Shippers’ Council and Quest for Sanity at Ports

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Francis Ugwoke

For the Nigerian ports environment, it has been a pathetic situation when compared with what happens in advanced ports of the world.

It has been one form of decadence or the other in the sector in the past two decades. It has been the issue of corruption, congestion and quackery at the seaports. Incidentally, for all these years, there have been concerted efforts to address these issues to no avail. So many committees and indeed task forces were set up by the federal government which made efforts at resolving issues without achieving much. With the port reform policy which witnessed the concessioning of cargo handling operations to the private investors in 2006, many thought that the issues that have given stakeholders concerns over the years would be addressed, but so far, not much has changed.
Incidentally, stakeholders have been desirous of a drastic change with the nation’s ports borrowing a leaf from those of advanced countries.

Global Ports
The scenario in global ports in terms of sanity is marveling. And this is when compared with the Nigerian way at the nation’s ports, whether the air or sea ports. A visit to the ports of Singapore, Srilanka, Germany, US and here in our neighbouring ports of Ghana, Cotonou and Gambia where this writer has visited shows a complete opposite of what obtains in Nigerian ports. In all these ports, it is automation all the way without human traffic at the gates or terminals as the case in Nigeria. A freight forwarder as is the common name in these countries do not have to appear physically when they have goods to clear at the ports. They simply do everything online and thereafter send the truck drivers to take delivery. No physical interface between the customs officers and the freight forwarder or his shipper as is the case in Nigeria. This is efficiency at play.

Nigerian Ports’ Scenario
The Customs and Excise Management Act of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) allows self-clearing of goods at the ports by importers if he or she feels like not using an agent. But no importer finds this attractive for obvious reasons. An attempt to visit Nigerian ports presents a nightmare to anyone making that effort. This is because of the terrible vehicular and human traffic on the port access roads as well as inside the ports. An example is a visit to the Tin Can Island port and the Customs Administrative office. It would be recalled that the Customs management made strong attempts about nine years ago to address the problem without success. The Command has made several attempts to sanitise the area without success as customs agents have had to resist the moves. It was for this reason that one of the terminal operators (PTML) decided to impose a registration fee of N8000 an any agent who has any business inside its terminal.

There have been moves by the associations of customs agents and freight forwarders to stop this without success. Leaders of freight forwarders, including the founder of National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF) Dr Boniface Aniebonam, have cried out loud again and again, but nothing has changed. The belief is that there is a lot of notoriety among customs agents or freight forwarders to the extent that they can hardly be controlled without specific form of enforcement to achieve discipline. The Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN) was indeed set up to address this issue but over the years, the council has been riddled with crisis that it is yet to get its bearing in this statutory responsibility. But the issue is not just about the freight forwarders and customs agents constituting lack of sanity at the ports, there are many others milling around at the ports who have no business being there. Many claim to be shipping agents, cargo consolidators and depot operators hustling for businesses.

Achieving Sanity
In the past few years, the Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC) has been in the vanguard of bringing what happens in the global maritime environment to bear in our local environment. The Executive Secretary of the Council, Mr Hassan Bello, has often demonstrated the passion to ensure that Nigeria becomes the centre of maritime trade, such as a transshipment centre for West and Central Africa. With Nigeria as the destination of half of the goods destined to West Africa coming to Nigeria, the country deserves to be the transshipment base in the region. But the obstacles have been both human and infrastructure. The two issues have to be tackled, and this may explain the recent move by the NSC to bring sanity in the nation’s ports. Already, the ports economic regulator has been working hard in ensuring that modern cargo handling equipment are deployed at the ports. This has been through equipment audit embarked on by the economic regulator. This, Bello said has been very impressive. However, the issue confronting the Council is one of quackery, lack of glaring sanity at the ports, so to say. This was what led to the introduction of registration fees at the ports, one weapon that is believed to be capable of sanitising the ports industry.

The registration fee according to the Director, Legal Services of the Council, Samuel Vongtau, would help government to check quackery within the system. He explained that this would help the council to know the number of service providers operating within the sector, an exercise that will bring relative ease in the ports environment.
The registration covers all service providers in the ports, including clearing agents, shipping companies, Indigenous Shippers, Inland container operators, terminal operators and offdock terminal operators.

With this, the Council promised it will be able to rid the ports of touts and quacks that are currently common. Vongtau, who spoke at a sensitisation workshop organised by NSC recently appealed to the service providers to register with the ports economic regulator as part of the efforts to providing efficiency at the ports.
He further explained, “registration will bring sanity and reduce congestion at the port environment. Once the service providers are registered and known, the number of people entering the port will be reduced.

“Congestion will be reduced drastically as only the registered service providers will be given access to the port environment. This will lead to increased efficiency in service delivery.
“Knowing the players in the ports, in terms of numbers and types of businesses they are doing, financial projections will be made easy as experts would easily know what the sector can generate from the types and number of businesses.”

The fees which will be paid annually by the service providers include shipping line agencies – N100, 000 per annum, cargo consolidators – N20,000; dry port operators – N50, 000; freight forwarders and clearing agents – N10, 000; haulers – N10,000; Inland Container Depot operators – N50,000; off dock terminal operators – N20,000; Seaport terminal operators – N100, 000; shippers – N1,000; shippers association – N5,000; stevedoring companies – N20,000, and warehouse operators – N20,000.

NSC and Goodwill
Since the introduction, some service providers have expressed dismay, describing it as additional costs to their business at the ports. But industry watchers believe that there will be a soft landing somewhere between the ports economic regulator and the service providers on the issue. And this may not be unconnected with the goodwill which the Council enjoys among all the service providers that are affected in the registration process.

This cuts across all the service providers, from the shippers, freight forwarders to shipping line agencies, among others. A source close to the Council said there are plans to talk to leaders of the various service providers to further see the registration fees as imperative to achieving the much desired sanity at the ports. It would be recalled that the Council as the ports economic regulator and in fact over the decades has championed the interests of all the service providers in the ports. The Council as the umpire of the system has moved to protect the interest of the service providers, spearheading the call for infrastructural development that would promote efficient services at the ports. This is in addition to creating industry harmony among the various players, protecting the shippers, freight forwarders against illegal charges and other unfriendly business practices. In the same way, the Council had considered the interest of the shipping companies and terminal operators by encouraging an atmosphere of soft landing after the Appeal Court verdict in a case between them and regulator.

The court had given a verdict of refund of what they collected over the years with an interest of 21 percent. Though the terminal operators and shipping companies had gone to the Supreme Court, there are strong moves to settle out of court based on the understanding of the consequences should the apex court pass judgment against them. The leadership of the council has left its doors open for settlement believing that enforcement of the judgment of the Supreme Court if the Council wins was capable of creating severe economic crisis for the shipping service providers that the regulator would not wish. So, one expects that in consideration of this, the terminal operators and indeed the shipping companies will embrace the new registration process which administrative fee is really not much for a corporate organisation.

This is the same for shippers and their customs agents who have benefitted more from the Council than any other service provider. The Council played a prominent role in the actualization of the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN) in 2007 and saved shippers the hardship they encounter in their business. The Council had handled thousands of cases in which international suppliers defrauded Nigerian shippers in some transactions with refunds secured for the shippers. So, for the shipping service providers, customs agents, freight forwarders and shippers, it is a pay-back time, more so when the registration fee is geared towards ports efficiency.

*Ugwoke, a journalist, writes from Lagos