New Dawn at NPA - THISDAY
Eromosele Abiodun writes on the significance of appointing Akin Ricketts into the board of the Nigerian Ports Authority
Stakeholders in the nation’s bourgeoning maritime sector are excited about the new board members recently appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari for the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA).
In particular, the appointment of Chief Akin Ricketts as the Chairman of the NPA Board is seen by several operators and investors as a deliberate effort by the president to deepen the reforms already started by the current management of the NPA led by the Managing Director, Hadiza Bala-Usman.
Persons familiar with the sector insist that the combination Ricketts and Bala-Usman is a masterstroke of sorts in the bid to leverage the goodwill and the buy-in of diverse interests and competences in the maritime sector and beyond, to broaden the reforms.
It is no secret that since assuming office about four years ago, as the first female (and the youngest ever) MD of the NPA, Bala-Usman speedily reinvigorated and repositioned the nation’s ports, a veritable alternative source of foreign exchange earnings for Nigeria at a time of rapidly declining income from the traditional source – oil and gas export. In record time, under Bala-Usman the much-desired culture of transparency and accountability was instituted in the once opaque administration of the nation’s ports authority. Determined to wean NPA of its history of corruption, indolence, ineptitude and sharp practices, shortly after assuming office, the Bala-Usman administration introduced the tracking of the budget and finances of NPA by signing an agreement with the budget tracking and transparency organisation, making the NPA the first government-controlled revenue generating agency in the country to open its books and accounts to the civil society and the public for monitoring and scrutiny.
In line with the strategic agenda of ridding the NPA of corruption and stem huge revenue losses, Bala-Usman insisted on the dogged and uncompromising adherence to the Treasury Single Account (TSA) policy of the federal government.
Indeed, the administration uncovered and exposed the fact that about N11.2 billion that belong to NPA were still domiciled in commercial banks in clear contravention of extant financial policy of the federal government. It was similarly discovered that about six million Euros, being revenue generated by the NPA that should have been remitted into the Federation Account, were illegally held in separate accounts in a number of commercial banks and another $23 million was also found in another commercial bank. Being a member of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Anti-corruption, Bala-Usman was expectedly resolute about redressing the inherited tardiness in the financial accounting processes in NPA. Of course the scattered funds of the authority have since been properly accounted for and turned over to the Single Treasury Account of the Federal Government.
Ease of Doing Business
Equally placed on the front burner of the reform efforts at the NPA was the resolve to improve the ease of doing business in the nation’s ports in line with the up-to-date global practices and pursuant to the Executive Order signed by the then Acting President, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo. On this score, the NPA management team commenced the review of the Exclusive Port Concession policy of the Federal Government of Nigeria, which is about 10 years old. A critical component of this review was the freeing up of the nation’s seaports from the suffocating grip (as well as the whims and caprices) of a few powerful operators who have been enjoying operational monopoly under the less than transparent Exclusive Concession Agreement. This old system clearly negates the globally acclaimed standards in a free market economy; and worse still, verifiable facts have severally shown that this old system of monopoly and unfair benefit encouraged corruption and huge loss of revenue that is accruable to the Federal Government through the NPA. For example, under the old order of monopolistic concession, some terminal operators were known to have colluded with some high-ranking, albeit corrupt, NPA officials to create a cartel that ensured that all oil and gas cargoes were directed to their terminals alone under the exclusive concession agreement. However, with the termination of monopoly under the Exclusive Concession Agreement, all qualified port operators with requisite capacity can now compete favourably and on a uniformed footing for cargoes to be discharged at their terminals.
The NPA is now enhancing Nigeria’s foreign exchange earnings through the introduction of fast track desks for easy export of solid minerals and agricultural products in the country’s seaports. This move alone has reduced to a reasonable level the time it takes for miners and farmers to export their products through the ports. This is just a few of the numerous reforms that have been introduced by the Bala-Usman administration at the NPA.
As would be expected, the series of reforms that Bala-Usman introduced at the NPA ruffled very big feathers. Formidable and entrenched interests seem to have been speedily routed and dislodged from the nation’s ports; the monopolists who have for decades been raking in huge income and yielding very little to the federal government, are expectedly enraged and are fighting back ferociously on all fronts. In her own peculiar way, Bala-Usman has also been resisting the punches being thrown at her. However, credible sources said President Buhari believes that the MD of NPA needs help hence the appointment of Ricketts to support Bala-Usman at NPA. Like most reform-minded persons, Bala-Usman, may have in some instances thrown the baby out with the bathwater. It is feared that the MD of NPA may have consciously or unconsciously made too many enemies and a number of them may have started coalescing to haunt not just the operations of the Port but indeed the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari.
