The Executive Secretary/CEO of the Nigerian Shippers Council, Mr. Hassan Bello, in this interview with THISDAY sister broadcast station, Arise TV, stressed the need for Nigeria to have a national single window and move away from primitive clearance of cargo. He also spoke about what the council is doing to ensure the ports do not become the source of the spread of Covid-19 and other critical issues. Excerpts:
What has been the impact of COVID-19 on the maritime industry in Nigeria?
The maritime industry has been affected naturally by disruption in international logistics chain. Things will not be the same. It is important to have our ports operational, however, the operations must be within the guideline prescribed by health authorities. We must maintain social distance, and sanitisation. We can’t crowd the ports, and that’s why it is only when one has essential things to do, like if you have cargo to clear from the port, that one should be there.
It is a delicate balance; the ports must open to fuel our economy. We must maintain this supply of essential cargos, medicine, foods, and raw materials for our factories to maintain employment and general running of the country. However, we have prescribed and observed that this must be within the limits already prescribed.
We have gone round the terminals several times, and have observed that, the terminal operators are up to their responsibilities. They have kept all the pledges to abide by the instructions. And I think cargo is flying now. It cannot be optimal, because the existence or operations of the port, depends on other factors outside the port. For example, public transport, which is limited, and Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC) has been able to provide transportation to essential port workers. However, if we are fighting for sitter bus, it’s only 17, would be the capacity to maintain social distancing and to abide with health authorities. So, why the port is operating, for these two weeks, which we were already in the second week (second week of the first lockdown order by President Muhammadu Buhari), I think we have done well, and we have to look at it and review the whole thing over again.
What are these guidelines of operations and how are we maintaining them?
The ports are manned by Health Port, which is an authority concerning this. They have been extremely active. We have been working with them to make sure that all the guidelines are strictly observed. I have been to the terminals to see what they have in place. And the Ports Health would be there. Besides, NIMASA has issued marine notice to see to the arrival, stay and departure of ships. That would take care of containment and prevention of the COVID-19. I think what is needed is for the ports community to come together and realise that the government main preoccupation is to contain this virus. And for us to do that, every agency in the port would have its own responsibility. That is why the NSC, and the economy regulator, has assembled almost all the agencies, and we are having a task team, and one of the priorities is, while the port is opened, we must also abide by the health guidelines. And I think this has happened, we have done well so far.
What are some of the issues raised during the recently held sensitisation forum for port stakeholders and the solutions?
One of the issues is, people being at the ports when they have no business there. Naturally, even when the situation was normal, one shouldn’t be at the port unless one has something to transact, it’s even more so now. Secondly, we provide transportation to port workers and forwards. Thirdly, is operation of the banks. Banks must operate so that transactions, especially the payment of custom duties would be done, without which cargo would not exit the port. We have been able to convince some banks to open their branches especially within the vicinity of the Port. And this has aided the transactions. Nigeria customs has been extremely cooperative. What we want is a relaxation of their assessment or clearance procedures, so that we could have the cargo out of the Port as soon as they come, and then, enlightenment continues. We are also thinking of having the Ports opened on public holidays. And this we have gotten the cooperation of all the actors and stakeholders.
How about the seafearers, what legal implication would this lockdown have on carriage demurrage, and storage?
First the seafearers observe some protocols about their safety. It is very important, I am sure their unions are up to that responsibility to take care of the sea fearers, so that they are protected from this virus. As to contractual obligations, no doubt, there have been some disruptions, and parties to contract of appointment or contract of carriage would not be able to perform some of their obligations for reasons beyond their reasonable control. It is global, total, and universal. So, we have to accommodate certain things, and that’s why mediation would come into play. If we are going to go through legal issues, that would of cause be going technical because, who are the parties to the contract, who declare the impossibility about performing obligations. This virus has made parties not being able to perform their obligations, therefore, rights must be in a compromise. I have seen for example, in India, where the insurance companies are saying, the life insurance would not cover death under this virus, and the authorities are saying, this cannot be possible. So, we have our way of dealing with this, frustration of contracts is ruled by unforeseen circumstances, and I think this circumstance is certainly unforeseen.
The NSC has done this before when there was general strike and we were able to make the settlement. That is, bring the users and providers together, and find a compromise.
