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Nigerian seaports to undergo upgrade, boost trade

By Adaku Onyenucheya
08 June 2022   |   4:10 am
We have very old ports. One of the major problems of the Eastern ports is the decay in infrastructure. Tin Can Island port is practically collapsing.

Mr Mohammed Bello-Koko, Managing Director, Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA).

Nigerian seaports have experienced decades of infrastructural decay and reduction in commercial shipping activities. At a recent media parley, the Managing Director of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), Mr. Muhammad Bello-Koko, decried the long years of abandonment and highlights the authority’s efforts to make ports real catalysts of trade. ADAKU ONYENUCHEYA was there.

Infrastructure decay
We have very old ports. One of the major problems of the Eastern ports is the decay in infrastructure. Tin Can Island port is practically collapsing.

Therefore, we took a holistic review of those decaying infrastructures and decided to focus our budget on the rehabilitation of the quay walls and others.

We must rehabilitate Tin Can, Apapa and other ports. What we have done was to start talking to lending agencies, but we don’t intend to borrow from them. We are asking the terminal operators if they have operated in this place for 10 to 15 years, especially as some of them, their leases are about to expire, we need to know how much money are they going to put back into this.

For us to renew it, we need to have a categorical commitment from the terminal operators on the development of those ports. If they don’t, then we can give it to someone or we will borrow money for them to be rehabilitated, but then, the rate they are paying will go up. If we don’t do that, they will keep managing those places and they will keep collapsing. Because of their financial interests, they wouldn’t even want you to stop what they are doing so that you re-construct the place.

We have had interests from the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the World Bank, African Export-Import Bank (Afrexim) and others. Surprisingly, it was the World Bank that gave money to NPA to construct part of Apapa port many years ago. The World Bank has come again to tell us that if we need funding, they will give it to us. But we are going to government to ask if we can be allowed to use a certain percentage of the money we contribute to the Consolidated Revenue Fund (CRF) to reconstruct these ports.

Deployment of marine services
In the last few months, there has been scarcity or massive vandalism of the bouys in the channels. We started deploying those bouys, especially in the Eastern ports, specifically Delta and Calabar. We have also started the rehabilitation of some of the locations that have fenders shortages. The fenders will start being deployed, they have just been shipped and I believe that in the next two weeks, we would have cleared and started installing them.

There have been a lot of cases of ships coming to berth at the ports and there are no fenders. We have started laying the bouys. We are ensuring that we will not just provide the physical infrastructure, but also the other accessories that are supposed to be there for the safety of vessels. Some of the fenders fell into the sea and have not been replaced.

We went to Greece and one of the things they complained about is the issue of fenders. They said our quays don’t have fenders. We are trying to create an environment that would make a ship not refuse to come to Nigeria because there are navigational aids now, better security and functional signal stations.

The more ships you have that are ready to come, the lower the cost of shipping into Nigeria. We have realised strategies to do this, in terms of pilot cutters, mowing boats and others. Some days ago, a vessel sailed from Lagos to the Eastern port, it carried four pilots and three security patrol boats that are supposed to be taken to Onne, Calabar and Warri ports. We are doing this to ensure that we also perform our responsibilities. The situation, where pilots use speedboats to go offshore to bring a vessel are not just embarrassing, it is also not safe for our staff.

We are looking at the towage services, such as third-party towage services given at the Eastern ports. We reviewed them to ensure that it is doable. We keep bringing it in the 2022 budget. The focus is to provide more of these marine vessels.

Rehabilitation of Eastern ports
One of the major focus areas we have is to rehabilitate the Eastern ports. The Federal Executive Council (FEC) has awarded a contract for remedial dredging of the Escravos channel of the Delta port. The breakwaters collapsed about 10 years ago, and it has not been repaired. There has been high siltation resulting in the reduction of the draft from seven to three metres in some places.

We have given out the contract to a firm to do the barometric and geotechnical surveys. The first three surveys have been submitted and they are currently working on the design. When that design is done, a decision would be taken on whether to reconstruct the existing breakwaters, which are over eight kilometres long or to relocate them to another location. But it is probably the most expensive single structure in any port. We are talking about hundreds of millions based on projection, but there is nothing tentative yet.

We also realised that the Delta port has never been properly mapped and surveyed in the channel for probably over two decades. Meanwhile, the mapping and surveying of the channel from the fairway buoy down to Warri, Koko and Sapele ports has begun. The essence is to know the draft along the channel and to also know the navigational aids are properly placed.

NPA is responsible for that channel and one of the complaints the international shipping lines have been sending is the lack of mapping of that channel. Currently, what we have is just from the fairway buoy to Warri port. But we don’t have proper information on the other sides of the channel and that has been done currently.

There are plans for the construction of deep seaports in Badagry, Ibom and Bonny. For Bonny, a location has been found and it has a natural draft of 17.5 metres. However, the issue is of additional land, knowing that Bonny is a community that has very little land. The idea is that there should be a deep seaport in the other part of the country, we can’t concentrate everything in Lagos. The NPA is working with the Federal Ministry of Transport and we are pushing for the kick-off for the construction of the deep seaport in Bonny.

For the Koko port, there is an interested investor who wants to use the port for the export of minerals. There is a short-term lease but the proponent needs a long-term lease. We are assessing the facilities in Koko and Burutu ports. We need to ensure there is electricity because the quay walls are collapsing. It is one of the things we are going to do this 2022.

For Sapele port, we’ve been holding meetings with the Nigerian Navy, we are collaborating with them to see what can be done.

