Port Users Should Have Commensurate Services Attached To Charges- Olumekun

Port Users Should Have Commensurate Services Attached To Charges- Olumekun
Babajide Okeowo

Bunmi Olumekun is the President of the Barge Operators Association of Nigeria (BOAN).

In this interview with BABAJIDE OKEOWO, he lamented how being charged in dollars and the volatility in the Foreign Exchange (FOREX) market has affected the operations of his members.

He also addressed the issue of multiple charges in the sector and its impact on the Ease of Doing Business drive of the Federal Government. Excerpts

What Is The Update Regarding The Issue Of NPA Charging Your Association In Dollars And Has The Nigerian Shippers’ Council Been Able To Resolve This Issue Yet?

There are no changes yet, it is still the same case, but we have been getting responses from the government’s side that we need to sit down to discuss this issue further, we have assurances from the Permanent Secretary who is the head of the Transport Ministry for now (This interview was conducted before President Bola Ahmed Tinubu assigned Portfolios to the approved Ministers), she gave us assurances that things are being looked into.

However, we all are seeing the way the country is going with the issue of FOREX, we do not need to add to the burden of our people, this issue is tampering with the government’s Ease of Doing Business policy.

What do I mean? In the sense that we cannot plan ahead, for instance, if NPA wants to defend itself, they will say though the charges are in dollars, but, you can pay the naira equivalent. But you can see the situation in the country with the naira fluctuation. If a customer calls you in the morning and you give him/her a particular quotation for moving a product from point A to B, you give him a price based on the price of the dollar at N900/$1 in the morning, then in the evening, the exchange rate has changed to N905/$1, so, how do you contact such customer that the price has changed based on the quotation you gave him earlier in the day? This is the challenge that we are facing! It doesn’t even make sense to give quotations in dollars in the first place because what we are doing is a local business. Transportation internally is a local business of moving goods from Point A to B, so, why do you have to charge me in dollars in my own country? So, what we are saying is that the dollar aspect of things should not be there at all. 

Do you know what they told us, they said, again, I want to be quoting them because as far as the meeting we have with them, what they said was that they do the dredging of their channels in dollars.  How can you be dredging the channels in dollars?

Most of these things, most of the equipment needed for dredging are here in Nigeria. We can even do it locally.  At the time we are talking about developing local capacity, and local content. 

Local content has to be made in Nigeria and used in Nigeria.  So, all these things can be fabricated in Nigeria.  Even what we are talking about dredger.  Dredger can be made, can be fabricated here.  We have people, we have capacity.  We have a lot of companies that can handle that in Warri, even in Lagos.

They can fabricate all this equipment we are talking about locally without going overseas to source for it. And I don’t even believe that they are sourcing it overseas. Most of these dredgers are here locally.  So why are you charging us in dollars when you are paying your contractor in Naira? Why are you charging us in dollars? 

I have always said that you have to learn how to manage your things, you have to use what you have to achieve what you want. So, use our local equipment to achieve what you want to achieve.

Let’s Talk About The Impact Of Multiple Charges On Your Operations, How Do Your Members Cope With This Issue?

This issue of multiple charges is everywhere. Let’s be sincere to ourselves, it is not only from the government agencies. We are also at the mercy of even the terminal operators.  There is nobody to regulate anybody, and when you ask or complain to government agencies, they will tell you that they cannot dictate to them.  We are not saying you should dictate to them, but you can call them to order.

There are certain agreements that you signed with them when you gave them the terminal.  How on earth, for example, there are boxes, whether import or export, that handling charges have already been paid on before you move out or you move into the port, right? The handling charges have been paid.  Whether it’s export, you have paid the handling charges.  Whether it’s imported, you have paid the handling charges.

Now when it is time to move your cargo either by rail, water or road, if for example, you choose to go by water.  They will now charge you another handling charge.  The one that has been paid before, where is it?

And nobody is asking questions.  And we are just sitting down and looking at them.  The question we are asking is what, the previous THC that has been paid, where is it?  Every charge has to be connected with services.

You cannot be charging operators without the requisite services. The government needs a lot to think about, a lot to be looked into, to see how these things are being controlled, how they are being regulated.  Everybody is just fighting for his own pocket.  They are not fighting for the masses.  And that is the problem.  That is where we are today.  Everybody is fighting for his own pocket.  They are not fighting for the masses.  If we are truly fighting for the masses, these questions have to be raised. 

