Investors and importers making use of Rivers and Onne Ports in Rivers State are voicing their concerns over the loss of investments and perishable consignments due to the arrest of port workers and closure of the ports by the Rivers State COVID-19 Task Force on the orders of Governor Nyesom Wike.
The governor, who imposed a 24-hour lockdown on Port Harcourt and Obi Akpor local government areas over the COVID-19 pandemic, refused to waive port workers as essential services providers. The governor’s action 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 the lockdown, ports should remain open for operations so as to facilitate importation and delivery of essential goods, such as food and medical supplies.
However, in the last one week, many port workers, including staffers of the regulatory Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), terminal operators, shipping agents and dockworkers have been arrested with vehicles conveying them to work impounded.
Speaking with journalists over the development late Tuesday night, the Managing Director of Africa Atlantic International Agencies, Mr Daniel Kalu, bemoaned that the vessel transporting his company’s 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 cause his company to lose the entire consignment.
“Even if we get the consignment out now, we already would have lost half of our investment because the fish would have lost quality and we won’t be able to sell at the standard price. That is not to speak of the demurrage that we must pay to ship owners for keeping their vessels longer than expected. We pay demurrage of 7,800 US dollars per day,” Kalu said.
According to him, the same vessel had called at the Lagos ports earlier and discharged cargo before heading to Port Harcourt port where activities are on standstill
Another consignee, Olufemi MacJulius of Fejudam Shipping Services, lamented that 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.
In the words: “We pay demurrage of $15,000 every day because the vessel carrying our bulk cargo is unable to berth due to 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.
“Also, a vessel laden with a consignment of Muriate of Potash (blended with urea and other compounds to make fertilizer) is unable to berth at the Onne port 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,” he said.
The port users expressed worry that apart from the loses that investors in perishable goods like frozen fish and wheat for food processing will incur from the closure of the ports, the situation will likely affect the food supply chain in the South-South and South-East regions as well as the image of Nigeria in the international maritime community.
The Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria (MWUN) had recently threatened a nationwide protest over the arrest of 20 dockworkers in Rivers State.
The association had said being essential services providers, the dockworkers 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.