The Battle for the Soul of Nigerian Ports

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The battle for the soul of the nation’s seaports is on. There is no doubt about that. This is one of the reasons why the Federal Government is saying one thing and doing another thing in the number of government agencies involved in the cargo clearance chain in the nation’s seaports. That the Federal Government has been going back and forth on the number of its agencies operating in the nation’s seaports, airports and international land borders is an understatement.

In fact, the executive order on the port has once more exposed the policy summersault of the Federal Government. Not a few stakeholders have picked holes in the policy. Among other issues, they wondered the criteria used in determining the government agency to remain or vacate the port. The order was also silent on the multiplicity of units of one government agency involved in the cargo clearance chain. For instance, instead of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) having a unit where everything about the service can be concluded once and for all by consignees and licensed customs agents, there are many several units of the NCS in the port. Port users are not unaware of the fact that your clearance by one unit of the service does not translate to clearance by another unit of the same service. It is an indubitable fact that it is not only the multiplicity of government agencies that cause avoidable delays in the cargo clearance chain but also the multiplicity of units within the government agencies.

Moreover, the rationale for the exit order placed on some of the government agencies in the port has exposed one of the sore points of the President Mohammadu Buhari’s administration. Not a few government agencies or their helmsmen are working at cross purposes. They are not on the same page on what the Buhari administration intends to achieve in the port. A case in point was the Director General of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), Alhaji Muhammad Abdallah, who dared his counterpart in the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), Ms. Hadiza Bala Usman on the need for the drug watchdog to vacate the port in line with the port executive order. The recent public statement of these two government agencies makes one to wonder whether they are not working for the same government.

Quarantine Services is another case in point. The Nigerian Agricultural Quarantine Services (NAQS) is a Department under Federal Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. It comprises three bodies, namely Plant, Vetinary and Aquatic Resources. It has a responsibility to prevent the introduction of exotic pests and diseases into Nigeria. It also protects other member countries under the World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreement.

As if the present government is oblivious of these roles and responsibilities, NAQS is not among seven agencies allowed to operate in the nation’s seaports. The exit order on this government agency has made not a few within and outside the maritime industry to opine that the present administration is only paying a lip service to its campaign of diversifying the economy through improved agriculture production.

How can a government which never ceases to use every avenue to say it is going to step up agriculture production as a way of addressing Nigeria’s over dependence on crude oil sent packing the agency that will serve as its eye in the port?

In any case, is NAQS and the other government agencies asked to vacate the port responsible for cargo delay? Are they the one behind the high cargo dwell time (CDT) which remains one of the highest in the world according to World Bank report? Many Nigerians do not have an eye for history. Even things that happen in our recent history are easily forgotten. These historical facts are not allowed to shape our policy initiatives so that we do not follow the path that made us to falter in the past.

For instance, this is not the first time some government agencies were asked to vacate the nation’s seaports. In 2011, the President Goodluck Jonathan administration announced a reduction in the number of government agencies in the port. The former Minister of Finance and Co-ordinating Minister of the Economy, Dr. Ngozi Okonji-Iweala who visited Nigeria’s premier port, Apapa and held meeting with stakeholders to unfold policy made it clear on why the Federal Government took the decision. Nigerians need to know what happened in the port from 2011 when the reduction order was announced by the former minister and the fresh executive order on the port by Acting President Yemi Osinbajo.

It is on record that when these bodies were asked to leave the port, our agricultural commodities suffered a great deal on the international market. Besides, Nigeria’s agricultural products meant for exports recorded a lot of rejection, interception and outright ban.

Nigeria’s image in the international community was also at stake.   This was not unconnected with the fact that under the WTO agreement of which Nigeria is signatory, all agricultural goods in and out of member countries must be inspected and certified.  The NAQS is the only authorized body to carry out these functions as well as the issuance of agriculture permits and certificates. In view of its vigorous campaign on agriculture, there is no proven evidence that the Federal Government put these into consideration in the selection of its agencies that will remain or leave the port.

Moreover, how will the Federal Government achieve 24 hours cargo clearance in the nation’s seaports with the dilapidated port access roads that stare port users entering or exiting Lagos port and elsewhere daily? The answer to this and many more questions lie in the bowels of time.