What is the logistical interplay from the ports to all the people necessary for the performance and optimum delivery of the ports?
It is quite a challenging time for which we have to learn a lot of lessons. Traffic management is of importance to port operations, so is the efficiency of the terminals, so is education, professionalism of forwarders. The port is layers and layers of interest; each one has to be perfect. There must be unity, and uniformity. And I think, this has really shown how important it is for people to come together within the port community. The truckers may bear most of the burden of the economy transporting cargo. They have come under our view, and we have done some sensitisation about how they can observe safety guidelines and still carry out their responsibilities. At this particular time, the traffic situation in Apapa must be handled extremely well. And we are having the task team, under the Vice President, as part of our operational headquarters. Because we have where we monitor the progress at all time. From today as a matter of fact, we would be on the field, looking at the traffic, directing it appropriately, having traffic management, the call-up system, and so many other things. We are also encouraging the barging of containers. So we don’t only have one more of transportation or exit from the Port, because this seems to be the problem. But for the disruption, we would add rail services to the port also, when we have all these together, then you would see and ease of the chaos on the gridlock at Apapa. However, we are conscious of the fact that we need modern traffic management and we are doing our best to see that this is achieved within the circumstances we are.
Bring us up-to-date on the current realities of the six confirmed cases of COVID-19 patients found on vessel?
There are the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) guidelines. NIMASA has issued a marine notice on arrival of these ships, and the crew. This is well taken care of.
What can be done in terms inter-agency collaboration to ensure screening of vessels?
The Port Health is very important. They are the first to board the vessel to determine the health or otherwise of the cargo and crew. The last time we were at the port, we had to wait for them because they had just boarded a vessel that arrived. So, there are international protocols, international conventions that take care of all that. It is important to check the health of all crews and vessels, especially now.
What are the challenges you have noticed so far, and how much of cargo cancelations have we seen?
There will certainly be a drop in cargo throughput. Certainly, some factories were not working largely, and we cannot fulfill contract. Disruption of logistics is universal as I said, hence some contracts of carriage cannot be optimised, and therefore we have a fall in the revenue of the government. However, we hope, as we have done in Nigeria, things would pick up. The Nigerian economy, even though stumbling, could be made strong, especially through the ports. We have to spike up the revenue, maintain the factories to be working, maintain employment and you would see us out of this. The layers of isolation the government has put that is to isolate Nigeria from the spread of this virus has been commended internationally, and I think we are doing well. But lessons have been learnt even at this early stage. First, is synergy between port operators and stakeholders. We must stick with one another every time. There must be electronic platforms. We cannot do the primitive cargo clearance that we are using now. Cargo could be cleared from the port without anybody going to the port itself. And that is what is giving us problem at this moment. We need to clear cargo by automating the Port. We need electronic handling of cargo clearance. First, we have to have the national single window(NSW), which is very important in clarity in the speed of clearance of cargo. We must have the cargo-tracking note, which means, every cargo coming into Nigeria is well known even before it arrives. I think these lessons are well taken, and the NSC would soon set up the necessary machineries to ensure we divorced from primitive clearance of cargo. We have to work with other agencies.
What kind of intervention is required at this time and after this crisis for the maritime industry to take its rightful place as the mainstay of the Nigerian economy and tell us about the NSC’s Trucks Transit Parks (TTP)?
The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has taken the lead for bringing palliatives or for providing interventions. This is done all over the world. I am impressed with what the CBN has done, and I think it should look at the transport sector, because apart from the oil, which is not a good friend for any economy, the transport sector is the second largest earner of revenue. Actually, transport drives the economy, so CBN should, come and focus on areas of interventions, either with this disruption or even without. The transport sector has qualified to be concertedly and consciously looked at, so that, there would be direct intervention. The details could be worked out. Our truck transit parks, like many other projects, we have some certain disruptions. The Ogbolafo truck transit park, we have gone through the negotiations, we are about writing the agreement when this issue came. But, I think, it is just for a while. Trucks transit parks is for faster delivery of cargo. It is often the road, instead of parking all the busses, and trailers on the street, we find a place where they could be parked. We would have a restaurant, and other modern amenities at the TTPs. It would provide employment and revenue stream for the state government and for everybody else.