By Kenneth Jukpor
Recognizing that Nigerian ports are the gateway to the economy, President Muhammadu Buhari in his maiden speech on the COVID-19 pandemic directed that all seaports remain open and functional even during the total lockdown to curb the pandemic.
Despite this noble strategy to keep Nigerian ports operational to aid the evacuation of essential items such as food, petroleum products, medical equipment and safety materials to combat the pandemic; there were numerous challenges to surmount.
In order to achieve seamless port operations, Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) was at the forefront of stakeholders’ engagement, interventions, health and safety inspections and the pertinent economic issues at the ports at such difficult time.
How has the Authority shown its landlord status under the C-19 pandemic? This report recreates some of the achievements of the Authority under the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown period, especially on the proactive regulatory measures to lessen economic pangs caused by the lockdown and the health safety guidelines at the terminals and other parts of the ports.
As Managing Director of NPA, Ms. Hadiza Bala-Usman led an NPA delegation that visited all the terminal operators to determine their needs and what had to be done to have them continue operations despite the lockdown.
When terminal operators pointed out the need to have banks open to allow freight forwarders access to banking facilities to enable them pay for Customs duties before clearing their goods, Hadiza reached out to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and they immediately enabled the commercial banks within the port environment to commence operations for port service transactions.
NPA also joined the Maritime Task Team setup to expeditiously address the challenges at the time with daily meetings with other port sector agencies and stakeholders.
Hadiza ensured NPA proceeded with implementing core decisions and ensuring that the port environment was safe for operations in-spite of the ravaging pandemic. Members of staff at the Authority were equipped with the necessary essential duty cards for movement.
Realizing that port business wouldn’t thrive without freight forwarders, NPA acted swiftly to get freight agents exempted from the curfew at several ports and guaranteed unfettered access to the ports for the operators.
The Authority also demonstrated a more altruistic and nationalistic gesture; directing terminal operators to give waivers for rent free period from March 23rd 2020 when the challenges limiting access to the ports began until the lockdown was relaxed. Consequently, consignees were able to take advantage of this to clear their cargoes from the ports without paying for storage to the terminal operators, but NPA and the Federal Government gave up a portion of revenue to ease the fiscal burden on terminals.
The agency also extended the waivers by another two weeks till April 26th, 2020 following the extension of the COVID-19 lockdown by the Federal Government.
It was gathered that some terminal operators refused to comply with the directive, arguing that the terms of the waiver agreement needed to be well documented and deliberated upon by the Federal Government and the operators. However, NPA provided commensurate credit notes via rental reliefs for the storage waivers granted by the terminal operators to consignees within the free storage period.
An NPA letter dated April 8, 2020, with reference number HQ/GM/MRS/OP/L.1/Vol.II/371 titled; “Re: Relief Measures To Port Users Due To Outbreak of Covid-19” read; “The compensation will only cover cargoes situated in your terminal within the period under reference. The terminal must produce evidence of delivery records indicating waiver of rent for the period in reference”
“The compensation shall only cover storable cargoes within respective terminals. The compensation shall only cover charges approved by the Authority and published by the terminal. Any charge outside these will not be accommodated”
The letter clarifies the ambiguity lamented by terminal operators on the 21 days free demurrage period directed by NPA as it is a follow-up on an earlier NPA letter titled, “Relief Measures To Port Users Due To Outbreak of Covid-19” disseminated to terminal operators on April 2, 2020.
The Authority still insists that terminals which collected storage charges from freight agents and importers during the lockdown return such funds, as the waiver was targeted to provide relief to businesses following the scourge of the COVID-19 pandemic.
NPA also played a crucial role in facilitating the recent meeting of heads of the parastatals across the maritime sector which held at the headquarters of the Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC), with the CEOs agreeing on modalities for handling areas of overlap in their responsibilities.
The maiden meeting of maritime agencies’ CEOs was attended by the Director General, Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Dr. Bashir Jamoh, Managing Director, Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) Hadiza Bala-Usman, Executive Secretary, Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC), Barr. Hassan Bello; while the Managing Director, National Inland Waterways Authority, Dr. George Moghalu, and Rector, Maritime Academy of Nigeria (MAN), Oron, Commodore Duja Effedua (Rtd), joined via Zoom.
With the new normal characterized by face masks, social distancing, among others challenges in the port environment,NPA pilots were briefed on how to conduct themselves while boarding vessels that come into Nigerian ports.
The Authority also availed pilots as well as other port users with the necessary Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to ensure they are protected as they go about their duties, since the port is a place characterized by lots of activities.
Speaking on the challenges at NPA’s efforts amid the COVID-19 pandemic recently, the Managing Director, Usman said; “We put in place a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) in compliance with the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and Port Health guidelines. These guidelines provide clarity on how crew that come aboard into the country are treated while recognizing the need to protect the ports and the environment in totality.”
“We ensure that our personnel maintain the social distance. For some operations we previously did in person, we now do them virtually to curb physical contact as much as possible. We have continued to engage with stakeholders as we recognize the need for efficiency at the ports so that consignees can clear their cargoes within the minimal time frame. NPA is pushing to ensure that vessels come into the ports and are evacuated in good time.”
According to the NPA boss, the pandemic further re-emphasized the need to introduce automation for other aspects of port operations to improve efficiency.