Temple Chima UbochiMonday, April 7, 2014
Bonn, Germany




Continued from Part 20

Inconsistency is the only thing in which men are consistent (Horace Smith)

I believe that, as long as there is plenty, poverty is evil (Robert F. Kennedy)

True compassion is more than flinging a coin at a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring (Martin Luther King Jr)

We must work to ensure the human dignity that comes with a life free from hunger and poverty (Julian R. Hunte, Former President of the UN General Assembly)

ne consistent thing in an otherwise inconsistent Nigeria is inconsistency, meaning that Nigeria, its government and people are consistently inconsistent. Otherwise how can one justify the “Nigerian attitude” of saying one thing and doing another? When it comes to Nigeria’s government, it's not that our officials have no taste; it's just that our officials' taste is inconsistent. Our government operates like a vehicle without a speedometer; it travels without knowledge of its limits. To prove that the government is killing instead of creating jobs, and is exacerbating instead of eradicating poverty through policy inconsistency and myopia, the Vanguard of 13.02,2014 wrote that terminal operators have acknowledged that Nigerian seaports remain the most expensive. Terminal Operators Association of Nigeria (STOAN) attributed the high cost of doing business in Nigerian ports to the multiple taxation and high duty on cargoes. the Chairman of STOAN, Princess Vicky Hastrrup, said that besides the high cost of running terminals, importers and other port users pay much more than what is obtainable in other ports due to lack of certain infrastructures like light and good roads. Hastrrup also noted that apart from the issue of double taxation, various government agencies collect all kinds of levies from both importers that are not collected in other countries. She explained that inflation has also taken its toll on the cost of cargo clearance, adding that apart from storage and cargo handling charges that terminal operators collect from importers and agents, other agencies also collect levies and duties. In her words: “For instance, while the duty on rice in Nigeria is put at 110 percent, it is seven percent in Benin Republic and Zero percent in Cameroon, noting this high import duty has not only encouraged smuggling, the government of Nigeria is also losing billions of Naira in revenue to other countries. It is actually much more expensive to run terminals in Nigeria than in other countries”.

AllAfrica.com wrote: “The federal government economic policy which aims at checking the influx of so many goods into the country has indeed become a blessing to neighbouring countries. And it has been so for so many years when government placed a ban on importation of several goods. Some of these items include frozen foods, fairly used tyres, furniture, electronics, and textile materials, among others. Much as the importation of these items has remained prohibited, they can still be found in any part of the country, no matter how remote. These are simply trade goods that may not be harmful to people. Incidentally, such items like arms and ammunition also find their way into the country. This exposes the weaknesses of the law enforcement agencies that are supposed to police the nation’s borders.

The Federal Government had in 2012 introduced 110 per cent duty on rice importation. Although, this was not a ban, it was all the same, another way of reducing the volume of such goods into the country. And this was to ensure that the items are more expensive as against the local rice for the sake of patronage for the latter. Last year, government announced an auto policy that should have been effective from March 2014, but, was put on hold till June. It was not a ban, but like the issue of rice, targeted at discouraging importation of vehicles in a bid to encourage local manufacture of the products. ThisDay wrote that its checks can reveal that it is actually Nigeria’s neighbouring countries (Cotonou and Cameroon Seaports) that are being favoured indirectly. Cotonou and the ports of Cameroon are competitors as far as West African trade are concerned. The three countries are currently competing on who becomes a load centre, a transhipment base in the region. Whoever gets it, will be the first port of call for ships coming from Europe, Asia and other shipping nations to West Africa. Nigeria, no doubt, enjoys high trade volume because of the population of her international trading public, but some bottlenecks have forced many shippers (importers and exporters) to patronise the seaports of Cotonou and Cameroon. Many importers, who are apprehensive of seizures if their contraband is routed through Nigerian ports, resort to bringing such goods into the country through the ports of Cotonou and Cameroon. Most of these goods are smuggled into the country through bush paths that the Customs and other agencies can hardly police. Even in some cases, it has often been discovered that the smugglers are aided by serving operatives of government agencies. The smugglers, after necessary settlement, are given dates and time when to pass their goods unmolested. This explains why one finds so many items that are banned in any part of the country.

