Importers and licensed customs agents in Port Terminal Operators Limited in Port Harcourt main port, have expressed their grievances over the recently introduced new handling charges by management of the company, even as they vehemently denied any such increment.
So far, efforts by the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) and the Nigerian Shippers Council to compel the Port Terminal Operators Limited (PTOL) to reverse and withdraw the charges have failed.
The NPA, acting on petitions and pleas of shippers and freight forwarders, had in late May summoned concerned stakeholders to a meeting where it was decided that PTOL reversed to the old rates. The organisation reportedly complied.
Reports however state that on Tuesday 6th June, PTOL management surprisingly reintroduced invoices bearing exorbitant rates to the chagrin of importers and customs agents, a development that has allegedly led to a temporary suspension of berthing meetings by key shipping stakeholders in the port.
Consequently, goods worth billions of Naira may have been stranded in the terminal since big players such as Dangote, Dufil, Royal Salt, BUA, are frequent users of the port.
A shipping agent who patronises the terminal regularly told news men on condition of anonymity, that the new rates not only violate laid down rules of engagement and stipulated yearly percentage increment, but it is an abuse of trust and ‘customership’ which may lead to importers diverting their vessels or cargo elsewhere henceforth.
“How do you want people to survive or cope with the resultant increment in cost of goods and services that this increment will portend? PTOL suddenly changed a bill of N6million to close to N50 million for me, is that not some 900 percent raise? The same thing goes for other massive bulk cargo importers. With Naira value depreciating daily, you now add these exorbitant charges plus the new official exchange rate by the Nigeria Customs Service. Things will certainly not augur well for both the rich and the poor and the economy that is already weak. If care is not taken, most importers might dump PTOL and return to Lagos,” lamented the shipping agent who is also a customs agent. He further regretted PTOL’s inability to improve on infrastructure in the port.
He wondered why PTOL could not respect both the NPA who are the landlord and the Nigerian Shippers’ Council, the regulator.
The Nigerian Shippers’ Council had intervened severally cautioning all port terminal operators to be circumspect and considerate when reviewing their terminal handling charges considering the impact of the decision on the economy.
In a recent memo, the Nigerian Shippers’ Council warned that port handling charges review would be done on a port-by-port performance basis and not unilaterally by the port operators.
According to the memo, “Unilateral increase in charges/introduction of the new tariff headings and charges constitutes a direct disregard of Nigerian Shippers’ Council (Local Shipping Charges on Import and Export) Regulation 1997 and Nigerian Shippers’ Council (Port Economic) Regulations 2015.
Consequently, all service providers are by this notice reminded that: Review of charges/introduction of new tariffs headings and charges shall be subject to the guidelines provided by the Nigerian Shippers’ Council.”
But a spokesman of PTOL, Mr. Godwin, informed that it is ridiculous to allege that the management had increased charges by 900 per cent. “This is not true at all. We only increased charges by 5 per cent whereas others have increased by much more. We even cancelled arrears. Please endeavour to come here and verify by yourself. We don’t work in isolation; we work, in respect to government laid down rules,” he said.
He however admitted that stevedoring charges per tonnage have been increased which may add to lump sums for large volumes importers.
While reacting to the issue, the President of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF) Chief Increase Uche said a 900 per cent increase in handling charges by PTOL could not be true, but he is aware that PTOL and other terminals in the seaports in the country had submitted a review proposal in their handling charges to the Nigerian Shippers’ Council, to which the Council is yet to give a nod.
Chief Increase Uche stressed that PTOL and others, for many years, have not increased their charges and doing so now could be justified considering a constant rise in the costs of handling equipment, electricity bill, labour salaries/wages and other production factors.