Rev Jonathan Nicol is the president, Shippers’ Association Lagos State (SALS). In this interview with Anozie Egole, he speaks extensively on the challenges facing the Nigerian maritime sector and the way forward.
“The problems we have here is the inability of some of the government agencies to interpret the rules of engagement”
What is the position of the association on the plans of reintroducing destination inspection for cargoes?
We have already made our position known to the general public, we are not in support of any external operators to dominate where we know that officers of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) is capable to do the job and we have access to the service, if we have complaints on issues that can be resolved amicably. Unlike travelling all the way to Victoria Island to argue over our consignments being over taxed, what we mean is to increase the volume and tell you it is their own opinion. So if you buy a good say $1000, in their own opinion they can make it $5000 because they want to get 1%(CIS) which is not good for us, it is not even good for business. You cannot make your own assessment before you import goods and when you come back they take all your profits; it is not good.
There is an accusation by some practitioners in the sector that some of the terminals now transfer cargoes to the off dock terminal without approval of the consignee, what is your reaction to this?
If you look at the contract of afreightment, we don’t have any contract with the terminal operators, we only have business with the shipping lines. Because the contract said carry and deliver our consignment to us, so if in-between the line, they contract an agent to handle the part of their job. For instance, it is clear if you bring goods to Grimaldi, they will handle it and deliver to you. So if they employ another agent to do what they are supposed to do, it is their business. There are so many illegal charges in the clearing chain and I think the Nigeria Shippers Council is on top of the matter. It is because of these illegal charges that they took them to court where we became an interested party, fighting for the importers and shippers in this country to reduce the cost of doing business. You cannot move my container without my consent, if my Bill of Lading says deliver my goods to Apapa ports for instance, before you transfer my cargoes you should be able to let me know. It will be with my consent and all transfer charges supposed not to be the shipper’s business; it should be the terminal to do that.
You said something about court case, what is the update with the court case between Terminal Operators, Shippers Council and Shippers Association?
They feel very comfortable going to the Supreme Court, so we are still at the Supreme Court waiting for the final judgment of the cases.
Going forward, what would you say have been the lessons learnt during the Covid-19 period?
Well as Shippers, we are always ahead of so many things including IT. Normally we pay through the banks, transfer funds and make payments to the banks as well through instruments that not one or two individuals will sign. So we don’t have problems paying the duty, the problems we have here is the inability of some of the government agencies to interpret the rules of engagement. And that means when the government said the country should be on lockdown how do you now expect shippers to pay for days that their own factories were on total lockdown and it is the government law it is not specific for Covid-19 materials only because it is not only Covid-19 materials that we need to clear. So when there is general lockdown like that, is it supposed to be across the board, goods that are already in the ports are not supposed to attract demurrage, that is a major problem we are having now.
Is there anything the association is doing to tackle the challenges?
Well, normally we have made our position known; that some shippers may not be able to accommodate that kind of demurrages. If you have 200 containers for instance and you have consignment for industries, normally they are large and you are asking them to pay demurrage for something that is not their fault. So it has to do with negotiations there is a point in time that the Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC) will go and tell them that there is need for more concession for shippers and that is how it is supposed to be. Because we are not asking for something invalid. The port was partially shut down and during the lockdown you couldn’t even pay your duty. Only goods whose duties were paid were cleared and in most cases these are informal sector, the formal sector was completely shut down, so what happens to them. And they are the people that carry the economy of the country.
Do you support the idea of relocating tank farms out of Apapa, as a means of addressing the chaotic traffic situation in Apapa?
I think the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) made a statement recently that it will cost them so much money to relocate the tank farms out of Apapa. They didn’t look at the disaster it might cause, we don’t pray for any, but which one is more important, human life or the money to relocate the tank farms. The government that makes projections, 20 to 30years ahead will have that tank farms relocated in their plans. Because already the whole place is covered, it is no longer any area that is fit for that kind of volatile business. So NNPC’s argument is that it will cost them so much money to do piping. So many things have gone wrong in the system so they should think of the human life first, before money.
There seems to be a drop in export cargoes, is there anything your group is doing to ensure cargo generation?
If you look at the strength of freight forwarders, we have them on ground and if you look at the input the government has made in terms of export, I think we closely hit N1trillion volume of exports between 2019 and part of 2020. So you cannot say that the exports business is not thriving; it is thriving, but Nigeria is a huge country and we have potentials all over the country and we expect that as time goes on the freight forwarders will have more jobs to do. Some of the shippers are diversifying into other areas like manufacturing, solid minerals, because at the end of the day, we want our country to be self-sufficient. So we are not just bringing the cargoes, we are developing the country, building industries, factories amongst others. If we are able to do that and get these companies in most parts of the country, of course we won’t have our youths coming from the villages to the city to make ends meet. So this is what we are targeting; provided that government puts policies that would encourage trade.
Is there anything your association is working on presently?
At the moment, we are trying to set up the national body of the shippers’ associations across the country. Most of the state chapters who domiciled in the agricultural area, we will build them up and get in touch with the famers and then we will set up outlets for exports. In Port Harcourt, we have a very proficient individual who is very vast in export business, so we will develop that as well. We understand that the Edo state government is setting up the Gelegele Port primarily for export of cargoes, specifically for goods coming from the north instead of coming to Lagos, they cut it short at Edo state, go to the port and they ship their cargoes. We will appeal to the federal government to develop the Warri ports; cargoes have to be distributed now. Because vessels are not going to Togo to offload from Nigeria, they cannot wait, it is costing them so much money and we don’t want to go through that experience of 1970s where the government got themselves stuck in demurrages of about $100, 000 to pay every day for the shipping companies. So we appeal to them to ensure that whatever is the problem between inter government agencies should be resolved as quickly as possible, so that they can work together as one to achieve positive goals