I faced hostility as young woman heading NPA – Bala-Usman

Former Managing Director of the Nigerian Ports Authority, Hadiza Bala-Usman talks to ALEXANDER OKERE about the opposition she faced at the NPA, the allegation of missing N156bn, her removal from office and her current relationship with a former Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi

The release of your memoir, ‘Stepping on toes’, has been greeted by diverse reactions, could you share the comments you found most interesting?

I wouldn’t say I focused on the reactions. For me, what was important was to get it out there. There are various reactions but I can’t say any reaction struck me differently. There were public officers who gave an account of their experience in the public sector while some felt some of these (pieces) of information should not be out there.

What informed the title of the book?

The title was recommended and I thought it was suitable because, in the course of some of the reforms I carried out, I was seen to have stepped on toes. Some of the entrenched interests felt my actions stepped on their toes and these are politically influential people. That was why I chose that title, ‘Stepping on toes’.

In the memoir, you mentioned that the then Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, offered you the position of the MD of NIMASA but you declined and instead, you recommended Dakuku Peterside. Why did you decline the offer?

I felt that at that point it was imperative for him to make a recommendation from the Rivers State team because they had lost the governorship election and his team was not seen to be encouraged. So, it was important for that appointment to go to the team.

Some felt you rejected it because you felt it was too small for you. What do you make of that?

At that time, NPA was not even on the table. The MD got reappointed by President Muhammadu Buhari and the MD had barely been there for six months. Clearly, there was no inkling that the person would be removed for another person to be appointed.

You noted in the book that the President was ready to keep you in your position, which necessitated the renewal of your tenure. Do you think the President was deceived into approving your removal from office, having earlier insisted that you should be given a fair hearing?

I wouldn’t know what informed his decision to appoint another MD. The content of the report of the panel and the indictment as I detailed in the book was clear. So, I did not commit what they alleged. That was clear. Of course, I found it baffling that that was done, but for me, it had less to do with being reappointed as the managing director and more to do with the fact that the allegations levelled against me, of monies being unaccounted for, were not substantiated by the panel. That is more important to note.

Did that experience somewhat prove to you the rumoured powerful forces that will always have their way in the presidency?

I wouldn’t say that. I refuse to delve into opinions or perceptions of things I don’t have documentary evidence of. So, I’m not aware of that but you will never know.

When you were eventually removed, why didn’t you make efforts to see the President so you could set the record straight or for him to reverse your removal?

I met with the President several times and I have been meeting with the President even after he appointed someone else, so the President and I have a good relationship. I engaged him on my suspension and he looked at the documentation as it were but as I keep repeating, for me it was not to retain my position at the NPA but more to affirm that the allegations made against me were not proven by the panel.

What did the President say about your suspension and eventual removal?

We had discussions which bordered on personal issues; I have known the President way before my appointment at the NPA; he is a friend to my father, so a lot of our conversations centered on personal engagements not about my suspension or the issue of the NPA. The President is someone I remain very close to and have regard for.

Some people might wonder why you didn’t take advantage of your meeting with the President to enquire about that or set the record straight?

For me, setting the record straight was not for me to be reappointed but for me to have in the public space that I was alleged to have misappropriated N165bn and the panel set up did not indict me. For me, that was fundamental. One of the things the President further did was to direct the minister to make available to me the allegations against me, which provided an opportunity for me to clarify my position and for it to be in the public space.

To a large extent, many people would have believed that N165bn was indeed unremitted and not everyone would bother to know the outcome, why didn’t you consider going to court, perhaps to challenge the defamation?

You mentioned that a lot of people believed that the money was missing. A panel was constituted and it worked for eight months to determine whether those monies were unremitted and the panel came out to say that the monies and even more were remitted. So, for people to think they will continue promoting a false narrative in spite of the fact that a panel constituted by the Minister of Transportation came out with the report that there was no such thing, I find that false. I am not going to engage with people that insist on perpetrating falsehood, because the truth is clear. More importantly, with the way we operated at the NPA, it was impossible for government money to go missing. This was why we insisted on the payment of all accruing revenues into the Treasury Single Account. These accounts are domiciled with the Central Bank of Nigeria. So, it can only be a matter of reconciliation and not anyone stealing. As I explained in the book, the reconciliation of operating surpluses is carried out at the end of every audit exercise. It’s important to get this straight. The money was in the TSA account at the CBN. The issue of going to court is immaterial to the outcome of the panel. Go to court over what; defamation of character? The panel has said there is no money missing, so what am I challenging, and who am I challenging in the court process?

Who exactly was against you?

It was the (former) Minister of Transportation. As stated in my book, he had said to me that he wanted me to leave the position, and getting me suspended was the first step towards that and he felt my suspension would last till we got into politics (electioneering for the general elections) and the President and everyone would forget that I had been suspended. He has got what he wanted by removing me and having me out of the NPA.