As noted earlier, Nigeria and Benin Republic are competitors. Nigerian importers, who have been unhappy about high charges or bureaucratic bottlenecks in the nation’s seaports, see Cotonou seaports as alternative. Until Nigeria approved the importation of vehicles within the manufacture age of 10 years and above, to come through the border routes, Cotonou had remained the haven for Nigerian importers of such vehicles. About 80 percent of such vehicles in the open market then came through Cotonou by importers who smuggled them in. It was one war that government lost, and it was a big time racket for government agencies at the border areas. What could be very clear is that apart from the problem in Nigerian ports, there have been Nigerian importers who use the Cotonou ports as the only way to evade payment of duties or simply to smuggle prohibited items. This is a business that has come to stay even as the country has now opened its borders. But there are those that would never want to pay the right duties, and they still find some willing customs officers and security agents as collaborators. And this is why some importers find Cotonou port interesting (ThisDay).

Analysts have said that Nigeria’s bottlenecks will divert more cargo to Togo, Ghana, and Benin in 2014. While reviewing the maritime industry in the past year and predicting the outlook for 2014, analysts foresee that Nigerian ports will witness drastic drops in the number of vessels bringing in cargoes. The implication they say, is that the volume of importation into the country will also witness a significant drop, as importers of containerized goods, vehicles and other products will likely divert a larger chunk of their cargoes to neighbouring ports of Benin Republic, Togo and Ghana. They (analysts) blamed this on the bureaucratic bottlenecks brought about by the Nigerian Customs department, which end up delaying cargo clearing. The analysts noted that the delays, which became alarming in the past months, since the Destination Inspection Service providers handed over that responsibility to the Customs service, have created a huge backlog of un-cleared cargoes as well as heavy congestion in the ports. According to analysts, policy inconsistency, which has increased the import duties paid on commodities like vehicles and rice, will also result to massive cargo diversion. Yenukume Nohoesu, managing director of Braveview Investment Limited, noted that the issue of policy inconsistency would not only lead to diversion of cargoes to Cotonou, but would also lead to smuggling and loss of jobs in Nigeria (Business Week of January 2, 2014).

It has been noted that importers divert their cargoes to other countries’ seaports due to the delays and high cost of doing business at the Lagos seaports. But, the most annoying thing here is that those incharge of the Lagos ports sometimes also do divert Lagos bound vessels to other countries’ seaports whenever the Lagos ports are fully congested, instead of sending those vessels to other Nigeria’s seaports in other regions of the country. And still we claim to be one country! Those Nigerian officials incharge of the Lagos ports do give the flimsy excuse that the other Nigeria’s seaports in other regions are too shallow for ocean-going vessels to berth there, but, that’s not a cogent reason. Even at that, nothing stops the federal government from embarking on the dredging of those seaports in other regions of Nigeria so that every ship of every size can berth there. As noted previously, the reason for shortchanging the other Nigeria’s seaports in other regions of Nigeria are tainted by politics and ethnicity. In the end, it’s the commodities end users and poor Nigerians who suffer, because, the price of the goods goes up and the jobs, which are supposed to be created by the de-congestion of the Lagos ports, are then sacrificed on the altar of selfishness and parochialism.

Emeka Onumonu asked why most of the ports in Nigeria should remain unused as vessels wait at the Lagos Ports for months to discharge their loads? The Vanguard of Feb. 17, 2009, wrote “for over one year, Lagos ports have been under suffocating congestion. Two major reasons account for this problem. The Lagos ports are the most well developed to accommodate ships of any size and official policy tends to encourage the flow of shipping and commerce to Lagos ports. The lower port charges in Lagos, compared to Port Harcourt, illustrate how policies have killed the other ports. Businessmen, being after profit, often go where they can save costs and make more profit”. Kenneth Jahzeal Agwu answered the above question by writing that as at the last count, more than 2000 vessels were still stranded on the high seas of Nigeria's territorial waters due to their inability to berth at Lagos sea ports. This is not the first time importers and exporters are being made to go through a lot of pain to clear their goods at the nation's sea ports. Annoyingly, it also appears this won't be the last. As a matter of fact, congestion at the ports has become a chronic problem. It has been identified as one of the factors responsible for the diversion of Nigerian-bound goods to the ports of Benin Republic and Togo by Nigerian businessmen. No one can blame the importers, because even during non-crisis periods, it is still cheaper and faster to clear goods at the ports of these neighboring countries than at Nigerian ports, which explains why imported goods from Cotonou and Togo are cheaper than similar goods in Nigeria. Successive administrations in Nigeria have repeatedly given the impression of attempting to address this issue. But none have gone beyond lip service. It is therefore understandable that most observers saw a recent stakeholders' forum to address the issue of port congestion in Nigeria as another attempt by government to buy time. Many who received the news believed that the game of deceiving Nigerians was about to be repeated. Forum of various types have become a deceitful way of doing things at government ministries in this country. In the end, the only purpose such forum serve is to achieve publicity for government officials by forming part of news items on television network news.

