The columnist as a yeoman

Written By Bolaji Akinola

A few days to the end of 2015, a columnist in one of the national dailies ventured into a terrain he knew nothing about. Worse still, he was too lazy to do a thorough research before embarking on his voyage of disinformation, thereby confusing and misleading Nigerians.

This columnist, whom I used to admire until he exhibited his fatuous prejudice and witlessness in the twilight of the year, wrote about the need for the Buhari administration to diversify the nation’s revenue portfolio. He identified the maritime industry as a sector capable of generating much needed revenue in place of oil. This is a no-brainer. The least knowledgeable person in the maritime industry will point this out in a flash. Operators have cried themselves hoarse drumming this into the ears of our policy makers. However, this is the least of my concerns today.

Our friend, in advancing his argument, set off by claiming that the Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC) was made port regulator by former President Olusegun Obasanjo. This is highly misleading. It is an unpardonable error by this columnist, which indicates that he was either too lazy to carry out a proper research before setting pen on paper or was simply pursuing an agenda. Obasanjo did not make Nigerian Shippers’ Council port regulator – either interim or permanent. Under the port concession agreement signed between the Federal Government and port operators in 2006 and 2007 – during Obasanjo’s era, Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) was designated the lessor and interim port regulator “until there is a change in the law by the National Assembly”.

Before the port concession, Nigerian ports were bedeviled with a high level of inefficiency including unnecessary delays in the turnaround time for ships and high cargo dwell time. Most of us remember how vessels had to wait for almost 40 days before they were able to berth at the port. The dearth of cargo handling equipment made operations at the various ports hellish. But with the concession of 2006, the narrative changed dramatically; vessels now sail straight to berth without delays. The stronghold of the retrogressive ‘mafia’ that held the port by the jugular was broken while various congestion surcharges imposed on the ports by shipping lines as a result of delays were removed.

One cannot forget the congestion surcharge slammed on the ports by a liner conference known as the Europe-West Africa Trade Agreement (EWATA). That surcharge varied from USD1,000 to as much as USD2,500 per TEU or FEU as the case may be. The private terminal operators or concessionaries were able to eliminate this surcharge less than six months after they took over operations at the port thereby saving the economy over N100 billion annually.

On the other hand, Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC) was set up in 1978 by law to protect cargo interest ie consumers of shipping services. These consumers include shippers – importers and exporters. It was only recently – November 2013 to be specific, under former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration – that NSC was appointed “interim regulator” by former Minister of Transport Idris Umar. The appointment was for a period of six months. I will not delve into the arguments of the merits or demerits of Umar’s action as the appointment is still a subject of litigation.

Our friend also mentioned the need to check the diversion of Nigerian-bound cargoes to the ports of neighbouring countries. While he was correct in the assertion that several cargoes meant for the Nigerian market are landed in the Port of Cotonou and ports of other neighbouring countries, the reasons adduced for this diversion are faulty. For the records, it must be stated clearly that importers who prefer to land their cargoes in the ports of neighbouring countries do so to evade series of smuggler-friendly policies enacted by the past administration in the country. These ill-conceived policies include the National Automotive Policy, the rice policy and the fish quota system. The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) restriction on access to the official foreign exchange platform by importers of some 41 select items has exacerbated the situation.

Prior to the enforcement of the National Automotive Policy, an average of 20,000 units of vehicles representing about 65% of local demand was imported through our seaports but this has changed. Since last year, only about 30% of such vehicles now come through our ports. The reason is that the auto policy raised the import duty on vehicles to 35% with an additional surcharge of 35% effectively bringing tariff on imported vehicles to 70% from the 20% it used to be. The tariffs on similar imports in our neighbouring countries stand at between 5% and 10%. So importers naturally discharge at these other ports and look for ways of smuggling their goods into Nigeria. Of course they smuggle into Nigeria easily largely due to the porous nature of our land borders. The same argument applies to rice, fish and textiles. The way out therefore is to reverse these policies. It is that simple. The true impact of these policies can be clearly seen in a satire titled Cotonou as Nigeria’s biggest port published on 30 November 2015.

For his comments on the implementation of the controversial Cargo Tracking Note (CTN), I will refer him to the opinions of leading industry stakeholders and the organised private sector.

Sadly, our columnist friend failed to publish my rejoinder to his article, which made me wonder if he wasn’t pursuing some sort of agenda.

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