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Madness at the Nigerian Ports

It takes about 40 days for a ship to bring goods into Nigeria from China and two or more months to get the containers cleared and delivered to their various destinations in Nigeria’’ says Mr. Dom Onyeka, Apapa Chapter Chairman of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA)
With the intractable gridlock and lockdowns, in and out of Apapa for several years now, the deplorable state of the roads, surcharges on Nigerian-bound cargoes by foreign shipping companies and the uneasiness of doing business at the port, Nigerians are outraged by these factors which have continued to negatively affect clearing of goods at the ports.
Looking at everything critically, it would seem that all these shortcomings have conspired together to kill businesses and to suffocate the economy. This madness that have been going on riotously and notoriously for several years without any real regulation, has seen shippers slamming stifling and suffocating charges and surcharges on goods imported into Nigeria which in turn are passed on to hapless Nigerians who end up purchasing the goods.
For these reasons and to shed some light on what is actually going on, IWA was impelled to seek an audience with the current Chairman of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) in Apapa port, Mr. Dom Onyeka for his reactions to these vexing questions.

IWA: Sir, you re the current chairman of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) in Apapa port and your association unquestionably occupies a pivotal position in the value-chain of goods being moved in and out of Apapa port, so with this in mind, can you please tell us the specific steps that your association has taken to help arrest the perennial gridlock that has continued to plague all roads leading into and out of Apapa road for several years now?
Mr. Onyeka: Thank you so much for this very important question. As an association that represents our profession as stakeholders in the shipping and freight industry, our primary duty is to lobby relevant authorities on behalf of our members, to educate them and persuade the government to take the right and proper action on matters that negatively impact our members and invariably the general public, as in the issue of the gridlock that you mentioned. Therefore, over the years the association has engaged and had several discussions with all the relevant stakeholders in the Apapa port corridor. We have met with the Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC), Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Shipping Companies, Terminal Operators and the Container Truck Owners Association, and as much as I know, all of us as stakeholders just need to come together and decisively deal with this problem, which really does not require rocket science to solve. It seems to me that the difficultly experienced in getting round to solve the problem is embedded in the fact that everyone in the value chain has refused to accept that they all have, in one way or the other, contributed to and continue to contribute to the escalation of the said problem.
It has been a very severe case of trading blames among themselves; with each party believing that the problem is essentially caused by others and not them. The shipping companies are generally blamed for not having enough holding bays to temporarily store empty containers before the containers are re-shipped back to the country of origin. NPA said that they had instructed Shipping Companies to stop bringing empty containers back into the ports, and should only do so when they are called upon to bring them back to the ports, but contrary to this instruction, they still keep on bringing them without being asked to do so. The importers and agents have also complained about the very deplorable state of access roads going in and out of Apapa and how their containers keep falling because of the giant-pothole riddled roads.
There is also the case of container-flying racketeering, which in my opinion is the most serious and dangerous part of the problem because it involves a lot money exchanging hands in the most unexpected places and situations. Importers are generally impatient, and as their agents we are always ready to bribe our way through in order to deliver to these importers on time. Believe it or not, the racketeering has degenerated to the extent that we have to sometimes bribe the road construction companies who are repairing the roads to allow our containers pass the roads they supposedly blocked to enable them complete the road reconstruction embarked on.
Although this anomaly has lasted for several years, it has continued to persist as the work on the road has been ongoing for more than six years. A lot of Nigerian government top functionaries like the Vice-President, Prof. Yemi Osibajo (SAN), the former governor of Lagos State, Mr. Babatude Raji Fashola (SAN) and even the current Governor of Lagos State, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu, members of the House of Representatives had at one time or another inspected the road and made a lot of promises but the situation is worsening. As importers and clearing agents, we keep losing a lot of money on daily basis because of the state of the road.

