Oh, No, Not Again!

Coming on the heels of the recent week-long national strike against the deregulation of the downstream sector of the Nigeria petroleum industry, the picketing of certain shipping companies by a section of Customs agents or freight forwarders, as they now prefer to be called, leaves so much to be desired.
As the national strike summoned by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) petered out, there had been rumblings about demurrage and storage charges, and numerous others incurred during the strike and resultant rallies and protests summoned by the civil societies. The freight forwarders particularly fretted over demurrage charges accumulated during the week-long strike.
Predictably, most unfortunately, one of the ugly sides of the maritime industry reared its ugly head yet again, as certain freight forwarders picketed the officers of certain shipping companies, demanding 100 per cent waivers on demurrage charges incurred during the national strike.

Yes, so-called industrial actions by certain elements in the freight forwarding subsector of the maritime sector have, in recent times, become a routine in the sector, heightening its spectre of insecurity and high operating costs.
The most telling aspect of the freight forwarders picketing of the shipping companies’ offices is that this came up even as the leaders of the agents’ associations were still negotiating for an amicable resolution of the demurrage charges issue to the mutual benefit of all parties. Curiously, certain officials of a number of the associations had commanded the army of picketers. Is this a symptom or not of the frequent bouts of leadership crises that freight forwarding bodies in Nigeria suffer? Your guess is as good as mine.
I wholeheartedly subscribe to strikes not being the most efficacious means of resolving disagreements in any system. Strikes, rather than proffer real solutions, merely provide platforms for ego-tripping by contending parties.
Therefore, I sincerely see such actions by the freight forwarders, including last Wednesday’s as merely self-serving and continuous trend of treading with impunity on the rights of other stakeholders.

It is basic knowledge that muscles when regularly tried and tested by exercises are strengthened. On the flip side, muscles tend to weaken or even atrophy for lack of exercise.
Laws, like muscles, really come alive when tried and tested through litigations and resolution of these by the various courts of competent jurisdiction.
Who then is afraid of the law? 
As an ardent believer in the law, I humbly advise agents to always have recourse to the law in resolving their frequent intra-association and inter-association disputes, or those between them and other stakeholders, notably shipping companies and terminal operators.
Equally, I counsel shipping companies and terminal operators that when agents invade the sanctity of their work places, picketing these facilities and disrupting their operations, the affected shipping companies, terminal operators(s) should race to seek sanctuary at the altar of the law. Get a number of the picketers arrested and charged to court for unlawful assembly, constituting public nuisance or disturbing public peace or whatever. The court process(es), surely, will teach the defendants and their ilk in the industry lessons in appropriate behavior.

And government, as the law maker and enforcer, should be up and doing in evolving and maintaining the appropriate regulatory framework that gives all concerned a win-win situation in the maritime sector. It is certainly not enough for government to reap huge financial returns from the sector without providing safety nets to cushion operators from operational vagaries such as situations of national strikes. Government is expecting so much more revenue from the maritime sector this year. As I write this on this day, Friday, January 20, 2012, the year is barely starting, and already it has experienced a week- long national strike. One is not being overly-pessimistic in assuming that a similar situation might arise again (and again?) as the year unfolds further.
And when national strikes, as the most recent, occur, it is not enough for the management of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) to glibly announce that the ports are open for business, knowing it fully well that no sane consignee or the agent will risk taking delivery and heading out of the ports into the lawless highways or streets, even where there is any haulage operator foolhardy enough to avail the services in carrying the cargo.
For sure the recent national strike took its toll on the economy, including the maritime sector, the famed “gateway to the nation’s economy.” But it is not enough for maritime stakeholders to bicker and stymie the prompt recovery of the sector. Kudos to those who are making additional sacrifices to expedite the recovery process. That is what all else need to emulate.

Obiajulu Agu
[email protected]

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