By Godwin Oritse
AS countries around the world grapple with the economic impact of the Coronavirus pandemic, measures put in place by the Managing Director of the Nigerian Ports Authority, NPA, Hadiza Bala-Usman, such as diversion of vessels, suspension of all applicable terminal storage fees on consignments, agreement with the Nigeria Customs Service to move overtime cargo to Federal Government warehouse at Ikorodu, will help minimize the fallout of the epidemic on Nigeria’s economy.
Nigeria’s maritime sector, especially the seaports can be said to be the lifeblood of the country’s economy. Nigeria is not in as this alone as all the nations of the world are navigating uncertain times imposed by COVID-19. However, for Nigeria as an oil-dependent economy, this is a twin shock. Nigeria’s vulnerabilities to the impact of external shocks can be adduced to increased dependency on global economies for revenues, foreign exchange inflows, deficit funding and foreign investment inflows required to sustain the nation’s economic activities.
The twin shocks, the COVID-19 shock, and oil price crash, are expected to impact the economy through three channels: supply, demand and financial.
The rapid outbreak of the COVID-19 presents an alarming health crisis that the world is grappling with. In addition to the human impact, there is also significant economic, business and commercial impact being felt globally.
While the world was struggling to contain the spread of the virus and consequently shutting down their ports, Nigeria took the bold decision to keep its seaports open for business. This is because the government knew the importance of the seaport to its economy as an import dependent country. However, opening the ports posed a huge threat of COVID-19 spread. As a way out, the NPA leadership came up with counter measures.
At a sensitisation programme for terminal operators, shipping companies and Dockworkers at the Lagos ports complex, Apapa last month, Bala-Usman announced that the NPA has found a solution that will keep the ports safe and running in the face of the threat of COVID-19. She revealed that the NPA has placed vessels coming into the country from Asia on red alert, due to the high rate of infection from the region.
As a further measure, she said the NPA has agreed with shipping companies to divert vessels whose crew members are showing symptoms of the virus from Mauritius, which is regarded as the gateway to Africa. She said personnel from the Port Health are fully on ground to avoid the spread of the virus through the ports.
She equally stressed the need for the support of all stakeholders to forestall the spread of the virus at the nation’s seaports. The NPA boss said the authority has commenced plan to set up isolation centres at the ports.
She stated: “We are aware that the virus is spreading round the world in a very rapid form and of course there is need for us to curtail it, and we have been informed that there is no cure to this disease and the best thing for us to do is to have a precautionary preventive measure for us to ensure that it does not spread, so on the basis of this we have to call the terminal operators and of course the stakeholders for us to rub minds together and see how best we can do to curtail this menace.
“Of course, we have done a lot of things on the part of NPA to ensure we prevent the spread of this disease, as we know the port is one of the entry points into the country, that is why we deem it fit for us to discuss what we have done and of course what is expected of the terminal operators for them to be able to curtail this menace. We have had collaborative efforts for us to fight this disease, we have seen what they have done, and the necessary medical materials are in each of the terminals.
“We have been told they have sanitisers as preventive measure for dock workers who access the vessels and there are things they said we should do which I believe the management will be able to take care of.”
NPA suspends fees
Apart from the diversion of vessels from Asia, the NPA in line with global best practices, directed all terminal operators to suspend all applicable terminal storage fees on consignments, also known as demurrage for an initial period of 21 days.
The NPA also stated that the gesture was in recognition of the pressure that the COVID-19 pandemic imposes on businesses and the responsibility imposed on the authority to relieve this burden on its customers.
The NPA, in a statement issued by its General Manager, Corporate and Strategic Communications, Adams Jatto, added that the measure was part of its bid to sustain the objective of the Federal Government’s Ease of Doing Business Policy even in the current crises.
According to the statement, “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.”
That was not all. A few days after the suspension of the fee, the NPA announced that it has donated Agura Hotels, Abuja as isolation centre for COVID-19 after consultation with other stakeholders.
The Authority in a statement, said, “The NPA as majority shareholder of the Agura Hotels, Abuja, in consultation with other shareholders, have agreed to donate the 130-bed fully furnished hotel as isolation centre for COVID-19 in Abuja.
“This is a social responsibility initiative aimed at supporting efforts of the Federal Government to contain the spread of the virus in Nigeria. The authority encourages all Nigerians to follow all advisories issued by the National Centre for Disease Control and be confident that Nigeria shall overcome.”
In a related development, the NPA announced that import and export operations will continue at the ports in Lagos despite a shutdown declared on the state by President Muhammadu Buhari.