Securing buy-in of stakeholders
To this end, it is believed that Ricketts’ job at NPA is already cut out for him: to secure the all-important buy-in of critical stakeholders in the on-going reforms in the nation’s Ports.
“The current NPA management under Bala-Usman has done very well but she needs to be strengthened. The President believes Ricketts will provide that much needed buffer for Bala-Usman. Ricketts came highly recommended and so he was carefully selected by President Buhri to play that role,”a Director in the Federal Ministry of Transportation confided.
On this score, people who know Ricketts have said President Buhari has placed a round peg in a round hole. Ricketts, they added, would not bend the rules for you, he somehow manages to win you to his side most of the time.
“He will be bringing on board the NPA, colossal experience in virtually all human endevours: maritime, construction, farming, procurement in the nation’s oil and gas sector, media and strategic communication, politics and public administration and much more, said a maritime expert.
Like someone recently noted, it is fortuitous that President Buhari is returning Ricketts to the sea where several generations of Ricketts bestrode like colossus for several decades.
“The Ricketts have a long history with the ports which dates back over a century and Akin Ricketts, a third generation Ricketts, may just be fulfilling his destiny with this new appointment as board chairman of the NPA,”the maritime expert stated.
The rich history of the Ricketts family’s involvement in the nation’s maritime sector started from an African-American Missionary to the Congo, Rev. John Edward Ricketts, a black Baptist minister from Stewart Town, Jamaica, who was born in 1857 in the Caribbean Island of Jamaica. The Ricketts family pioneered indigenous water transportation services in Nigeria and stayed in the business for almost a century. Akin Ricketts is a third generation Ricketts.
“At a point, the Ricketts fleet had about 14 boats, which were given exotic names like Charity, Endeavour, Harmony, Duty, Labour, Tax (a double decker), and Service, and the routes included Epe, Ikorodu, Okitipupa, and Sapele,” Ricketts recalled.
“There were no roads, so people relied more on water transport to get from their locations to the markets especially. Our ferries were a large percentage of the vessels in operation. When the Lagos-Ikorodu road was opened in 1952, people found the travel time shorter, and there was a gradual shift; expectedly, the company’s income began to dip. It wound down its operations in 1964,”he said.
A chieftain of the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) in his home State, Cross Rivers State, Ricketts enjoys huge following in the state, especially the Ugep community where he was conferred with the revered traditional title of ObolNkama 1 of Ugep over three decades ago. The traditional title means the ‘defender’, ‘protector’ and ‘provider’ based on his populist philosophical slogan of his political genealogy as grandson of Late Chief (Sir) Noel Ofem, the first paramount ruler of Old Yakurr and member of the House of Chiefs representing Old Abakaliki Province in the Eastern Region.
“My late grandfather was a staunch political associate of First Republic President, Dr. NnamdiAzikiwe and also worked closely with political heavyweights like Chief Michael Okpara, Eze (Dr.) Sir Francis Ibiam, MbonuEjike, among others,” Ricketts disclosed.
Mandate at NPA
Reflecting on his mandate at the NPA, Ricketts is unequivocal about his resolve to help deepen the on-going reforms at the NPA with a view to improving efficiency and broadening the income generating capacity of the nation’s Ports.
“In line with the determination of Mr. President to expand the country’s economic base, an efficient and effective port system is needed where all stakeholders are confident about receiving prompt and seamless attention, where vessels berth efficiently and cargo are evacuated smoothly. This is more so when we consider the size of Nigeria’s economy, its population and the prime position that it holds on the African continent as well as the global maritime space. It is therefore the determination of the new Board to ensure the continuous improvement of the state of equipment at the ports, ensuring the effective management of channel depths as well as the constant upgrading of port infrastructure,”Ricketts said.
Reputedly incorruptible and firm, Ricketts served as the Commissioner for Information in Cross Rivers State under Governor Liyel Imoke. He, however, crossed over to the ruling All Progressives Congress where he successfully secured the party’s ticket for the Cross Rivers State Central Senatorial District in the last general elections. Said to be widely connected, stakeholders in the maritime sector are confident that Ricketts will bring his enormous goodwill to bear as the NPA set out to deepen on-going reforms in the nation’s ports authority.