These things that are being charged, where is the service attached to it?  Nothing! This question is yet to be answered by the terminal operators. 

Coming back, when we ask the terminal operators why are you charging us this much?  They will say these charges are subject to NPA directive. That the NPA has a certain percentage from these charges.  If the NPA has a percentage from these charges already, why is NPA now coming back again to subject us to another charge?  These are questions that we need to ask ourselves. 

And I prefer that they bring everybody to a roundtable and let us solve this.  If you go to them, they will say no, they can’t dictate to them.  Because they know what they are doing. You can’t dictate to whom. It is a landlord-tenant agreement in the first place.

The Issue Of Traffic Congestion Around The Port Access Roads Have Refused To Go Away, And It Seems The Issue We Have In Apapa, Tincan Will Be Replicated At The Lekki Deep Seaport, What Is The Way Forward, What Role Will Barging Play In Addressing This Issue?

The people that are involved don’t want it to work; it will only work if they want it to work. Even the Lekki we were talking about, they don’t want it to work.  They were just doing things the way they like. 

And, we should be prepared for serious traffic congestion that is coming soon, not only in Lekki but in Apapa, it’s coming soon.  And you will see it very soon.

Cuts In…. Why Do You Say This?

 The whole world is moving to Africa. The whole business, the whole investment is moving towards here.  And when we say Africa,  who is Africa?  It’s Nigeria.  The attention is going to be here.  So, Nigeria is going to be great.  But we need to work out something now.  If not, we are going to have a worse scenario in this congestion that we are talking about. 

I can tell you; everybody now is concentrating on coming to do business in Africa.  And Nigeria is the focus.  So, we need to, we have a lot to do.  But we will not relax.  But I’m advising everybody that is concerned that we need to really work.  If not, it’s going to repeat itself.  And if it comes, it’s going to be worse. 

And If It Happens, Like You Say, What Impact Will It Have On Our Economy?

You know everything has both negative and positive.  I pray that the negative will not be more than the positive.  The positive aspect of it is that our economy is going to be vibrant.  And the country is going to be developed as more investors will come on board.

But the negative aspect of it is that are we going to be waiting for a vessel to stay long before it berths at the port the way it used to stay before, it will mean that we will have to spend more on freight because of the congestion of our ports, can we afford that? So, we can’t be taken from here and be servicing another debt.  So, we need to be very careful.  As I said, it’s going to be both negative and positive.  So, we must let the positive be more than the negative so that we can get things right and we have to because our country is in a mess, and we need to get it right.  How do we get it right?  We need to put ourselves; we need to put our house in order.  And we need to put professionals in the field of any decision-making body so that we can get it right. 

How Do You Think The Proposed Plans By The Government To Make The Federal Inland Revenue Service, FIRS The Sole Collector Of Revenue Impact Our Ease Of Doing Business Vis-à-vis Revenue Generation?

Every policy that is made, the goals and the objective of those people that made the policy is for the policy to go on to make an impact and be positive to what is on the ground. 

But here in Nigeria, every policy that comes is always making things harder. I can’t see this one working. I don’t think that it is ideal.  What we need to do is to put a system in place.  By the time we put a system in place, everything will follow.  But when the system is not in place, you give room for corruption, you give room for leakages in revenue.

Even the revenue that they (FIRS) are collecting, are there no revenue losses from their side? So why bring them to take over the revenue collection of other sectors?

What this will translate to is that the government agencies here will tell you, to go and settle with them, and when you are done settling them, come and settle us, this means you will be made to pay double, it will translate to multiple charges that might not get into government coffers but end up in people’s pocket.

Leave things as they are, don’t let’s deviate from where we are, and let the people there continue doing the job, but put a system in place.

How Can Barging Improve Nigeria’s Economy?

Barging is a very lucrative business, even the maritime industry as a whole. I advised the past government that if you spend 10% or 20% of what you spend on the railway on maritime, they will recoup their investment in no time.

Look at the situation with the railway today, what do we have, they are not moving. If that revenue has been invested in water transportation, they would have recouped their investment within two, or three years.

It will improve a lot of things, and you know the volume of what can be moved by barges, so, Government should be focused more on maritime. 

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