During COVID-19 The Nigerian Ports Authority, (NPA), while overseeing the general seaport operation by private port operators, have had to go through a very challenging experience that formed a catalyst for new initiatives and creative ways to keep the ports running during this period of the COVID-19 pandemic . YUSUF BABALOLA writes.
The coronavirus pandemic is leaving an indelible mark on the history of international trade as it has wrecked every sector of the world economy. While airports across the world were closed down until recently, most countries have left their seaports open for trade to continue, with the United Nations trade organs calling for seamless trade across nations. Developing nations have had to also leave their ports open to be able to receive food and medical imports as they battle COVID-19 with a larger chunk of their resources.
In Nigeria, the country’s seaport authority, NPA, while overseeing the general seaport operation by private port operators, have had to go through a very challenging experience that formed a catalyst for new initiatives and creative ways to keep the ports running. At the outbreak of COVID-19 in Nigeria, every sector was put on hold following a national lockdown that became inevitable and necessary to check the spread of the virus. However, the seaports were kept open to be able to receive food and medical aids and importations from abroad.
For a developing nation that is highly dependent on the western countries and China for drugs, medical goods and other essential commodities, it was only reasonable that the seaports remain open. However, running the ports at a time when a highly infectious disease is in the wild comes with grave consequences and unusual challenges. At the ports, many issues arose, most of which were operational, as some port operators and banks also locked down their shops. and this made it impossible for shippers to clear and take delivery of their cargoes in good time. Shipping companies and terminal operators putting heavy demurrage and storage charges on the goods which had been lying in their facilities. This created the first crisis at the ports, especially the Lagos ports that received swift response from the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA).
To ensure that shippers do not incur unnecessary demurrage charges due to movement restrictions that came with the national lockdown to check the spread of the coronavirus, the NPA under the management of Hadiza Bala-Usman, on March 23, 2020, directed terminal operators to suspend demurrage on imported cargoes at the wake of COVID-19 in Nigeria for an initial period of 21 days. This was extended at expiration on April 17 for another period of 14 days. “This gesture is in recognition of the pressure that the COVID-19 pandemic imposes on businesses, the responsibility imposed on the authority to relief this burden on its customers as well as attaining the objective of the federal government’s ease of doing business policy at this trying period,” NPA said in a statement signed by Engr Jatto Adams, General Manager, Corporate and Strategic Communications.
“The Authority recognises the financial implications of these policies on the terminal operators and will consider a shift in our operational charges to ameliorate the situation of stakeholders,” the NPA noted. Also in a statement titled: “Relief Measures to Port Users Due to Outbreak of COVID-19- Extension of Relief Period1,” signed by Jatto Adams, the NPA stated, “The Nigerian Ports Authority has directed all terminal operators to extend the suspension of all applicable terminal storage fees on consignments (demurrage) for another 14 days elective April 13, 2020.This follows the extension of the lockdown in response to the COVID-19 outbreak by President Muhammadu Buhari on April 12, 2020.” For ready compliance by the port operators, the NPA had to grant credit notes commensurate to the rental reliefs granted by the terminal operators to importers within the free storage period.
Following this, the Shippers Association Lagos State (SASL) commended the Hadiza-led NPA for securing demurrage and storage waivers for importers to cover the period of compulsory lockdown. SALS was concerned that the lockdown made it impossible for shippers to pay customs duties as expected because many banks were shut down. “Factories and offices were also shut. So, there were gross limitations on shippers to do the needful. Shippers should not be sanctioned for a situation that was no fault of theirs,” said Jonathan Nicol, president of SALS. National secretary of ANLCA, Alhaji Babatunde Mukhaila, confirmed that many members of the association had received refund of their demurrage paid during the period that the NPA waived the charges.
It was also learnt that members of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), have also been reimbursed demurrage payments made during the lockdown. In addition to donation of face masks and making port concessionaires to do the same to port operators, especially customs officers and freight forwarders who are very critical agents effecting trade as the pandemic bit harder, the NPA also inaugurated an 11-man emergency response team at its corporate headquarters in Lagos. The team is strategic and responds immediately in case of emergencies at the Authority’s headquarters and the ports location, with members mandated to be ready to put themselves on the frontline of emergency response. Managing director, NPA, Hadiza Bala-Usman, also mandated that two teams be constituted at the port levels vis- a- vis Port Emergency Management Team (PEMT) and Port Emergency Response Team (PERT) with details of their membership and modus to be duly communicated to all the port locations. The NPA boss demanded officers to have a sense of responsibility to duty and ensure effective collaborations at such delicate periods. The committee now proactively responds to, among other things, emergencies at work place, covering fire, explosion incidents, medical emergencies, including COVID-19, public safety threat, armed robbery and terrorism threat, marine vessel collision in the port, accidental release of hazardous substances and natural disasters like flood or storm.
To check the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in the ports, the NPA management had earlier released and enforced guidelines for port users while transacting business at the port. They include drastic reduction of human movement within the port facilities; only those who have jobs such as clearing of consignments are allowed access to the port; port users must maintain at least 1metre or 3ft distance from each other as a physical distancing measure and all persons using the port are seen to ensure strict personal hygiene.
The NPA security are also working to ensure that all service providers at the port have handwashing and hand sanitising facilities at their entrances. As part of plans to enhance the operational efficiency at the nation’s seaports, during this pandemic, the port authority had also acquired two new tugboats namely, MT Musawa and MT Ikoro-Ekiti. Speaking in Lagos at the commissioning ceremony, the minister of transport, Rotimi Amaechi, said the purchase of the boats signposts the President Muhammadu Buhari administration’s seriousness in positioning the maritime sector to add greater value to the national economy. He said the tugboats, which are Damen’s 2810 model, further accentuated the determination of the federal government and the NPA to increase operational efficiency.
“If anyone was in doubt as to the importance of the maritime sector to Nigerian and global economy, the event of the past three months where ports across the world have remained open in spite of the comprehensive lockdown of virtually other sectors, should instruct on why priority attention has to be given to the sector,” the minister said. Stating that the present government has identified the pivotal role that the maritime sector plays in the actualisation of the fundamental objectives of the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP), Amaechi said that not less than 85 per cent of the nation’s external trade passes through the seaports. Bala-Usman, also described the achievement as another testament of this administration’s resolve to prepare the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) for the exigencies of the increasingly competitive global maritime space.
“For the effective execution of its functions, the Authority is committed to the continuous upgrade of facilities and equipment that will enhance service delivery. This commitment is to ensure that all the six functioning seaports are prepared for optimal performance especially during this pandemic and at all times. “This determination accounts for the purchase of these tugboats, MT Musawa & MT Ikoro-Ekiti joining our other fleet of four namely: MT Daura, MT Ubima, MT Uromi and MT Majiya, which were commissioned in 2017,” she said.