As has always been the case, the ports were paralysed during the just ended strike by organised labour. But as a cross-section of maritime operators noted, winding down operations in the ports even for one day does not speak well of the managers of the nation’s economy as individuals, government, shipping companies, terminal operators and other players incur stupendous but avoidable losses. IZUCHUKWU OZOEMENA reports.
After organized labour called off her four-day warning strike over the weekend, maritime operators say with the benefit of hindsight, it is now time the federal government learnt to be proactive enough to prevent the resort to strike by labour at the slightest opportunity so as to save the millions of naira and man-power usually wasted.
As reports say, the federal government lost a whopping N10.4 billion following the stoppage of operations in the nation’s seaports while the strike lasted. This loss included about N5.4billion that would have accrued to the government through customs duties, levies, operators’ charges, fee collections by the Standards Organization of Nigeria (SON), National Agency for Food Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) as well as the National Agricultural Quarantine Service (NAQS) among other agencies involved in port operations. An additional average total sum of N3.6 billion was lost by shipping lines, manufacturing companies, haulage/trucking firms, terminal operators, importers and clearing agents.
When national strikes that lock down the seaports occur, cargoes are trapped inside the ports. This leads to congestion and delay of vessels’ turnaround time. Consequently, payment of the resulting demurrage by importers and exporters become inevitable. Expectedly, experience during the recent national strike was not an exception.
It is recalled that contrary to stakeholders’ initial doubts as to the possibility of its success, the nationwide strike action declared last Thursday by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) turned out a huge success as activities at the nation’s sea ports were effectively paralysed as the action lasted not minding the negative impact on the economy.
At the premier port of Apapa, it was a complete shut-down as operations were brought to a standstill. Port users who congregated at the Wharf Gate were seen in small groups discussing the strike action and what it portended for the port industry. There was no movement in and out of the port as trucks that would ordinarily go in to lift cargo remained holed up outside the massive gates.
Checks by Business & Maritime West Africa revealed that on the first day, it was a massive surveillance at the port entrance by concerned groups who were out to ensure that no port operator disobeyed the sit-at-home order declared by the NLC. Among these group were the NLC special task force, operatives of the Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria (MWUN) alongside the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) security personnel and the Nigeria Police Force. They forcibly blocked the entrance into the port to ensure that nobody or truck either entered or left the port premises.
Head of the MWUN task force specially assigned to the port gate to monitor compliance stated that the exercise was a huge success. He was optimistic that if all complied, the authorities might see the need for an upward review of the minimum wage which he said was the bone of contention.
Not left out were commercial motorcycle operators popularly known as okada riders who outnumbered potential passengers that usually patronized them on a good day. As they stated, their worry was that if nothing was done to accede to the demands of labour and end the strike, they stood to suffer from lack of patronage as virtually everybody that normally comes to the port to transact business was at home observing the strike order.
Maritime agencies were also not left out of the strike. A visit to the headquarters of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) on Marina, Lagos, revealed a total boycott of activities except the presence of security men clad in white. The agency’s staff who were contacted said they had definite instructions to keep away from work. At the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) head office on Burma Road, Apapa, the usual flurry of activities was at a low ebb, courtesy of the strike action. Even though the agency’s image maker could not respond to calls on his phone, it was gathered that with time, skeletal activities noticed at the agency zeroed to a total shut-down as the strike continued.
Maritime truck owners under the aegis of the Association of Maritime Truck Owners (AMATO) told BMWA that much as they wholeheartedly endorsed the strike action declared by the NLC, the union had perfected plans to embark on a more debilitating strike action in the near future to protest against what they referred to as high-handedness from the Navy and unwarranted extortion against their members which, for a long time, relevant authorities had refused to address.
At the Tin can Island port, the scenario was a replay of the Apapa Port experience as freight forwarders and other port users huddled at the entrance but were barred from entering.
However, operatives of the Nigeria Customs Service were the only people allowed access into the ports. But as one of them said, “it takes two to tango; since port users cannot come in, we just stay idle because we need them to operate”.
Terminal operators were more or less idle as no client had access to do business with them. Staff of APMT, Greenview Development and ENL Consortium who joined the crowd at the Wharf Gate were unable to gain access to the facilities.
Owing to lack of activity in the ports, the nightmarish vehicular traffic that has for long constituted a nuisance in Apapa thinned down drastically for the greater part of the day. On the Wharf/Ijora Road being reconstructed by Dangote Group, traffic was very light as only few trucks were seen plying the road. The notorious traffic situation on Liverpool Road gave way to some measure of relief as for once, one lane was left free for other road users while the ‘almighty’ trucks occupied the other. But on the Tin can Island Port stretch, there was no respite for other road users despite the strike action.
Now that the strike has been suspended and government has promised a fresh initiative to negotiate with the aim to come to a meeting point with organized labour on the issues in contention, action has resumed in the ports. But over time, government has acquired the notoriety of making promises and reneging on them irrespective of the costs to the national economy. Is the government prepared to make promises and keep to them this time? Can a government that is exploring alternatives to stabilize the economy, through her own indiscretion, allow labour to embark on strikes through which the funds it is striving to conserve are wasted? Does it make economic sense?