Steve Agbota, [email protected]
Despite being strategically positioned to service several commercial and industrial hubs in Aba, Abia state, Onitsha and Nnewi business clusters in Anambra State, the Eastern ports of Warri, Port Harcourt, Calabar, Onne and Onitsha inland ports have remained unattractive to both shipping companies and importers due largely to insecurity and host communities hostilities.
An attempt to address these problem and revive the ports saw the Federal Government investing in modern security equipment, signing deals with international security agencies and boosting personnel capacity to fight the menace.
Aside the fact that 95 per cent of infrastructures in these ports are dilapidated. The roads lead to them are bad as port users, operators and trucks are said to be finding it difficult to get in and out of the ports.
Apart from security threats, Daily Sun learnt that prospective patrons of the eastern ports are discouraged by the level of multiple taxation imposed on firms by the host communities.
While oil companies paid huge amounts in settlement to community dwellers and traditional rulers in the oil producing areas where the ports are situated, other firms and individuals find it difficult to cope with such charges, hence their preference for Lagos ports.
Apparently, majority of these ports have been idle for years, thus significantly contributing to the current traffic gridlock plaguing the two Lagos seaports.
The ugly trend recently gave members of the the House of Representatives the opportunity invite the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), the Nigerian Navy and other relevant agencies to explain the reasons why efforts at reviving the eastern ports have remained unsuccessful over the years.
But of all the agencies of government invited, only the Nigerian Navy was represented by Rear Admiral Abraham Adaji, while there was no representative from Nigeria Customs Service at the public hearing.
The NCS’ action drew the fury of the lawmakers who accused it of frustrating efforts at repositioning the ports and ultimately the nation’s economy.
Chairman of the committee, Mr. Yusuf Buba Yakub, who expressed angst over the absence of the customs officials, described their action as a slap on the National Assembly. He vowed that the House would henceforth not condone such act from the NCS.
Speaker of the House, Femi Gbajabiamila, who declared the hearing open, lamented that the Nigerian maritime sector remains one of the country’s untapped economic resource base.
Responding to why Customs officials were not present at the public hearing, its National Public Relations Officer, DC, Joseph Attah , said Customs always will respond to every call by the National Assembly, stressing that, “as a Service, we desired that every seaport is functional across the country because that is where we will do our job.”
But Speaking earlier with Daily Sun, former member Presidential Taskforce on the Reform of Nigeria Customs Service; Presidential Committee on Destination Inspection and Ministerial Committee on Fiscal Policy and Import Clearance Procedure, Lucky Amiwero said that reviving the eastern port has nothing to do with Customs, adding that if the lawmakers don’t know what they are doing, they should consult maritime experts to educate them.
He said what lawmakers in 5th, 6th and 7th Senate did was to invite maritime experts to advise them on issues of ports and other related maritime issues, as reviving the ports is not the function of Nigeria customs Service
He added: “The lawmakers don’t know what they are saying because Customs doesn’t control the port. When you are talking about the developing port so that people can use the port it is the work of Ministry of Transportation and Nigerian Port Authority (NPA). The house members should address their case to the Minister of Transport and NPA and Nigerian Shippers Council. Customs has nothing to do with that.
“Is it the Customs that is doing the dredging of ports? How many ships can go to eastern ports? What is the draft level of Calabar and Warri ports? Can any of these mega ships go to Warry or Calabar ports? Are the ports secured enough for people to go in there? Reviving eastern ports is strictly a Federal Government responsibility which has to do with the Minister of Transport, NPA and Shippers Council.”
Amiwero who is also the National President of the National Council of Managing Director Licensed Customs Agents (NCMDLCA), said If the procedures in the ports are not properly done, then that is when the lawmakers can invite Customs, saying that Customs has no business in reviving the ports so lawmakers’ invitation is not relevant.
He insisted that Customs was right not to have honoured the invitation because when talking about reviving the ports that is not within the ambit of Customs law. He said Customs is for procedure, clearance and collection of duties not to revive ports.
He stated that, “they should look at the Customs law and look at the NPA law, while NPA is to revive the ports through the Ministry of Transport; they are just making mockery of themselves by blaming Customs.”
Speaking on the likely sanctions Customs may receive from the lawmakers, a foremost Maritime Lawyer, Emmanuel Nwagbara, said it would be waste of time and resources for Customs to be probed for responsibilities of another agency of government.
He explained: “If they are trying to invoke sanction against Customs, they will be misplacing the functions because they will contribute little or nothing. Let’s the ports be vibrant. If it is a case of not facilitating the process of clearance of goods, it is a different thing altogether but to leave their core responsibility and go to discuss the responsibility of another arm of government, is a sheer waste of time and the lawmakers should not invoke sanctions against them.
“If the eastern ports are patronised, Customs must have a Command there and Customs will facilitate trade there. Customs will not be in idle ports. So the issue of not bringing them to come and defend themselves should actually not be in 5he first place. The reason why the eastern ports are not being patronised and who should make the patronage of the eastern ports active is where you bring in NPA.” He said
Nwagbara said NPA should do everything in its power to make the eastern ports a place that is competitive and good for business, adding that the Authority knows what to do, dredge the port, grant robust discount to vessels calling at those ports.