The arbitrary increases in port charges, unfriendly nature of the seaports and absence of a commercial regulator were, last week, listed among the factors that have led to the perennial fleecing of importers and clearing agents of billions of naira annually by port operators. This was the verdict of some stakeholders in the Nigerian maritime industry.
Investigations by Daily Sun revealed that the three aforementioned factors also account for the rising cargo drought experienced in the country as some shipping companies now prefer to call at other West African ports, where they enjoy huge incentives and reduced charges.
These factors are equally responsible for the rapid increase in smuggling, because some importers fear they may not make profit after paying all charges at the ports.
A comparative analysis of the charges shows that as at 2002 the Federal Government, through the Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC), approved progressive storage charge of only N4,000 per container.
However, the figure, through arbitrary increases, was hiked to N8,000 as soon as the concessionaires took over the ports…later pegged at N12,000/day per container by all the port operators.
Unfortunately, the figures do not have the approval of either the Transport Ministry, nor the NSC.
Similarly, a combination of Terminal Charge, Delivery Charge and Labour in Nigeria is N52,682 per container, while in Ghana and Benin Republic, it is about N9,655 and N24,000, respectively. But in Senegal, it is according to the weight and volume of cargo.
However, in these countries there is a body responsible for the regulation of commercial activities at the seaports, which is lacking in Nigeria.
The NSC and the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) have lobbied to be made the commercial regulator but the National Assembly says it is seeking a neutral body outside the existing two to handle regulation.
Although the Chairman of Seaport Terminal Operators of Nigeria (STOAN), Princess Vicky Haastrup, told Daily Sun, in a recent interview, that the concessionaires are not responsible for the high cost of doing business at the ports, importers and clearing agents think otherwise.
They explained that when containers require scanning and landing, the terminal operator gives them seven days to complete the process.
“But there is a deliberate delay in positioning it for scanning, all in a bid to accumulate illegal charges for themselves,” they said.
“They noted that the importer, painfully and helplessly, pays N12,000 daily per container for these seven days, due to the inefficiency of terminal operators. Statutorily, the seven days should be waived because the delay was their fault,” an importer alleged.
While the APMT management is commending itself for bringing about efficiency in the port system, it is usually silent about the prohibitive charges.
According to the President, National Council of Managing Directors of Licensed Customs Agents (NCMDLCA), Lucky Eyis Amiwero, the terminal operators are killing importers and Customs agents with high charges. They increase the charges as they want. This, he alleged, was because nobody is monitoring what they are doing, since there is no commercial regulator.
According to him, many legitimate importers actually pay higher container charges than import duty. “By the time you pay about N1.5 million on duty for one container and N2.5 million for various port charges, you end up running at a loss and that is what is encouraging smuggling,” he explained.
Amiwero said Nigeria was simply playing politics with the maritime sector while neighbouring countries are building millennium ports, improving efficiencies in existing ones and hell-bent on siphoning Nigeria’s cargo.
“Drop in cargo through put should not come as a surprise to anyone in the maritime sector. The sector is in crisis. Things are in disarray. There is no economic regulator. Everyone does what he/she likes. The shipping companies cannot function in such a disorganized atmosphere. There are more serious West African countries like Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire with more organized maritime system,” he revealed.
Also commenting on the anomalies, the founder of National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), Dr Boniface Aniebonam, said the government should be held responsible for the crisis in the sector.
He said it was only the government that can call the terminal operators to order as “nobody is above the law but the enforcer must enforce the law unless it is abused.”
But according to Bolaji Akinola, Media advisor to APMT, the company has drastically reduced the cost of terminal handling charges at the port, contrary to claims by importers that cost of operations at the terminal has gone up.
“At the time we took over operations of the terminal in 2006, the Federal Government through the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) forced us and other terminal operators to reduce terminal handling charges by 33 per cent,” he claimed.
It would be recalled that before we took over the terminal, there was chronic congestion at the terminal. Everything and everywhere was chaotic. No cargo handling equipment, no defined processes and procedures. There was also vessel queue with ships waiting for an average of 40 days to get berthing space.