The ‘public Spirit’ has been defined as ‘(the taking of) an active interest in public welfare or the good of the community’- [Collins Dictionary].
By this concept, good and public spirited individuals are moved to play active roles in setting aright the affairs of society or reforming it wherever breaches occur. It is the attitude of putting oneself to task to evolve a good society and thereby bequeath to the next generation a better one.
Suffices to say that not everyone who comes to the public space to seek a role can be said to possess this altruistic character, results and beneficial outcomes in the forms of public goods and welfare are adjudged as criteria to distinguish individuals imbued with this spirit from those who are not.
When this concept is in short supply, the nation and the society suffer setback: corruption, graft, malfeasance and crimes become the order of the day.
It is the dearth of the public spirit that brings about the collusion of a nation’s elite class with ‘outsiders’ to devour voraciously resources that could have been channeled into priming their own human and natural endowments and assets, thereby sacrificing the fortune and development of such nation at the altar of personal greed.
The above consequences related to the absence of the altruistic public spirit have been the lots of Nigeria as a country for decades. This has led to a situation of ‘acturus purus’ (potentials not realized). However, there have been flashes of brilliance in some sectors of our national life inspired by individuals who have demonstrated this spirit beyond doubt and which continue to give hope of a better tomorrow.
This is where the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) under the able leadership of Hadiza Bala Usman comes into focus.
That her involvement in the public space was informed by the desire to right the wrongs and enjoin what is fair and good all in the interest of the public was testified to by her being instrumental in raising the conscience of the entire nation to a calamity that was unfolding then in the form of the kidnap of the Chibok girls by Boko Haram.
It was the alarm sounded by her and her colleagues through the ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ campaign that woke up the entire nation and indeed the world to the horror that was being unleashed on Nigerian citizens of that part of the country under the Jonathan administration. The campaign went on to become global and once brought to the front burner of developmental issues the day to day plight of the girl-child.
Her appointment in 2016 as the Managing Director of the Nigerian Ports Authority was the most dramatic. Despite her experiences in the public sphere as a staff of the Bureau of Public Enterprise (BPE), the UNDP (United Nations Development Program) and as a Chief of Staff to the Kaduna State Government, there was a huge cry as to her experience and competence to man a sphere of the Nigerian economic space that is considered highly volatile, full of intrigues and a designated space ‘for men only’. However, events since her appointment in 2016 have proven that she was by all standards equal to the task.
One of her first acts at sanitising the NPA was her push for accountability in the manner of revenue accruable to the Federal Government.
Against the belief by most Nigerians and especially operators at that sector that some highly placed individuals who have monopolised majority of the operations at the ports and who were considered as untouchables, Hadiza did the almost impossible by uncovering the graft perpetrated by this behemoth player and ensured that appropriate penalty was dealt the defaulter to the surprise and admiration of all, even her nay-Sayers!
That singular act of insisting on accountability created ripple effects for which other smaller players in that sector remained forever grateful, as it neutralised the monopoly hitherto enjoyed by the axed player and set up a democratised atmosphere of business at the nation’s ports where all players are able to soar without recourse to ‘connections’ but by diligent adherence to the rules of the game. From that point where it seems a Gordian knot has been untied, the atmosphere became set for laying the foundations for the repositioning of the Ports Authority, and it is to this onerous task that Hadiza Bala Usman has addressed herself ever since.
Repositioning the Ports for Better and Greater Output
Ports facilities upgrade: One of the most noticed impact of her stewardship at the NPA geared towards reforming and attracting more patronage for Nigerian ports, was the continuous upgrade of facilities at all the ports in the country. Facilities upgrade is essential for the ports to fully play their roles of efficient cargo-handling, ships-servicing as well as a potential base for development for maritime-related activities among others.
Spread of development across the ports in the country: While other ports around the country suffer neglect and the Lagos ports became over-burdened with activities leading to grid-locks and congestion among other socio-economic problems, it was the genius of Hadiza Bala Usman to embark once again on a ‘venture’ most people will dismiss as impossible. This involves the revitalization of the other ports in the country such as the Calabar, Delta, Warri, Onne, and Port Harcourt ports. Funds were budgeted for dredging among other activities and with this development, the spread of maritime activities and services is expected to rise and spread across the country, the much touted linkage of the hinterlands of the country through the waterways is also being expected, while the role of Nigerian ports are expected to rise significantly in trade and economic matters in both West and Central Africa especially in the light of the new Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA).
Enhancement of security and reduction of crimes in the sector: With extant threats such as piracy, theft, illegal bunkering among others remaining high security concerns, her engagement of the PFSOs (Ports Facility Security Officers) on intelligence gathering and information sharing with relevant security agencies for effective maritime security has been commendable.
Even while some responsibilities fall outside her purview but are connected to the overall success of the maritime industry, Hadiza Bala Usman is not the type to keep quiet or show unconcern. This explains her outbursts most of the time to her colleagues even when by hierarchy she falls beneath their rank as a subordinate. A case in point was her outcry over the running out of space at various ports due to overtime cargoes. She typically took the bull by the horn with a call out to the Transportation Ministry and the Nigerian Customs Services (NCS) offering valuable suggestion of how an ‘on-the-spot’ auctioning of the overdue cargoes can easily facilitate decongestion at the ports.
