Lockdown: Mixed Reactions Trail Port Operations

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Lockdown: Mixed Reactions Trail Port Operations

 

Chinazor Megbolu

 

The three weeks of lockdown over the spread of Covid-19 pandemic in Nigeria have not been of pleasant experience to freight forwarders despite the fact that Federal Goverment had said that the port should remain operational.

Security operatives have never made the journey of the agents to the port one without harassment on a daily basis. Banks too were not left out in adding salt to the injury being faced by freight forwarders by offering skeletal services, which made it difficult for agents to process their Form M easily.

In addition, trucks moving cargo from the ports now face more aggression from hoodlums on the streets, who demand extravagant extortion off truck owners and drivers at large.

Most of these factors hampered the movement of cargo from the port even as security men also turn some of the port bound trucks back.

Some associations and groups in the sectors have been crying foul over the way shipping firms, terminal operators, Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) and security agents have made port operations unbearable for agents causing mixed reactions.

Despite the federal government and the regulators’ interventions prior to the lockdown, terminal operators, shipping firms and NCS have been having a field day off freight forwarders, who felt helpless in the whole situation leading to tales of woes.

Some stakeholders also made references to section 12 of CEMA and section 13 which conferred ports administration and management on the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) and the Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC), which plays the role of ports economic regulator and adviser to the Government on port matters.

These government agencies need to intervene in protecting the interest of the trading public by ensuring their active participation in trade globally. Additionally, these Government agencies have strategic roles to play in the ports administration and management towards easing the already tensed situation by coming to their aids.

Moreover, the Presidential directive on the ports emergency declaration since lockdown has been making the NSC and Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarders of Nigeria (CRFFN) running from pillar to post to tackle issues. The NCS, as a paramilitary government organisation under this emergency situation has the powers of coercion as could be seen from section 8 of the customs laws.

The problems enumerated earlier have shown how freight forwarders went through hell trying to get their goods cleared.

Even the initiatives by NCS on cargo clearance recorded low points at the ports despite the palliatives for stakeholders in the maritime sector, the last fortnight has been hellish.

From the fear of incurring huge demurrage, to lost man hours and vessel delays, drop in vessel calling at the ports, goods clearing, among others, uncertainties pervade the air.

Last week, the crowd at the Lagos port complex was unparalleled as freight forwarders pressed to get their consignment cleared.

Owing to the strategic position of the sector to the economy, the Federal Government exempted dock workers and those related to the sector from the lockdown. Yet, there have been challenges of inefficiency and non-attainment of the objectives of the government in removing the sector from the lockdown.

NSC initiatives on port activities, especially cargo clearance at the ports despite the efforts of port regulatory agencies, which offered palliatives to enable freight forwarders surmount the challenges of pandemic have not yielded much expected fruits.

As part of these palliatives, the Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC) has offered free transportation for freight forwarders to and from the ports amid the lockdown and only recently directed that demurrages be waived and that already paid ones be refunded. Banks were asked to open to facilitate payment of Customs duties.

Meanwhile, the President, Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), Iju Tony Nwabunike, in a letter, called on Vice President Yemi Osinbajo to order a Force Majeure in line with international best practices immediately President Muhammadu Buhari declared that the seaports be operational during the lockdown period.

He noted that normal businesses at the seaports, airports and border stations will take its full swing, even adding that imported and export items might have been trapped in the ports.

According to him; “as such, demurrages and rent payable to shipping companies, concessionaires/terminal operators would have attained an unbearable proportion due to the lockdown.

“As you already know, it is difficult, if not totally impossible, to process customs documentation and take delivery of cargoes in our ports during this period.

“Even when attempts are made, it becomes difficult because state governments have closed interstate borders, markets are locked and movement of certain vehicles restricted,”

Nwabunike appealed to the Federal Government to prevail on shipping companies, terminal operators and other agencies at the ports to waive charges, taxes and fees but the terminal operators turned deaf ears in most cases because they too are there for profitable business just like other stakeholders.

However, the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF) in its observations during the period championed the need to empower the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) to play more active role towards ensuring that cargoes are cleared, without compromising social distancing or freight forwarders wellbeing.

Rev. Emmanuel Agubanze, a National Officer on Special Duty, NAGAFF in a statement last week stressed the need for Government intervention, towards ensuring smoother cargo facilitation, without unnecessarily clogging the system with bureaucracy.

According to him; “we must advise that the earlier the government makes a clear statement as to the leadership of the ports among its agencies the better our ports administration and management become organised and productive. We all know that the ports are classified under the law as customs ports”.

“It is the firm opinion of NAGAFF that the NCS may wish to stop seating at the backbench, to providing leadership in their ports. What is at stake right now is the lives and properties of the Nigerian people and indeed the economy”.

“We expect the Customs to take the lead in their own port to invite Nigerian Ports Authority, Nigerian Shippers’ Council and CRFFN leadership with a view to mapping out strategy on the best way to handle and execute the Presidential directive.

“In doing so, they will work closely with the Presidential Taskforce on COVID 19 pandemic, to tackle issues at the ports.

“And for the avoidance of doubt as it stands now, we have a situation in our port operations, where the banks are skeletal in services, the Terminal operators and others are offering skeletal services equally.

“The police is arresting duty bound Freight Forwarding practitioners and so on.

It remains to be seen if the directive of the Managing Director of the NPA and the Executive Secretary/CEO of Nigerian Shippers’ Council on demurrage waiver will be obeyed to the letters by shipping organisations and terminal operators now that the lockdown has been extended by another fourteen days.

Editing by ‘Biodun Soyele

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