Trough Times at the Nation’s Ports

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Eromosele Abiodun posits that the federal government should consider the plight of stakeholders and fix the access roads to the nation’s ports, while at the same time addressing the extortion by government agents attached to the ports

Like many sectors of the Nigerian economy, the maritime sector is as old as the country itself and the sector, also is bedevilled by many challenges that appear impossible to resolve.

Prior to the concession of ports to private operators in 2006, doing business in the nation’s ports was a hellish experience laced with a myriad of problems.

These included turnaround time for ships which took too long making businesses to brace themselves for weeks, if not months of endless waiting before their cargo could be loaded or discharged.

Before the concession, most of the few cargo-handling facilities owned by the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) were moribund. As a result, shipping companies had to hire such facilities from private sector sources, leading to extra costs. Also, dwell time for goods in port was so long that overtime cargo filled the most active seaports and led to massive port congestion. Labour for ship work was controlled by a mafia that controlled dockworker unions and had no scruples supplying less than the manpower paid for. Many port premises that could have been put to good use were abandoned, giving maritime businesses less options.

Also, massive portholes were the norm, rather than the exception leading to waste of man hours brought about by snail-like movement of goods to and from the ports. The resulting congestion led to consignments becoming untraceable with some of them disappearing into thin air. NPA often seemed helpless in effecting the return of such vanished cargoes, to the chagrin of hardworking businesspeople.

As a result of porous entry points, dangerous miscreants also known as wharf rats swarmed the ports to also eke out their daily bread, leading to predictable tales of woe on the part of responsible business people.

However, following the concession, there has been a relative improvement in port operations in areas relating to anchorage/berthing, ship turnaround time, throughput time, clearance and yard handling.

 

Troubling Times

But the recent gains recorded by the government following the concession seem to have faded away following the infrastructure crisis bedevilling the ports. Chiefly among them is poor port access roads and alleged extortion by government officials. Efforts to get the federal government to fix the port access roads over the years have failed. In a bid to get government to fix the roads, customs clearing agents and Amalgamation of Trucking Associations had shut down process of clearance of goods from the Lagos ports and evacuation of cargoes by withdrawing their services. To ensure effective shut-down of the ports, the Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) joined forces with the truckers. National President of ANLC,  Olayewola  Shittu, told THISDAY that the action will continue until the port access roads are fixed. Shittu said several pleas to government to fix the roads in the past have fallen on deaf ears. He vowed that there would be no going back until government takes action. According to him, “We are going ahead with the strike. We will withdraw our services, we will not work. Although some of our people are meeting with government officials now but I know that we cannot just turn round like that, no way.”

In a bid to forestall the strike, stakeholders in the haulage business and freight forwarding sector had met with Executive Secretary of Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC) Hassan Bello.  The NSC boss had pleaded with them to stay action promising to reach out to top echelon of government to address the issues. They, however, did not listen to him and went ahead with the action.

 

 NPA’s Intervention

As a way of dousing the tension, the Managing Director of Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), Hadiza Bala Usman, Monday in Lagos pleaded with clearing agents and freight forwarders to return to work and call off their action.

She made the appeal at a meeting with representatives of the truckers and licensed customs agents at a parley to resolve the lingering crisis. According to her, the problems of bad roads and inadequate infrastructure were also of concern to government and apologised on behalf of the ministers of works and transportation for the delay in fixing them.

She explained that major reconstruction work to completely overhaul the deplorable Apapa Wharf road has been taken over by the agency and will commence next month.

She said NPA has also made provision for the construction of the road in its 2017 budget with the sum of N4billion, adding that NPA has agreed to commence on the full reconstruction of the wharf road in collaboration with Dangote Group and Flour Mills of Nigeria  jointly funding the project.

Usman, who undertook an inspection tour of the failed port access roads at Tin can Island and Coconut axis following the strike action embarked upon by clearing agents and truck owners over the deplorable port access roads, called on them to give her time to fix the roads.

She also added that government has some bureaucratic challenges it faces in addressing the issues while she also pleaded for more time and patience.

She promised to open more channels of dialogues with the stakeholders like the Port Consultative Council (PCC) where issues will raise regularly with a view to finding lasting solutions.

Meanwhile, the withdrawal of service by licensed customs agents and freight forwarders at the ports appeared to be hit by a setback on day one. When THISDAY went round the ports of Apapa and Tin Can Island  on Monday, there were scanty movements of trucks in and out of the port area.

Though vehicle traffic was low, there was heavy presence of policemen drawn from the Ports Authority Police Command to prevent breakdown of law and order.

National Publicity Secretary of ANLCA  Dr. Kayode Farinto, who was seen at the entrance of Tin Can gate 2, confirmed the development. Farinto told journalists that the compliance level by agents and freight forwarders at Tin Can was low.

Attempts by some agents to prevent trucks from entering the port was resisted as it almost resulted in physical scuffles before the trucks eventually went in.

An official of National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), Simon Nwonu told THISDAY that the service withdrawal action is making progress, confirming that the group was  monitoring the progress being made with the action.

  

Customs Resist Agents

Spokesman for Tin Can Customs, Uche Ejesieme told THISDAY that the leadership of the agents and freight forwarders groups came early Monday to the customs gate to prevent their members from gaining access into the customs facility.

Ejesieme added that customs officers were at work as early as 8.00am ready to attend to importers and agents willing to process their documents.

As at 1.00pm Ejesieme said work started at Tin Can when the leadership of the agents left.

He, however, stated that the man hours lost may likely affect the revenue collection of the command.

On her part, Public Relations Officer of Apapa Customs, Nkiru Nwala, told THISDAY that work was ongoing at the command’s Customs Processing Centre (CPC).

She maintained that the command had its usual number of persons coming to process entries but could not ascertain the effect of the action on revenue collection.

 

Evil Day Postponed

However, as the NPA boss made attempt to get customs agents and truckers to end their strike, the Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria (MWUN), has given the federal government a 21-day ultimatum to rehabilitate and make the Oshodi-Apapa Dual Carriage Way and the access roads leading to the nation’s sea ports motorable.

The President of MWUN, Adewale Adeyanju, gave the ultimatum while responding to questions from journalists in Lagos.

He said that it was sad that the access roads to the ports were in a deplorable condition. Adeyanju said that the union was worried that the access roads to the nation’s seaports and the Oshodi-Apapa Dual Carriage Way that leads to Apapa and Tin-Can Ports had been abandoned.

Specifically, he said: “It is sad that the gateway to the nation’s economy is abandoned. We have written several letters including issuance of ultimatums over these roads to no avail. We can no longer live with the abandonment of access roads to the ports which have been in the state of disrepair for years in spite of efforts to draw government’s attention to the need to fix them.

“The union president said that for a long time, the Oshodi-Apapa dual carriage way as well as other port access roads had become death traps to road users. He said that the roads had been recording fatal accidents on a daily basis, and in December 2016, the  NPA  said that the contract for rehabilitation of the dual carriage way had been awarded. We are in May 2017, nothing has been done. The sad thing is that there is no sign that any contract had been awarded.”

He further said that NPA had last week written again to the union that contracts had been awarded for the rehabilitation of the roads.

 “If after three months to six months, the rehabilitation project does not start, we shall be compelled to take necessary action without further notice,” the union leader said.

He appealed to the government to repair the roads to save lives of innocent Nigerians that get trapped on the road or are attacked, robbed, harassed, intimidated and abused by hoodlums.

He said that hoodlums had been taking advantage of the deplorable roads to perpetuate all sorts of crimes.