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What do you think was your offence?

Well, as I also stated in the book, he may have felt there was an issue of insubordination when he felt I was engaging with the President directly. There were areas where he had a contrary opinion on certain procedural things which I felt were out of line with the regulation that guide public procurement and tender processes. So, that may be his reason but I really do not know why he would want me removed.

Do you think he was being egocentric?

I’m not sure it’s about being egocentric; it’s more about being procedural. As I referenced during the panel (session), every time I responded to a letter written to me by the presidency, the presidency received it. So, at no point was I told not to meet with the President or that my response to the presidency was done outside the communication channel. So, as I mentioned in my book, a lot of the letters and communications with the President were actually initiated by the presidency asking the NPA to provide information and clarification, so I didn’t see anything wrong with responding to a request for information by the Office of the President. Indeed, if that communication channel was seen to be wrong, I felt that I should have been written to and notified and that even if they wrote to me, I should not write to them in reply.

The former minister resigned to contest the presidential primary, which he did not win. Do you think the President should have reappointed him given that they were close?

I really don’t have any thoughts on that; it has to do with what the President believes is in the best interest of the sector.

Were you happy that he lost the primary?

I supported somebody that won.

Did you support Bola Tinubu?


Do you think Amaechi would have been a good President if he had won the primary and the presidential election?

I think not securing the ticket has addressed that. I am indifferent to it. The delegates chose Tinubu.

What is your relationship with him (Amaechi) now?

As I mentioned in my book, I appreciate him for giving me the appointment and I have a good working relationship with him.

Have you spoken with him recently?

Yes, I saw him at an event and we exchanged pleasantries. I haven’t seen him since the release of the book but since I left office, I met him on occasions and we exchanged pleasantries.

Did you talk about your differences?

No, I’m not sure we have differences. I don’t think it’s personal to me; I think it’s official. I don’t consider what happened as differences. I consider it as something more official in terms of his perspective of what should be done and I have my perspective. What I discussed in the book are things that are in the public. I don’t think there is much of what is in that book that hasn’t been in the public media in the last one year. They are facts compiled into one book. I think that is what makes the difference. I don’t think, for example, the minister or anyone would be fundamentally shocked if they had been following NPA’s reform from when I came.

Were there people who felt you didn’t play the right politics as the MD of the NPA?

What I don’t understand is playing politics in what way? For example, playing politics is saying that Intels should participate in a procurement process or saying you don’t extend a contract for one year after it has expired? I don’t see what is political about getting companies to do what is right in the interest of the government and complying with the rules and regulations.

Did people put you under pressure to compromise your work?

Absolutely! But I don’t compromise.

Do you think you stepped on Amaechi’s toes?

I don’t think I did. If people believe that, so be it. What is fundamental is that these are actions that I stand by in line with the guidelines.

Nigerian ports, especially the Lagos ports, are bedeviled with many issues, from port congestion to the time it takes for vessels to berth and allegations of extortion by the different agencies there. How did things degenerate to that shameful level?

When you speak about congestion at the port, which will mean congestion regarding access into the port and out, I stated in the book the challenges we had and the solution that was provided. I deployed an e-call up system when I was there to address the issue of congestion going into the port. We also worked on the deployment of the evacuation of cargo using the waterways, using multi-modal transport – the rail systems were installed. So these are all actions seeking to address the issue of congestion that were deployed primarily in the Tin Can and Apapa areas. Those solutions are there and they were successful; you have seen a reduction in the aspect of congestion in the Apapa area.

When you speak about agents complaining about clearing their cargo, that is an area outside the duties of the NPA. It is an area related to the Nigerian Customs Service, when it comes to the issue of the clearance of cargo, the time it takes for an inspection to be done on a cargo that has arrived. So, there are different legs to this and it is not under the supervision of the Nigerian Ports Authority. But nevertheless, as an agency that works within, we engaged the Customs on the need to fast-track clearance. We requested the deployment of a single window which is supposed to be an effective mechanism for addressing this inability to clear cargoes on time. We also pushed for the introduction of the scanners in the port, which have been installed after my exit from the NPA.

Do you mean the ports are efficient now?

The efficiency has improved, without a doubt, with the deployment of scanners. While I was there, there were no scanners at the ports, so every container had to be inspected physically by the agency of government that is responsible for doing that. So the Customs and every other agency physically opened every container that came. But with the introduction of the scanners, a container would just pass through the scanner, and the agencies of government can sit in their office and view and do the necessary computation.

Naturally, people should be happy about that, do you think those affected are happy?

Everybody wants to see an improvement in the port facilities. Elements that benefit from the inefficiency of government are everywhere within government agencies. A scanner means less human intervention. Where there is less human intervention, you remove the avenue for graft. So naturally, the introduction of electronic mechanisms reduces graft within systems.

