PORT CHARGES IMBROGLIO: Transport Minister summons Shippers’ Council, others

As predicted by SHIPS & PORTS DAILY on Friday, clearing agents under the umbrella of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) and the National Council of Managing Directors of Licensed Customs Agents (NCMDLCA) with support from the Association of Maritime Truck Owners (AMATO) who embarked on a strike action on Monday 3rd November 2014 at the nation’s major seaport, the Lagos Port Complex (LPC), Apapa over alleged high charges at the port have formally called off their strike.

The strike action had started wobbling by Thursday when NAGAFF Founder, Dr. Boniface Aniebonam threatened to withdraw his members from the protracted action if not called off by Friday.

AMATO Chairman, Chief Remi Ogungbemi also said that his men had participated in the strike long enough and would return to work on Friday.

The striking agents eventually dropped their hard stance on Friday evening and signed an agreement with APM Terminals Apapa to end the action which had led to a loss of at least N60 billion by the federal government, the port operator and port users over a 12-day period.

While the agents claimed that they were protesting alleged high charges at APM Terminals, the Seaport Terminal Operators Association of Nigeria (STOAN) said the action was a veiled solidarity with Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC), which had been dragged to court by STOAN over an order to reverse storage charges and increase storage free days at the port.

STOAN described the strike action as “a reckless act capable of hurting the Nigerian economy”.

Many clearing agents who spoke with SHIPS & PORTS DAILY had also become restless by Wednesday last week and sought to return to work while the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) and the Nigeria Police Force cleared the blockade mounted by agents making way for other port users to access the port to transact their businesses.

Eventually, the leaders of the protesting associations had to beat a tactical retreat to save face by calling of the strike on Friday evening.

“They would have lost face if they did not call off the strike because Dr. Aniebonam had told them that he would call it off by himself while AMATO had already asked its members to return to work,” a clearing agent told SHIPS & PORTS DAILY.

Meanwhile, the Minister of Transport, Sen. Idris Umar has summoned the Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC), terminal operators, shipping companies, Nigerian Ports Authority and other major stakeholders to a meeting in Abuja to resolve the impasse resulting from the reversal of progressive storage charges at the nation’s seaports by the NSC.

Usually authoritative sources informed SHIPS & PORTS DAILY that the meeting is scheduled tomorrow morning at the Minister’s office in Abuja.

“The Minister is worried that the economy is losing so much money unnnecessarily over this avoidable strike action and he has deemed it fit to personally intervene over the matter with a view to reaching an amicable solution so that the port can move forward,” one of the sources said.

Meanwhile the legal firewroks involving STOAN versus NSC on one hand, and the Association of Shipping Line Agencies (ASLA) versus NSC on the other, resumes this morning at the Federal High Court, Ikoyi, Lagos.

The Seaport Terminal Operators Association of Nigeria (STOAN) had on Monday last week filed a fresh suit against the Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC) at the Federal High Court, Ikoyi, Lagos shortly after Justice Ibrahim Buba struck out a case it filed earlier against the Council over progressive storage charges at the port.

STOAN had obtained an injunction on Friday 31st October 2014 restraining the NSC from acting upon a notice it published on Wednesday 29th October 2014 reversing storage charges at the nation’s seaports.

At the commencement of hearing of the matter last Monday, Justice Buba struck out the suit on technical grounds. He said STOAN’s Counsels failed to raise questions, which they wanted determined in the originating summons.

Raising the issue “Suo Motu” (meaning “on its own motion”), the Judge said: “Originating summons without questions for determination is incompetent.”

Citing several past rulings to justify his position, the Judge struck out the suit.

Meanwhile, counsel to STOAN, Mrs. Funke Agbor described the development as a temporary set back. She said the issues raised by the Judge would be addressed while the case would be re-listed. Consequently, the STOAN lawyers went to work and before close of business on Monday, got the case re-listed. The court asked the parties to return today for hearing.

The court had earlier adjourned to today, the case brought by members of the Association of Shipping Line Agencies (ASLA) restraining the NSC from acting upon the same notice slashing shipping line agency charges.

Justice Buba said that the matter would be granted accelerated hearing because of its economic importance.

The association had equally sought and obtained a court injunction, which restrained the NSC from acting upon the notice pending the determination of the suit.

It would be recalled that the NSC had on Wednesday 29th October 2014 published an advertisement announcing the reversal of storage charges at the ports to that, which was in force as at May 1, 2009.

NSC had also ordered an increase in the free storage period at the port from three days to seven days.

The Council equally directed shipping companies to reduce their shipping line agency charges from N26, 500 to N23, 850 per TEU and from N48,000 to N40,000 per FEU.  It also directed shipping agencies to refund container deposits to importers and agents within 10 working days after the return of the empty containers.

But the Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria (MWUN) has kicked against NSC’s plans to reverse storage charges at the nation’s seaports.

In a letter with reference number MWUN/HMT/FMT/WDR/360 dated 10th November 2014 and sent to the Minister of Transport, Senator Idris Umar, a copy of which was sighted by SHIPS & PORTS DAILY, the union said that it was “alarmed that an institution with or without known legal authority to perform the duties of Port Regulator could evolve such biased directive targeting terminal operationals costs alone with dire consequences on our members”.

The letter signed by the union’s Secretary-General, Comrade Aham Ubani said the NSC’s directive on the reduction of storage charges at the nation’s seaports would negatively affect the welfare of dockworkers and hamper port efficiency.

Ubani also accused the NSC of not consulting with relevant stakeholders on the implication of its directive before issuing it.

The union said it would be wrong to blame the high cost of doing business at the nation’s seaports on the terminal operators.

According to the MWUN, poor access roads to the port which gives rise to higher cost of trucking goods in and out of the ports; presence and practice of illegal tolls/extortions by various agencies operating in the ports both legally and illegally; activities of some customs men and officers which also add to the operational cost of ports; effect of congestion giving rise to demurrage and additional increase on the cost of clearing goods in the port; and delays in effecting custom examination and the attitude of most customs officers as lords who must be worshipped by agents rather than serving the needs of the customers as diligent civil servants all contribute to the high cost of doing business at the nation’s seaports.

“The Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria feels seriously aggrieved by the consequences of your directive as manifest in the refusal of our employers (i.e. Terminal Operators and Stevedoring Contractors) to negotiate the Dockworkers Condition of Service which is due for re-negotiation this year, 2014.

“Our members the Dockworkers have become restive and may resort to self-help action nationwide with effect from Monday 17th November 2014 if the Terminal Operators still refuse to negotiate on the grounds of being incapacitated by the directive.

“While humbly soliciting the Honourable Minister’s prompt intervention on this issue, we by copy of this letter to Shippers’ Council demand for immediate withdrawal of this biased directive to allow for search for a collective solution to the issue,” the union stated.

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