Enough of the many excesses of multi-nationals in the Nigerian shipping sector 

 Apparently reacting to the recent strike by road haulage operators in Lagos ports and the alleged culpability of shipping lines, the Nigerian Ports Authourity (NPA) recently came hard on four of such companies, namely Maersk Line, Cosco, LANSAL   and APS. They were suspended for 10 days.

A statement signed by NPA’s Assistant General Manager, Corporate and Strategic Communications, Isah   Suwaid, affirmed that “the suspension follows the Authority’s checks which revealed that the four companies have failed to fully comply with the directive to acquire and operate holding bays as they have either failed to utilise their holding bays at all or do not have adequate capacity to handle the volume of containers that they deal with”. 

In addition, NPA said that: “Some of these companies have also been found to import a larger number of containers than empty containers exported thereby making the country a dumping ground for empties. “These conducts have contributed to the persistent congestion around the Lagos Port Complex and the Tin Can Island Port, spreading to other parts of the Lagos metropolis where truck drivers with no immediate business at the ports now park their trucks”.

 “At the expiration of this suspension, the Authority will review the level of compliance to its directives and determine further actions. “In addition to this, the NPA will henceforth embark on a regular compliance check of the operations of holding bays by shipping companies and terminal operators and defaulters will be sanctioned”.

Before the decision to suspend them, there had been accusations by NPA that most (if not all) shipping lines do not have holding bays for the containers being returned to the ports by truckers. 

The issue has been fingered as the main cause of the heavy traffic that has been the lot of port users for some years now. This is not the first time that such action would be taken against multinational shipping lines operating in Nigeria, even though it’s the first time the NPA is taking such an action.

Not too long ago , they were accused of being dishonest in the handling of container deposit refund; they had also been accused of nonchalance in the handling of empty containers. They had previously been accused of unbridled collection of questionable charges from shippers and their agents.

Majority of maritime industry stakeholders believe that shipping companies or shipping lines, as they wish to be called often act above the laws of Nigeria.

Apart from the controversial container deposit refund and the holding bay controversies, there are new charges introduced and for which they appear unquestionable. For instance, “Port Additional Destination" (PAD) charge was recently imposed on importers by these shipping lines. 

We recall that at a meeting between Maersk Line and the Nigerian Shippers Council on the controversial holding bays, the Marine Operations Manager of Maersk Line in Nigeria, Kikelomo Abiola Cudjoe threatened that, should the policy on implementation of holding bays be upheld, it may lead to slamming additional shipping charges on users of shipping services.

While acknowledging that the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) has mandated all shipping companies to make use of their holding bays, she nevertheless argued that using the holding bay would add to the cost of doing business for the shipping company, vowing that this would be transferred to the customers.

She also warned that forcing the shipping companies to make use of holding bays would lead to congestion which government is trying to avoid, and that vessels calling at the port would not have enough empty containers to go back with on their return voyage. Of course, the shipping lines have gone ahead to impose charges on shippers for using the holding bays.

The above position is characteristic of shipping lines each time an issue that requires their commitment comes up. They threaten, go to court or impose reactionary charges on shippers. 

Certainly, the Nigerian Shippers’ Council is the most embarrassed by the antics of shipping lines and lately the terminal operators, some of whose proprietors also have hands in provision of shipping services. It’s a known fact that some terminals are also owned directly or through surrogates by shipping lines.

This intertwined relationships between shipping lines and terminal operators have often put the Shippers’ Council in a tight corner. 

We think that the action of NPA is even rather late in coming, if since 2017, there had been a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between it and the shipping lines.

Even though it did not say in the statement what its next line of action will be after the 10 days suspension, is our hope that NPA will see this ‘battle’ through.  It should learn from the experience of the Nigerian Shippers’ Council, which has suffered in the face of the alliance between the shipping lines and the terminal operators. 

Severally, the Nigerian Shippers’ Council had threatened to sanction erring shipping companies for imposing arbitrary charges on shippers, but it has always been difficult to enforce any sanction. 

In the wake of agitations over refund of container deposit, the Council had accused the shipping companies of failing to keep the agreement reached during a previous meeting requiring them to refund Container Deposit within 10 working days to concerned parties, after the container had been returned.

We recall that at the peak of the debilitating traffic into and out of Apapa, the Managing Director of NPA; Hadiza Bala Usman directed that shipping companies should own and make use of holding bays for empty containers. She went ahead to threaten sanctions against defaulters. It is an open fact that this directive was not obeyed, hence NPA’s latest action. 

Recently, both the Nigerian Association of Road Transport Owners (NARTO) and Association or Maritime Truck Owners (AMARTO) submitted that the heavy vehicular traffic in Apapa is not as a result of bad roads. They acknowledged that, even if the roads are fixed and containers still queue up on the highways leading to the ports, the traffic situation could not be better.

The action or inaction of these multinational contribute (in no small measure) to the much-touted high cost of doing in Nigerian ports.

For instance, on demurrage alone, Ghana reportedly charges 15.12 per cent (N1,890) of the  N12,500 that Nigeria charges. Shipping lines operating in Nigeria were forcing shippers to pay N4,500 as against N1, 512 collected by Ghana, second period, N7,500 as against N1,890 and third period N12,500 as against N1,890 in Ghana.

In the same Ghana which we have mentioned above, it took the resistance of shippers to force shipping lines to stop their plans to increase what they called safety charges by 200 per cent last year.

While government and its agencies lament about high cost of doing business in Nigerian ports, it is obvious that it is helpless in the face of arbitrariness being displayed by the multinationals.

We will not be surprised if the shipping lines arm-twist, blackmail or raise phantom reasons as to how the NPA action to suspend them may cause congestion at the terminals and how this may lead to additional charges. 

All well-meaning Nigerians and indeed maritime industry stakeholders must rally round the NPA to ensure that sanity returns to the approaches to our ports, and one of the ways to achieve  this is by insisting that the shipping lines accept responsibility for their empty containers, after all they own the containers .