By Izuchukwu Ozoemena
It stands to reasonably argue that with the impression being created for now, the Federal Government is already bereft of ideas on how to resolve the logistics conundrum plaguing the Lagos ports for years. It will also not be out of place to posit that the challenges which have made the eastern ports unworkable have become so huge and intimidating that the authorities in Abuja can neither confront nor overcome them. The Federal Government would rather offer excuses and blame previous administrations instead of confronting the issues headlong and overcoming them. But is that the way to go? For how long will Nigerians be served with this defeatist position? If the Federal Government has become so overwhelmed by the challenges, is it the common man or foreigners that will now fashion out the way to go?
Experts and those who know it all know that the federal government is simply trying to dodge a constitutional responsibility it owes to the easterners and the generality of Nigerians who are already feeling a sense of neglect. This position, for sure, may sound too pessimistic and can easily be dismissed with a wave of the hand by those who think the assessment is too harsh. Even though this assumption sounds unrealistic when it is considered that the federal authorities have all it takes to initiate actions and follow them conclusively to reverse the situation to the delight of port users in Lagos, it is now left for the federal government to prove pessimists wrong by doing the needful in the shortest possible time even as governance has now painfully yielded way to politicking.
For sure, if the operational condition of the eastern ports is improved upon and importers are attracted to the area, Lagos ports will become the greatest beneficiary in terms of efficiency and ease of doing business. In this wise, recent suggestions on the role of functional eastern ports must come in handy.
While unveiling a report entitled ‘Maritime Ports Reform In Nigeria: Feedback From The Organized Private Sector’, the Lagos Chamber of Commerce, Industry, LCCI, recently advised the Federal Government to extend the port reform plans of the Presidential Enabling Business Environment Council to the eastern ports. According to Mr Babatunde Ruwase, the LCCI president, a survey carried out by the OPS and the Center for International Private Enterprise was inspired by the need to call the attention of stakeholders and government to the lingering challenges at the eastern ports with a view to finding solutions to them. The report which he stated is an update on the 2016 report entitled ‘Nigeria: Reforming the Maritime Ports’, x-rays the present realities in the ports, outlines the cost of frequent operational crisis and highlights gaps in the implementation of policy measures for the attention and action of the Presidential Enabling Business Environment Council and other relevant interventionist initiatives. As a practical step to attract activities to the eastern ports, Ruwase advised the federal government to improve the security situation along and within the Warri and Port Harcourt Ports so as to ward off miscreants and touts who terrorize the area. Stakeholders, he stated, insist that the government must approve and make public a package of incentives to importers and exporters who patronize ports outside Lagos as a special encouragement to remain in such areas. Such an arrangement will make doing business in such ports attractive for importers and exporters, thereby reducing the current pressure on Lagos ports and the over-used roads.
But going forward, does LCCI’s call suggest that before now, implementation of this vital economic blueprint has been essentially limited to only one side of the country? If the intended benefits are designed to reach out to all, why must the implementation be denied ports in the eastern flank?
Much as the federal government is quick to present reasons the eastern ports have remained unattractive for business, can it convince stakeholders that the challenges are beyond her ability to overcome?
Even talking about Lagos ports, the ‘favoured baby,’ the LCCI is concerned that despite all interventions aimed at improving the business environment in them, the ports still trail behind her peers in Africa and beyond especially in the area of operational efficiency. In the last two years, for instance, traffic gridlock has led to a 500 percent increase in the cost of transportation of cargo in and out of the ports in Apapa and Tincan Island. Other minuses include longer cargo dwell time, disruption of production schedules of manufacturers who cannot move raw materials to factories as planned and the costs and risks of companies holding unreasonable level of inventories in a bid to guard against running out of raw materials following problems of unreliable supply arrangement. There is also the risk of increasing interest cost on funds borrowed to import raw materials for production purposes. It is on record that dilapidated ports access roads account for 90 percent of accidents that usually cause damage to fragile imported items, a situation that leads to avoidable losses.
“In addition”, Ruwase stated, “there are painful reports of loss/damage of perishable agricultural exports due to the extended time spent by trucks before getting to the ports or even the poor condition of warehouses at the ports. For instance, in 2017, about 25 percent of cashew nuts being exported from Lagos to Vietnam went bad or were downgraded due to these factors.” He noted that increasing pirate attacks and kidnapping of vessels in Nigerian territorial waters and the Gulf of Guinea had led to increasing shipping costs which are usually transferred to the ultimate consumers of products involved. What about increase in insurance premium on the goods and services in transit? The LCCI chief also expressed concern over safety and cost implication of wrecked ships and abandoned crafts that litter the Nigerian waters as well as shallow channels working against the entry of big vessels into the harbour.
In other climes, there are port reform initiatives that have yielded positive outcomes in short, medium and long term. Can Nigeria copy such measures to improve efficiency in the eastern ports while easing out the problems in Lagos ports?
Since it now appears every other thing is failing, the Federal Government must look in this direction in line with recommendations the LCCI is offering. Failure to do this amounts to failure to take into consideration the need to satisfy the genuine interests of Nigerians.