In the editorial opinion of our November 17 to November 23, 2008, this newspaper called attention to the then-re-emergence of what has now turned out to become a national embarrassment in the name of port congestion.
For close to six months, Lagos ports have been experiencing disequilibrium between incoming cargo and deliveries. By this we mean that the rate of delivery has not matched the rate at which cargo-laden vessels are arriving. The result is that every available stacking space has been taken over by laden containers resulting in the bottleneck that is commonly called congestion.
In the above mentioned editorial, we also expressed shock that with all their ‘so called’ expertise in cargo handling, the terminal operators have not been able to solve the problem of port congestion; hence, there have been a lot of buck-passing.
In the last few weeks that the problem has been more pronounced, shippers, port operators, ship owners and government agencies have been trading accusations as to where the problem (and probably, the solution) is.
From the perspectives of importers and their licensed customs agents, port congestion is not entirely as a result of upsurge in cargo throughput, but as a result of a systemic disequilibrium on the part of the Nigeria Customs Service, the terminal operators, the service providers.
But, from the standpoint of terminal operators, the Customs and the service providers, the situation would not have degenerated to this had there not been some degree of abuse of procedure guiding importation and clearing on the part of some importers and their licensed customs agents.
The surprising thing about the whole issue is that while Lagos ports are experiencing congestion, ports in Onne, Port Harcourt, Calabar and other places are not under any pressure.
Since the problem started, many government functionaries have either visited or made pronouncement on either the cause(s) or the solution. Specifically, the Nigeria Customs Service has read the riot act; threatening to seize any consignment that fails to meet stipulated guidelines. A deadline of January 15, 2009 has also been given for the commencement of implementation of the clampdown.
Similarly, members of the House of Representatives committee on marine transport have been to the ports to assess the situation, so also has the new minister of transportation who also toured Lagos ports on December 24, 2008.
As far as we are concerned, the visit and the usually accompanying press statements are akin to playing to the gallery. When things happen in this country, it is usual to see government functionaries pay visitations, make speeches and give assurances. Afterwards, nothing else happens, until another time and whenever it reoccurs.
We have heard licensed customs agents argue with the Nigeria Customs Service over certain guidelines that are perceived to be negatively affecting cargo clearance; we have also read correspondences between operators of terminals and the national Assembly.
We are convinced that in between these stakeholders
and among their comments and fireworks lies the solution to the reoccurring cases of port congestion.
We are told by the terminal operators that it is not true that all the terminals are congested and while some have a deluge of vessels, others are nearly empty. While, we are not in the position to confirm or fault this, we are of the opinion that the terminal operators may not be entirely correct. This is evident form their confirmation that ships that are involved in congestion are mainly container ships, fish and general cargo vessels laden mostly with bagged rice and bagged cement and tankers. These categories of ships that have been identified are responsible for freighting of more than 75 percent of ships calling at Nigerian ports.
We however associate with the road map that have been pointed at by the terminal operators in their ‘safe our soul’ to the legislators. First, they suggested a reversal of some perceived bad policies of the government, a more serious approach to the development of inland container depots (ICDs) and a deliberate policy of using intermodal transportation system to tackle haulage of containers from the ports.
We suggest that rather than engage in further rhetoric about how to tackle port congestion, government and all its functionaries should take the bull by the horns and adopt some of the recommendations that have been thrown in its laps by the terminal operators.
We had written in November last year that congestion may be a thing of the past if only the terminal operators could provide more cargo handling plants, if Customs and inspection agents review their approaches and if importers embrace integrity and best practices.
We also commend last week’s interaction between the minister of transport, Alhaji Ibrahim Bio and the minister of finance, Alhaji Umar Mukhtar and stakeholders in the port system to find a way out. From all indications, a lot more would be required to get things right and these should start with the direct involvement of all relevant ministers and a follow up action by all functionaries concerned. The ministers should not stop at the communiqué that was signed, they should be directly involved in the implementation
Even though the initiatives of members of the House committee on marine transport is commendable, we think that the National Assembly has very little role here.