Nigerian ports seem to have lost its hub status in West and Central Africa region due to lack of adequate infrastructure, despite the country’s big market and population, writes YUSUF BABALOLA.
Over the years, successive government have always expressed determination to reclaim Nigeria’s lost trans-shipment of cargoes to other neighbouring countries but to no avail because of poor port infrastructure at the nation’s ports.
Seaports with the best infrastructure are shipping hub port to support shipping and trade.
Unfortunately, Nigeria’s trans-shipment hub status has been lost to Togo, Benin Republic, Cameroun, and Ghana. These countries have developed modern ports with infrastructure such as deeper draught that can accommodate larger vessels.
While these countries can take a vessel with 16meters draught, none of Nigeria’s seaports has draught that is beyond 13 meters, a development that has made trans-shipment of Post Panamax vessels, with a capacity of about 8000 TEU and 47.5 feet draft through the nation’s ports difficult.
Unfortunately, the final destination of the content of the bigger vessels that call at these neighbouring countries is Nigeria because of the large population and seize of the Nigerian markets.
For instance, while Nigerian ports’ draught was between eight and 13 meters which cannot accommodate mega ships, the least draught in other neighbouring ports is 6meters.
The draught of the neighbouring ports of Togo is 15.5meters while Benin Republic has 15 meters, Ghana 19 meters while Cameroun has 16 meters draught level. With a larger draught, most Nigeria-bound goods by mega ships were trans-shipped from these countries with smaller vessels.
Aside maintaining a deeper draught of 15 meters, more Nigerian-bound cargoes will inevitably be diverted to the port of Cotonou following the outsourcing of the management of the port of Cotonou to the Port of Antwerp International (PAI) Belgium.
The agreement between PAI, a consultancy and investment subsidiary of Antwerp Port Authority, and the authorities was reached in 2018. With this agreement, more than 60 per cent Nigeria-bound cargoes are reportedly diverted to Cotonou Port largely due to low port draught of Nigerian ports which has made Nigerian port inaccessible for bigger vessels
Explaining the deal, the Antwerp Port Authority’s main task was modernising the port in organisational terms, renovate the obsolescent facilities and prepare for and guide the expansion of the port.
Cotonou port, built in 1965, was initially designed to handle two million tonnes of cargo per annum, but had increased to 12 million tonnes due to Nigeria-bound trans-shipment cargoes.
Importers have also argued that sanity at the Cotonou port and the Republic of Benin government’s constant offering of rebates to Nigerian importers was increasing their transhipment status and patronage.
In July 2017, the Cotonou port reduced its charges by 27 per cent for transit cargoes coming to Nigeria. For instance, it was learnt that to clear a transit car discharged at the Cotonou port to Nigeria attracts only CFA290, 000 (N186,000) instead of CFA399,920 (N257,000) with effect from July 1, 2017.
In an interview with NATIONAL ECONOMY, the national president, National Council of Managing Director of Licensed Customs Agents (NCMDLCA), Lucky Amiwero, said the neighbouring ports have already positioned their ports as “Millennium Ports, Preferred, Transhipment or Load centre,” adding that most West African ports built their ports to accommodate Nigerian-bound cargo knowing about the country’s poor infrastructure.
Amiwero identified the neighbouring ports which have either completed their deep-sea projects or near completion as Cotonou, Benin Republic, Lome, Togo, Accra, Ghana and Cameroun.
He called on the federal government to wake up by designing the concept of a deep sea/ trans-shipment centre to accommodate large E-Class vessels/mega ships of 8000- 20000 TEUs, that are currently demanded regionally and globally.
According to him, this was the only solution to the diversion of goods to neighbouring ports. He advised that in with international best practices, Nigeria must design the following: (a) “A National Guarantee system to cover the payment of import duty taxes at the time of transit; (b) Custom Seal that ensure the physical integrity of the goods while in transit, making sure that the goods start and exit the transit in its original state; (c) Implement electronic tracking system enabling Customs to track and locate transit vehicles and guide intervention force including Customs staff; (d) A document system to enable transit document issued at the start of Transit journey to be accepted by transport and Custom authority along transit
Amiwero also identified inefficient port system as the reason why the country lost the trans-shipment hub status to other West African countries.
He added that except there is a change in infrastructure rehabilitation, Nigeria will continue to lose cargoes to neighbouring countries which have deep seaports and better facilities saying it is sad that Nigerian ports cannot accommodate mega ships with 8000-20000 TEUs, arguing that this was against the trend in neighbouring ports.
He said this was the only solution to the diversion of goods to neighboring ports. He also urged the federal government to address the unwholesome practices of manipulated delays by providers of shipping services and other government agencies which have led to high demurrage, rent and high transactional costs.
Describing such practices as inimical to the efficiency of the port system, Amiwero said such issues against Nigerian ports need to be addressed for the sake of national economy.
“There is the need to re-claim our cargo from neighboring West African countries that is now hub for Nigeria cargos, by working out mechanism for a better developed regional hub to consolidate on our destination of Nigerian cargo that has been siphoned by regional ports.
‘‘These countries within the subregion are building their ports for Nigeria cargoes. For instance, Ghana has taken over our transit, Togo has taken over our trans-shipment, Chad, Niger and Cameroon have taken over our domestic cargo and there is free trade from those areas. Co’ldvoire too is becoming a trans-shipment port. So, we are having trans-shipment within Togo, Cameroon, Ghana and Benin Republic. All these things were as a result of the management of the maritime sector on the port level,” he said.
Also, maritime expert, Francis Ugwoke has urged the government to rid the nation’s ports of trade malpractices. He said, ‘‘What has been at stake is the national economy that is being shortchanged on daily basis for the past decades. Everyone appears out to work out his/her own way of benefitting from what is seen as national cake. At some point in the past, some importers were even evading payment of duties and were allegedly ‘flying containers.’ Now that era appears to be gone, but other forms of trade malpractices have remained in the system. The ugly scenario benefits the importers, their customs agents/freight forwarders and most importantly the key elements among the agencies of government, particularly some unscrupulous Customs personnel.
‘‘The importer underpays, conceals or under-declares and settles it out with those who are supposed to check him. Incidentally, settling with the customs and others at the ports has never been enough to save such importers as they are again confronted some meters away from the ports gate and along the highways where their goods are intercepted over what the resident officers at the ports had ignored for obvious reasons. Like the resident customs officers, this set of operatives engage in another round of extortion which is capped with a demand notice (DN) to fulfill all righteousness as the reason for the interception.
‘‘Beyond the above scenario, the nation’s ports industry is suffering a lot of other issues. The multinational shipping agents and indeed the terminal operators are not left alone. The shipping lines and their agents are engaged in under-declaration of gross registered tonnage (GRT) of vessels in a bid to pay less duties. The nation loses so much revenue as a result. Clearing in the nation’s ports is usually a herculean task because most times some processes are done physically instead of online. Even as the importer pays his duties online and carries out other processes online, he is still confronted with queries that will force him to appear physically before the government personnel. He has to respond to several alerts, some of which are designed purposefully to extort him.’’
Also, vice president, ANLCA, Kayode Farinto, said it is a shame that the nation’s second largest revenue earner after oil, the maritime sector was left to wallop in such a sorry state with dilapidated infrastructure.
Farinto said there are too many factors that are drawing the sector backward, ranging from bad access roads to the ports, to high shipping costs, shallow water draft at seaports.
“There are too many issues responsible for the setback of Nigeria’s port system. The government does not have the political will and it’s not serious about implementing those good policies. You should expect that before the end of this year, we are going to have more than 40 per cent drop in cargoes coming to Nigerian ports,” he said.