A series of official avowals to improve operations at Nigeria’s premier ports in Lagos has yet to translate into tangible results. For the past two years, scanners, which are indispensable in efficiently clearing cargoes, have broken down, the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry has just restated. Accordingly, the Nigeria Customs Service has resorted to manual inspection, provoking delays, huge economic losses and, inevitably, corruption. It is inexcusable that the NCS has not made provision for the use of scanners.
Currently, there is nothing to cheer for importers and exporters at the Apapa and Tin Can ports, where about 80 per cent of Nigeria’s maritime trade occurs. The infrastructure there is shabby. Cargo clearance is frustrating because the estimated 1.5 million containers that pass through them annually are being inspected by human agents. This is cumbersome; prone to arbitrariness and corruption. Sadly, while ports elsewhere are upgrading, Nigeria’s are stuck in a time warp.
A 2018 report by the LCCI found that the Lagos ports had the longest cargo dwell time (22 days), by far longer than the ports in Cotonou, Lomé and Tema, all in West Africa. In January, cashew exporters decried the delay at the ports. They lamented that 50,000 tonnes of cashew nuts valued at $300 million were trapped, and that fresh orders had been cancelled.
In addition, there is a riot of government agencies operating at the ports with no noteworthy result to show for it. Apart from the NPA and Customs, there are also the Ports Police, Nigeria Immigration Service, State Security Service, National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, Port Health and Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency officials. This is illogical.
Intent on achieving the best global practices in port administration, in 2011, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, then Minister of Finance, sacked 10 of the agencies fuelling the logjam, including the Directorate of Naval Intelligence, Standards Organisation of Nigeria and National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control. The government has been unable to sustain this strategic move. The agencies soon returned, inducing deterioration of operations at the ports again.
Amidst the self-inflicted chaos, the transportation infrastructure that connects the ports has decayed sharply. It spins debilitating gridlock in the Lagos hinterland and untold economic losses. Aliko Dangote, Africa’s wealthiest executive, estimates that the economy sustains a loss of N140 billion weekly because of this malady. Importers of raw materials pay heavy costs on demurrage; goods destined for export reach their destination far behind schedule. Factories, therefore, operate intermittently.
It is not that the government is not aware, only it is not doing enough to implement modern solutions. In May 2017, the then acting President, Yemi Osinbajo, issued a Presidential Executive Order to improve the ease of doing business at the ports. “The Apapa Port shall resume 24-hour operations within 30 days of the issuance of this Order and there shall be no touting whatsoever by official or unofficial persons at any port in Nigeria,” the order said. It was promptly defied.
The Hameed Ali-led NCS compounded the malady last week by deploying a task force in all the ports in the country. The “Strike Force” is to inspect, intercept and seize cargoes. In this era of ICT, this is laughable. It is another layer of human impediment to port operations. It should be reversed swiftly.
But Nigeria’s loss is the gain of nearby ports. In 2017, the Apapa ports conceded the number one position in the West Africa sub-region to the Lomé port. The Togolese government, aware of Nigeria’s failings, reformed it, tripling its capacity from 311,500 containers in 2013 to 1.1 million in 2017. The Benin Republic government followed suit when it signed an agreement with the Port of Antwerp International (Belgium) to modernise operations and increase capacity. As a result, cargoes destined for Nigeria are being diverted there, though they still end up in Nigeria through smuggling. Senate President, Bukola Saraki, estimated that Nigeria lost N1.4 trillion annually to these diversions.
Nigeria is thus a laggard in the maritime trade. The International Monetary Fund states that maritime trade contributes 0.05 to Nigeria’s GDP. Conversely, it is 1.4 and 3.0 per cent for South Africa and Kenya respectively. According to the London-based International Maritime Organisation, countries should implement efficiency in their maritime trade, estimating that a 10 to 30 per cent improvement will save every European economy between €100 million and €300 million yearly.
Indeed, the deployment of technology like sophisticated cameras, sensors and scanners is revolutionising operations in ports around the world. The Port of Rotterdam – the largest in Europe – has introduced remote-controlled cranes, self-driving trucks, automated stacking cranes that load/unload thousands of trucks daily and other systems to aid operations. There, ships are being loaded and unloaded without a single human being in sight. In partnership with IBM, the port pioneered different systems to clear goods electronically. By the end of 2019, the Caofeidian Port, 200 kilometres east of China’s capital, Beijing, will be fully autonomous, that is, all operations there will be controlled at a central remote-control room.
All this should rouse the Muhammadu Buhari government from its slumber; it has to swiftly offer a clear roadmap and end the rigmarole. Achieving the President Executive Order on the 24/7 and 48-hour cargo clearance should be a priority. The agencies at the ports are unnecessary: a single clearing window should be implemented using technology. Action should be expedited on the procurement of scanners and other systems, having been approved by the Federal Executive Council and back-ups provided to reduce human interface. Nigeria should be part of this new digital revolution.