By DAPO OLAWUNI
Since the outbreak of the dreaded Coronavirus entered into Nigeria, the Federal Government as well as the Lagos State Government have been putting measures to ensure that the virus is contained, while ensuring that the pandemic is not spreading among citizens.
Part of the measures taken by the government is the enforcement of social distancing, self isolation, clamping down on all social gatherings, churches, mosques, restricting all gatherings of more than 50 people, and recently, shutting down of open markets.
Measures which have directly affected the maritime sector so far, is the shutting down of government parastals including the Nigerian Shippers Council, Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) Maritime Workers Union.
But surprisingly, many Nigerian freight forwarders seems nonchalant about the Covid -19 and its spread.
The freight forwarders seems to be oblivious of the Covid-19 and all warnings, sensitisation issued by the government in order to contain its spread.
A visit to the port by our correspondent revealed that the port is still bubbling as ever. Freight forwarders troop out to various Customs commands, shipping companies, port terminals and the banks, all in the bid to release their cargoes before it starts accruing demurrage.
Chairman, Seaport Terminal Operators Association of Nigeria (STOAN), Princess Vicky Haastrup said on Monday that the nation’s seaports must remain open at all times, even as the Federal and State Governments battle to contain the spread of the Corona virus.
According to her, the shipping sector is key in contributing to secure the continuity of economic activities, ensuring supply chains to industries; transport of essential goods, including energy and food supplies, and transport of vital medical and protective equipment, and supplies.
She said: “It is imperative for the fight against COVID-19, the supply of essentials, as well as for increasing the chance of the economic recovery on the other side of the outbreak, that maritime and connected transport is allowed to continue, and that government works actively to support the sector throughout the period of the crisis.
“The continued functionality of the ports and port ecosystems is imperative for securing movement of goods at scale, for prevention of shortages and thus for maintenance of public order”
Be that as it may, terminal operators, shipping companies and even the Nigeria Customs Service ought to have put measures in place to ensure that people coming into their facilities and offices are restricted at this time.
Some of those offices do not have protective measures in place, very few of them have hand sanitizers at their entrance and the temperature measurement kits. The Tin Can Island Customs Command said it has placed a washing hand kit at its command, but findings showed that many stakeholders are not using it.
Some of the freight forwarders and clearing agents in their desperation to enter the Customs Processing Centre (CPC) at Apapa and Tin Can Island Port do not even make use of these facilities which is still inadequate.
We believe that the Nigeria Customs Service at this time must encourage stakeholders to make use of online transactions in order to check the number of persons trooping into its offices. Some of the transactions which freight forwarders troop to the port to do, can actually be done online.
Shipping companies, terminal operators are also encouraged to do the same.
Former President of National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF) Dr. Eugene Nweke who confirmed this worrisome trend advised the freight forwarders not to sacrifice themselves for the federal government’s port revenue maximization.
Nweke confirmed that “At some of the Ports entrance gates, the only measure put in place by the terminal operators is body temperature checker and hand sanitizers, while inside the terminal it is “to your tent O Israel” – a case of life goes on as usual having crossed the gate”
He said some of the clearing and forwarding agents even gather to discuss the COVID -19 and crack jokes about it.
“Unfortunately, majority of Freight Forwarders ( operational staffs) seems unperturbed about the Covid -19 ravaging. Usual hand shakes, cracking jokes, crowding Customs desk officers, or Offices, or around seating/resting areas, or over the counter ( regardless and incautious of body contact) are still the peculiar character and scenario’s”
The same lackadaisical attitude is being displayed at the offdock and bonded terminals.
At the shipping companies, Agents are seen crowding the entrance gates, inside the market halls, agents are seen queueing over the counter or made to seat in a limited steel bench, having applied hand sanitizer, few of them managed to put on masks.
“Indeed the Freight Forwarders are under serious pressure to deliver their clients imports and willing to go the extra miles to effect so.
The pressure is compounded mostly so in a prevailing congested ports, traffic gridlocks and worst still, in a traditional, port prone to human contacts to cargo clearance /operational activities” Nweke.
Our correspondent reasoned that Nigerian freight forwarders are at a high risk of contracting the Coronavirus pandemic, given the environment they operate. Some of the top management of the shipping companies who must have recently returned from abroad are still attending to customers daily. Some of the importers who have equally returned from a trip abroad would also want to contact the clearing agents in order to ensure that cargoes are not delayed at the port.
There is need for the Federal Government to beam its search light on the Maritime sector and ensure that it enforces the “stay at home” warning.
The agency that ought to have communicated with the freight forwarders is the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN) but so far, the Council appeared not to be bothered.
The CRFFN recently has showed that its major interest at the port is the collection of Practitioners Operations Fee (POF) rather than the wellbeing of the freight forwarders.