It is difficult to tell if Nigeria made any appreciable progress as a country in 2019. It is even much more difficult to discuss the fate of the maritime industry in the outgoing year. It appears the maritime industry is doomed to constant retardation year in year out while politicians in power play to the gallery.
Experts have passed the verdict – 2019 has not been a particularly good year for the industry. Government did nothing but pay lip service to the development of the sector. Government remained content with making money from the maritime sector without putting anything back in return. The profit-taking disposition of government to the sector has left it gasping for breath.
Customs clearing processes remain as tedious as ever with government’s refusal to invest in Customs automation and acquisition of scanning machines. Cargo delivery at the various ports across the country remains a herculean task with government’s refusal to repair and upgrade the port access roads. Maritime security has become a huge challenge and Nigeria has become the world’s piracy hotspot before our very eyes, because government has refused to invest in necessary resources and platforms to empower the Nigeria Navy to fight criminalities on our waters. Indigenous shipping has become comatose with government’s refusal to support the empowerment of Nigerian ship owners. The list goes on and on. In the midst of all the challenges, some events stand out as a sore thumb in the sector in 2019.
Failed IMO Council bid
For the fifth consecutive time, Nigeria lost the contest for category C seat of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) Council.
The last time the country got elected into the council was in 2011 when Temisan Omatseye served as the Director-General of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA).
Reacting to Nigeria’s loss at the IMO, former President, Ship Owners Association of Nigeria (SOAN), Engr. Greg Ogbeifun, said the nation should look inward and develop its capacity and expand its platforms in order to enhance its reputation in the comity of maritime nations.
Apapa gridlock remains
All said and done, Apapa gridlock persisted all through the year. Despite the pontification by the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), the setting up several committees, the conversion of Lilypond container terminal to a truck holding bay, the presidential order to trucks to vacate the roads and the setting up of the so-called presidential task team on restoration of order on Apapa roads, the gridlock did not go anywhere. If anything, it became more menacing and its effect spread like wildfire all over the Lagos metropolis.
The Federal Government and its agencies did everything except taking the right action to address the gridlock. It has become clear that the gridlock bows not to presidential orders and executive orders. The only way out is for government to make significant investment in infrastructure – build good roads to the port and provide truck parks. Failure to do these will only prolong the lifespan of the gridlock.
Container barging gains momentum
A fallout of the Apapa gridlock in 2019 was the dramatic rise of many pseudo barge operators. The idea was to make quick money rather than do barging in a standard and professional manner. The result of the foray of quack barge operators licensed by NPA was that many containers tipped over and fell into the Lagos lagoon. The National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) raised the alarm, as if their work begins and ends with raising alarm. None of the fallen containers has been removed, thus posing serious danger to navigation on the inland waterways. None of the quacks have been suspended from operating either, so one might expect more boxes tipping over in the coming year.
Abduction of seafarers
The shipping industry was recently warned about the increasing dangers faced by seafarers sailing through the Gulf of Guinea, particularly around Nigeria, including kidnappings by pirate gangs, who have shifted away from stealing cargoes to extracting ransom for crews. Simply put, Nigerian waters have become the most dangerous for seafarers in the world. This much the Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, confirmed recently. Seafarers are now abducted with impunity while kidnappers and pirates walk away with millions of dollars in ransom. This is in spite of a maritime security contract worth USD195 million awarded at the instance of Amaechi to an Israeli firm, HLSI.
The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) recently said that Nigerian waters now account for about 82 percent of crew kidnappings in the world, even as the country has reported more attack on ships than any other.
The latest incident happened on December 3 when pirates kidnapped 19 crew members from a Greek-owned crude oil tanker. The Nave Constellation was attacked 142 kilometres (77 nautical miles) off Bonny Island. 18 days later, the 18 Indian sailors and one Turk were released. Details of the ransom paid was not provided by the government or the owners of the crude oil tanker “in order not to jeopardise the safety of seafarers still being held elsewhere or to encourage future criminal events and seizures”.
Closure of land border
One of the most discussed issues in 2019 is the closure of the nation’s land border. On August 20, 2019, President Muhammadu Buhari had unexpectedly ordered the closure of land borders in a move aimed at tackling smuggling of rice and other illicit goods into the country.
The exercise, codenamed Exercise Swift Response, is being coordinated by the Office of the National Security Adviser, the Nigeria Customs Service, the Nigeria Immigration Service, the Nigeria Police Force and the Army.
While the closure has had devastating effect on Benin Republic, which has been a key enabler of rice smuggling into Nigeria, traders in the informal sector of Nigeria are also groaning on the effect of the policy on their businesses, which has also pushed up the prices of staple food such as rice at markets around the country.
Speaking on the gains of the border closure, Comptroller General of Customs, Hammed Ali, said the policy has increased the Service’s revenue as cargo destined for Benin Republic are now arriving through the Nigerian ports.
He said, “One day in September, a record of N9.2 billion was collected, which had never happened before. After the closure of the border and since then, we have maintained an average of about N4.7 billion to N5.8 billion on a daily basis, which is far more than what we used to collect.”
The Federal Government had maintained that the border closure would remain in place until neighbouring countries comply with the ECOWAS protocol on transit goods to Nigeria.
NPA, OMSL feud on secure anchorage area
The decision by the Nigerian Ports Authority to dismantle the Secure Anchorage Area operated on behalf of the Nigerian Navy by a private security firm, OMS Limited at the Lagos port drew significant public attention. Owners of ships coming to the ports pay as much as $2,500 per day to the private security firm to secure their vessels while waiting at anchorage to berth at the seaports in Lagos and other parts of the country.
Citing threat to national security and the cost of doing business, Managing Director of NPA, Hadiza Bala Usman had maintained that an anchorage area is an integral part of its statutory responsibility and that the so-called secure anchorage is located within the port limit, which should be strictly under the management and control of NPA.
Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi had subsequently directed the NPA to write to the Chief of Naval Staff to request that the Navy stop the operation of the facility. Although the decision to cancel the secure anchorage was applauded by stakeholders including ship owners, the Senate, following its investigation on the issue, overruled the decision of NPA.
$300m Customs modernization deal
Towards the end of the year, the Federal Government suspended the controversial $300 million Nigeria Customs Service modernisation deal.
Minister of Finance, Zainab Ahmed, announced the suspension following a resolution and letter addressed to her titled “Suspension of proposed concession arrangement for the Customs modernisation project”, jointly signed by Chairman Finance, James Faleke; Chairman Public Petition, Jerry Alagbaoso, and Chairman Customs, Yuguda Hassan Kila.
The Customs modernization deal had drawn the ire and condemnation of stakeholders and lawmakers who described it as a sham.
The government, before the suspension, had planned to concession the revenue function of the Nigeria Customs Service to four private companies under a Customs modernization project. The government had approved the engagement of a consortium of four firms to enter into a 20-year concession arrangement with the NCS and the Infrastructure Regulatory Commission (ICRC) for a Customs modernization project and establishment of digital and paperless Customs administration.
Comptroller-General of Customs, Hameed Ali, who disclosed President Muhammadu Buhari’s approval of the project at the graduation of Senior Course 3 of the Nigeria Customs Command and Staff College, Gwagwalada, in Abuja, said the deployment of the technology would go a long way in enhancing the activities of the NCS.