The many obstacles to 24-hour ports operation

AJIBOLA ABAYOMI in this analysis draws attention to the challenges that may mar the recent Executive Order by the federal government that targets 24-hour operation at Nigeria’s ports and the desire to favour the ease of doing business.

On the 18th of May, 2017, when the Presidency reeled out the Executive Order signed by Acting President Yemi Osinbajo aimed at commencing 24- hour operation at Nigerian ports, indeed the move was viewed as a right step in the right direction. As stated in the order, all relevant Ministries, Departments, and Agencies (MDAs) of governments at the airports and elsewhere shall within 30 days of the issuance of the order merge their respective departure and arrival interfaces into a single customer interface, without prejudice to necessary backend procedures.

For ease of referencing, government went further to approve that only the Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA); Nigerian Customs Service (NCS); Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA); Nigeria Police Force; Department of State Security (DSS); Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) and Port Health shall operate at the ports henceforth to reduce the undue bureaucratic procedures.

Th e order was a product of government’s interaction with the various stakeholders in the maritime sector to boost the ease of doing business in the country. Th e move could not have come at a better time when Nigeria is ranked 182 among countries in terms of Trade Across Borders (TAB). Th e nation is blessed with over 100 kilometers of coastal, and more in terms of navigable waters, this underscored the importance for development of the ports. Statistics revealed by the Joint Council of Seaport Truck Operators (JCOST) of Nigeria as far back as 1990 put the record of container throughput in the nation’s ports at about 93499 and tons of cargo throughput at 161, 691, 57 excluding 3440 crude oil. In 2014, Apapa Port alone hosted 690,690, 1503 vessels and 19,825,488 tons of cargo making the total general cargo throughput 20,645,266.

Despite the recession in 2015, the same port also witnessed a traffi c of 20, 202, 767 tons of general cargo throughput. In as much as the Secretary of JCOST posits that the order is set to bring positive changes to port performance, he was quick to warn that not until some fundamental challenges are addressed, the maximisation of potential benefi ts may record negative consequences. Worried about the development, a frontline maritime lawyer and former President of Nigerian Bar Association, Olisa Agbakoba traced the infrastructure decay and unstable policies stemming the growth of the ports to direct consequence of successive government’s inability to invest in the ports beginning with the Nigerian Maritime Act of 1987.

Th e legal practitioner noted that “the government has not enacted any policy to review, examine and implement a plan. So, what you see now is a heavy decline in the way maritime policy is carried out, in the way new laws are even made to meet new challenges”. In as much as the Executive Order is a necessary intervention, there are critical challenges that may reduce it to a mere wishful thinking if they are left unattended to as witnessed 10 years ago when government laboured in vain to achieve a 48-hour port operation.

Th e Executive Secretary/Chief Executive Offi cer of the Shippers Council of Nigeria (SCN) Hasssan Bello identifi ed technology, infrastructure, process and people as major factors that nailed the 48-hour port target and urged the government to be wary of them in order to make its recent move a reality. Fortunately, these challenges are not strange to both the government and other stakeholders.

Th at the road leading to the major ports like Apapa and Tin-Can, both in Lagos, remains a death trap is a fact known to the whole world. Th e less than two kilometers road-stretch has become nightmare to the economic wellbeing of the ports and Lagos, the hosting state to the extent that the Road Transport Employers Association of Nigeria ( RTEAN) estimated that over N4.1 billion revenue are being lost on daily basis apart from human lives. In this age of technology, it is absurd to note that most of routine checks by the NCS ditto for other agencies are still analogue driving not to talk of the epileptic power at the ports, yet government is dreaming 24-hour operation. Apart from that the mystery behind the unnecessary duplication of charges not known to the law coupled with open corruption surrounding the trade procedures is yet to be unraveled.

To cap it all, the nonchalant attitude of the NPA to live up to its billing is a serious concern rather the agency is more interested in what it can gain from the ports in terms of charges at the ports where terminal operators have become gods unto themselves among other knotty issues. Despite these, the potentials of the ports are still enormous. Although government through the Ministry of Power, Works and Housing promised to fi x the ports road valued at N4.3 billion recently, even at that given the past experiences, the promise remains a pledge to be accomplished. At a recent seminar organised by the Association of Maritime Journalists of Nigeria (AMJON), major players who are the conscience of the ports like NSC, JSCOST, National Council of Managing Directors of Licensed Customs Agents (NCMDLCA), National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF) and Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents (ANCLCA) voiced out the truth to the government. Although, they remain optimistic about the intention to turnaround the ports road but there are still miles to cover to make the 24-hour operation eff ective.

Th e submission of the NCMDLCA as articulated by its National President, Lucky Eyisamiwero, captioned the pains of the ports business communities. Ranging from untold gridlock forcing truck drivers to spend over six weeks to access the less than 300 meters road to the ports, shipping companies not regulated by any government agency, cumbersome and lengthy port procedures breakdown of scanning and physical examinations, block staking of containers and non availability of holding bay for trucks, no trailer and tanker park. Including duplicated charges not tied to services, cargo dwell time and non compliance to port act of 1999, it is apparent that government may have beat the gun in its quest to achieve the round the clock operation. For NAGGAF, the way forward is for the government to stop paying lips service to infrastructure development.

President of NAGAFF, Uche Increase wants checks to be put in place to curtail what he alleged as high level of corruption among offi cials of National Agency for Food Drugs and Administration (NAFDAC), Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON), NCS and Police offi cers and make them respect regulations set by Council for Regulation of Freight Forwarding of Nigeria (CRFFN). Uche said: “Nigerian ports are under landlord model. It is apparent that the ports authority is only interested in collecting royalty, fi x rate charges and cargo through put charges from concessionaires without ensuring that terms of concessionary agreement are observed and obeyed”.

ANLCA advised government to focus on policies and implementation, regulatory framework and attendant impediments aff ecting the maritime ports Prince Olayiwola Shittu J.P, the President of ANCLCA counseled that there should be less emphasis on paper documentation to encourage seamless operation and A-One- Stop-Shop Module/Portal to access all standard operating process of all government security and regulatory agencies. Both the Police NCS and other government agencies have repeatedly stated that none of their offi cers were authorised to extort money at the ports. Deputy Commissioner of Police, Western Port Lagos, Adeyemi Gbola said: “Now that government is talking about 24-hour port operation, we can make it happen. It is possible. “No police offi cer is mandated to extort money from anyone at the ports. If any offi cer demands bribe from you, you should refuse and follow it up to the logical conclusion.” he challenged the stakeholders.

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