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Storm at Apapa seaports

More than a decade ago, the federal government reformed Nigerian ports to increase efficiency and productivity, and a few years after the port reforms, a marginal improvement in cargo throughput, number of vessels, berthing facilities, and turn-around time for ships was experienced. Despite the modest achievements recorded at Lagos seaports due to the reform, poor infrastructure and indiscipline of security officials and port operators is currently reversing the gains as imported goods cannot be cleared within a short period. While export -bound goods worth billions of Naira are stuck at Lagos seaports.

Times are hard. The flesh is weak, the spirit is unwilling. Covid – 19 is waxing stronger. Economy of the country is gradually improving; national debt is increasing, the value of the Naira, Nigeria’s currency is falling swiftly and the Lagos seaports are congested. The seaport is the gateway between the sea and land. It ought to be free for easy movement of imported and exported goods. But the movement of goods in and out of the seaport is constrained.

The inefficiency in our seaports with longer turn around time, low productivity and high traffic handling time has a negative impact on the nation’s economic growth. Inside the terminals, operators have to go through about 20 different tables to get approval for clearance of containers, which I learnt would last for 3 to 5 days. When you complain about delays, accusing fingers are pointed in various directions inside the seaports. There are accusations and counter accusations by those agencies of government that are supposed to enforce law and order so that goods can move freely in and out of the Lagos seaports.

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Lagos Seaports

Most vessels arrive in Nigerian coastal waters and are at anchorage for up to three weeks. It is not due to machinery failure onboard ships. It is because of congestion at the seaports in Lagos. Some maritime operators see aging infrastructure and complete lack of automation as the immediate causes of this congestion. So, every container must be physically inspected by NCS officials. The Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA) accuses the Nigeria Police, indicts the military, and blames the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) for extortion at multiple checkpoints. In the normal Nigerian style, NPA claimed a few weeks ago that seized cargoes at port terminals contain explosives at a public hearing. This is a red flag. I only hope it is not fake news. Nobody wants to hear anything about explosives. In fact, a honorable member of the House of Rep switched to angry mode on hearing the word “explosives,” and issued a 2-week ultimatum to the NCS Comptroller General to appear before the house committee on Customs and Excise. I hope that the Comptroller General of Customs will appear in person without sending representatives.

The inefficiency in our seaports with longer turnaround time, low productivity and high traffic handling time has a negative impact on the nation’s economic growth.

NPA officials blamed the chaos and crime at the gateway between the sea and land on extortion. Checkpoints are mounted by security agencies in order to collect illegal tolls. At checkpoints money exchanges hands. As NPA is complaining about congestion of the seaports, other security agencies turn their eyes away to collect their own share of the tolls. So, what is the solution? Establish special courts. Hmm, to do what? To fast – track prosecution of offenders. “That means you want the list of extortionists to swell,” according to a shipowner. “Very laughable! I doubt anyone would be prosecuted.” Any attempt to establish special courts in our sea-ports, would lead to more congestion. As a matter of fact, port operations will come to a standstill. Have we forgotten that the Nigerian judiciary is gradually declining into a state of disrepute as judges of equal jurisdiction issue orders and counter – orders to suit varying political interests? When politics is brought into the operations inside seaports, no container will come in or go out forever.

I was reliably informed that there are a growing number of containers not cleared at various sea-ports including Onne, Calabar and Warri due to unresolved queries as well as interference from marine police and other law enforcement agencies. Undoubtedly, these actions hinder trade by delaying cargo clearing. Thus, adding to the high cost of doing business. One exporter lamented that ships that are to carry these containers come to Nigeria and travel back to China empty due to high freight charges. Very cruel! A lot of trucks pack along the Tin – Can Apapa seaport looking for business. Is this an indication that those trucks do not have any business at Apapa seaports? “The security officers who are supposed to impound the trucks who gained access into the seaports illegally are those extorting. I am sorry to say this.”

Though Nigerians are hardworking people, one can see why our hard work does not translate to productivity. It is due to lack of discipline, absence of organization, and dearth of educated people who understand the mechanism of a seaport. Most seaports in the largest economy in Africa are just blocked deliberately due to greed of a few individuals. Some of the cargoes have been doing overtime for more than one year occupying space for nothing. A cargo is said to be doing overtime if it stays for more than 90 days at the seaport.

An exporter once said that, “you can count in a day anything from 15 to 30 checkpoints depending on how good business is on Apapa roads in Lagos.” Now area boys are engaged to collect money on behalf of the uniformed men. Despite the checkpoints, we still have an influx of arms, unabated smuggling of contraband goods into the country via land borders and seaports despite about 97 checkpoints manned by the security officers between Lagos and Sokoto. A tragedy you may say. Where is the federal government in this storm? No idea! But one thing is certain: Any nation whose citizens are not disciplined, organized and educated can never develop. Thank you.

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