One of the sad tales of doing business in Nigeria is the long time it takes to clear goods both for export and import at the country’s ports of entry. While the airports have over the years evolved seemingly workable approaches to cargo or luggage clearing, the same cannot be said of the sea ports.
This development has led to avoidable congestion, high cost of clearing goods, incurring of demurrage due the over-stay of ships on the high seas and at the ports. Sometimes, the goods are pilfered by the so-called port rats, which the authorities have continued to strive to keep under control.
Unfortunately, these challenges faced by port users have made it inevitable for them to seek alternative ways of carrying out their businesses without hassle. One of these ways is the diversion of their goods to ports in neighbouring countries, which services are relatively cheaper and better with the attendant loss of revenue that would otherwise have accrued to Nigeria. The closure of the land borders by the federal government has brought a temporary reprieve to the government in terms of revenue generation.
The outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing global lockdown have inevitably compelled businesses to be more creative in their operations, a necessity that has taken them to the drawing board.
On the part of Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC), the nation’s Ports regulator, the situation is bringing up innovative ideas in port operation leading to the envisaged 24-hour operation at the sea ports. According to the executive secretary of NSC, Barrister Hassan Bello, Nigeria has the capacity to keep its sea ports going for 24 hours and to reduce the waiting time from 20 days to seven days.
During a recent parley with journalists in Abuja, Bello declared that the realisation of the capacity of the country’s ports to operate round the clock was one of the key lessons from the nationwide lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
While recalling the efforts the NSC made during the lockdown to keep the ports functional, Bello said that a Maritime Task Team comprising the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), the Nigerian Navy, the Customs, the Police, the Port Consultative Forum, the Council of Registered Freight Forwarders of Nigeria (CRFFN) as well as the unions, was constituted.
As a newspaper, we applaud this synergy which we consider very critical to the successful implementation of the planned 24-hour port operations because it will reduce duplication of roles, cut costs and ultimately the waiting time of ships on both the high seas and anchor points.
It is commendable that the decision to go for the all-round port operations evolved from the weekly meeting of the stakeholders. Therefore, we admonish that the consultations be sustained for the sharing of ideas that will help address emerging problems or observed lapses for better management and coordination of the ports.
We agree with Bello that with 24 hours operation, the sector will be more efficient and also be in a position to compete favourably with other world class ports.
In our considered opinion, it is also particularly delightful that the stakeholders have used the lockdown to demonstrate that Nigeria can have multi-modal evacuation and delivery of cargo from the port through the rail, the barges and the roads.
We are of the view that if these three modes of transportation are adequately deployed, the ports will be more efficient because one trip by a train can clear virtually everything at the port, which can minimise the use of trucks and the attendant traffic gridlock, particularly in Lagos, damage to the nation’s major highways, lower freight cost as the railways render cheaper services than the trucks. T is obvious that with a 24-hour service and digitalised end port where there is little or no physical presence and multi-modal transport, we will be able to reduce cargo dwell time to seven days.
It is instructive that this new policy will also encourage the port operators and management to go a little further by incorporating the strategies adopted by some developed and developing economies which make their ports more efficient and vibrant. One of such measures is the inspection, documentation, clearance and payment of the accruing revenue to the government while the ships are still on the high sea.
This step if adopted will, we believe, will reduce the time the ships spent at the ports, cut cost of operations, eradicate demurrage often incurred by importers, decongest the ports and ultimately boost the economy.