By Chiazo Ogbolu,
The maritime sector plays a crucial role in the socio-economic and political development of nations, Nigeria inclusive. The industry includes all maritime related business activities that take place within the country’s maritime environment.
These activities comprise of offshore economic activities such as fishing, towage, underwater resources, salvage, and onshore economic activities such as port activities, maritime transport (shipping), ship construction, repairs and maintenance activities.
Nigeria’s maritime sector is very vibrant with total annual freight cost, estimated at between 5 and 6 billion dollars annually, according to the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) 2018.
However, there is no doubt that the maritime sector, just as other sectors of the economy in the year 2020, was plagued by so many hiccups.
From the COVID-19 pandemic to #EndSARS protests, as well as other challenges, it is obvious that it should no longer be business as usual in the maritime sector if the diversification agenda of the Federal Government will take its course. This urges the need for internal development.
Paramount among the numerous challenges to be tackled, especially at the Lagos ports, include the poor access roads, poor infrastructure, extortions, high haulage cost and the need to automate port activities.
In the early period of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was lockdown which necessitated the non-movement of vehicles and people and in turn disrupted the operations at the port, thereby leading to congestion and economic downfall.
To ensure the free movement of cargo and people at the port, the government maritime agencies resorted to removing demurrage charges on cargoes, introducing free busses for operators at the port and many others.
It is obvious that if the port is automated, these issues that arose at the early stages of the pandemic that led to congestion would not have happened.
Hence, the numerous challenges at the ports such as the poor access road, poor infrastructure, extortions, high haulage cost and others should be tackled for the sector to have an impact on the economy of the country.
As the year 2021 begins, stakeholders in the industry, the freight forwarders, customs agents, exporters and importers expect a year that will turn around business activities in the ports for good.
Also, government agencies in the maritime sector, including the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) and the Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC) have also seen that they need to put in place systems that will enable the sector to be an alternative for the economy’s diversification.
Ms Hadiza Bala-Usman, Managing Director, Nigerian Ports Authority, says the NPA will deploy the automated call-up system of trucks into the Apapa ports in Lagos to curb the problematic traffic congestions along the port corridors by January 2021.
She says the deployment of the automated call-up system is part of the measures aimed at resolving the gridlock that has threatened to ground port operations at Tin-Can Island Port.
With the deployment of an electronic call-up system for trucks by January 2021, Bala-Usman in a statement by NPA’s Assistant General Manager, Corporate and Strategic Communications, Ibrahim Nasiru, assures that the problem of congestion and rent-seeking on access roads to the ports will soon become history.
“The management is working with the Lagos State Government to provide truck holding bays as part of the implementation of the e-call up system and partnering with the Lagos State Government to deploy law enforcement officers for the maintenance of sanity along the Port Logistic Ring.
“In the interim, management is liaising with the Federal Ministry of Works and Housing for the immediate commencement of remedial works on failed portions of the port access road.
“Management reiterates the directive to all shipping companies to ensure that the size of their respective empty container holding bay is commensurate with the volume of containers they bring into the ports, in line with NPA policy on empty containers.
“Shipping companies are to be responsible for the movement of empty containers from their holding bays to the Port. Consignees are to drop empty boxes at the designated empty container holding bays.
“Failure of shipping companies to remove empty containers at the holding bays will attract sanctions. Management, therefore, calls on all stakeholders and port users to go about their businesses as ports operations will continue unhindered,’’ Bala-Usman says.
Mr Hassan Bello, Executive Secretary, Nigerian Shippers’ Council gives the hope that the Apapa gridlock will disappear by first quarter of 2021 and will therefore, make operations at the port to run smoothly.
Bello gave the assurance while receiving members of the National Advisory Committee set up by the President on African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).
According to him, the gridlock and other issues in the ports and along the corridors being tackled will ensure the country utilises the benefits in the AfCFTA.
“We have a deficit on infrastructure, issues on rail, road connectivity between our ports and the hinterland and elsewhere in Africa.
“I am an optimistic person and that is why I want to say that by March, the first quarter of 2021, the gridlock in Apapa will disappear.
“This is because we are approaching it in a scientific angle, first we have to make the ports digital, automated and contactless, no need to go to the port to make payment or other transaction, all these will be online,’’ he says.
Bello also notes that the country’s dependence on the road for the delivery and evacuation of cargoes is totally wrong, adding that they are introducing rail and barges through the inland waterways.
“It is important that the country wakes up to the realities in time.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is a rude awakening for us to see how without internal development, we could not have been of any significance in the comity of nations.’’
Also, Dr Segun Musa, Deputy National President, Air Logistics, National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), supports the proposed call-up system and automation of the port, especially the Lagos ports.
He says automation will immediately ensure that when terminals receive the customs release, they will send the Trade Delivery Order Code (TDOC) to agents for pickup.
“I want to believe that government will stand on the promise of automating the ports, not just automating customs processes. The whole system should be automated.
“Freight forwarders do not need to come to the port when they want to clear cargo.
“Clearance should be done within the comfort zone of the freight forwarder, they should be able to capture their data from their office or homes and should be able to make payment online and getting shipping release without going to the port.
“The one reason one can visit the port is if he notices any discrepancy and for one to go for physical examination.
“Also, even for shipping companies, government should mandate them to be online, so that it will be a seamless operation in 2021,’’ he says.
Musa says 2020 was not good for activities at the port coupled with diverse bottlenecks for trade facilitation.
However, if government fulfills its promise of ports automation, most of the bottlenecks would be reduced, he adds.
For Dr Eugene Nweke, a freight forwarder, the war against piracy must also be sustained for smoother shipping operations.
“NIMASA should continue to advance its war against piracy in collaboration with the Nigerian Navy.
“When the shipping environment is clogged with crises and insecurity arising from activities of pirates, either within our territorial waters or on the Gulf of Guinea, foreign ship owners capitalise on it to increase shipping charges.
“The reason is that often times they hire security guards on board vessels who they pay and transfer the cost to countries of destination.
“So, security should also be a main concern for NIMASA,’’ he says.
Proffering another possible way out of the challenges, Capt. Tony Onohiarigho, President, Nigerian Institute of Shipping (NIS), says if there is to be effective and efficient automation of the port, the roads leading to the corridors of the ports must be constructed.
“Throughout 2020, it was tough with the COVID-19 pandemic and the #EndSARS.
“Nothing actually moved forward, ships were stuck offshore. They could not even go for time off and many tankers were at the high sea being quarantined.’’
Onohiarigho is optimistic that “in 2021 and with all these things put in place by the government agencies, money will come into the country.
“With the port running and other things happening it means we will get over things very well.
“So I am sure it is going to be a very good development next year because it will raise income for the country,’’ he says.
In all, since the maritime industry is vital to the economy of the nation, stakeholders believe that ports should be automated urgently for seamless operations to take place.
Also, other parameters that aid smooth operations and activities, including good access road, security and health measures for operators are urgently needed in 2021. (NANFeatures)