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Nigeria has lost regional maritime leadership to Togo, others

By Adaku Onyenucheya
27 September 2021   |   4:13 am
When you are talking about a hub port, what is a hub? You know, within the West and Central African sub-region, we need two hub ports; and why do they call them hub ports? A centre where bigger vessels can come and drop their cargoes and you can now send...

Lucky Amiwero

President of the National Council of Managing Directors of Licensed Customs Agents (NCMDLCA), Lucky Amiwero, x-rays issues affecting Nigeria’s efforts to position itself as a regional maritime hub. Amiwero, in a phone interview with ADAKU ONYENUCHEYA, listed cost, poor regulation and inadequate technology as factors working against Nigeria.

What do you think is hindering Nigeria from attaining the regional hub status and how best can we get to that level?
When you are talking about a hub port, what is a hub? You know, within the West and Central African sub-region, we need two hub ports; and why do they call them hub ports? A centre where bigger vessels can come and drop their cargoes and you can now send from there to lower or smaller ports. That is what a hub is in its natural and simple form and easy for people to understand.

We have what we call transshipment centers; load centers; transshipment ports and preferred ports. All these designations are given to hub status. The West and Central African sub-regions need to have hub ports. With what is going on now, Nigeria has lost out of it completely because what we have done so far is empower people who are not qualified, who are not professionals but politicians. You put them and they spend eight to 10 years, they go away, we clap for them and that is the end. Other people are developing their ports to achieve that hub status.

Talking about ports that have been developed in recent times, you look at Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Benin Republic and Togo. These ports are a very serious challenge to us because they have developed faster than we. One of the things we enjoy as a nation is what we call domestic cargoes because we have industries in the country, a massive market and big traffic. But this traffic has been shared because in the line of transportation there is what we call the three layers of traffic.

The first one is transshipment; the second is the destination of cargo and the third, transit. In these three areas we have lost so far, and these are the things that provide employment. So you will find out that in the ratio of this status, employment has been shifted from Nigeria to places like Togo, Benin Republic, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and Cameroon.

In Nigeria we have been flying in planes up and down, we see our President living well, but we will suffer seriously in a short time if we are not very careful. We are playing politics with something we shouldn’t. You put a woman who doesn’t have any knowledge of the ports to manage it as compensation for political patronage. This doesn’t make us look serious as a country that wants to succeed economically.

How did the country get to the current level of decay in maritime infrastructure?
Politically, they will tell you the draft level of Nigerian ports is 13 points, but professionally it is around 12, and some of them are nine. While in Togo and the rest they have 15, Ghana is almost going to 19 because they invested over two billion dollars in their ports. They structured their ports in a well-defined way, and now they are benefitting.

When you look at Ghana ports, there are no concessions. What they have done is to go into a joint venture approach, where you have the Ghana government, the APMT and two others, going into construction with them.

What they have done is that they used the same law to continue to do what is right, they have not changed at all, what they did was to partially privatise, but they still hold the critical part of the ports and interest in their hands.

That’s why there is development in Ghana ports.

They went into an agreement that 75 per cent of the cargo goes to other people and the remaining goes the other way. All Ghana has done is control employment and make sure things are done right.

Nigeria, for instance, has a port that does not have any law; they have a contract but no law for terminal operators and shipping companies. It is the only country in the world where nothing is done lawfully.

What you have with the terminal operators is a lease agreement, but we don’t have any concession agreement; there is no law on the ground. The lease agreement we have is only for five years.

You will see NPA telling you that they want to renew, it’s all lies. NPA doesn’t have the powers. We are part of the people that put that together. They don’t have any law on the ground that can allow them to extend the time.

The freight rate in Nigeria compared to other West and Central African countries is very high. What do you think is responsible for this?
Your port is crowded, clustered, it is not regulated. We have one of the worst ports in the world. A cargo will come in and spend the whole year, spend three months; ports where professionals cannot be there, politicians are the ones there.

It is a professional and technical area where you need to bring in experts, that is an area that generates wealth. It’s an aspect they don’t play with all over the world.

When you come here, your dwell time and stay time is much; and you don’t have procedures. The government that came in promised that they will do a lot of things, but till now, the gridlock is still there in the ports. 70 per cent of the cargo in our country rests in Lagos and you cannot push it out because we have all of them concentrated in one place.

All these ports states are trying to construct up and down are going to be useless. If you carry any port to Calabar or Warri, it is useless. Transshipment ports must be built in or around Lagos.

What gives Lagos the sort of advantage it has?
It is so because Lagos attracts domestic cargoes. Let me explain to you because many people are in the maritime sector, but they don’t understand the industry. Lagos is advantageous because you have all the industries in the country concentrated in Lagos.

If you want to bring cargo to the East, you bring it first to Lagos. If you are a shipper and you bring in three ships, and you say one is going to the East and another Calabar; if you check the one going to Calabar, it will take it like a year; while the one heading to the East will take another three to four months before it loads. But the one coming to Lagos gets in within one hour.

How many industries do you have in Calabar and Warri? When you look at people designing, they design to tell you stories; they go there and say they want to develop ports here and there.

