18 August 2013, Lagos – Goods delivery at the Tincan Island Port in the past few weeks has been a nightmare for importers and their freight forwarders as a result of congestion caused by increasing volume of cargo and lack of space. Shortage of cargo handling equipment to position containers as well as scanning issues have also posed a major challenge, reports Francis Ugwoke
This is not the best of times for importers and freight forwarders who have goods to clear at the Tin Can Island Port. The seaport has been hit by congestion for the past few weeks. The problem was traced to a number of factors, which include shortage of cargo handling equipment to position containers for customs examination and shortage of space for the increasing traffic of containers coming through the port.
At the terminal under the Tin Can Island Port Container Limited, scores of agents who have goods to clear each day wear ugly faces because of their sad experience. Our Correspondent who visited the terminal Wednesday saw agents who came to the terminal lamenting over their ordeal.
A customs source said importers who have goods to clear at the port have filed over 400 applications through their agents for their containers to be examined. None of the agents know when it will be their turn. This means they could wait for close to two weeks without success.
Sources familiar with the issue said this is apart from the number of new applications that are filed every day. Under the situation, it was gathered that customs agents who are under pressure from their importers to take delivery of some goods, particularly perishable goods, have been left with no other choice than to ‘grease the palms’ of some officials at the terminal in order to ensure speedy attention.
The President, National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders, NAGAFF, Chief Eugene Nweke, said he received reports from his executive members on the field that some unscrupulous officials at the terminal have allegedly been collecting N20,000 per container to ensure that their consignments are quickly positioned for examination. Some other agents lamented openly, alleging that some officials working for the terminal operator were collecting as much as N50, 000 to fast track positioning of containers for examination.
The agents said they have no alternative than to pay the money since they cannot take delivery of their goods without customs examining the containers. But when contacted on the allegation, the Terminal Manager, Tin Can Island Port Container Limited, Mr Richards Akingbolu, said on telephone that he did not understand what our Reporter was saying.
Akingbolu who said he was out of the Terminal however promised to discuss the issue later, but he did not pick subsequent calls to him, including a text message requesting his comment on the issue.
However, another staff of the terminal operator who did not want to be quoted denied the allegation, and challenged customs agents to prove their allegations of bribery against any staff.
The Customs Comptroller, Mr Jibrin Zakare, it was gathered, had recently summoned officials of the Tin Can Island Container Port Limited and Cotecna Limited, the Destination Inspection Agent, DIA, providing scanning services at the terminal to a separate meeting on how to address the problem.
Apparently worried over the situation, Zakare said he had to call for the meeting to ensure smooth operation at the seaport. He said the terminal operator identified increasing volume of cargo as the factor responsible for the congestion. Officials of the terminal operator, it was gathered, had also complained to the Customs Comptroller that Cotecna was always servicing its scanning machines, which according to them contributed to the congestion.
Zakare said after the meeting, it was agreed that scanning and positioning of containers for customs examination will be extended to Sundays until the problem abates. Zakare also said that part of the decision was for the terminal operators to allocate containers to SDV Scoa Bonded Terminal to ease the congestion. He added that part of the decision is for all the operators and service providers to continue to provide 24 hours services at the port until the problem is over.
He promised that with the measures put in place, the problem would be over in the next two weeks. Despite the problem, the Customs Command recorded N20billion revenue during the month of July as against N17billion recorded during the same period last year.
It was also gathered that part of the problem is the increasing number of overtime containers at the port. A customs source put the number at 700. But the Customs Controller who could not confirm the figure said that this cannot be the problem as the owners of the cargoes have been coming to clear them. It was gathered that due to complaints by the owners of overtime cargoes, there was a directive from the Customs Headquarters that those who had earlier paid for the goods but could not take delivery before they entered into overtime were asked to come and take them. The measure is to help decongest the port.
Freight Forwarders who spoke on the congestion blamed government for not having a regulator in the ports industry.
President of NAGAFF stated that the level of extortion going on in the ports generally would not have been possible if there was a regulator in place. He expressed dismay that importers were being over- billed through terminal charges and demurrage by the terminal operators because no regulator can question them for such action. He described the allegation of bribery by agents to get their containers positioned as part of the ills in the system.
He said that terminal operators were in the habit of committing trade malpractices against importers and their freight forwarders with impunity because they believe they have contacts with the powers that be in the county, the Nigerian Ports Authority, NPA, and the Bureau of Public Enterprise, BPE. He opined that every terminal operator ought to have alternative for equipment or system breakdown. “That is what makes them modern ports managers”, he said.
Ships for Bonded Terminals
Stakeholders in the ports industry who are worried about the congestion in the ports said the only solution was for the terminal operators to stem ships for private bonded warehouses scattered all over Lagos.
Maritime lawyer, Mr Emma Ofomata said that as the commercial regulator is being awaited for the industry, the federal government should as a matter of urgency compel the concessionaires to allocate containers to bonded terminals. Ofomata said that there were so many bonded terminals in Lagos that can handle any volume of containers. He said that with these warehouses, terminal operators will not be having problem of congestion.
“The management of Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) was able to address issues of congestion by patronizing the bonded terminals. Now, these bonded terminals are being starved of containers by the concessionaires, and the result is the congestion we see occurring most times in all the ports in Lagos.”, he said. Ofomata appealed to the Presidential Committee on Ports to compel every terminal operator to allocate containers to bonded terminals.
A renowned freight forwarder, Mr Zeb Oteh, also called on the federal government to call all concessionaires to order for denying cargoes to bonded terminal operators. Oteh appealed to the Presidential Committee on Ports not to allow bonded terminal services to die, adding that these companies have been creating employment to thousands of Nigerians all over the country. “It is very sad that the port reform exercise did not protect bonded terminals which were used effectively by NPA to check congestion at the ports throughout the country”, he said.
He said that owners of bonded warehouses spent billions to build warehouses only to be abandoned by terminal operators. He appealed to the terminal operators to consider billions of Naira businesses that are being lost as a result of their decision to deny cargoes to bonded terminal operators, and change for the overall interest of the national economy.
– This Day