As at the last count, more than 2000 vessels were still stranded on the high seas of Nigeria’s territorial waters due to their inability to berth at Lagos sea ports. This is not the first time importers and exporters are being made to go through a lot of pain to clear their goods at the nation’s sea ports. Annoyingly, it also appears this won’t be the last. As a matter of fact, congestion at the ports has become a chronic problem. It has been identified as one of the factors responsible for the diversion of Nigerian-bound goods to the ports of Benin Republic and Togo by Nigerian businessmen. No one can blame the importers, because even during non-crisis periods, it is still cheaper and faster to clear goods at the ports of these neighboring countries than at Nigerian ports, which explains why imported goods from Cotonou and Togo are cheaper than similar goods in Nigeria.
Successive administrations in Nigeria have repeatedly given the impression of attempting to address this issue. But none have gone beyond lip service. It is therefore understandable that most observers saw a recent stakeholders’ forum to address the issue of port congestion in Nigeria as another attempt by government to buy time. Many who received the news believed that the game of deceiving Nigerians was about to be repeated. Forum of various types have become a deceitful way of doing things at government ministries in this country. In the end, the only purpose such forum serve is to achieve publicity for government officials by forming part of news items on television network news.
We expect the federal government through the ministries of transport and finance to conduct an independent investigation into the problem of congestion at Nigerian ports so as to objectively identify the true causes of the congestion. A stakeholders’ forum which brings together customs officials and clearing agents cannot achieve anything. You cannot expect clearing agents registered by customs to openly criticize the customs. This is Nigeria; Customs will simply withdraw such agent’s license the next day.
Operators at the ports have often pointed accusing fingers at the Nigerian Customs Service and the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA). The customs service still insists on manual inspection of all containers arriving at the ports. How many can they check in a day? A full, automated clearing system should be put in place as obtains in other parts of the world. Nigerians also see as disheartening the presence of multiple units of custom officials, all performing similar tasks at the ports. On its part, the NPA should purchase and install modern cargo-handling facilities to replace those epileptic, obsolete and non-functional equipments at the ports. The NPA also needs to jettison its policy of assigning certain vessels to particular ports, as this arrangement makes some terminals congested while others are barely utilized. Ships should be free to berth at any available terminal. Government should also take measures to fully equip other seaports outside of Lagos, such as Warri, Koko, Calabar and Onne sea ports which are grossly under-utilized.
Summary Measures such as these will help in addressing the long-standing problem of congestion at the nation’s seaports. Nigerian businessmen and ultimately the Nigerian economy will be the better for it.
Author: Kenneth J. Agwu