Eromosele Abiodun examines efforts by the Nigerian Shippers Council to get freight forwarders and port users to comply with measures put in place by the federal government to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 at the ports
With over one million infections and 200,000 deaths recorded so far globally, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is said to be the biggest challenge the world has faced since World War 2.
Countries over the world are waging war against the pandemic, outlining measures and policies to ensure further spread of the deadly virus is contained. Nigeria is not left out in the war against the COVID-19.
In fact, scientists and experts have applauded the federal government's effort at halting the spread of the virus. Even as the government is doing its best, the private sector has also joined with several billions donated to support in the effort to halt the virus. Government agencies are left out of the fight. However, some have more critical role to play given their strategic importance to the economy of the country. For instance, as the port economic regulator of the country, the Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC) has ensured that the ports do not become the hotspot for the spread of Covid-19 virus.
Also, the NSC has taken steps to ensure that the directive by President Muhamadu Buhari that the ports remain open is adhered to in a responsible manner for the safety of port users and the general public. To achieve this, the Executive Secretary and Chief Executive Officer of the NSC, Hassan Bello last week visited the Apapa and Tincan Island Ports to see what measures are in place to protect Nigerians who use the port on daily basis. Also, last week, the NSC held a sensitisation forum for leaders of freight forwarders on the dangers of their members coming to port in violation of the directive of the federal government that people should stay at home. The meeting, which was strategically arranged because of the social distancing directive by the World Health Organisation (WHO) had just four leaders of the critical stakeholder associations in attendance.
Halting Virus Spread
Speaking at the meeting, Bello warned customs who has no immediate need to be at the port to stay at home to avoid the spread of COVID-19 at the port. He also debunked claims by some agents that the ports were closed, adding that only essential goods are to be cleared in the port at this time
He stressed that only essential cargoes would be cleared at the ports for now, due to the lockdown directive by the federal government to contain spread of Coronavirus.
Bello observed that even in hard-hit countries by COVID-19, port operations have continued without hindrance.
He added that essential commodities such as drugs, medical equipment and consumables critical for the Nigerian people are to be cleared.
According to him, "If as a freight forwarder you do not have business to do at the port, please don't come out, stay in your house. Today when I came to Apapa, I was surprised at the number of vehicles I saw, it seems there has been no lockdown, this is very wrong, people must stay at home, except it is essential, please don't come out"
He disclosed that he has been interfacing with the Lagos State Commissioner of Police over some freight forwarders that were arrested on their way to the port, adding that the freight forwarders have now been released.
Bello said the outbreak of the COVID-19 has further shown the need for electronic transactions at Nigerian ports. He said the ports needs to have a national single window where agencies would be talking to each other.
Also, Bello said truck drivers going to the port to pick essential cargoes must also practice necessary health guidelines.
He informed that the NSC would take stricter observation of people who come to the ports by the buses provided by the council.
On his part, Registrar of the CRFFN, Samuel Nwakohu, noted that only freight forwarders who have essential goods to clear at the port would be allowed to clear goods while those with luxury goods will have to wait until the lock down is over.
Nwakohu, added that there are presently six banks in operations for freight forwarders who needs to clear their essential goods.
Specifically, he said: "The primary aim of the government as it stands today is to look after our health, and that is why they have taken all the steps they have taken.
"It's not business as usual, I said to my freight forwarders, after today, the executive secretary and I will approach the customs, the goods that will be cleared will be only those who have essential goods, if you have luxury goods you will have to wait until the shutdown is over.
"Let me also state that you cannot clear goods whether it is luxury items or essential items if the banks are not there to provide services.
"As at today we have six of them Zenith Bank Plc, UBA Plc, First Bank Nigeria Plc, FCMB Plc, GT Bank Plc with the names of their staff so that you can call them, "he said.
Stakeholders present at the meeting included President of Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), Tony Iju Nwabunike, Founder of NAGAFF, Dr Boniface Aniebonam, President of Shippers Association Lagos State, Jonathan Nicol, NAGAFF President, Increase Uche, AMARTO Chairman, Remi Ogungbemi.
Clearing Essential Goods
While addressing operators at terminals visited, Bello said the seaports must be operational for the exit of cargoes especially raw materials and relief materials.
Bello who paid an on the spot assessment to the Apapa and Tin-Can Island ports said cargo should not be subjected to interstate restrictions in order to keep the economy of the nation's moving amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
He also urged clearing agents and importers to use the opportunity of the lockdown to take delivery of cargoes from the ports and decongest the sea and landside.