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For a long time and up till 2020, there were verified reports that it took vessels about 21 to 25 days to berth due largely to extortion by government agencies. Why was there so much indiscipline in that port complex?

The issue about the berthing of cargo has to do with how long it takes for what has been there to come out. A cargo’s dwelling time before it berths is a function of the availability of yard space within each terminal, which is a function of how fast that is cleared. So following some of the initiatives we deployed, we had a reduction in the waiting time for vessels to berth.

Till the time you left, the aspiration for functional eastern ports remained a dream, whereas it could have helped to decongest the Lagos ports. Do you think there are forces benefitting from that inefficiency?

No, I do not think so. I think it is the connectivity between the eastern port and the final destination of the cargo that challenges people’s utilisation of those locations, in terms of how easy it is for cargo to move from Onne (in Rivers State) to its final destination, and how effective are the facilities there. For example, some of the draft we have in the eastern ports do not allow for larger vessels, which prevents big vessels from going there. Also, the interconnectivity to certain locations, as I mentioned, is a challenge. I don’t see any forces there; it is an issue of what works and is in the interest of the consignee.

The NPA is supposed to be the supervisory agency at the ports. Do you think it’s best if the NPA has some enforcement powers?

No, the NPA’s role, as it is, suffices. The aspect of security is domiciled with the agency that has the skill set and the knowledge to do that; so the NPA has its skeletal security facilities that deal with immediate security needs within the port environment. Beyond that, the NPA does not need to have anything outside what is obtainable.

When things went bad between you and Amaechi, why didn’t your former principal, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, intervene since he brought you both together? A word from him to Amaechi could have made some difference.

I have a very good relationship with him (El-Rufai). He intervened. He spoke to Amaechi, spoke to me, and tried to find a resolution. Mallam El-Rufai, of course, has read the book and he is fine. He is my boss.

The number of women in governance in Nigeria is low, and in the forthcoming 10th Assembly, the number of women has dropped even further. Is this a Nigerian problem, or are women not helping fellow women?

I think there should naturally have been more women that would have emerged within this political circle. The number is not what we had hoped for. We look to see how we can improve by having more appointees in critical positions to bridge the gap from elective positions. Yes, there are constraints around religious and cultural issues which make it challenging for women to emerge in politics.

One of the issues you raised was that the late Isa Funtua doubted your capacity to run the NPA. Do you think it had to do with marginalisation of women in governance in Nigeria or there were other reasons?

He had a reason for that and it’s not a cultural issue.

Are you confident that the Bola Tinubu government, which you also campaigned for, will do things differently and appoint more women into his government?

I think he will. He is someone who promotes women, so I am confident that he will have a significant number of women in his cabinet. I look forward to working, if given an opportunity, and serving the All Progressives Congress government.

About the Adamawa governorship election, where the candidate of your party, Mrs Aishatu Binani, read an acceptance speech when she had not been legally declared as the winner, some people felt that was a minus for women and that it was an act of desperation. What do you think?

I think what happened is that an election was held and it was inconclusive. Another one was done and a candidate was declared (the winner). So, for me, it is about looking at the procedure and the culmination of a legitimate outcome of an election to the extent that the Peoples Democratic Party, which is not my party, won. We will look at the procedure to see if there was legitimacy in the process.

Do you, like many others, feel Binani should not have read an acceptance speech when the Resident Electoral Commissioner who announced her as the winner was not empowered to do so?

Well, I think it was her choice and her advisers’ and what they felt was legally right.

Could she have been wrongly advised?

I don’t know, to the extent that they may have a legal lacuna they are looking at but you can see the outcome of that declaration has been nullified by the Independent National Electoral Commission. At the end of the day, it is the electoral umpire that determines what is legitimate or not.

What challenges did you identify in the NPA that you think the government would need to urgently address to optimise the port system?

I think the issues remain the same – the issues of congestion, port corridors and ensuring efficiency in the berthing of cargoes. Those are issues that remain constant and the need to have an interconnection to the hinterland, inflow, and outflow, using intermodal transportation systems, and looking at pipelines for the distribution of petroleum products. A significant portion of the congestion in Apapa is a function of the tank farms there, not even tied to port operations. That is what some people don’t realise. If you use the pipelines that had hitherto been deployed there to move petroleum products, we will not have those issues. So, efficiency in ports is there; it’s just to amplify the key performance indicators of getting things done.

How did you feel that one of your directors was appointed to replace you?

I wasn’t bothered at all. Moreso, he was a director I had worked with for five years. If anybody will be able to continue with the reforms, he will.

There has been the issue of abandonment of containers at the port, what do you think is the solution to this?