For instance, I am carrying my cargo to Warri and another man is going to Warri, and from there you say you are going to Cameroon. Diversion has a cost, maybe they don’t understand. You put illiterates to fill a place; they don’t understand even the international convention in terms of shipment and the other things. So you have a country that is going down, and I am worried. I am so troubled, we have lost almost everything.

Looking at technology, are we deploying the required technology that is expected of ports operations?
We don’t have anything better. When you are talking about efficient port operations or hub stations, you should go and look at what makes a hub port.

Hub port falls within the hegemony of transshipment port, preferred port, load center and the one you call the port of destination. They are not regional creations but created based on realities and what is expected when you look at the hub stations, like the one we have in North Africa.

Nigeria was supposed to be a hub but we are disadvantaged in terms of many things. Our technology is faulty because what we have as a country is small, some organisations come in here to make their money and go away; nobody monitors them.

Who is monitoring APMT?
What is the equipment they have? Whereby they will be able to discharge and move in time and all other things. We don’t have that. The Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) is just there, with no laws in place to control the terminal operators.

The NPA law is not what is in the concession; a concession is just a contract.

When talking about technology, we have three types; port technology, procedure technology because NPA does not have any business in the ports as they have ceded their operations to terminal operators who now take care of cargo. And when you are talking about concession, the first thing by the international standard is to create the law, and that law must be created to have a regulatory agency which we lack in this country.

Now looking at the tools, when your dredging facility is not in place, what is your draft level?
In the world today we have what are called mega-ships and millennium ports. Millennium ports are those that can accommodate mega-ships. Are Nigerian ports millennium ports? They are all river ports; they are not seaports or ocean ports. They don’t fall within the line of international ports where mega-ships can come in, so you have a port that is just lying fallow. You don’t have ports designed for their original purpose, which is trade.

Still on technology, let’s look at E-Customs. There is the notion that it will modernise and revolutionise the way Customs do their processes. Please do a comparison between this and what Webb Fontaine used to have?
What we call E-Customs is what we have in Webb Fontaine. I was the person that wrote to the government before all of these things came to materialise. In 2001 I put up a write-up about something, which I don’t want to mention, it was the model that the federal government changed to set up the whole thing.

So what Customs is doing and what Webb Fontaine has is E-Customs. If the government is talking about another E-Customs project, then they don’t know what it means. It is simply electronically transferred transactions. Is that not what Webb Fontaine is doing? The Central Bank is doing E-banking and Customs is doing E-Customs.

There was a time Customs processes were manual and you had to carry things from shipping companies to the terminal, etc., but now all those things are gone. So what you have on the ground is already E-Customs, and no need to duplicate it. Webb Fontaine should have handed everything over to Customs.

For now, we don’t have scanners, they are all dead. But you still have a platform that is still working, so what they should have done is to audit that platform. It was done I think in 2008 or 2009; and it was supposed to be re-audited before and transferred.

So those are the issues that are on the ground and they are the tools and instruments you need to make your ports efficient. So when you are talking about transactions, you are talking about the customs area; that is where you have a problem. On the ships and equipment side, we have problems. When we also talk about moving inside the port, then we have a very terrible problem.

How does trade imbalance affect investment in non-oil exports?
It affects it seriously. When there is a trade imbalance, it affects your demand; you spend more money and it affects the country terribly. It is the other way round when there is a trade balance.

Nigeria is imbalanced as we consume more foreign exchange. Our trade balance is zero, nothing to write home about.

How business-friendly are Nigerian ports compared with others?
Nigerian ports are the most expensive in the world. You cannot quantify what we are losing there, it is in trillions.

There is what we call international trade in the port system and when talking about trade facilitation; there are three key instruments; predictability, transparency and efficiency. Nigeria lacks all three.

You cannot predict when your cargo will leave the port, and we don’t comply. Customs is the law; they make the law, they act the law and at the same time the judge, is not done like that.

Countries all over the world have changed the Customs system; it is not a revenue-earning agency. The revenue aspect is just 10 per cent and the rest is to balance the economy.

So we have lost our transit, transshipment and domestic cargoes. They are just operating empty ports with cargoes that are being forced to come to the ports for now. If you present other opportunities to people, you will find out that no one will use our ports because it is inconsistent and lacks transparency.

You said that our ports are the most expensive in the world, can you give us an idea of what it costs to use the Nigeria ports in comparison to other parts in terms of Naira or dollar equivalent?
It has been sent to the government and they are not interested. They are more interested in politics, but they have forgotten that one day they will leave the government and their children will look for jobs but will not find one.

How much do importers pay per day to have their trucks leave the port?
It is very high, and people are still complaining till now. The ETO cannot work because there are many errors there.

Many of these things can be done when you bring in professionals. But when you bring in political stooges, people who are there to represent a region or tribe or religion, you will not have the best results.

Put someone competent there even if it’s your enemy. Cameroon, Togo and Benin Republic have all improved their ports system, which is why they can block you and tell you to go to hell.

Greece was once like that, they are the ones running the show, having ships and all, but they are now begging, under the pressure of IMF and World Bank borrowing.

Look at Nigeria; we borrow a lot despite having everything. But everything is based on political interests and not on reality.