Confusion in seaports over coronavirus
NPA says ports operations continue during lockdown
The spread of the novel coronavirus in Nigeria has thrown ports operators into confusion as they continued to wobble over the presidential decision to keep the ports open at this critical period.
Some sections of the operators such as the clearing agents and freight Forwarders have canvassed that the ports should be closed immediately to avoid further spread of the virus, while another section, like the terminal operators and the Customs believed that it should be kept open while compliance to all protective measures is guaranteed.
However, President Muhammadu Buhari’s had said: “All seaports in Lagos shall remain operational in accordance with the guidelines I issued earlier. Vehicles and drivers conveying essential cargoes from these Ports to other parts of the country will be screened thoroughly before departure by the Ports Health Authority.”
Stakeholders have however raised concerns about the capacity of the port health officers to guide against import of the virus through the sea. Besides, the lockdown as it affects other industries not among those exempted by the presidential directive who are likely to have their cargoes trapped in the ports.
For the clearing agents, there are concerns about the free movement of their members who might need to move around in the process of clearing cargoes. This is even as they expressed worry that member might come in contact with the virus in the process.
Meanwhile, the situation may worsen the cargo congestion at Lagos seaports, as more consignments will be coming into the ports, while thousands were already stuck at the terminals.
The National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF) had earlier asked the Federal Government to shut down all commercial activities in the Customs ports of the sea and air to save the lives of Nigerians.
Founder of NAGAFF, Boniface Anebonam, said: “I will like to advise that in other to avoid port congestion, the outer terminals and or any other dedicated area can be used to warehouse the containers and or any other type of goods. Therefore, the need for the transportation minister and finance minister to set up a special taskforce to undertake such responsibility cannot be overemphasized,”
Anebonam had earlier canvassed that, “The circumstance we have found ourselves the rising cases of COVID-19 in Lagos is enough for government to realise that the seaports and airports must be shut down immediately till further notice.
National President, Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), Tony Iju, in an open letter to the Vice President of Nigeria, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, appealed to the Federal Government to prevail on shipping companies, terminal operators and other agencies in the ports to be prepared to waive all charges, taxes and fees during this period of national compromise at all levels.
He said: “As you already know sir, it is difficult, if not totally impossible to process customs documentation and take delivery of cargoes in our ports during this period. Even when attempt is made, it becomes difficult because state governments have closed interstate borders, markets are locked and movement of certain vehicles restricted.
“We now have a situation and irresistible circumstances that make the plea and activation of force majeure in line with international best practices inevitable.
“We hereby call for the enforcement of force majeure and total lockdown of our seaports as already done in the airports and border stations to curb the spread of the deadly Coronavirus and to protect the Nigerian workforce operating in our ports.”
He continued, “Consequently, we seek for all demurrage, rents, penalties etc. emanating from inability to clear cargoes as at when due from the ports at this period to be waived effective from the first week of March, 2020 when the first case of the deadly virus was detected in Nigeria through an Italian citizen,”
Meanwhile, the Seaport Terminal Operators Association of Nigeria (STOAN), had earlier emphasized the need for the nation’s seaports to remain open at all times while the Federal and State Governments battle to contain the spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Chairman, STOAN, Princess Vicky Haastrup argued that: “Even if other sectors of the economy are shut down to guard against the spread of the virus, the seaports should remain open to ensure that there is no shortage of food, drugs and other essential supply to Nigerians,”
Haastrup said the shipping sector is key in contributing to secure the continuity of economic activities, ensuring supply chains to industries; transport of essential goods, including energy and food supplies, and transport of vital medical and protective equipment, and supplies.
She said, “It is imperative for the fight against COVID-19, the supply of essentials, as well as for increasing the chance of the economic recovery on the other side of the outbreak, that maritime and connected transport is allowed to continue, and that government works actively to support the sector throughout the period of the crisis.
“The continued functionality of the ports and port ecosystems is imperative for securing movement of goods at scale, for prevention of shortages and thus for maintenance of public order,” she stated.
Also, the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) has urged its officers to continue work on their duty post in order to ensure that smugglers did not use the opportunity of COVID-19 crisis to import illicit items.
Comptroler-General, NCS, Hameed Ali, in a circular number HQ/012/ 2020 with reference number NCS/ADM/MGT/015/S.21/C/Vol.15 issued to all commands and signed by Assistant Comptroller General in charge of Customs Headquarters, ACG Fatade AOB, said that Customs Service is a paramilitary outfit that deals with national security, hence the officers should not stay off duty.
The circular reads in part: “You are to note that the Service is a Para-military organization that carries out the functions of national security and also generates revenue for the Federal Government on daily basis among other functions.
“Consequently, you are to be informed that all officers and men of the Service are expected to remain at their respective duty post unfailingly. Failure to comply with the above directive shall attract severe disciplinary action in accordance with extant provisions.
“Furthermore, it is pertinent for all personnel to adhere strictly to personal hygiene including the frequent washing of hands with soap and water,” he stated.
Meanwhile, the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) said import and export operations will continue at the ports in Lagos despite the curfew. The ports authority had directed all terminal operators to suspend all applicable terminal storage fees on consignments (demurrage) for an initial period of 21 days effective March 23, 2020.
General Manager, Corporate and Strategic Communications, Jatto Adams, also assured that: “The NPA and Ports Health Services have set clear protocols on the identification of sick people on vessels and the management of suspected and confirmed cases in line with best practices set by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). The protocol is that: “The captain of any vessel with a sick person(s) on board must fly two yellow flags.
“This done, personnel of the Port Health Services will go into the vessel at berth, inspect it and in cases where there is a person on board, they will quarantine the ship and immediately escalate to the Lagos State Ministry of Health.“The Ministry of Health will send an epidemiologist who will go on board with Port Health, take samples from the suspected sick person and then report to the NCDC,” he stated.