The abandonment of containers has to do with the clearance of cargo. Some of the cargoes are abandoned because they are not cleared – a function of the Customs. So, there are cargo-holding areas in Ikorodu where overtime cargoes are moved to, and consequently, the Customs auction them. These are areas that are within the purview of the Customs and the NPA.

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Despite your reforms and the much you achieved, some people have accused you of abuse of power in the way you allegedly terminated contracts without following due process. How will you respond to that?

Some of the topical contracts I have mentioned in my book and the whole procedure are detailed there. This is the thing – the perception that contracts were terminated – and the minister felt because of the media stories that a contract had been terminated, he put pen to paper and said a contract was terminated when the contract expired. This is part of the misinformation that resulted in a minister writing that a contract was terminated when it was not.

Most Nigerians believe that there is a lot of corruption in the maritime sector. How can it be reduced, or do you think it’s exaggerated?

The deployment of electronic solutions to reduce human intervention is key. The scanner, electronic call-up system, payment platform and all of that can address corruption in the sector. Nigeria is ripe for that, with the right leadership.

Do you really think the attack on the NPA facility during the #EndSARS protest was targeted at you, and for what reason could that be?

I said it was targeted at the regime, and possibly me to a certain extent. But specifically, as I mentioned in the book, my official picture and that of the President were destroyed. I felt there were concerns about the constitution of the board where there was nobody from the South-East and South-West (both executive and non-executive) and all of that triggered a certain extent of animosity.

Do you think you can work with Mr Amaechi sometime in the future or you have yet to forgive him?

I have no issue with him and I don’t think there is anything requiring forgiveness in this. It’s an issue of government procedures not an issue of forgiveness. It’s not personal, it’s work.

Do you think some of the challenges you faced when you were appointed had to do with your gender, especially being the first woman to head the NPA?

I’m not sure the hostility is narrowed to being a woman. The issue of me being female is actually celebrated by women. My being northern, my being seen to be young, and my being someone that was not from the maritime sector created that level of hostility.

Since the release of the memoir, have you received any communication from anybody in Amaechi’s camp or the former minister himself?

No, I haven’t.

Are you concerned that some people may come after you over some of the things you mentioned in the book?

I am not prone to being scared as a person. I have narrated my story and encouraged everyone to also do the same because it gives room for accountability and transparency. It also reduces impunity by public officers. I have no regrets. Anybody that disagrees is free to write their book. My story of what actually transpired would have been lost if I had not written the memoir.

Your appointment by the Buhari regime drew condemnation from some Nigerians who were disappointed that a strong voice in the Bring Back Our Girls Campaign joined a government that had failed to rescue abducted girls. Were you concerned about those criticisms?

It was actually not this (Buhari’s) regime that was supposed to have rescued the Chibok girls. It was during (former President Goodluck) Jonathan’s regime that the girls were abducted. So, Buhari’s regime actually rescued the girls. People believe that I was rewarded for the Chibok campaign as the MD of the NPA.

You said the Buhari regime rescued the girls. Have all the girls been rescued?

No. he rescued a significant number; over 70 per cent of the girls were rescued by President Buhari.

It is said that government is a continuum. Were you bothered that some people felt you were working for the government?

No, let me be clear. The government in place when the girls were abducted is the government that failed in terms of allowing the girls to be rescued. That government remained in power for one year and did not rescue them. A new government came into office and continued the rescue efforts. It was able to rescue over 70 per cent of the girls. Out of the 276 girls that were abducted, this regime rescued over 100 of them. So, it is more to do with the fact that they were abducted during a different regime, a new regime came and continued. As you mentioned, the government is a continuum. I don’t have a problem working for a government that continued the rescue efforts of the Chibok girls.

Despite promises, the Buhari government has not been able to rescue the remaining girls. With a few weeks to the end of the regime, will it be unfair to say that the President failed to fulfil his promise to rescue them?

I will not say he failed because as I mentioned, he rescued over 70 per cent of the girls and they have been rehabilitated. So, efforts are being made. That the efforts have not resulted in the total rescue of the girls is an entirely different thing. In rescuing abducted persons, the first five to 10 days are key to the rescue operation. So, Buhari took over after the girls had been in abduction for quite a while. It will be unfair to say the President failed to fulfil his promise to rescue them.

What’s your relationship with other key members of the BBOG group, like Aisha Yesufu, now?

I have a cordial relationship with them. I talk to her (Yesufu).

Was she, being a strong critic of the Buhari regime, happy that you worked for the regime?

It is not a choice to be happy about my choice. Just to speak to the fact; it is not important to me whether an individual is unhappy about my appointment; it’s immaterial. Aisha Yesufu joined BBOG. She is not a convener. She came to the protest and advocated. So really, Aisha is someone I say hello to. We chat. We laugh. People’s perception of my career progression is of no consequence to me. I continue advocating. I attended the BBOG advocacy at Falomo Roundabout every week and I talked to the President and the National Security Adviser.

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