Positioning Nigeria as Shipping Hub in W’African Sub-Region

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Entrance to the RoRo port

With other neighbouring ports jostling for the shipping hub status in West and Central African sub-region, Nigeria appears not to be left out with emphasis on improving facilities and services as part of her efforts to compete for the trans-shipment base status in the region, writes Francis Ugwoke

The quest for the load, transshipment or hub centre in West and Central Africa is about two decades. And the contenders have remained the same – Nigeria, Togo, Cote d’Ivoire, Benin Republic (Cotonou) and Ghana. Some critics argue that considering her state of infrastructure decay, including low draught level, corruption, Nigeria cannot be a strong contender. But authorities in Nigeria are working hard to ensure that the country is counted among strong contenders. Besides, the market size enjoyed by Nigeria remains a big factor for her consideration. As the name implies, a hub is described by experts as the point of destination or a centre that can be used by shipping lines for various goods meant for the entire region.

From this point, other smaller vessels can transship the cargoes to different countries or states within the sub-region. For any country that eventually becomes the load centre, there will be multiplier effect on the national economy. It opens trade more than ever before with unimaginable ship and cargo traffic that will benefit everyone, from agencies of government, community to the providers of various shipping services. This makes the stake high for the contenders, meaning that whichever country will take such position must be glaringly efficient and have first class facility to handle the traffic.

Comparing the Contenders

One big factor that places Nigeria in a position to become a hub in the region as earlier pointed out is the market size. Nigeria controls a huge market for shipping lines doing business with not just West and Central Africa, but nearly the whole of Africa. Nigeria has initiated deep seaport projects in some parts of the country. There are two in Lagos: Lekki and Badagry deep seaports. While that of the Lekki Deep Seaport has been on for some years, the Badagry deep seaport is yet to take off. There is also deep seaport project in Akwa Ibom, but the state of the project is not clear. There are two other deep seaport projects that are being planned for Ogun and Ondo states. However, it is being argued that apart from the Lekki and Badagry deep seaports, others outside Lagos cannot be positioned to compete because of their location.

On the existing ports, experts said the draught level of the ports rules them out of competition with what can be found in other countries. A maritime expert, Mr Lucky Amiwero, described Lagos ports as River ports which draught level cannot compete with those of Cotonou, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and Togo. On the other ports outside Lagos, he said the location could be the challenges.

The draught level of the ports in Lagos is about 13 metres as against 19 metres for the ports of Cotonou, Ghana, Togo and Cote d’Ivoire. He described the countries as having natural or ocean ports that can compete with any size of vessel. Amiwero pointed out that while the biggest vessel that has called at the Lagos port and Eastern port was the one that came with 4,500 teus (containers). Other neighbouring ports, he said, could take a mega ship with 14,000 and 20,000 teus.

Efforts to Position Nigeria as Hub Port

Industry experts argue that what makes a country attain the status of a hub port is not just the draught of the port alone, but also the efficiency level attained in trade facilitation. The service delivery in the ports as it relates to cargo handling operation and clearing is part of it, a maritime lawyer, Mr. Emmanuel Ofomata, said. He added there must be a clear evidence of automation in the service delivery, first class cargo handling equipment for positioning of containers either for customs examination or away from the quay side, including intermodal transport system in operation with the ports being linked with rail.

Improving Service Delivery at Ports

Determined to ensure that the nation’s ports are efficient and compete with those of the neighbouring ports, the Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC) as the Ports Economic Regulator had introduced a number of measures to promote efficient service delivery. The NSC had early last year, carried out investigations on the neighbouring ports in competition for the hub, noting that most of their tariffs were lower when compared with what obtains in Nigeria. This was the reason for reducing some charges, which has since become a subject of legal battle with some service providers. The council had also demanded that the service providers raise their capacity for cargo handling. While some terminal operators have invested huge sums of money in cargo handling equipment, many were yet to do so.

The result has been complaints by shippers and their freight forwarders on lack of adequate cargo handling equipment. This has often resulted in the delay in clearing their goods out of the ports. Except now that there is very low traffic of cargoes because of the economic crises that the country is facing, importers and their clearing agents had lamented that they sometimes spent two to three weeks waiting for their containers to be positioned for examination by the customs.

When this happens, it translates to more money for the terminal operators and shipping companies paid as demurrage. To address this issue, the Executive Secretary, NSC, Mr. Hassan Bello, had reached out to the service providers to improve on their cargo handling equipment. Bello had also said his council would carry out equipment audit to ensure that service providers have enough modern cargo handling equipment as needed to save the shippers from any nightmare at the ports.

Bello had also called on every agency in the ports to offer automated services which will make services faster as can be obtained in other advanced countries. Already, many agencies of government, including NPA, Customs Service, SON, NAFDAC, among others have introduced automated services. This, according to Bello, has helped in trade facilitation at the ports. At a recent meeting between the Customs and officials of the council, Bello stressed the need for the deployment of modern equipment for trade facilitation.

Noting that Customs had been alive to its statutory responsibility, he said modern trade facilitation is anchored on ICT, adding that if embraced, it would bring about “efficiency, predictability and transparency in cargo clearance process”. Automation, he said, will help in minimising human contact and eliminate corruption at the ports.

He said: “Customs has been alive to its responsibilities and it is a catalyst for trade facilitation. With the way our economy is going, we have no choice but to improve on trade facilitation so that the maritime industry will rightly take its place as major revenue earner for the economy. We believe that modern trade facilitation is anchored on automation. This will bring about the much needed transparency, predictability and efficiency.

“Automation of the processes of cargo is one of our cardinal function but we cannot do it alone so we need the customs for us to come together. There must be frequent forum so that people will know that we are serious about this automation. There is corruption in the system and one of the easiest ways to banish it is through deployment of ICT. This is the time for technology at the port and together with customs, we can achieve it”.

He also called on the Customs to be the lead in championing the course of single window in Nigeria for it to be at par with other developed countries. Bello pointed out that a situation where scanners at the port are not utilised because they are non-functional is an issue that the Customs management should quickly address.

During the meeting, Customs Zonal Coordinator, Lagos, Assistant Comptroller General of Customs, Mr. Charles Edike, said efforts are being made to acquire scanners. Edike said new scanners will address all examination issues at the ports, recalling that it was a nightmare for him as Controller at Apapa port when the scanners collapsed.

Among other efforts of the Ports regulator to ensure the Nigerian ports achieve efficiency that can position Nigeria as a hub include the introduction of Cargo Tracking Note (CTN) which will reduce the decades of fraudulent practices, including under-declaration, concealment of cargo by the importers/exporters and shipping companies. CTN also has security benefits as the cargo is monitored from port of loading to port of destination.

The council is also promoting Inland Container Depots (ICDs), which are described as dry ports to take shipping services closer to shippers at any geo-political zone. This will save the shippers the nightmare of having to come to Lagos to clear the goods as the container can be delivered to him through the ICDs.

With efficient rail services, this will check congestion in the Lagos ports, thereby addressing years of Apapa gridlock, and enhancing Nigeria’s chances of becoming a hub port. NPA recently decided to register only trucks that are roadworthy to carry goods from the Lagos ports. This exercise, according to the General Manager, Western Zone, Chief Michael Ajayi, will check cases of trucks breakdown on the Apapa access roads.

The management of the NPA, apart from coordinating the deep seaport projects in the country, has also been involved in maintenance dredging of the ports in what is intended also to position Nigerian port as one of the contenders in the hub port position in the sub-region. Since security remains very important in every business environment, the management of NIMASA has also been involved in the fight against piracy on the nation’s territorial waters in order to remove any obstacle on Nigeria’s quest for the hub status position.