Nigerians are used to sloganeering. It has never solved any problem. In the agriculture sector, for instance, we had Operation Feed the Nation, Green Revolution, Back to Land, Directorate of Food, Roads and Rural Infrastructure (DFRRI) etc, but hunger is still at the top of the challenges holding the nation from realizing its potential.
Broadly speaking, Nigeria has had several development plans. From Babangida’s Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) through Abacha’s Vision 2010 to Jonathan’s Transformation Agenda, the nation has only moved one step forward and two steps backward. Part of the problems was that the implementers of the reform programmes paid more attention to popularizing their agenda than summoning the sincerity of purpose needed to drive the process.
It is therefore not surprising that some important agencies of government have decided to play down their strategies in the ongoing economic recovery efforts. Today, I will restrict my discussion to the ports sector, particularly the seaports where the nation is supposed to be raking in trillions of naira in import duties.
For decades, doing business in Nigerian ports was roundly condemned as a harrowing experience. This was due largely to the high level of inefficiency that characterized the operations at the ports such as unnecessary delays in the turnaround time for ships and high cargo dwell time.
The consequences of these were that serious business people across the globe avoided Nigeria’s unfriendly ports climate, the national treasury was denied its due accruals, youth unemployment blossomed and the masses were short-changed as the image of the country dimmed in the comity of nations.
Since independence and until recently, conducting affairs at the seaports was like a typical civil service set-up. Bureaucracy was slowing down the clearing of goods and multiplicity of levies created a lot of complicity at the seaports. A tinge of reforms introduced in 2006 by the Olusegun Obasanjo administration when the ports’ terminals were concessioned to the private sector by the federal government yielded little results. Concessionaires capitalized on the absence of a regulator to introduce scathing charges that have swelled the cost of doing business in Nigerian ports. Empirical evidences abound of the federal government’s port reform programme.
A Corruption Risk Assessment (CRA) report released by the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), the Technical Unit on Governance and Anti-Corruption (TUGAR), and the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP) with the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on Nigerian ports established that an importer or agent will require a minimum of 79 signatures of government officials to clear their goods at the nation’s gateways. This was viewed by stakeholders as rather unfortunate because the concessioning of ports to the private sector was aimed at accelerating the pace at which the country’s ports will become the preferred cargo destination for not only Nigerian importers but also shippers from some West African and Central African countries.
There were also complaints over a similar cost regime by foreign shipping agents, the multiplicity of levies on imports and inadequacies of other stakeholders in the seaport sector. The gains of the 2006 reforms did not translate to reduction in the cost of doing business at the ports, a development blamed on the fact that the federal government did not immediately appoint a regulator for the ports sector.
Then came the Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC). Declared the interim economic regulator of the ports by the federal government in February 2014, eight years after concessionaires took over the management of the seaports, the NSC has since acquitted itself by ensuring that all the stakeholders comprising the representatives of Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS), Standards Organization of Nigeria (SON), National Agency for Food & Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) and freight forwarders, among others, are regulated and work for the common good.
The executive secretary and chief executive officer of the NSC, Mr Hassan Bello, has been pursuing some reforms and acting as a mobilizing and stabilizing factor to all agencies at the ports. But President Muhammadu Buhari will do well to help the NSC to implement the New Port Order, which was designed by the Council to check inefficiency, leakages in the harbourages and malpractices that include false declaration and under-declaration of imported goods .This will enable the nation to harness the full potential of the ports sector with a view to enthroning real competition and bringing down the cost of doing business.
The re-affirmation of the Council as the seaports’ economic regulator by President Buhari at the just concluded maritime seminar for judges, which took place in Abuja, was applauded by stakeholders in the maritime industry. Now, the President needs to pile pressure on the National Assembly to pass into law the much-awaited Port and Harbour Bill for the reforms in that sector to make any meaning.
For one thing, participants at the event where President Buhari was represented by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo were unanimous in their clamour that the NSC should be allowed to transform into the proposed National Transport Commission (NTC). According to them, that’s only when the reforms being pursued in the transportation sector would make meaning.
To be sure, the NSC has already commenced a deep and painful surgery in the sector for the purpose of putting an end to the embarrassing trend of diversion of cargoes and vessels, over time, to ports located in Nigeria’s neighbouring countries such as Cotonou, Republic of Benin; Accra and Tema, Ghana; Lome, Republic of Togo; and Dakar, Senegal. These cargoes later find their ways into Nigerian markets through smuggling. In the end, while Nigeria loses huge income in import duties, levies and other charges, these neighbouring countries gain.
Available statistics from the Federal Ministry of Finance indicate that about 60 per cent of goods shipped into West African countries is meant for the Nigerian market. However, the poor management of our ports has resulted in the bulk of the goods destined for Nigeria going through the ports in Ghana and Benin Republic. This has resulted in a backlog of un-cleared goods at major ports, in particular the Lagos, Onne, Warri, Port Harcourt, Calabar, and Sapele ports — and huge demurrage to importers. It also encourages the smuggling of goods from neighbouring countries into Nigeria.
Interestingly, since the NSC took up the leadership role, ports’ users have witnessed tremendous improvement in complaint and arbitration mechanisms, prompt issuance of Ship Sailing Certificate and the consequent avoidance of demurrage accumulation against shipping companies and other effects. This is in tandem with international best practices.
History is on the side of the oppressed.