Steve Agbota, [email protected] 08033302331
From all indications, Nigeria’s maritime sector faced huge daunting challenges in 2019 as operators bid the year goodbye with lots of disappointments and failed expectations.
At the beginning of the year, the Muhammadu Buhari administration gave its word that it would reposition the nation’s maritime sector and diversify the economy through non-oil economy. But barely three days to the end of the year, it obvious the none of those promises were fulfilled, an indication that the lofty dreams of stakeholders were dashed and ruined.
In the outgoing year, Nigeria’s maritime sector was bedeviled with series of crises, which impacted negatively on its annual revenue across board as port users and operators, who spoke with Daily Sun, prayed that their experiences in the industry in 2019 should not recur in the history of Nigerian maritime industry.
In the course of the year for instance, different scenarios played out in the industry of which the border closure of August 20, 2019, became a reference point of the oddities of the maritime sector, which has now forced importers to use the two Lagos seaports of Apapa and Tin Can Island ports, with its attendant congestion.
Today, it takes trucks about three weeks to access Apapa and Tin Can Island ports and another three weeks to exit.
But the situation is quite different from other neighbouring ports like Togo, Ghana and Benin where only a few days are needed to go through the same cargo clearing process.
For Nigerian port users, going and coming out of the ports have become extremely difficult.
Aside being regarded as the most expensive ports in the world, due to lack of coordination, poor policy, multiple charges among others, Nigerian ports also suffered poor infrastructure (roads, rail, quay, buildings, equipment, and yard) all of which had left them badly congested leading to insecurity and pilferage, delays in cargo clearance and inefficiencies in cargo handling largely due to manual processes.
For importers to clear their consignments at the ports, they were made to pay all manner of illegal charges, making it costlier to patronise Nigerian ports than it is for neighbouring countries where they pay less.
However, due to the inefficiencies at the port, the nation’s quest to grow the non-oil export sector suffered tremendous blow during the year as a result of the gridlock, which virtually reduced exporters repatriation of proceeds to Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). In the process, Nigerian exporters continued to miss their contractual agreement, as they were no longer able to meet up with delivery date of their consignments to their foreign counterparts.
But the gridlock bite harder in the course of the year, it was estimated that about 95 per cent SMEs, hospitals, and companies exited Apapa business corridor with scores of properties in choice estates now empty and dilapidated as access to the zone became a nightmare.
Meanwhile as residents and other stakeholders continue to count their losses, truck drivers, auto dealers and traders also lamented their ordeals, as sales volume and patronage continued to drop.
Daily Sun learnt that so many people lost their lives and thousands of jobs and businesses were lost due to the gridlock.
Only last week, a staff of an Apapa based newspaper broke a leg while ridding on a motorbike (Okada) to the office after all access roads to his office were blocked with trailers.
Not even the presence of a new Taskforce introduced by the Federal Government to monitor and clear the Apapa Gridlock has brought any reliefs to businesses and residents as the situation went from bad to worst. The Taskforce were even accused of extortions by clearing and forwarding agents.
Recently, the Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Privatisation and Commercialisation, Mr. Victor Akinjo, had raised the alarm that the country was losing about N600 billion monthly to the gridlock around the Lagos seaports.
But, in order to tackle the challenge, he said the Federal Government has concluded plans to engage relevant stakeholders to address the menace.
Speaking at a recent facility tour of the Ocean and Cargo Terminal in Warri, Akinjo, described the N600 billion monthly figure as a huge loss.
“When we interfaced with importers and exporters in Lagos, we discovered that the gridlock is costing Nigeria N600 billion monthly. We took it up on Wednesday at the level of the parliament that there was the need to engage all stakeholders to see what could be done urgently.”
According to him, the purpose of the visit was to interface with the maritime operators and regulators, considering that seaports are the gateway to any economy in the world.
“You cannot carry tonnage of goods through the air, it must come through the water. The only way to achieve this is to ensure that our ports are efficient and effective. The essence of the visit is to interface with the operators and regulators and take on issues I call privatisation laboratory and find ways to solving the issues.”
Another scenario that played out in the industry as the year winds down is the border closure which stakeholders say has both negative and positive impacts.
For instance, from the standpoint of the Federal Government, the decision to shut the land borders has reduced smuggling of all manners of prohibited items into the country.
But the feeling of the ordinary Nigerians on the streets across the country is that the policy has skyrocketed the prices of food items, as many Nigerians can no longer afford to buy or eat rice.
Many commentators believe the border closure was one of the reasons Nigeria lost its fourth attempt to get re-elected into the ‘Category C’ of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) Council seat.
