that there are security issues in that part of the country unfortunately. The ports in Lagos you can take in and out your vessel anytime of the day or night but in that part of the country there is a little window in the morning and afternoon where you can take in or out the vessels.

Each of those ports have other issues like Warri Port has a breakwater that has collapsed probably nine to 10 years ago. The breakwater is a physical infrastructure that is built in the sea to break the sea waves into the channel and also to reduce sedimentation and siltation into the channel. Also, in Warri Port, a pipe that is about seven meters buried which is an NNPC pipeline and that means you cannot dredge deeper than seven meters with economy of scale that means you cannot bring bigger vessels. As for Calabar, its distance is far away from the port, the dredging there hasn’t been done for so long. There’s also a court matter between NPA and the last company that was given the dredging contract. We are working to resolve it out of court.

Meanwhile, in Warri, there was a remedial dredging that was done four years back or so and this year we are working on it and we hope that within this year there will be remedial dredging in some certain locations in the Belmark, which is the entrance into the channel that will help us to bring in bigger vessels. Rivers Port lifespan has already expired, the berth was built with sheet piles when it was built in the 1940s or 50s, so there are limitation as to how deep you can actually dredge that part and these days everybody wants to bring in bigger vessels we understand it is cheaper, it brings more but there is no port location in Nigeria that has more than 13.5 meters and that is why we are seeing the Lekki Deep Sea Port as the saving grace and we just can’t wait for it to come on board. The first phase of the port will have 16.5 meters so that means any vessels that draws 15meters or so can come into that port and then the marine businesses that we have been losing to neighbouring countries will actually start coming back into Nigeria, the second phase of Lekki deep sea port will take the draft that are up to 20 meters, which means the channel will also be deeper than 20 meters, but there is a plan. Currently, NPA is working with the Federal Ministry of Transport which has requested NPA to sit down with the terminal operators to think out how to reconstruct the ports in Lagos and reconstruction here means not just the physical infrastructure. You also need to have better equipment, better IT systems that will improve efficiency and that discussion has been going on.

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

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 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 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.

On assumption of duty as MD, how did feel seeing the seeming intractable traffic on the roads?

The first thing I did on assumption of duty was to look at the current traffic management 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, 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 mins to 20 mins they also get a plate number 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 jus

There is this allegation of N100million extortion daily on port roads. How can you track those behind it?

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 name of officers posted to each checkpoints. We believed 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 curtailed 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 ports 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 eto infrastructure has not been deployed in the area.

As part of efforts to deploy the electronic call up system, about 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 the Eto infrastructure which include automated gating systems and other 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 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.

On a scale of 1-100%, how many containers are moved in and out of the ports by barges?

We currently have issued about 59 barge licenses to different companies that applied to be given these licenses and they have various sizes of barges and some of the are either self-propelled while others use tug boats. What we did was to encourage the movement of cargoes whether the import or empty containers from one part of the port to the other or to off dock locations and bonded terminals, we can say approximately about 10-15per cent of the cargo are moved by barges. There is an increase now and that is very minimal, imagine if you are taking off 500 trucks off the road and if you look at it in quantum, we held a meeting with barge operators and we said we look at the safety standards of the barges, we need to increase the activities of barge operators and we are encouraging them to come together and find funding. If we need to get involved we need to look at the quality of their barges, no problem, but just as we have created minimum safety standards for trucks, we have just created one for barge operators.

Do the barges also have a call-up system like the trucks?

I told you we have started developing a call up system for barges and the PPP department of NPA is working on that. Currently, there are some proposals to that, the same way we have call up system for trucks; we are also going to have one for barges.

There are multiple government agencies at the ports. How does this affect NPA’s operations?

Let’s remember that in May 2017 there was this Presidential directive in terms of Ease of Doing Business and the essence of that was to ensure reduction of bureaucratic bottlenecks that affect operations within the seaports. It is also to improve transparency within the ports and also for the ports to operate on 24-hour basis. All the government agencies working within the ports are supposed to work together, they are supposed to collapse their activities into one like an umbrella. I think about eight agencies of the government or so were allowed to work within the ports; when a vessel comes in, they are supposed to go and board the vessel at the same time and currently I can confirm to you that we have that in place and then there is supposed to be a bus-in bus-out both for dock workers and what have you; the NPA is the agency of government that is providing for the movement of vessel in and out. It also inspects the vessels. So, such collaboration has actually improved tremendously; we have seen that it has reduced the waiting time of vessels before the terminal operators start offloading the vessel so that collaboration is in place and that has improved drastically. As for multiple government agencies having different checkpoints, that is in place in some ports, you have instances where an agency of government has a checkpoint here and then another one and another one but collaboration with these government agencies has helped in such incidences. There are cases whereby a container has been inspected at point A that’s where it is supposed to be inspected and then another government agency stops it and then inspects it again and keeps it there for 30 minutes.

What assurance can you give to Nigerians that things will be better soon?

Let me just say something statistically; in May, we had probably about 20,000 trucks in and out of Apapa and Tin Can axis, but by last month, we had over 50,000 and that shows here that there is an improvement. Again, ask those that live in Apapa; the residents of Apapa; we feel their pains, we understand what they are going through but I can say they can get home faster now and easier. For the trucks, we have observed slight reduction in cost of trucking this is because they are not spending longer time at Apapa axis. We have met with the Federal Ministry of Works and the Director of Works in Lagos State and the contractors and we are pleading that they work on the Tin Can axis of that road and if they are able to sort out the bad portions between Sunrise and Mr Biggs and so on, then that will improve traffic. Let me restate here that we are not sleeping. We want to ensure that everything that needs to be done will be done and we have assured TTP, the contractor that deployed the Eto infrastructure that if they do not sit up, we will provide a second application to serve as competitor to them, probably competition will make TTP sit up. So, I’m giving them one month to ensure that all the physical infrastructure that needs to be at the satellite truck parks is there.

Even with all these infrastructure, how do you ensure that the truckers comply so that the system works?

We met with the truckers about three weeks ago and I asked them to speak their minds and that nobody would penalise them and that was when they came with the report that an account was opened and that money is being collected through POS and we realised that the truckers were not using the app on their phone rather they go to the POS and that when you pay the TTP, then you collect a commission. This is why we are coming up with sensitisation to help them sort this out and we will flush out all the bad eggs among them so that the system will work.