Even though it was predicted, not everyone thought seriously that it would be as bad as it turned out to. Certainly, 2019 gave a lot of hurting punches to maritime industry stakeholders.
While it is true that 2019 was unique, because it was an election year, it nevertheless elicited anxiety as to what would happen before and after the elections which held between February and March.
The issues that dominated the industry in 2019 were not quite different from those of the previous years.
From shippers to clearing agents, to ship owners, haulage operators, stevedoring companies, the story was the same. It was perhaps worse for those who either work or live in the port city of Apapa and its environs, who had to contend with debilitating traffic.
For the importers, the agony of 2019 was about accessibility and cost of foreign exchange, for the customs licensed agents, it was the usually cumbersome and high cost of cargo clearance, for the ship owners it was the same old story of lack of patronage and dominance of foreign ship owners. For the owners/drivers of articulated vehicles that are used for dry and wet cargo haulage, 2019 was perhaps worse.
Just like in the previous years when government mounted pressure on the maritime sector for revenue, owing to the drop in earnings from crude oil, attention was on the sector for revenue for the government in 2019. It was one year when the Nigeria Customs Service became obsessed with revenue collection.
Even though the value of Naira stabilized marginally, when compared with what obtained in previous years, it was still difficult for importers.
For an import-dependent economy, the Nigerian importer was confronted with a terribly unfriendly import policy, especially the continued shut-out of 41 items from the official foreign exchange window.
In response to these policies, the ports like before, started experiencing down turn in vessel and cargo traffic.
Although, final figures of cargo throughput at various ports for 2019 were still being compiled by the NPA, various stakeholders confirmed that importation dwindled, albeit marginally last year. But respite came when the Federal Government ordered closure of the nation’s land borders. The action boosted patronage of the ports, especially Lagos ports.
Even though it is beating its chest, the more-than N1trillion that the Nigeria Customs Service collected in 2019 has been attributed to arm-twisting of importers and clearing agents by its officers and high duty collected on all imports.
There are fears that 2020 may not be any better for the industry than 2019. The unfriendly nature of the industry didn’t start last year; in fact, it began in 2014 when the price of crude oil started dropping. Since that year, the price of oil has been falling unprecedentedly.
Apart from the fiscal policies and their effect, a critical area that will grossly affect the industry in 2020 is the state of maritime industry infrastructure and the attitude of its stakeholders.
Sadly, not much has changed in terms of the structures, superstructures and operators that we have in the Nigerian maritime sector. The approaches to Lagos ports, even though previously totally collapsed, have been experiencing a facelift.
Without being pessimistic, the issues of 2020 will largely remain the issues of 2019. From the access roads to the terminals and jetties, to the channels, on to the creeks of Niger Delta; we may not experience significant changes.
Again, at the risk of being called a pessimist, it is unlikely that 2020 will be any better for the industry than 2019. This however does not indicate that agencies of government will not generate revenue; they will. But the infrastructure decay may continue.
One of the good sides of 2019 was the coming into life of the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN). It now has a governing council and a Registrar and we hope that in 2020, it will fully get back to life.
It is also our hope that in 2020, the issues that made the President not to assent to the National Transport Commission (NTC) Bill as passed by the National Assembly will be resolved, the NTC becomes a reality.
Finally, how good will it be if by the end of 2020, the long-forgotten Ports and Harbour Bill has been passed and there is complete rehabilitation or reconstruction of the roads leading to Lagos ports and other ports in the country?
We hold the Minister of Works and Housing accountable for the promise the complete reconstruction of the road from Apapa port to the Lagos toll gate on the Ibadan Lagos expressway would be completed in 2020.
All said, we still pray for a Happy and Prosperous new year for all. Amen.