In that election, Nigeria lost to Kenya by one vote in the category C elections. Kenya got 111 votes while Nigeria got 110 votes, as Benin Republic and other Francophone countries voted against Nigeria because of the border closure.
However, stakeholders told Daily Sun that year 2019 would go down as the worst ever in the polity of the country, as Nigeria is currently missing in the global maritime space.
They lamented that no access roads; no cargo scanner; no dredging in some cases around the ports mostly in the eastern ports while none of the eight seaports can accommodate bigger vessels in the country.
Speaking with Daily Sun, National President of National Council of Managing Directors of Customs Licensed Agents (NCMDCLA), Lucky Amiwero, said the maritime sector actually fared so bad in 2109.
He added: “You know maritime sector combines International trade and border. We work in the borders, seaports and airports. So International trade actually link up with these three. But if you focus on the maritime sector, you will know that the sector fared terribly bad because we have lost a lot of people to the gridlocks. So many people lost their lives in 2019. Agents and drivers lost their lives and they are still losing their lives up till today.
“Second, the sector did not fare any better because the impact of the gridlock affected so many things that have left transportation cost so high while clearing days increased. The money you spend trying to access the ports and go out is much. On the issue of clearance, it is so terribly bad that a lot of people has lost their job.”
According to him, since the borders closed, a lot of people are still groaning in pains while some are in the hospital, after having gone bankrupt. He said the infrastructures are very bad, the laws are not up to date and a lot of things out there have not yet been done.
He said that people are moving out of Apapa completely, no holding bays, shipping companies are increasing charges and nobody seems to be regulating them.
He lamented: People are moving out of the sector because nobody coordinates its affairs. Who do you run to? We don’t have coordinating minister like what we have in the formal regime. You have everybody doing what they feel like. Government is not interested in improvement of anything as the maritime sector has terribly hindered and there seem to no hope for the sector.
Looking at the transit, he said Nigeria has a problem because it is now affected by the border closure. He hinted that government has a reason for doing that but when looking at trade, it must be carefully handled so that it will not affect the country in subsequent conventions it is going to sign.
He explained further: “Because if you signed the conventions and you want to actually take decisions, you have to bring the partners and the party together. In that conventions, we have ECOWAS treaties and now we are talking about African Free Trade Continental Agreement (AfTCA).
“People will not take us serious for what we have done so far because we did not take them into cognizance before taking those decisions. We do not respect laws and many things has not been done properly. Transit we have lost, procedures we have not done very well, our port is one of the most expensive because cargo spend more time in the ports, ship spend more time and there is gridlock and clusters.”
For his part, a maritime expert and freight forwarder, Mr. Alao Olamilekan, said 2019 has been so challenging for the maritime sector as it was still the same old story for operators. Government promised to tackle most of the challenges but nothing was being done especially in solving the issue of gridlock, cargo evacuation, provision of holding bay and among others.
Today, he said the crucial roads linking to the seaports across the country are in bad shapes and these roads have gone from bad to worst including Tin Can port access roads, which is causing traffic gridlock.
Accoridng to him, it is sad to see Nigeria being delisted from transit nation due to issues of gridlock and high cost of doing business at the ports as Ghana and Burkina Fasso now handling Nigeria’s transit trades. He said that is the scenario Nigeria found itself because nobody cares about what is happening in the industry.
Ironically, he said Nigeria is fortunate to be called a maritime destination state while its maritime potential is crying for utilisation. He noted that Government blindly focused on oil but forgetting that it needs maritime sector to facilitate the oil trade.
He hinted that Nigeria produces about 2.2 million barrel of crude oil per day, exporting gas NLG, LPG and other petroleum products and non-oil export products, saying that it is so unfortunate that none of the indigenous ship involve in the carriage of these products.
He said: “We read it in the news that presently, Nigeria is losing $9.1 billion yearly on freight revenue that would have accrued to its treasury. This amount is being lost to foreign ships. Do you know that such amount being lost to foreigners can fix all the roads in Apapa? The authority in maritime industry are sleeping and allow everything falling apart.”
Meanwhile, a Customs broker and chieftain of Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), Joe Sanni 2019 has continue to see that stakeholders has beginning to come to terms to the fact that the bad access roads impact negatively on ease of doing business.
According to him, the multiple of Government security agencies hampered cargo clearance in the ports. He said the security agencies have also come to understand there is need to make virtual all the processes to reduce corruption in the ports system.
On examination of cargo, he urged government to think about installing scanners in most of the terminals so that cargo can go through quickly to minimise human interference and contact.
He narrated, “2019 has been able to throw up some of these challenges and people are now focused on ways and means of solving such problems or solving the challenges. I’m very optimistic that 2020 ports system and maritime sector is going to be great year if the challenges identified in 2019 are been tacked effectively.”