The NPA said: “Consequent to the directive of President Muhammadu Buhari that Lagos seaports, (Apapa and Tin can Island Ports) should remain open in the duration of the two-week lockdown of Lagos State, the Nigerian Ports Authority hereby assures all stakeholders that arrangements have been made for operations at the ports to continue without hindrance.
“Safety procedures, which will guarantee the wellbeing and security of stakeholders and staff have been put in place and all are advised to kindly comply with directives of port officials. All other government agencies responsible for smooth operations in the ports are enjoined to be at their respective duty posts to discharge their functions in line with the presidential directive of maintaining operational functions at the Lagos ports. The management of the Nigerian Ports Authority assures all stakeholders of its commitment to facilitation of trade in Nigeria.”
Engaging State Governors
Before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nigeria was battling with the congestion at Apapa port that resulted to the gridlock on Apapa roads.
In a bid to prevent further congestion at the Lagos ports following the blockade mounted by several state governors around state boundaries to restrict movement and halt the spread of COVID-19, the NPA decided to engage the state governors through the presidential taskforce on the Coronavirus pandemic to ensure goods in transit from the ports are allowed to move freely.
Bala-Usman assured stakeholders during her inspection of terminals at the Apapa and Tincan Island ports that she had already discussed the matter with the head of the task force and Secretary to the Government of the Federation, SFG, Mr. Boss Mustapha.
She said: “I am also going to raise the issue after my inspection with the respective state governors and also ensure that this is raised at the highest level through the presidential taskforce. I think that as responsible leaders where you understand that indeed there is certain economic aspect of your states that are tied to linkages in the ports, we should be responsible and allow these corridors to function efficiently while securing the lives of your citizens, providing the necessary protocol for all Nigerians against any threat but recognizing that these corridors that are economic corridors around the port operations need to be sustained in a secured environment.”
Also, as a way of addressing the port congestion, she said the Nigeria Customs Service, NCS, has agreed to fastrack the clearance of over 1,500 overtime cargoes.
She said the Nigerian Customs Service, NCS, has already inspected 400 of them and that these are being moved to the Federal Government’s overtime cargo warehouse at Ikorodu.
“We have discussed with the Nigerian Customs Service, NCS, and they have given approval for 400 containers to be cleared and moved out of the port to the Federal Government overtime cargo warehouse at Ikorodu. That is the same across the board for all terminals.
“While we are calling on all consignees to come out and collect their cargo, they should also be mindful that some of these cargoes that are considered overtime are being moved to Ikorodu where they will be auctioned in line with the guidelines stipulated by the NCS.
“The issue of overtime cargo, the issue of improvement and efficiency and cargo handling equipment is across the board. That is why we have deployed clearly within our revised concession agreement matrix where for every time terminals don’t improve on their equipment there will be sanctions. I think sanctioning and penalties are what work across the world because people must be sectioned if they are not doing their work, “she said.
Nigerian Ports remain open
She also chided certain organisations linked to the International Maritime Organization, IMO, for listing Nigeria among the 70 countries that have shutdown their ports due to COVID-19.
“I am curious as to what agency will list Nigeria among countries that have shut their ports. I think entities should be held accountable to wrong listing and false information because the shipping companies are very much aware that the Lagos port is operational, vessels berthed yesterday and they have been berthing every other day,” she stated.
She disclosed that the NPA has also directed terminal operators to give rent-free days for a period of 14 days, to enable Nigerians clear their cargo during the lockdown
“We have notified the terminal operators to give rent-free days for a period of 14 days, this was even before the lockdown happened. We have engaged with them on the level of cushion we are going to provide for them. The Federal Government will look at the amount that they forfeited by giving importers rent-free evacuation and government will reimburse them through credit for the amount that they gave up for letting consignees keep their cargo in their locations. However, we will not encourage this going forward so as not to give room for congestion,” she stated.
On why the NPA embarked on the inspection, she said, “This inspection will enable us identify special issues that we need to escalate to the presidential taskforce to make them understand that while the port environment is functional, there is also need for us to connect to the larger ecospace because the port is not in isolation, the port also works with other entities that are not domiciled in the port.
“They have told us what their challenges are in terms of operations and we have addressed them, what is important is that there is a clear protocol as it relates to vessels that are calling in the port in tandem with the port health. The port corridor is what is key and we are working to ensure that every other stakeholder is aware that the port is functional and any stakeholder that qualifies and get the necessary pass to enable him come into the port, comes and carries out his activities.”