The media is once again agog with the story that another era of the embarrassment that is commonly referred to as ‘port congestion’ is here. It started as a speculation, but when the managing director of APM Terminal, Mr Hansen Knusden confirmed that his terminal was having problems of space, it then dawned on all that it was indeed a reality.
Records of daily and weekly activities at the ports indicate that ships still prefer coming into Lagos ports as if there is no problem of space for stacking.
The reoccurrence of congestion brings to remembrance, the situation in the ports prior to the emergence of port concessionaires in 2006.
Prior to the present dispensation of private sector involvement in terminal operations and the consequent congestion, the Nigerian Ports Authourity had been accused of inefficiency each time the ports could not cope with upsurge in the number of incoming ships. It was always accused of not having sufficient number of cargo handling plants.
Sadly and with all the claims by terminal operators that they possess expertise and cargo handling dexterity, the ports in Lagos are choked up as ships come in their regular pace.
Some stakeholders argued that the present logjam is not entirely as a result of increase 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 and some degree of abuse of procedure guiding importation and clearing on the part of importers and their licensed customs agents. They argue that once there is a dislocation in the process, then there can not be a seamless cargo handling and delivery system.
Some are however of the opinion that more ships are coming in especially as we approach end of the year. They may not be far from the truth because statistics that were made available to us indicate that more than 35 vessels laden with assorted consignments are already awaiting berthing facilities at Lagos ports. And that is why we have found ourselves being confronted once again by the monster called port congestion.
From our findings, the eastern operational flank of the Nigerian Ports Authourity is not experiencing anything near port congestion. Ships have been sailing in and out of ports in Port Harcourt, Onne, Calabar and Warri and consignees have been taking delivery without stress.
What is it about Lagos ports, why is it that almost every year, the ports of Tin Can and Apapa always experience congestion?
There is nothing much about it, except that Lagos ports are peculiar and they occupy a very strategic position in the port system, accounting for at least 65 percent of total cargo throughput in and out of Nigerian ports. Operators of Lagos ports are also probably peculiar.
Opinions are divided as to why congestion has become a part of these ports, but we are certain of one fact and that is that, unless certain things are addressed, the problem will remain intractable.
One of the arguments that have been canvassed by stakeholders (including Shipping Position Weekly) is that concession has led to faster cargo delivery and reduced turn-around-time for ships.
To arrest the situation, Customs has adopted what we believe is a panicky and counter productive measure. It’s Comptroller General, Alhaji, Hamman Bello Ahmed has ordered that scanning of containers should be suspended in some places.
This suggests that the customs boss has identified that scanning is a clog in the wheel in the clamour to get goods released to their consignees within 48 hour.
We think that the Customs should go a step further – rather than stopping scanning temporarily, it should be stopped permanently; at least until the concessionaires, the Customs and the service providers are able to get it right. We dare say that the problem of congestion in Lagos port will be a thing of the past if these three are more committed.
While some freight forwarders have argued that whatever is happening in the ports presently is as a result of certain directives form the Customs headquarters in Abuja.
This brings us to our earlier submission that operators of Lagos ports are peculiar, otherwise, how can one explain the fact that the same directive that is said to be at the root of congestion in Lagos is also applicable in eastern ports of Onne and Port Harcourt, yet there is no congestion.
While not taking sides with either the customs or freight forwarders, we submit that there is need for the terminal operators to provide more cargo handling gears at their operational areas. With eight terminal operators in charge, one would expect that cargo dwell-time would reduce and that this will reflect in clearance time and by extension reflect on ship turn-around-time. Suddenly, every one is now looking in the direction of off- dock facilities. These are the same bonded terminals that the terminal operators never wanted to patronise immediately they came in as terminal operators.
In fact it took a lot of persuasions, negotiations and assurances before the bonded terminals were allowed back into the port system.
Congestion will not rear its ugly head again if the terminal operators provide more equipment, if customs, destination inspection agents and of course the importers get it right.