Bello who visited the ENL and Port and Terminal Multiservices Limited (PTML), said the council has provided buses for port workers to access the ports, reiterating that despite the lockdown, cargoes should be allow to reach their destinations across the country.
According to him, "I am always scared about the congestion on both sides that will happen if cargo is not taken out of the port. We have terminals with 95 per cent occupancy rate. We are doing the same thing at Port Harcourt where people are not allowed to convey their goods from the port.
"We are talking to the Authority to make sure cargoes are allowed to move freely. There should be movement of cargo. Vargo should not be subject to interstate restrictions. Cargo should reach his destination that is why even the airport we have cargo planes dropping. Expection has been made as far as that is concerned. We also have train running for freight and not for passengers."
He further stated that port is the nation's heritage even though Nigeria as a country is presently constrained.
He said Shippers Council is trying as much as possible to see that port operate because it is the nerve of the nation's economy and for the citizens to fight the Coronavirus.
He added: "We need certain essential commodities and medicine equipment and so on to move. We have sent circulars trying to see that port operations is kept or the port is moving despite the difficulties. The government has to find a balance between the safety of the people and the economy. Port also generates revenue, which is needed now."
In order to ensure that there is smooth operations in the port, he said NSC has been reaching out to some agents and freight forwarders so that they could come to port and transact business and those who has business to transact at the port.
"I know that we are operating under some difficult situations, this is global and I know there are certain destructions in international shipping, logistics and so on especially certain contracts that are frustrated by the nature of this pandemic. And we cannot perform some of our obligations and that goes to both parties.
"We have also been talking with the commercial banks. Some of them have also opened immediately two branches in Apapa (Zenith Bank) to transact the business of assessment of duty and payment of duty, which they will start tomorrow, we are talking with other banks and they will do the same."
Also speaking at the visit to the ENL Terminal at the Apapa port, Vice Chairman of ENL Consortium, Princess Vicky Haastrup lamented that the terminal is already full to the brim with 85 per cent yard space already occupied.
She attributed this to the fact that freight forwarders and importers were not coming forward to take delivery of their consignments.
She noted that at the moment, five vessels are waiting at berth, ready to discharge their contents.
"The freight forwarders are not coming because some of them have Customs problems. I have five ships at the berth and the terminal is full. We are ready to operate but the people are not coming, "she said.
Meanwhile, the Managing Director of Ports and Terminal Multiservices Limited, Ascanio Russo said the company had been operational and intend to continue to be operational in line with the directives issued by President Buhari.
He said: "I am very glad that the federal government is a critical infrastructure, which need to be open all the time especially in a difficult times like this. There is nowhere in the world even the most affected countries ports and critical logistics service were never closed.
"So, am also very happy to hear and appreciate the Council for the role taken to facilitate access to the ports and also for the banks to come on so that we can facilitate the payment of duties and this are very critical steps because on our own side, we are ready to work."
According to him, there is need to acknowledge the whole world is working around the Logistics services not only Shipping agents, Manufacturers or dockworkers but all the service providers including security, cleaners, drivers and they should be allowed to come to the port area.
Meanwhile, Bello said cargo should not be subjected to interstate restrictions in order to keep the economy of the nation moving amid the covid-19 pandemic.
He said the seaports must remain operational for the exit of cargoes especially raw and relief materials.
"I am always scared about the congestion on both sides that will happen if cargo is not taken out of the port. We have terminals with 95 per cent occupancy rate. We are doing the same thing at Port Harcourt where people are not allowed to convey their goods from the port.
"We are talking to the authority to make sure cargoes are allowed to move freely. There should be movement of cargo. Cargo should not be subjected to interstate restrictions. Cargo should reach his destination; that is why even the airport we have cargo planes dropping. Exception has been made as far as that is concerned."
Bello said the NSC was making effort to see that the ports remain operational because it is the nerve of the nation's economy and especially for the country to fight the Coronavirus.
"We need certain essential commodities and medicine equipment and so on to move. We have sent circulars trying to see that port operations are kept or the port is moving despite the difficulties. The government has to find a balance between the safety of the people and the economy. Port also generates revenue, which is needed now.
"In order to ensure that there is smooth operations in the port, Shippers Council has been transporting some agents and freight forwarders so that they could come to port and transact their businesses. I know that we are operating under some difficult situations. This is global and I know there are certain destructions in international shipping, logistics and so on especially certain contracts that are frustrated by the nature of this pandemic. And we cannot perform some of our obligations and that goes to both parties," he added.