The vision to move Nigerian ports to a point where they become the ports of destination for goods bound for West and Central Africa by removing all encumbrances and infusing technology, professionalism and openness in governance has been the driving force behind her passion that the nation should get it right.
Blocking revenue leakages, fighting graft and democratising the business environment: Apart from exposing graft and corruption in the forms of diversion or hiding of revenue accruable to the Federal Government, and/or refusal to pay appropriate amount on businesses operated on the premises of the NPA by some terminal operators, Hadiza Bala Usman not only ensured that these unremitted revenue were repatriated back to the coffers of the Federal Government through the TSA (Treasury Single Account), but that appropriate sanctions were dealt to defaulters and a new regime of transparency was instituted making it difficult for such ugly regimes to come back. Record revenue theft by some terminal operators were exposed to the tune of billions of dollars.
For example, a $24.1 million unremitted revenue; a 6 million Euro; and a $5.4 million all hidden away from the government were repatriated in 2017. This is apart from the fact that over N250 billion debts owed the NPA were recovered under her stewardship. But perhaps the singular most important discovery of malfeasance which she dealt with professionally was the $952 million revenue accruable to the government since 2010 held unpaid by an influential terminal operator at the Onne Ports terminal, alongside another N3.3 billion as rent owed the NPA by the same operator; all of these have since been repatriated and the defaulting operator sanctioned.
As a measure to stem the tide of graft, Hadiza Bala Usman is not only introducing technology for tracking government revenue and budget in real time, but also turning over the leaves to sanitize un-professional procurement practices which privileged certain individuals and serve as cloaks for the reign of corruption. In all these she has remained modest as she marches on with the task of reforms she has set her mind to achieve.
With a system where the procedures are known to all and information sharing are democratized, the monopoly held by some operators/players became broken and compliance with the rules rather than ‘connections’ has since become the ingredient of success for other players who have hitherto suffered marginalisation. In addition to dealing blows at privileges not arrived at by any dint of hard-work, honesty, or pure professional conduct, but by political patronage, Hadiza Bala Usman is currently activating appropriate statutes and instruments around the concession agreements between the government and the concessionaires with the focus to cause a review of the activities of the terminal operators and scale up the quality of services they render to the public or face appropriate legal sanctions as envisaged by the agreements. This is no doubt sending shivers down the spine of those who have for long taken the concession for granted and have been treating public trust as personal entitlements.
The Human Angle: Upon the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic with the world faced by reduced activities, and with many countries shutting down their ports, Hadiza’s response to the pandemic was exemplary as she not only kept the ports functional, but also averted outbreaks from that end of the nation’s space through innovative ideas.
The first of these ideas was to identify vessels of Asian origin where the pandemic was intense at the time and asked that they be diverted away from the country. The second measure was that terminal operators were prevailed upon to suspend all applicable terminal storage fees on all consignment for an initial period of 21 days which was subsequently re-scheduled again to prevent businesses from being hit by port charges. This humane consideration in turn prevented household incomes from being eroded as these cost of demurrage would have been transferred to the households by the businesses. The third of these measures was the donation of a hotel in Abuja as a quarantine center for incoming actors connected to the sector. This measure not only speaks to the corporate social responsibility (CSR) of the NPA, but also to the humanist sense of its Managing Director.
Long-term strategic focus: In order to properly situate all these activities at reforming and developing the ports further, and for the purposes of instituting an enduring system based on transparency, accountability, productivity and an egalitarian culture, the Hadiza Bala Usman administration of the NPA is in the process of unveiling a 25-years plan for the irrepressible growth of the nation’s ports so that revenue generation, employment creation, and great growth in maritime activities can be assured: and this is being awaited by many players in the sector both nationals and non-nationals.
In the end, it will not be out of place to refer to that popular idiom which says that what a man can do, a woman can do better.
There is no doubt that women are poised to, and are beginning to play great and important role in societies and nations these days, thereby narrowing down gaps of physiological differences especially in an age where the possession of skills such as technical, leadership and emotional skills dominate the workplace.
The world has witnessed the rise of many trail-blazers among women whose experience and knowledge helped revived and stabilized distraught societies and nations. Ellen Sirleaf Johnson’s years as President of Liberia brought the country back from the ruins of years of war wrought by the hands of men. Kamala Harris is today the second most important citizen of the world by virtue of her being the Vice President of the United States of America!
Nigeria’s Amina Muhammad currently deputizes the United Nations Secretary General, Mr. Guterres, while Ngozi Okonjo Iweala eventually pulled the Director-Generalship of the WTO (World Trade Organization) against all odds.
Back home in Nigeria, another woman-genius is silently mapping out what would turn out to be another landmark in the list of achievements by women. Since coming to the NPA in 2016, Hadiza Bala Usman had her eyes set on leaving a legacy of sanity, probity, egalitarianism and development at the nation’s maritime sector. And the consensus of opinion has been that so far she has been on the right track. Here is to a young achiever whose innocent dedication continues to tear down barriers to development and the upliftment of the people. The nation is one more time lucky to have such an altruistic public spirited figure man its public space