Chief Ernest Elochukwu, a former National President and later, Chairman Board of Trustees of the Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents, ANLCA, needs no introduction.

Erudite, articulate, penetrating, frank, straightforward and unsparing in his political and economic analysis, he bestrides the ports industry like a colossus. Petit and characteristically punchy and fiery every time he engages in public discourse, officials prefer to avoid engaging him while opponents find it impossible to ignore his critical views.

In this chat with Vanguard Maritime Report, Elochukwu took a long look at our port practices and conclude government is the enabler of system disruptions.  Excerpt:

Expectations that some of the critical negatives affecting our ports system will be resolved within a reasonable time frame is becoming a mirage. These issues range from failed port access roads to 24hrs ports operation executive order. How does this make you feel?

Well if you ask me… this is only a reflection of incompetence and retrogression as I would call it that is the hallmark of this nation called Nigeria because first, we talk about the Apapa port, the port was built long before independence in the 1940s. In other countries, provisions are always made for expansion because proper planning, or in fact, planning at all will envisage that volume would be increased periodically. And that also will increase the usage of the port facilities including the capacity of the access roads to contend with whatever activities are going on there. So avoiding system maintenance is part of our lack of planning which has always been our portion even from our origin. In other climes wherever there is any such challenge the first thing to do is to create an alternative.

As in creating alternative ports?

Not necessarily that, as in backup strategies. It will not make sense if the whole ports of Apapa or Tin Can or wherever, is put out of the use or in fact put out of partial use all because the access roads are to be rehabilitated, that is a wrong approach. There ought to be a kind of fall back situation, a kind of alternative should be in use while the port roads are repaired. I think that it is only in Nigeria, for instance, you find that when the second runway is going to be maintained the airport is closed for months while in other lands an available runaway is used while the second is being rehabilitated. Invariably one can say it is the hallmark of incompetence and our planlessness. Inevitably if these ports here (Lagos)  will not be used, it will actually mean that cargo will be diverted to other ports. But if we are looking at creating alternative traffic for say ports of Calabar, Warri and all that, and even the old Port Harcourt seaport, I will say that it is neither here nor there because one….it will amount to disrupting peoples plan of the business. Take for instance an importer that has planned to receive his cargo in Lagos and hence has shipped it to Apapa or Tin Can…telling him to go and receive it elsewhere is actually putting him in distress. So it is not just about the traffic it could create if the other ports are being used as alternative… already there is a problem it has created. And in all aggregate when we put these things together, they will impact on the overall economic performance of the ports which will still be negative.

Are you saying this will create additional conflicts on cargo clearance? 

Oh yes, whichever alternative you apply will definitely create cost because if you go for an alternative port the cost of transporting the cargo from wherever location back to Lagos is a cost. And even if the cargo is being cleared here by any other magic which I haven’t seen. Assuming we are talking about partial use of the roads while the rehabilitation is going on, it is still going to amount to additional cost, which again will impact on the final cost of the goods to the consumers. These are the ripple effects of poor planning on our system.

How did we get to this sorry state? 

It is obvious; this is a country where we don’t pay attention to little details of productivity and the variables that account for it. It is a place where people go to work without anybody bothering to know what they can produce at the end of the day. It is actually such that productivity index is actually nonexistent, here when you ask people…all they do know is that they go to work and probably do what is available. In other words, they are not going to work with a target of what is to be done. In other progressive climes, everybody that goes to work has a target, here we don’t have a target. For most people they don’t even realize that this is system disruption; it’s actually going to have a big impact on the economy itself. These impacts also include delays and costs, and so if there are better planners, some of these things would have been taken into consideration at the onset to ensure that what they are going to do will have a minimal impact on the performance of the economy.

Shippers Council challenges Police over interception of cleared cargoes

The presidency in 2017 and 2018 respectively issued an Executive Order for 24hrs ports operation and later Ease of Doing Business. Can you match these interventions with realistic gains in the port sector?

Well, your guess is as good as mine; in fact, I would have depended on your investigative report of what has been the outcome of those interventions. My take is that most of the times, without sounding disrespectful to anybody, I want to say that those in government believe they know it all and sometimes they go ahead to do their own things and at the end of the day put all of us back to square one.

Yes, it is a good thing that the Vice President who was Ag. President at the first instance of intervention recognized the fact that doing business in Nigeria is a nightmare both to the business person and even the interest of the nation that is supposed to be protected. It is just like the case of the reforms, first and foremost the idea of reforms presupposes that things are not going right; it means all is not well.

Sadly, in the process of carrying out the reforms, we now have a situation where we again use the same nonperforming agencies to be the drivers of the reforms and all we end up getting is cosmetics. Our government idea of reforms is pathetic, if you ask the officials on ports operations reform you go to some of these agencies you see a lot of computers…the new song is that “we are computer or ICT literate/compliant”. To them, with increased computer awareness a reform has taken place, it is so sad. Reform should be thinking about the deliverables, in other words, that are we reforming?

What are the specifics we want to achieve with the reforms? In the past for instance, when the government talked about 48hrs cargo clearance, it was something that was meant to sound good to the ears. As the President of ANLCA, I was part of that reform, we asked some crucial questions that were not answered. For instance, the impact of reform, is it the total number of hours that is going to take the cargo that has arrived at the port to exit the port to the importers’ warehouse? Or is it 48hrs as in two days? we believe that the intention was for two days but then, at the end of the day, will the 48hrs on delivery target be met, what have we been getting? By now we can’t get anything less than three weeks. I am saying for every reason you put a process, a cargo to go by itself the process should drive itself from the point of clearing it and coming out, it will take not less than two to three weeks.

Then, or now?

Now and because when we talk about reforms there are many things they don’t put into consideration. How has the process been streamlined? Any process that does not run seamlessly can never achieve that success of reform. The processes of a clearing have not yet been put on its own to run, in other words, without been propelled, without interference.

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