Bunmi Olumekan is the current president of the Barge Operators Association of Nigeria and also managing director of Rely Maritime Limited. In this interview with ANOZIE EGOLE, he speaks on the challenges facing the sector and the way forward
What is your reaction to the plans by Nigerian Ports Authority to concession barging?
When they use the word ‘concession’, I find it difficult to understand it because you can only concession what you have you. You can’t concession what you don’t have. As far as barging is concerned, NPA doesn’t have a single barge.
The only thing NPA has is jetty and out of about 50 jetties that we have in Lagos State, NPA has only two – one in Ikorodu and another one in Kirikiri. So, does NPA want to concession the two jetties?
The NPA said that concessioning the barging system would bring about efficiency in the sector. Do you agree with that idea?
Efficiency will come in when you are knowledgeable in what you are doing. What I think they should do now is for everybody, comprising the NPA, the National Inland Waterways Authority, the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, among others, to come together for a common goal. Let us bring all aspects of barging together and know where we are going to. By so doing, everybody will bring their own quota for us to move forward. This issue of agencies of government speaking with different voices can’t help the matter. The barges have to be the simplest way of transportation. It is just like a normal truck that wants to go, load and offload in a normal way. So, for you to say you want to do this or that, you are making it more difficult for people and you are making it more expensive for businesses. It is not the best way to do business because in Nigeria, anything that goes up does not come down.
But we should know that this is a business. Don’t forget that the government is trying to promote ease of doing business. Let us try to promote our businesses, let us try and see how we can put a standard on something and refuse to put hardship on our people.
There have been allegations of barges blocking the waterways, thereby making it difficult for vessels to come in. What do you have to say about that?
I don’t think that is possible because we all know our rules and we go by the rules. If a terminal or NPA gives you a window but on your way to the port, you are asked to go back because a bigger vessel is coming, what would you do in that case? How can you turn back in that type of situation? We have situations where some barges are already at berth, and, all of a sudden, they are asked to go back. Sometimes, they throw you out as if you are not there for business. Someone called you, gave you a time, schedule and window and on getting there, they say you cannot berth but must go back. That is the thing we are talking about. Lack of planning is a major issue. We need to coordinate ourselves; we need to work together; and we do not need to struggle over who is in charge. Let us come up with a formidable standard that will be useful for everybody, rather than speaking with different voices.
Looking at all these issues you have mentioned, how would you say your relationship with the terminal operators have been?
Before I assumed as the president, I can tell you that the relationship was zero. But now, I am looking at other ways we can grow. We should all know that we are all in business and when you are in business, you are in it to make money. I don’t blame the terminal operators because they are in the business to make money, but we need to look at demand and supply. You need to know that the lower your charges, the higher your business will grow and the more the patronage. If your charges are good and competitive, people will patronise you. If you were collecting N1million when the traffic was high, you cannot collect the same amount when the traffic drops. Why can’t you bring down this amount to, say, N500, 000 for the traffic to move up again? When rates are competitive and good, people will patronize you. So, we need to look at balancing things up and ask ourselves what the problem is. We need to find out what we can do to improve our services. How can we gain patronage if not by bringing down the charges? We are calling on them to sit down with us and see how we can factor all these things into this operation so that we can gain more and push the trucks out of the roads.
What I am concerned about is taking the trucks out of the roads. We have a lot of trucks littering all over Lagos, this is not how Lagos should run. Look at Mile 2 and different parts of the state where trucks litter every day. We need to push all these trucks out of the roads. We are asking them to come, let us see how we can achieve this. There is no way we can complete our businesses without bringing in trucks. We are still going to subject the consignment to another truck that will load it from the jetty to the final destination. What we are saying is that the rate has to be competitive.
If you are talking about pushing trucks off the roads, don’t you think a lot of people will be jobless?
Let me tell you something, I am also a trucker. The truth is the people feel there is money in truck business, which is why most of them bought trucks. But now, you can see that some of them are selling their trucks. Some of the drivers don’t even know the rules of the game. Because of lack of coordination, there is no more work to do now, no more imports, and the ports are dying.
What do you think is the cause of the low importation being experienced now?
We all know the thing is that you cannot eat more than you can take; you have to balance it. The thing is that we had businesses during COVID-19 and those things accumulated at the ports. That was why people felt that the ports were congested then.
What do you think the government should do to boost barging in Nigeria?
If you go to some countries like the Netherlands and see the effect of their waters on transportation, you will be amazed. So, we are going there to learn what they are doing and come back to replicate them here. We are going there to tap the experiences and see how we can invest that in our businesses here. I can tell you that we have a lot and the government has to partner with us.
The NPA also said something about levying barges. What is your position on that?
We are not saying that the NPA should not levy, but it has to be minimum. They should not levy what is going to affect us. How can you talk about paying in dollars here? How can you say that moving a consignment from Ikorodu to Apapa is the same thing as moving it from Ghana to Nigeria? So, where do you want us to go and source for foreign exchange? Even if the dollar has to be at the official rate to Naira, we don’t want it because if the exchange rate changes tomorrow, it will affect the charges. We are gradually coming to the state of anarchy in the barging industry and we don’t want that. Let us sit down and see how we can adjust all these prices. We are not saying that they should not charge, but it has to be minimal so that there would be more patronage and more money.
There have been complaints by some stakeholders that rickety barges are flooding the waterways. Are there plans by your administration to see to the standardisation of these barges?
That was before, not now. I can tell you that our barges are better now. We have a standard and everybody has to go by the standard. The standard is that before you can put a barge on the waterways, it has to be registered by NIWA and certified by NIMASA. So, if anyone should come up to say that we have rickety barges, it is no longer now. That was happening when the business was not yet controlled. Now, the business is being controlled and we too are enlightening our people to be more serious and more safety-conscious.
There have been complains of foreigners taking over the barging business in Nigeria. Are you comfortable with that?
How can I be comfortable when somebody is taking over my job? Foreigners cannot put food on my table. That is a capital flight; you see a lot of money flying out from our system because foreigners are taking our jobs. If we make money, we are not going to take them away but will invest them here. But foreigners will take the proceeds of the business to their countries as they come here to make money. They won’t invest the money here. So, what we are saying is that this is a local business, it is a cabotage business, and it has to be locally managed. Our pieces of equipment are locally-made. Even if they want to come, let them come and partner with us so that we can be their vendors. We have to be their vendors and they have to patronise us.
Article first published on the Punch Website