Hadiza Bala Usman is the first woman to become Managing Director of the Nigerian Ports Authority in its 62-year history.
Following her career as an activist and politician, she is now determined to bring transparency and accountability to the running of Nigeria’s ports, as she describes in conversation with African Business’s Christine Holzbauer.
First, it must be an incredible relief for you to hear about the release of the abducted Chibok Girls.
Absolutely! The 219 young girls were abducted by the terrorist group Boko Haram from Chibok Secondary School in Borno State, northeast Nigeria, in April 2014. I co-founded the global movement #BringBackOurGirls, and we have worked relentlessly for their rescue.
It was very important to keep public opinion aware of the Chibok girls’ fate. Now that they are safely home, I share the relief of their families and rejoice with them.
However, I think that the momentum and the awareness that was raised through this campaign should not stop there. A big challenge in Nigeria is to keep girls in school in order to prevent premature marriage and child pregnancy.
You have been an activist and politician. How did this prepare you to become the Managing Director of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA)?
I’ve spent most of my working life in the public sector, with a strong emphasis on development, in which I hold an MA from the University of Leeds. I began work as a research assistant with the Centre for Democratic Development and Research Training in my home state of Kaduna in northern Nigeria.
I then switched to the Bureau of Public Enterprise, the federal agency charged with the implementation of Nigeria’s privatisation programme in Abuja. From there I was hired by the UNDP for the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) as a special assistant to the minister on project implementation. In 2015, I was appointed as Chief of Staff of the Kaduna State Governor, a function that I held until my appointment as Managing Director of NPA in July 11th, 2016.
In the meantime, you also ran for parliament?
Yes, in 2011 I stood for the House of Representatives. For a woman in the North to run for election is exceptional; women are not encouraged to have leadership positions in the predominantly Muslim northern states of Nigeria.
It was my first time in politics and I won. I was pregnant with my first son when I started campaigning and did the second part of the campaign with him on my back. This is how I got the nickname of magoyo, “the lady with a child on her back”.
This allowed me to relate well with the women of my constituency; they even thought that magoyo was the name of my party. Belonging to the All Progressives Congress Party (APC), I was able to serve on various key political committees.
These included the APC Strategy Committee, which wrote the party manifesto, and the APC National Elections Planning Committee, which developed and coordinated the 2015 election-winning strategies.
I also was the administrative secretary for the APC presidential campaign and served as a member of the Presidential Inauguration Planning Committee representing the incoming administration. In addition, I was appointed in September 2015 by President Muhammadu Buhari to serve as a member of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Anti-Corruption.
Did you experience a shock when you arrived in Lagos?
Not quite, but I found it very challenging and an incredible new experience. The fact that I was not deeply involved in ports activity before and had no local ties actually worked in my favour. As soon as I arrived, I had to deal with issues such as revenue leakages, indebtedness towards third parties, etc.
I was able to tackle the problems one by one with a fresh perspective. I started by establishing a new set of rules in order to boost transparency and accountability.
The NPA runs 23 terminals, which are concessions we obtained after privatisation. Our job is to regulate everyday operations, provide navigable channels, ensure that ships can dock and maintain port infrastructure.
In addition to setting new rules of governance, I also asked that we start collecting all relevant data on the amount of crude oil being exported so it can be compared with the data gathered by other governmental agencies and conveyed directly to the president’s office.
Were you easily accepted as a woman in such a critical position?
There was quite a lot of discussion, not only about the fact that I am a female, but also my age. I was surprised, as I don’t think 41 is so young. However, I hope I have demonstrated since I arrived in office that competency and determination has nothing to do with gender or age.
How do you see your role in the NPA?
My first move when I arrived was to make sure that we comply with the International Maritime Organisation regulations. A security assessment was completed in February and another one will be done in June.
I also met with lots of my colleagues from the other port authorities in West and Central Africa. I wanted to see what can be done better at a regional level. The port of Lagos is competitive but we still need to benchmark ourselves to create a better tariff regime.
We have a lot of international trade coming into the port of Lagos, not only because of crude oil but also because of our soybean exports. However, our imports are greater than our exports.
That means there is room for improvement in order to stimulate the Nigerian economy. We also need to improve our competitivity since we have recently seen cargos destined for Nigeria ending up in the port of Cotonou in Benin.
It is true that the NPA had the reputation of being an agency that operated with a certain level of corruption. We have already started to change this image by establishing a mechanism to end corrupt practices. We have also brought transparency to our budget by allowing citizens to view it freely.
What are your chances of success?
Our chances of success are great and shall be measured by our level of efficiency and the increase in the volume of cargo that will pass through our ports.