By the very nature of port operations, it is considered a place not to be during this unholy visit of Coronavirus (Covid-19) where mere talking to each other can pose a threat to one’s health. Ironically, the importance of the ports, as key infrastructure in any nation’s economic activity, is such that even with Covid-19, somehow, the operations must continue seamlessly if the economy itself was not to be knocked down by the virus altogether.
This is the painful reality that confronted both the government, the Port Economic Regulator and Trade Facilitator, the Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC) and other stakeholders. They were all caught up in this dilemma of trying to balance the health of the economy and the wellbeing of the people. For the port regulator, it was a delicate balancing act that required input from all stakeholders. Considering the impact of port activities on the economy, it is important that the correct state of affairs be communicated to all in order not to exacerbate a situation which has the potential to affect the lives and livelihoods of Nigerians.
In its capacity as a regulator and facilitator, the Council took steps to ensure that cargo flow into the country is maintained so as to service business operations and, even more importantly, bring in needed supplies for the management of the pandemic. There is no doubt that these are difficult times for the Nigerian economy especially for the authorities with some of the difficult decisions they must take. One of these is deciding not to totally shut down the ports because of the hurtful negative impact that may portend for the nation.
It is against this background that the Council stepped up its engagement with port operators during this period of lockdown. Still, despite various infrastructural challenges at the ports among others, there appears to be a silver lining in the horizon with what the Council and the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) are doing.
It is reassuring, in our view, that NSC, in this regard, is aware of its role in ensuring that the aims of government are achieved. Realising this, therefore, its approach has been to make effective use of information technology to keep in touch with port players, government regulatory agencies, revenue-collecting agencies and sundry stakeholders into a virtual community, enjoying seamless operations. Similarly, it adopted a stress-free multi-modal cargo evacuation process, through rail, road and inland waterways so as to make the ports operational.
This newspaper is enamoured by the emerging new normal brought about by this pandemic. In this sector, a seamless operation that will outlive covid-19 is in the offing and it is expected to reshape the nation’s port operations. The Council is aware of this and is vigorously pursuing that prospect. One benefit is that, eventually, the new normal will break barriers and open up new opportunities for port users and shippers in particular and yet more revenue for the government.
As a newspaper, we note the economic constraints at the ports resulting from the pandemic and consequent lockdown. To ameliorate the fiscal burden on port users, NSC directed shipping companies to suspend the collection of demurrage, compensation paid when there is a delay in loading or unloading a carrier causing a delay in the carrier’s departure. The port regulator further directed shipping companies to refund such collections from March 30, 2020 when the lockdown in Lagos State commenced. We commend this decision.
In our opinion, the Shippers’ Council venture into automation of the port is spot on. We encourage it not to relent in bringing it to fruition so as to drive efficiency and competition. Already some terminals are almost 80 percent online and agents don’t have any business going into the port.
In the meantime, we urge the port regulator and the Nigerian Ports Authority to continue with the resolve to create a port community system that will lead to a single window, so that the nation can simplify everything and avoid revenue losses.
Interestingly, there is so much expectation about Lekki Deep Sea port, one where cargoes will not stay at the ports but are taken out and examined inland. It is also significant to note that the Calabar port is coming on stream. That port did not see cargoes for many years but because of the incentives provided by the NPA, by reducing the charges, importers are looking that way.
We are optimistic that when all these activities stabilise and the government completes the Lagos-Ibadan, Ibadan-Kano, and Port Harcourt-Maiduguri, rail projects, there will be reduction in the cost of clearing goods and also efficiency in transportation which will in turn drive the economy.
The race in keeping port operations running to sustain supply chain for essential goods; food and medicament amidst the COVID-19 pandemic is most challenging. And that is why we applaud the Seaport Terminal Operators Association of Nigeria (STOAN) for its role is helping to ensure that essential supplies reach the final consumers.
It is our hope that in the end the nation will benefit from these measures engendered by the pandemic.