By Eromosele Abiodun
Customs agents and other port workers at the Rivers and Onne Ports have called on the federal government to come to their recue following their arrests by the Rivers State COVID-19 task force on the orders of Governor Nyesom Wike.
The arrests they said has led to the loss of their investments and perishable consignments slated for export.
The governor, who has imposed a 24-hour lockdown on Port Harcourt and Obi Akpor Local Government areas over the COVID-19 pandemic, refused to place port workers under essential duty.
This is contrary to the guidelines of the Presidential Task Force of COVID-19 which classified port operations as essential services.
The federal government had said despite lockdown, ports should remain open to trade so as to facilitate importation and delivery of essential goods, such as foods and medical supplies.
But in the last one week, many port workers, including staff of the regulatory Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), terminal operators, shipping agents and dockworkers have been arrested, with vehicles conveying them to work impounded.
The Managing Director of Africa Atlantic International Agencies, Daniel Kalu, said the vessel transporting his consignment of 4,500 metric tons of frozen mackerel fish worth millions of euros have been unable to berth at the Rivers Port for about two weeks, a situation which he said could make his company lose the entire consignment.
“Even if we get the consignment out now, we already would have lost half of our investment because the fish has lost quality and we won’t be able to sell at the standard price,” he said.
“That is not to speak of the demurrage that we must pay to ship owners for keeping their vessels longer than expected. We pay a demurrage of $7800 per day,” he added.
He noted that the same vessel had called in and discharged cargo at the Lagos Ports before heading into Port Harcourt where activities are on standstill.
Another consignee, Olufemi MacJulius of Fejudam Shipping Services, said the vessel carrying his bulk cargo of wheat is waiting at neighbouring Bonny because it cannot approach Port Harcourt as a result of the lockdown.
“We pay a demurrage of $15 every day because the vessel is not able to berth as a result of the fact that port workers, including pilots and stevedores cannot come to work out of fear of arrest and detention, if not prosecution by the Rivers state government,” he said.
A vessel laden with a consignment of Muriate of Potash is unable to berth at the Onne Ports as a result of the same situation.
The inability to discharge this consignment may affect planting this year, given that the rains are already here.
The port users expressed worry that apart from the losses that investors in perishable goods like frozen fish and wheat for food processing would incur from the closure of the ports, the situation would affect the food supply chain in the south-south and south-east regions of the country as well as the image of Nigeria in the international maritime community.
The Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria (MWUN) had threatened a nationwide protest over arrest of 20 dockworkers in the state.
The association had said being essential services providers, the dock workers ought to be allowed to work at all seaports in the country, especially as most seaports are under the ownership and control of the federal government.
“We wish to use this medium to state that if nothing is done to effect the release of our members, the union will have no option but to withdraw our services in the entire nation’s seaport, terminals and jetties in solidarity with our detained members as an injury to one is an injury to all,” MUWN said in a statement signed by Adewale Adeyanju, its president-general.
“We were informed that the affected dockworkers were returning from essential service operations to BUA/PTOL terminal, Port Harcourt and were unlawfully and forcefully arrested, and detained by Rivers State Taskforce on enforcing COVID-19 Lockdown.”
According Adeyanju, all entreaties made by the dockworkers to the task force team led by Wike, that they were on essential services fell on deaf ears even though they presented duly signed “Essential Duty Port Pass” issued by the NPA.