Heading the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) is a job sought by high-profile individuals. Not only does the lofty position reek of power, but it also gives whoever is steering the ship a vantage point to empower people and personally profit. Understandably, for this reason, it is a slippery terrain where friends may soon become enemies when interests don’t align. Hadiza Bala Usman, the immediate past Managing Director of the agency, captures her historic opportunity and the attendant tumultuous ride in her recently released memoir: Stepping on Toes: My Odyssey at Nigerian Ports Authority.
Bala Usman writes about her time at the agency with precision and a touch of pain. In each chapter, Bala Usman lays bare her experiences and refutes all claims and allegations that are targeted at tarnishing her reputation. Within the pages of her memoir, she unveils remarkable transformations as well as stormy encounters, shedding light on the inner workings of the agency.
She begins her story with an introduction that gives the reader a sneak peek of her entire encounter. The memoir unfolds in three parts, with the initial four chapters delving into the events surrounding her appointment and the opposition she faced from all quarters including unexpected places, very close to home. These chapters also provide a brief glimpse into the role and responsibilities of the agency, as well as the challenges Bala Usman encountered upon assuming her position—a prelude to the battles that lay ahead.
Bala Usman dedicates the next three chapters to outlining reforms aimed at tackling the entrenched issues plaguing the agency. From promoting transparency through partnerships with BudgIT Information Technology Network to addressing the notorious Apapa gridlock by implementing multimodal cargo movement solutions, her administration achieved notable breakthroughs. The introduction of the Electronic Call-Up software, Eto, set a working strategy to curb the gridlock in motion, just as her management made significant strides in ensuring that the NPA started to get value from party contractors and other stakeholders.
The plot thickens in Chapter 8 as Bala Usman fearlessly begins to recount some of the prominent toes she may have stepped on within the industry.
She chronicles her involvement in disputes such as the Samsung and Ladol case, where the NPA concluded that Ladol had ran afoul of its contract with the authority, as well as challenging the monopoly of oil and gas cargoes held by leading logistics company, Integrated Logistics Services in Nigeria, popularly known as Intels. The company is associated with former Vice President Atiku Abubakar. She gives details of the why and how Ocean Marine Solutions Limited (OMSL)’s Secure Anchorage Area, owned by the late Captain Idahosa Wells Okunbo was dismantled. This battle, which as the book reveals, was to prevent the company from exploiting vessel owners even led to a near physical altercation after a hearing at the National Assembly in Abuja.
Reserving the best chapters for the last, Usman intricately weaves through the events that led to her suspension from the agency. This, according to her, started with the reconstitution of the NPA board, as detailed in Chapter 13. She recounts that the seeming uneven distribution of board membership must have caused some discontent, which may have been responsible for the attack, which led to the damage of many public property including headquarters of the NPA in Marina, Lagos.
Events took a speedy turn shortly after this. Bala Usman mentioned the idea of the lopsided board membership where the south-west and south-east were excluded to former President Muhammadu Buhari, who took steps to reverse the situation and renew Bala’s Usman term as NPA MD another five years, five months ahead of the expiration of the first term.
Stepping on Toes: My Odyssey at Nigerian Ports Authority, then goes on to tell the high stakes politics following this re-appointment. Bala Usman suggests that the former Minister of Transportation, Hon. Rotimi Amaechi, who had sought to remove her before this event, became more infuriated by the President’s decision to report the NPA boss without consulting him. He became more determined to remove her from office!
What ensued thereafter was a witch-hunt, which culminated in the Minister’s request for details of NPA’s remittances into the Consolidated Revenue Fund (CRF) from the Budget Office of the Federation, which Bala Usman regards as the wrong place to seek such information.
A spiral of events followed next in which the minister sought the audit of the authority by the office of the Auditor-General of the Federation. Even though the attempt failed because the Auditor-General turned down the request saying there was no basis for it, it was the basis on which the former minister sought and received the former president’s approval for Bala Usman’s suspension while an administrative panel was established to probe the affairs of the NPA between 2016-2021. Although the alleged non-remittance of N165 billion into the CFR was not listed on the list of terms of reference of the panel, eight months later when it concluded its work, it discovered that the NPA had in fact remitted about N182 billion into government coffers.
This memoir shares Bala Usman’s side of the story, but it also serves as an exposé on corruption and power plays within the upper echelons of society. It shows the compromises and collaboration between powerful private sector players and willing public officials and how these reflect on the total outlook of government. It addresses the circumvention of regulations by the powerful and how those who stand by the rules become victims.
In the concluding chapter, the author encapsulates the lessons learned, emphasising the importance of determining one’s limits before entering public office.
“It is, therefore, imperative for anyone thinking of taking public office to determine how far they are willing to go from the outset. If you stick to your principles, you will most likely be pushed so much that you must be prepared to resign to avoid compromising your principles,” she writes.
Stepping on Toes: My Odyssey at Nigerian Ports Authority is a powerful narrative that captivates readers with its authenticity and vivid storytelling. Usman’s simple yet elegant writing style keeps readers engaged, while her evocative descriptions paint a vivid picture of the trials and triumphs she faced during her tenure. Her courage, resilience, and unwavering commitment to doing what is right shine through every page, making the memoir not only a personal account but also an eye-opening exploration of the complexities and struggles inherent in navigating public office. It is a valuable contribution to the literature on governance and accountability. One book that everyone interested in playing on the Nigerian public space, and those who want to understand the dynamics at play in high places, must read.