Following the recent Executive Directive issued by Nigeria’s Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo highlighting several issues on the ease of doing business at the nation’s ports, it became pertinent to analyze the directive to see how realistic it is and how it can be achieved.
One of the highlights of the ‘Executive Order on the Promotion of Transparency and Efficiency in the Business Environment’ was that in 30 days, the clearance time for items at the ports should be done in 24 hours, whilst it also added that the nation’s ports should be operational 24 hours. By the order, the Apapa Port is expected to resume 24-hour operations within 30 days.
Nevertheless, there are several issues acting as impediments to efficient port systems and they need to be addressed to ensure that the directive doesn’t end as a mere statement. Some of the issues that could mitigate the realization of these lofty ideas include the dilapidated state of the port access roads, the absence of proper lighting systems at the ports and terminals, strenuous bureaucratic processes utilized by Customs, terminal operators as well as shipping companies, corruption, among others.
Speaking with MMS Plus during an exclusive chat, a retired Comptroller of the Nigeria Customs Service, Anselm Nwadike lamented that 24 hours operation of Nigerian seaports cannot be feasible because there were several challenges working against accelerated port operations.
According to Nwadike, the executive directive was just a mere statement as the government failed to do a proper study of the major challenges before coming up with clear-cut action plans to change the practice at the ports.
“You can’t make certain policies by making declarations. You must sit back and analyze the issues especially when dealing with things that bother on human behaviour. There is a dire need to study the situation in order to understand the problems mitigating speedy clearance at the ports over the years. Such statements have been made several times in the past, yet nothing changed because the problems still remain”
Nwadike also wondered if the presidency were fully abreast of the peculiarities of Customs clearance, “Do they understand what Customs clearance entails? If so, at what point would they say the clearance starts and when do we start counting the 24/ 48 hours? Is it at the point the agent gets the document from the importer or when he submits it to the Customs? Even if the Customs release the goods in 24 hours, can the bureaucratic processes at the terminals and shipping companies be completed in one day?”
He explained that as a developing country whose economy thrives on importation, it would be unfair to compare the challenges peculiar to import in Nigeria to what is obtainable in other climes. However, he pointed out that the lack of functional scanners at the nation’s ports makes it impossible to achieve 24 hours port operations at the moment.
On the issue of corruption at the ports, Nwadike posited that this was a reflection of the Nigerian society which celebrates materialism other than performance and effectiveness of a public servant. He recalled a sad experience as a Comptroller when a clergyman had asked him if an officer three ranks below him was his superior because he lived a modest lifestyle while the junior officer was seen living flambouyantly.
“Customs officers have been brandished as lepers but the current investigations by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has revealed more corruption in the Army. Why hasn’t the image of the Army been rubbished like the Customs? Customs officers are Nigerians and they reflect the dearth of societal values in the country” he added.
In his reaction, the Deputy Director, Compliance, Monitoring and Enforcement at the Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC) Chief Cajetan Agu noted that there were three critical elements to accomplishing the executive directive.
“There are three elements that have to be in place in line with that executive directive on 24 hours ports operations. One is the port access roads. The roads would have to be fixed before we can talk about 24 hours operations as vehicles can barely maneuver through the roads by day not to think of the hazards that would occur at night.
“The lighting systems of terminals would also have to be improved as it is requisite to working at night and the last issue is security. As for the Customs, they are public servants and they have no option than to follow this directive”, Chief Agu said.
Meanwhile, a former President of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF) Dr. Eugene Nweke remained optimistic that 24 hours seaport operations can be realized in the country if all stakeholders work towards achieving it.
“The Presidential directive is to quicken the process because the 24 hours operations cannot happen automatically. It is a wake-up call to all critical stakeholders at the ports in line with that directive and the ports would be open for people to do their business.”
He emphasized that all commercial services at the ports would have to be improved upon such as the cargo handling equipments in order to comply with the 24 hours operations, adding that more manpower would also be needed as there would be need to work in shifts. He also demanded that the Federal Government provides adequate security and fix the port access roads to encourage freight forwarders patronize the ports at night.
“There would be need for a one-stop shop on the issue of clearance to guarantee 24 hours clearance time. It is not just about the ports being open to the freight forwarders, all relevant departments at the ports would have to be operational at all times to achieve this. The Nigeria Customs Service and other critical port stakeholders have to go back to appraise their performance and harmonize as stated in the directive” Nweke added.
On his part, the Director General of Multimix Academy, Dr. Obiora Madu said that it was difficult to say how realistic it is to achieve 24 hours operations of the nation’s ports in less than 30 days.
“When you look at the nation’s port environment, you would find that things that work in other countries doesn’t work here. Given the level of revenue that the government gets from the two Lagos ports, the road infrastructure should never have degenerated to the current level. Accessibility is a crucial factor that affects the ease of doing business at the ports. How do you talk about timeliness when it has become impossible to get in or out of the port.”
“This type of order has been made in the past without corresponding actions. Yes, it is achievable but the fact is that it would take a radical approach by the government. A construction company can fix the roads in no time but you have to ask if the government has the will to get it done. If they can use the same drive and tenacity deployed to repair the Abuja airport runway, then it is possible”, Dr. Obiora said.
He noted that he has started counting down to the 30 days and he would like to see significant changes even if the whole transformation wasn’t achieved in the stipulated thirty days.
Meanwhile, the Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola has said that the Nigerian government needs N100 billion to construct the Apapa Road in Lagos. He also disclosed that the design and other requirements needed for the reconstruction of the road were ready.
Speaking at a retreat in Abuja, the minister also disclosed that some private companies had offered to collaborate with the government to fix the road, noting that what was left on the Apapa road was to sign a formal Memorandum of Understanding, MOU, before proceeding to the Federal Executive Council for approval.
“I just want to appeal to residents of Apapa and to people whose livelihood depends on Apapa, that Apapa is one of the priority roads under our ministry of works to solve roads that lead to critical ports. We have done everything for Apapa; it is ready. It is going to be a concrete road that will last another 30 years. So, we are close to starting work,” Mr. Fashola said.
It would be recalled that the Managing Director of NPA, Hadiza Bala-Usman had in a frantic effort to persuade the striking port users including truck drivers and clearing agents to end their industrial action declared to register their rejection of the state of port access road, agreed to source funds and fix the road as soon as possible.
However, NPA may not have to bear the cost after all as the Minister of Power, Works and Housing, posits that the rehabilitation of access roads at Apapa Port in Lagos State was a priority project of the Federal Government. The countdown has begun, over one week has passed but there isn’t any visible change at the ports or on the roads yet.