This is just to give Nigerians alternatives and also to ensure that we return the country to that status of maritime hub in West and Sub-Saharan Africa. We have a large captive cargo that we are losing to other countries. But we are also ready to bring down rates, because what affects transit cargo is cost.

Automation of ports
We also realised that the modern ports are all moving towards automation and it cannot be haphazard or in patches, it has to be full automation. We wrote to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to help us consult. We are about to deploy the port community system, which ensures that all stakeholders, from NPA to the Shippers’ Council, shipping companies, the Nigeria customs and everybody logs into that central system for an exchange of data and processes.

The good thing about that is, it doesn’t kick away the e-customs. That is why we were able to get stakeholders to buy into it. We are upgrading our Revenue and Invoice Management System (RIMS). There is a problem with downloading manifest and we are ensuring that we start deploying harbours automation. The IMO has mandated all ports to deploy such Information Technology (IT) and software by 2025, but our target is 2023, maximum early 2024.

We reached out to Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG), we have been trying to deploy Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) for probably 10 years. But since we came, one of the major challenges is that you publish and you cannot get qualified people to deploy this VTS, just very few are qualified. We wrote to IMO, they gave us some companies; they came and couldn’t meet our requirements. Some of them are not interested in working with the Nigerian Ports Authority.

However, NLNG has a VTS in Bonny, even though it is not robust. We don’t have a problem collaborating and in the last few months, we have been meeting with NLNG so that they do the survey and put the nodes and the sensors around the country. It is one of the most important things in the maritime industry all over the world. You should be able to have visibility without seeing the ship.

Automation will be the backbone of efficiency in our ports. It will improve revenue and will achieve a lot of things. We have so much automation done in silos but we need to integrate. We need to copy what is being used in the ports of other parts of the world.
Low budgetary allocation affecting NPA’s functionality

One of the major problems affecting NPA, which we have been writing about, is the issue of budget. We have revenue, which we formerly spent about 70 per cent but now, it is 50 per cent. We are providing service and if we don’t spend money, we will not be able to provide that service. For instance, we don’t have money to buy the marine vessels, rehabilitate the quay walls, deploy VTS and others. We will work with the relevant government agencies to achieve that.

Bottlenecks limiting ETO operation
Even with the development of ETO, we are still having traffic situations. The problem is enforcement. A month ago, we signed an agreement with the Lagos State government that has deployed mobile courts to persecute offenders of extortions.

We decided to count the number or identify the locations where there should be checkpoints. We are coming up with a signage that we will put at each of those places. So any checkpoint outside those locations is an illegal checkpoint.

It is not every checkpoint that should be checking ETO tickets. Some checkpoints are there for national security and community policing.

ETO, once in a while has glitches and so there is a possibility that a second application would be introduced. Everything in life has an alternative. We have worked with Dangote and we have been speaking with Hi-Tech to get those dilapidated roads between Coconut and Sunrise done soon. If they can finish the road before the rains come, it will reduce the traffic issues going to Tin Can.

We are giving priority to export boxes and we can only achieve that when the roads are free. That is why we encourage the use of barges.
Streamlining barge operation

We have come up with a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for barge operations. We have discovered that there are barges that are not safe but still operating. In the same way, we created minimum safety standards for trucks, we have also created for barges and we have called them for meetings.

They have been operating on free tickets for a long and that has to stop. They need to pay for tariffs. We give them concessions to make sure, at least government generates from it. Also, most of the barges do not have a communication system.

They are not branded and whenever they commit an offence, we don’t even know who owns it. Most of the pilots that are on tug boats don’t even care; they operate it as if they are driving a vehicle. Every time vessels will be horning, telling the barges to get off the channel. We have had situations where ships anchored in the middle of the channel because of a barge blocking the channel. That has to stop or we start seizing those noncompliant barges.

We are going to be very firm as regards this, if we need to be brutal we will. The day a ship sinks in the middle of the channel, we are done in Nigeria. We have cases of barge operators blackmailing us on this matter because of their economic interest.

In a few weeks, we will not allow some of those barges to operate. We also insist that they don’t operate at night, but some weeks ago, a barge sneaked out to work and it bruised a vessel that was offloading liquid cargo. Imagine that vessel had blown off. You go to Kirikiri and see them double banking and in some places, it is triple banking, whereas they are not supposed to do this. We are going to have a very big digging and issues with barge operators.

We froze licensing of barges until we review the current ones. We will delist those that we feel do not meet our requirements, while those who get it, we will give them additional requirements to meet. Our worry is the quality. We have had cases of containers falling off barges at berth. We have seen barges sinking also. It is not the number of barges that is important, but their quality. If you create standard and ensure quality, then you can start increasing the numbers with the same quality. I believe that shortly we would allow those that have met our requirements to have licence, but we are not adding new ones now until we resolve that. Within the next quarter, I believe the licensing regime will begin.

Stakeholders’ collaboration
NPA is about trade facilitation. The core responsibility of every port in the world is to facilitate trade. Until that is very clear then there is a problem. While the Nigerian Ports Authority has been turned into a major revenue earner for the Federal Government or Nigeria – gradually, some of our responsibilities are impossible to carry out because there is more focus on your contribution to Consolidated Revenue Fund. What it does for us is, that it makes us reduce costs and generate more.

Now for us to ensure this trade facilitation, we need to reach out to stakeholders. One of the first things we did was to start reaching out to stakeholders that were difficult to relate with. The port environment is a conglomerate of so many players. You need the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) for you to be able to deliver, Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON), Quarantine, the shipping companies, which are regulated by the Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC) and the terminal operators.

We set a goal on the things we needed to do to improve trade facilitation. It is not until this is done that we will start having a better flow of traffic, shorter dwell time of both the cargo and the ship themselves.