By Kingsley Anaroke
OPERATIONS across most sectors of Nigeria’s economy have been suspended as part of efforts to curb the spread of coronavirus; but Nigerian ports remain operational to aid the evacuation of essential items such as food, petroleum products, medical equipment and safety materials to combat the pandemic.
Unexpectedly, the pandemic opened up new vistas in the maritime industry, setting new standards that will help reshape the nation’s port operations.
This is a positive indication that the age-long dream of a new port order is possible with the possibilities of minimal disagreement for greater collective acquiescence by operators and stakeholders. From the terminal operators, government agencies, shippers, freight forwarders, bankers, shipping lines, trade unions to haulage operators, there was unity of purpose to facilitate trade.
Port operations, however, have been plagued by numerous challenges following the lockdown declared by President Muhammadu Buhari in Lagos State which is home to the nation’s major seaports.
To achieve seamless port operations, Nigerian Shippers’ Council, NSC, has been at the forefront of stakeholders’ engagement, interventions, health and safety inspections and the pertinent economic issues at the ports at such difficult times.
This report chronicles some of the achievements of the Council under the COVID-19 pandemic, especially on the Council’s role as port economic regulator, but most importantly showcased three key critical novel mileages in the history of Nigeria’s contemporary ports.
Multi-modal evacuation of cargo
They are, setting up a virtual port community system; encouraging multi-modal evacuation of cargo via the road, rail and inland waterways; making the ports work on public holidays and weekends.
These could amount to breaking of barriers and opening up new opportunities for port users and shippers in particular yet more revenue for the government. However, the question remains: How were they made possible?
To address the challenge of freight forwarders moving to the ports under the lockdown in Lagos, NSC made available buses to convey agents to the ports for free from various locations in Lagos.
Since April 1, 2020, the buses have been conveying freight agents daily from the following locations: Festac (by Apple junction), Okokomaiko (at Alakija under bridge), Surulere (by National Stadium), Oshodi (at Charity bus stop), Ikeja (at Ikeja Along bus stop) and Sango-Ota.
As an intervention, the Council donated protective gears for port users worth N5million distributed to relevant field and operational staff. The Council also donated another N5million to be used collectively in the fight against COVID-19 in Lagos and Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory, FCT.
Whilst most agencies streamlined activities at their respective offices, Shippers’ Council has been at the forefront of engagement with working visits to several port terminal operators including; AP Moller Terminal, Five Star Logistics Terminal, Ports and Terminal Multi services Limited (PTML), ENL Consortium, among others.
Transmission of the pandemic
At these visits, the NSC management urged the organisations to operate in accordance with guidelines issued by health authorities which are critical to the reduction of transmission of the pandemic, emphasizing social distancing, use of hand sanitisers, providing hand washing materials, among others.
Having observed non-compliance of some port service providers to these health safety guidelines amid the coronavirus pandemic, Shippers’ Council assigned some officials to terminal operators and shipping companies to ensure safe port operations for handling essential services as directed by President Mohammadu Buhari.
The NSC officers assigned to the various shipping companies and terminals assist in ensuring that all safety and health regulations issued by the authorities are strictly adhered to curb the spread of the pandemic at the ports.
The Council also noted the economic constraints at the ports resulting from the pandemic and consequent lockdown, hence it directed shipping companies to suspend the collection of demurrage charges.
The port economic regulator further directed shipping companies to refund charges collected as demurrages from March 30, 2020 when the lockdown in Lagos State commenced. This, NSC said is to ameliorate the fiscal burden on port users at such difficult times.
While demurrage charges during this period would be refunded to the consignee or his authorised agent, NSC asserted that the suspension of demurrage during this period is an incentive for owners of cargo to accelerate the process of taking delivery of their cargo.
The regulator also warned that the suspension of demurrage charges was not an excuse to delay or abandon cargo at the ports, adding that erring shippers will be sanctioned in addition to having to pay the demurrage due on their cargoes.
NSC also addressed the recent cargo haulage crisis in Port Harcourt when consignments which arrived the Port Harcourt seaport but destined to other states got stuck following the lockdown directed by the governor as part of efforts to curb the spread of the virus in Rivers State.
NSC collaborated with the Presidential Taskforce for the Control of Coronavirus to get the Governor of Rivers State¸ Nyesom Wike to reopen the land borders in the State.
This dissipated the plight of importers and freight forwarders with the provision for several manufacturers’ goods and other essential goods evacuated from Rivers State after necessary checks, despite the cessation of movement.
With commercial banks initially not offering services with respect to port operations, the Council played a crucial role to get banks comply with the Federal Government directive to open for the purpose of cargo clearance.
The truck haulage operators weren’t left out in NSC COVID-19 engagements as the Council reached out to not only ensure truckers adhere to health safety measures amid the pandemic, but the Council was also able to get the truckers agree to 30 percent reduction in their fares for the period under the pandemic.
While trucking activities have been easier with the lockdown in Lagos State, the agreement that sees truckers slash their rates by 30 percent underscores the goodwill and high level diplomacy of the Council.
High level diplomacy
Shippers’ Council also engaged key stakeholders in a meeting where it called for synergy among port users and government agencies to support the Federal Government in containing the scourge of the deadly virus while making it possible to sustain port operations during this period.
The crux of the meeting was to measure the impact of port activities on the economy and prevent exacerbation of an already delicate port situation which has the potential to affect the lives and livelihood of Nigerians.
The Council also recently visited the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, NIMASA, the Port Health Services, Grimaldi Shipping, among others in line with the presidential directive that port operations are open for essential goods.
It should be noted that NSC set up the Maritime Task Team on COVID-19 which has NIMASA, CRFFN, Nigerian Ports Authority, NPA; Nigerian Ports Consultative Council, PCC; Nigerian Navy, Nigeria Customs Service, NCS; Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria, MWUN; among others to handle day to day challenges at the ports.
The Council encouraged the port community with cooperation of Customs and other stakeholders to provide full service during the Easter holiday to the delight of terminals and freight forwarders.
With the focus on providing multimodal transport channels for cargo evacuation, NSC is working with the Nigerian Railway Corporation, NRC; to resume evacuation of cargo via the railway while a similar partnership was struck with barge operators currently evacuating cargoes from the ports via barges and truckers recently agreed to 30 percent reduction in charges after talks with NSC.
Shippers’ Council, as an arbiter, earlier noted that it was conscious of the fact that obligations, responsibilities, duties and rights of various players at the ports may have been frustrated, assuring that it would discuss with all parties so that a balanced solution can be achieved especially the issue of demurrage and incentives to facilitate the clearance of goods from the ports.
Although port operations aren’t as efficient as they were prior to the pandemic, Shippers’ Council has made appreciable efforts to attain the level of operations at the moment and as the Executive Secretary, Mr. Hassan Bello puts it; “It is an ongoing engagement. We won’t relent. We want to have more banks operating. Shippers’ Council is working assiduously to have all banks open for the purpose of cargo clearance.”
On improving other aspects of port operations amid the pandemic, Bello added, “The situation would keep getting better because we are doing the necessary engagement.”