27th November, 2013
Seaports in Nigeria, no doubt, possess the potential to generate revenue for the nation. The volume of business activities going on in various seaports across the country are quite huge. But the inefficiencies and hitches that port users, clearing agents, shippers, importers and exporters, among others, often experience has necessitated the need to make seaports across the country more user-friendly.
To carry out business obligations in any Nigerian seaport doesn’t come cheap. Many clearing agents and other port users hold the belief that patronising sea ports in the country is an invitation to excessive payments. Most especially the major sea ports in Lagos, Tin-Can Island and Apapa Quays, they are the busiest seaports in the country and they handle cargoes in excess of billions of naira annually. The inefficiencies and congestion that often trail handling of cargoes activities, extortion by several government agencies, hitches in cargo clearance, poor access roads, hitches in scanning, the hellish traffic jam in Lagos sea ports vis a vis several arbitrary charges; fees and tariffs have become worrisome.
In 2006, federal government concessioned its seaport terminals to private operators. Since that agreement came into play, cargo handling activities, assets and operations of the port have been transferred to the concessionaires for a certain period of time and fees while the Nigerian Ports Authority has remained the landlord. Though the arrangement is believed to have brought efficiency at the initial stage, many port users in Nigeria, clearing agents, importers, and exporters, shippers and other stakeholders, own up to the fact that the concession arrangement has also increased the cost of doing business at Nigerian ports. Many port users have not masked their preference for other neighbouring seaports like that of Ghana and Cotonou where charges, fees and tariffs are cheaper. They are burdened by the bottlenecks and the hitches that trail doing business at Nigerian ports. The situation is really mind-boggling that a shipping agency or terminal operator, for instance, can introduce or charge excessive fees without being challenged.
Until now, the issue of multiple agencies operating at the port is attributed as one of the major causes of delay and excessive payments. But the menace of arbitrary charges seems to have reached the crescendo despite banning those agencies. Hence, the need for the Nigerian Port Authority, NPA, to wake up to its regulatory role of checking the activities of concessionaires, terminal operators, shipping agencies, among others. A school of thought believes the concessionaire arrangement has eroded the power of NPA. Should this hinder the agency from performing its regulatory obligation as the sole landlord of the concessionaires?
There is also a need to create a commercial regulator at the port, an agency that will regulate activities of concessionaires, checkmate or review arbitrary charges. NPA or any of these agencies, Nigerian Maritime Administration Safety Agency, NIMASA, Nigerian Customs Service, NCS and Nigerian Shippers Council, NSC can be saddled with the task of commercial regulator without necessarily creating a new body. Ultimately, nothing stops the president from considering choosing a maritime/transport expert as a Minister for Transportation, as advocated by experts, for him to understand the complexity of the maritime sector and perhaps, be in better position to make changes in the seaports and by extension the maritime sector.