Port users express worries over night cargo clearance
Almost a year after the commencement of a 24-hour operation at the seaports, there is wide belief that night cargo clearance, the fulcrum of the new policy, is doomed.
In October 2011, the coordinating Minister of the Economy, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, delivering a presidential order on her visit to the Lagos ports, directed a 24-hour operation. The ports were congested with cargoes and clearing a consignment could take as long as a month. Disturbed by the chaos, President Goodluck Jonathan constituted the Special Task Force on Port Reforms, coordinated by the Finance Minister. When she visited the ports, she ordered the reduction of the unwieldy number of government agencies operating there from 15 to seven and announced the order to commence 24-hour operations. The order mandated all agencies involved in the process of cargo clearance, most especially the terminal operators and men of the Nigeria Customs Service, NCS, to ensure the round-the-clock operation holds seven days of the week. Okonjo-Iweala explained the new initiative was mooted to restore efficiency and ease the process of cargo clearance. The federal government aimed to reduce time spent on clearing cargoes to 48 hours, and in the long run to 24 hours, to make Nigerian ports more user-friendly.
The new initiative to decongest the Lagos ports initially elicited much hope. The round-the-clock operation was perceived as the stepping stone to realising the much-talked-about 48 hours cargo clearance. Many port users – importers, exporters, shippers, clearing agents, etc applauded the initiative and anticipated relief in the process of cargo clearance. To enforce the new idea, the Nigerian Ports Authority, NPA, issued a statement directing all relevant players to adjust to the policy. “In line with the transformation agenda of the federal government and the vision of the National Economic Management Team, the NPA has commenced immediate 24 hours operation at the seaports. Similarly, night pilotage is now being undertaken by the NPA. The ports community, especially the Nigerian Customs Service, freight forwarders and relevant stakeholders are enjoined to key into these openings,” statement stated.
Though the 24 hours operation kicked off as directed, the general excitement that attended it is waning due to some attendant challenges. As found out by this medium, some terminal operators, importers, exporters, shippers and clearing agents are beginning to lose interest, as their turn-out at night is gradually petering out. Chief among the challenges is security, or rather lack of it. Absence of guaranteed security has discouraged many trucks from moving at night. Some importers and clearing agents confided in TheNEWS their fear of losing their trucks, consignments and money to hoodlums in the course of the night operations. A large number who had cleared cargos at night also complained of the way they were extorted by policemen.
To Dr. John Ofobike, Chairman, Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agent, ANCLA, Apapa, night cargo clearance/operation is a mirage if there is no guaranteed adequate security of cargo and human personnel. Ofobike stated that as much as the President nurses the vision to transform the port, the absence of adequate security framework and facilities to actualise the dream would always cause a serious setback. “Most of the terminal operators don’t have the resources and the facilities to sustain a 24-hour operation. It is possible to load at night but what you observe is that the other personnel or agencies would have closed their services. Except for some of the Customs officers you would find around, others are unavailable. The President is being given the impression that night operation is effective whereas it is not,” he stated. This magazine confirmed that even within the ports, not all terminal operators operate at night, while some merely run epileptic services.
Another problem night operators have been contending with is the poor state of most of the access roads to the ports. Ofobike explained how this hampers easy and timely cargo clearing. “With the state of the ports access roads, accessing the ports during the day is somehow tasking, talk less of when you ply them at night, which could be serious death traps for truck drivers at night,” he said.
Irregular power supply is another serious challenge. For most of the terminal operators, floating night operation comes at a high cost. A staff of AP Moeller, one of the terminal operators, lamented how the company spends huge sums on alternative source of power to run their services for 24 hours. The operators generally complained that poor power supply affects accessing their servers, and consequently, on-line services. Felix Kalu, a clearing agent added that since most banks do not operate at night and during weekends, banking operations have not been complementary to the 24-hour operation. “It’s only the ATM services you can access at night. Hence, you have to plan your shipping because payment of duties cannot be done at night,” he said.
Many port users complained that the 24-hour operation was ordered hurriedly without considering the cost to both the operators and port users. “The 24-hour operation is not a bad idea. It’s just that we don’t do things right here as practised in the civilised and developed countries. The policy can work if things can be done rightly,” Kalu stressed.
NCS officials corroborated that the turn-out and volume of cargo clearance at night are not encouraging. Chris Osunkwo, Public Relations Officer, Tin Can Island Port, Lagos was bothered that though men of the NCS run 24 hours services and work in shifts to enable them cope adequately, most port users have been increasingly shunning clearing cargoes at night. Osunkwo was not unaware of the numerous complaints of port users on the night operations. “I was privileged to be the secretary of the committee saddled with the obligation to work out modalities for the 24-hour operation. We had a dialogue with some port users who reeled out complaints about security and lack of power supply, among others. We have contacted the Lagos Command of the Nigeria Police Force to tackle the issue of insecurity. But the truth is, it is easier to enforce security at the ports. Securing cargo-laden trucks once they exit the port is, however, another issue,” he declared.