IWA: To be very clear on this matter, in what specific ways has this gridlock affected your business as clearing agents?
Mr. Onyeka: The truth is; it has been very difficult plying our trade in Nigeria as clearing agents. We are suffering; it is just that we really don’t have other options. For instance, do you know that it takes an average of about 40 days for a ship to deliver goods imported to Nigeria from China and it takes over two months to get containers cleared from the Nigerian ports and delivered to their various destinations within Nigeria? It is for this reason that on several occasions we have had to review upwards, the charges we give importers and this does make us look good.
Many of our members have died because of too much stress that they suffer due to their inability to deliver on time to their clients as a result of factors that are outside their control. In some instances, we have had to resort to shutting down the ports by carrying placards and demonstrating to register our displeasure and air our grievances.
But then, many will say that we are sabotaging the government by shutting down the ports, yet the government is not doing anything meaningful to fix the problems. The truth is that there is too much pressure on the ports in Lagos while ports in other parts of Nigeria are not being utilized. If the Nigerian government truly understands the grievous implications of this problem, they probably would be doing much more than they are now to ensure that those ports are developed and the pressure due to the congestion in Lagos ports is evenly distributed to these other ports in other parts of the country.

IWA: We could talk about these problems forever and that will not do us any good, so from an insider’s point of view, what are the steps or things you consider top priorities that the Nigerian government needs to do now to get the country and everyone out of this quagmire?
Mr. Onyeka: Thank you for this beautiful question. I personally think that we can solve this problem, if we truly decide to do so. Firstly, Nigeria is predominantly an importing nation, thus our ports sit at the centre of the economic development plan for the whole nation, and so simply put, Nigerians are being unfair to themselves in the way and manner they have continued to deal with matters relating to our ports.
How could we have allowed Oil tank farms to be situated around the Lagos ports? The situation we have now with fuel tankers and container-carrying trucks struggling for the use of the roads should not have been allowed to happen. Considering the huge revenues that government and Nigeria as a country earn from these ports, it is a shame and a big source of concern as these income streams have virtually dried up due to the state of the roads, so one is bewildered as to how we all could have allowed the Apapa access roads get this bad while we all have continued to pay lip service about fixing it.
For the sake of emphasis, I will repeat again that the pressure on the Lagos ports is too much, and it is onus on us to take deliberate and systematic measures to decentralize the operations at our ports. In my opinion, this is the most important measure that we need to quickly take in going forward because of the pivotal position that the ports occupy in our very existence as a nation. We should put sentiments aside and engage seasoned professionals with the requisite qualifications to man our ports; people with proven character and excellent pedigree. These are the only people we should allow to man our ports which ordinarily should be one of our most treasured national assets; we should not allow non-professionals such politicians who have little or no knowledge about port operations to man these ports. Professionalism should be the major criteria in determining who runs our ports, not politics.
The final topping for me regarding this issue, is that the remuneration of these Port managers should be benchmarked internationally, such that they should be very well compensated for their work and heavily penalized if they fail to deliver the required results. It is either they can deliver or no dice; no excuse should be entertained.

IWA: Sir, what in your own view is trade facilitation and is trade being facilitated in Nigeria?
Mr. Onyeka: My own understanding of trade facilitation is simply ensuring that trade is being allowed to happen seamlessly without unnecessary hindrances and stress. Therefore, if we continue to allow goods that arrive in Nigeria to stay over two to three months in transit before getting to their owners, then we cannot say that we are facilitating trade in Nigeria. For instance, if the goods imported are raw materials for production, the owners of such raw materials may end up folding up at some point in time if the raw materials keep are arriving late for production. We also can’t afford to continue to conduct 100% examination on all goods that come into our ports. We must get functional scanning machines like they have in other climes because allowing wasting of time at our ports and on our roads in the process of clearing goods in Nigeria, is actually“ de-facilitating’’ trade rather than facilitating it.

IWA: Sir, what is the major character trait that a person should possess to be a successful Clearing Agent?
Mr. Onyeka: I have been in the business for over 40 years, so for me, what should be the major character trait of a successful clearing agent is truthfulness and transparency. It is critical to be truthful in this business in order to succeed, as a lot of money exchange hands in the course of doing this business. A lot of people must be able to trust you with their money. We are essentially middlemen who are acting as the go-between the government and the importers, which was what I was trying to highlight when I named my business ‘Mudons Trust Link Limited’. So my submission is that honesty and transparency is crucial in order to go far in the industry. No matter how good one is in deceiving people, you can only succeed in deceiving people some of the time, no one has the ability to continue deceiving everybody forever.