What is it about shipping companies? 

Their names have come up again, this time they are being accused of being dishonest in the handling of container deposit refund; they have also been accused of nonchalance in the handling of empty containers. They had previously been accused of unbridled collection of questionable charges from shippers or their agents. 

While the issue of container deposit refund is probably as old as the industry, there have been recent accusations by even the Nigerian Ports Authourity (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. 

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 in Nigeria.

Also recently, 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.

Speaking recently at a meeting in Lagos, she had acknowledged that the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) has mandated all shipping companies to make use of their holding bays. 

She however 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.

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

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. 

While it is true that the shipping lines have been problematic to Shippers’ Council, even before the emergence of terminal operators, they have become more daring, especially with the alliance from terminal operators.

Even before its new disposition as the Economic Regulator of the ports, the Council had contended with the affront of these multinationals.

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 and no company has so far been sanctioned.

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 plasn to increase what they called safety charges by 200 per cent last year.

While the Nigerian Shippers’ Council 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.

But, we think that the ‘little’ powers that the Council has been given courtesy of becoming the Economic Regulator is enough to at least scratch if it can not bite.  

While waiting for the outcome of the long battle at the Court over these contentious charges, it is also our hope that, the Council’s anticipated transmutation to the National Transport Commission will help matters, and probably put the shipping lines and indeed other stakeholders where they belong.