We expect the federal government through the ministries of transport and finance to conduct an independent investigation into the problem of congestion at Nigerian ports so as to objectively identify the true causes of the congestion. A stakeholders' forum which brings together customs officials and clearing agents cannot achieve anything. You cannot expect clearing agents registered by customs to openly criticize the customs. This is Nigeria; Customs will simply withdraw such agent's license the next day. Operators at the ports have often pointed accusing fingers at the Nigerian Customs Service and the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA). The customs service still insists on manual inspection of all containers arriving at the ports. How many can they check in a day? A full, automated clearing system should be put in place as obtains in other parts of the world. Nigerians also see as disheartening the presence of multiple units of custom officials, all performing similar tasks at the ports. On its part, the NPA should purchase and install modern cargo-handling facilities to replace those epileptic, obsolete and non-functional equipments at the ports. The NPA also needs to jettison its policy of assigning certain vessels to particular ports, as this arrangement makes some terminals congested while others are barely utilized. Ships should be free to berth at any available terminal. Government should also take measures to fully equip other seaports outside of Lagos, such as Warri, Koko, Calabar and Onne sea ports which are grossly under-utilized. Summary measures such as these will help in addressing the long-standing problem of congestion at the nation's seaports. Nigerian businessmen and ultimately the Nigerian economy will be the better for it.

Onumonu also asked that “as the youths, jobless and hopeless, wonder the streets, and as the ships are forced to other Ports in neighboring countries to unload their wares, depriving Nigerians of jobs that could have been created in Nigeria, is it a surprise that the youths have been forced to seek any way, legal or not, to provide for themselves?”

Successive federal governments always express concern over high cargo cost at Ports, but, do nothing to change the situation. In 2010, the federal Government expressed concern over the high cost of clearing cargoes at the Nigerian seaports, a development that has forced importers to consign Nigerian bound cargoes to neighbouring countries’ ports. Speaking after a facility tour of the Ports in Lagos, the Transport Minister, Alhaji Yusuf Suleiman, said that the Federal Government is very much concerned about the issue of high cost of goods clearance at the Ports. He stated that a panel has been set up to take a holistic look at the activities of the concessionaires and the process of the reform exercise. He noted that most the Nigerian bound cargoes now find their way to neighbouring ports, adding that the reason for consigning these cargoes to other countries is what the government is trying to find out with a review to finding a lasting solution to the problem. The Minister also blamed Nigerian importers on the problems at the ports saying that most of the time they try to bring in materials that are on the prohibition list, under declare their import because they do not want to pay the correct duty. His words: “We have also noted with serious concern that most of the cargoes that are intended for Nigeria find their way into neighbouring countries, some in Lome in Togo, Cotonou in Benin Republic and Accra in Ghana. There must be reason for that, now these are the reasons we are trying to unfold in order to address to the problem squarely. There are problems in both ways; some in terms of service delivery at the ports and in terms of port charges but also there is a character issue, in terms of the character of the Nigerian importer. 60% of what you have in the bill of lading is usually not what is contained in the container, at the National Economic Group which I am member, we are reviewing the situation” (Vanguard August 18, 2010). The government haven’t fixed this problem three years down the line. Why?

Onumonu then noted that because of greed and their continued policy built on anarchy, this visionless cabal continue to export the jobs of their fellow Nigerians out of the country. While the NPA is yet to take concrete steps, operators of the West African ports in Cotonou, Tema, Takoradi, Monrovia and Abidjan are embarking on serious expansion to control ship traffic to the region while only Apapa Container Terminal and Onne Ports in Nigeria are prepared to meet the challenges ahead. The port managers in the sub-region have introduced new policies and strategies that would make ship owners and importers patronize their ports, which include expansion and modernization of old ports. Also, numerous challenges such as congestion and inadequate cargo handling equipment are being addressed by each port. In some major ports, there are ongoing construction of new terminals for handling containers and bulk cargoes. Why is Nigeria lagging behind in everything relating to development?

To be continued!






Continued from Part 20