On 24th January 2020, the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) came out to announce it’s decision to tackle congestion at Lagos ports complex.
The authority announced that as from Monday, January 27, 2020, vessels which have waited to berth at any terminal within the Lagos Pilotage District for four days without success will be diverted to other terminals with capacity to berth vessels within the district.
It also said that, the event that all terminals in Lagos cannot discharge any vessels within four days, such vessels will be diverted to the Eastern Ports for immediate berthing.
Immediately the announcement was made, President of Shippers Association Lagos State (SALS) Rev Jonathan Nicol came up to kick against it, saying that it was against the ease of doing business. His argument, which is very understandable is that the diversion of vessels to eastern ports would bring additional cost on the shipper.
According to him, the law of contract of affreightment concedes to the importer the power to chose any port he wishes to receive his cargo.
The directive by NPA will create more hardship and burden on Custom Clearing Agents and Freight Forwarders who are not used to the clearance procedures at the Eastern Command Area. Some of the terminals at the eastern ports lack adequate cargo handling equipment.
The insecurity at the eastern ports is also another reason why shippers have abandoned the eastern ports, coupled with the shallow draft of the water which does not allow for bigger ships to come in.
Though Section 7(c) of the NPA Act empowers the Authority to ensure the efficient management of port operations and optimal allocation and use of resources, but the authority still needs to consult with relevant stakeholders before coming up with such a directive, there is no doubt that this policy would now have an adverse effects on import trade in the country and this will send a wrong signal to the outside world.
It is disturbing to note that the announcement was made two days after the Managing Director of NPA, Hadiza Bala Usman paid an unannounced visit to the APM Terminals in Apapa where she held a long meeting with the management.
Without sounding prejudiced, we see this policy on vessel diversion as a calculated witch hunt against APM Terminals, the largest container terminal in Nigeria. But the NPA rather than announce it as such, decided to come up with a far-flung policy.
Stakeholders have over time, blamed APMT for the congestion at Apapa port and the traffic gridlock on the roads due to its large operations. But the terminal operator has consistently insisted that it was struggling with overtime and uncleared cargoes which has taken up it’s space.
We expect that rather than come up with decision to divert vessels to eastern ports or other terminals as the case may be, the NPA and the Nigeria Customs Service should beam its searchlight on evacuation of overtime and abandoned cargoes inside the port.
APMT has appealed severally to Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) to remove some of its power cables littering its Terminal at the Apapa Port and hindering space for imported cargoes, but so far, no action taken.
Apart of this, another terminal operator, PTML Terminal, a Roll On Roll Off terminal at Tin Can Island Port has also lamented that since 2006, she has been struggling with overtime cargoes which has eaten up more than 30% of its space meant for imported cargoes.
In all of these, it appears that the Nigerian Shippers Council has a better grasp of the situation in Apapa port and how to solve the congestion more than the NPA.
Executive Secretary of the Council, Barr Hassan Bello in January expressed the agency’s readiness to work with the Nigeria Customs Service to accelerate the removal of containers presently causing congestion at the nation’s seaports.
The challenges of traffic gridlock and port congestion at Apapa port requires all hands to be on deck, it calls for interagency corporation which to a large extent is lacking among government agencies at the ports. Individualistic approach by agencies has affected progress of the sector.
We want to advise that the NPA MD, Hadiza Bala Usman team up with her Shippers Council counterpart, Barr Hassan Bello, as well as the Customs CG, Hameed Alli to come up with a lasting solution to the problem at hand.
One workable solution is that terminal operators should be directed to come up with Uncleared Cargo List (UCL) which would be used to determine how many containers have been abandoned. This is not a difficult thing to do. The Customs should resume auctioning of overtime cargoes which has stopped for a long time now without any explanation.
When cargoes are auctioned, the beneficiaries can easily move to the port and evacuate their cargoes.
One must commend NPA though for its efforts, the agency has been battling and grappling with uncompliant maritime stakeholders, especially the shipping companies who are now a master on their own, it appears they can not be touched.
Many of the shipping companies in Nigeria do not have holding bays, they have practically turned port access roads to their holding bay.
Presently, it take seven days to enter into TICT Terminal to load a cargo, while for dropping of empties, it takes one 1month.
At Ports and Cargo, Five Star Logistics Terminal, it takes two days to load a cargo and another two weeks to return the empty. With all these delay, the consignee or the clearing agents would have been on the debt roll of the shipping companies for not returning the said container on time and forfeiting the container deposit.
We believe that if the NPA, Customs and Shippers Council could team up and implement all the agreement reached on Ease of Doing Business, there would be a remarkable improvement in operations at Nigerian ports within few weeks and months.