Tin-can Island Port is its chaotic human and vehicular traffic state even before current blockage of the port access road. The immediate past Port Manager, Abubakar Umar, spoke with our Correspondent,Godfrey Bivbere on efforts to manage all the challenges associated with the port. Excerpts:
BEFORE you took over the leadership of the port about a year ago, one of the major challenges of Tin-Can port was the traffic situation at the access roads. What is the situation presently?
The road construction is ongoing. The company that is undertaking the construction was appointed by the Federal Ministry of Works and Housing. If you take what we use to know as Abuja to Coconut, to Trinity area, you will see that they have constructed the major carriage way. The service lane is the major area being utilised but because of the bad condition most times you would see containers falling off trucks.
From our side we approached Hi-Tech, the company undertaking the construction, together with the then Comptroller of Works and appealed to them that when trucks fall off along that axis, they always stopped operations at the port because that is the main exit side for Tin-can Island port/Mile2 axis. This is because all those coming from Tin-can Island port are supposed to come through Mile2 and those going are supposed to take Mile2 but sometimes when it happens we have to direct them to Liverpool which is not supposed to be.
When it was not forthcoming, we had to reach out to the Presidency. The zonal coordinator ran down, saw the situation and immediately they put some palliatives but you see this thing is supposed to be continuous. Despite what has been done, we still experience it and I know from our headquarters they are still talking with them; that is for that axis.
Now, from our Tin-can first gate to the second gate, on the main carriage way the construction company said for them to effectively carry out the work, they have to completely close down that axis. Both ways are closed.
When we discussed this, we decided to involve the task team who normally released these trucks coming to the ports so that it has to be in accordance to what the terminals are ready to receive. And how did we do it? If they said they were receiving 100, it does not mean all the 100 will be released because if they are coming to the port, they are not supposed to come direct. They are to head straight to the Tin-can transit park. If you say they should come it means the 100 trucks will have to pass through our access road before going there. If that happens, it means the entire port will be locked down and that was how we discussed with them to be releasing them in bits and we have to also look at the logistics to say no. Only Tin-can Island Container Terminal, TICT, bound trucks will have to go round into the truck park while we manage those that are going to Ports and Cargo and Five Star terminals, that come direct while Port and Terminal Multipurpose Nigeria Limited, PTML. We do not have problem with them, even when the road was open their trucks normally moved straight inside because they are well managed.
This is what we did that brought the improved situation that you see today, to the extent that you will hardly recognise it is the same port. Prior to my coming, I was told that sometimes the entire port would be on lockdown, no movement. But during my one year here there has been no time that the port was closed down for a day. It is logistics, sometimes you can have a little hiccup but you know if there is a breakdown you should expect that lockdown may happen. Look at the roads that are presently taking more volume, we have to manage them. Sometime illegal ones are released to us and we have to solve the problem.
Yes, illegal trucks that are coming from illegal destinations. They push them and because we do not have enough space for such trucks to turn; we have to manage them but sometimes when we discover them early, we try to push them back to where they are coming from. Look at the kind of tension, the kind of pressure that is going on.
Before COVID-19 crowd control was a major problem for Tin-can Island port because of where it is situated. Remember there was a time when NPA and Customs officials were having problem about access to the port. What measures are being put in place for crowd control?
There is nothing like continuous engagement. As you recognize, Tin-can environment makes it a wonderful port. In managing Tin-can, stakeholders always say that you have to be strong; thank God they say I am strong. When there is no cooperation there will be no success, so we engaged them at that early stage. When people are not used to control and you want to control them to do the right thing, you will always experience that resistance.
Well, some tried to resist but we adjusted our own line of enforcement and also let them understand the importance of that. But coming to the COVID-19 era, you know that there was the Federal Government’s lockdown which reduced the traffic and through that measure we were able to contain it but these people will always want to come around.
Talking about the port access road, we published a story on military personnel being hired as drivers to take in trucks and you did mention that there are illegal trucks trying to gain entrance into the port. Was this a source of concern for your management and how did you manage their activities?
You know, I said sometimes; it is not a regular thing. I say sometime they attempt and we pull them away.
The military boys?
You want to say because he is military and he is coming illegally he cannot be sent away? Find out, we do send them away. This is a security zone, as I said earlier they were used to easy going things in those days. I have seen even in your report where you mentioned that we visited the Logistics and Transport Command; that is to tell you that we got in touch with their leadership.
It is not every truck driven by the military that is illegally trying to gain access in or out of the port, they have their trucks. Those that will try to do it illegally, when we chase them they run away. If you are genuine we will not stop you because you have your clearance.
You should know that we do not sleep here. Some of them know when the top officers at the port have closed for the day; they come in the night and muddle things and sometimes you come in the morning and it seems like there is no clear movement at the port.
Increase in throughput
The moment we come and see situations like this, we clear it immediately. The Traffic Manager is always up and doing, monitoring the whole operation together with the Port Security Officer and you see these are the things that do assist.
Yes, integrity matters, you cannot offer me money. When I was coming I was told that Tin-can Island Port is bad and that is why I was told that a strong person is needed to fix it and I am happy and glad that after one year people are saying that Tin-can is calm, Tin-can is good and Tin-can is better and I can testify to that because our throughput has increased, it has improved. The waiting time of vessel has improved because vessels do not wait outside too many days to come in. In fact we have so many vessels that were diverted from Apapa to berth here. We are on top of it in collaboration with the terminal operators, ensuring that they are on top of the function to port users.
You said that throughput and vessel waiting time has improved, can you give figures?
You see before COVID-19, you know with COVID-19 there are some vessels, based on the ports they are coming from in Europe, they have to spend the mandatory 14 days along the route before arriving Nigeria. We were recording an average of one to two days waiting time for vessels to enter our port and waiting time at berth came to four days because even some terminals that thought that the port management cannot talk to them; I wrote them a strong worded letter based on the Key Performance Indicators, KPIs set for them as per the agreement and they immediately changed their mode of operation. Some times in a week we have between 14 and 19 ships at just the main port, I am not talking about the jetties.
I need to get this right, did you say vessel turnaround time that takes one and two days?
No; it is the waiting time which is the time vessels stay outside when they arrive our waters to enter the port because if the operational efficiency at the port in terms of vessel turnaround is not ok, they wait long.
So which one is the four days?
It is the waiting time of vessel at berth.
What was the waiting time for vessels before you were posted here?
Some say 14 days, but we improved it greatly. For every customer we have a principle; a vessel cannot arrive before another one and then you say you are bringing this because you know someone who matters. We do not give priority to anyone; it is strictly based on when you arrive.
At the height of the COVID-19 lockdown, the grace period given in terms of waivers for customers to remove their cargoes, importers and their agents have not been too forthcoming to take delivery of their goods and know that if you have more boxes in the port it also affects the operational efficiency of the terminals. Earlier the banks were not attending to importers and their agents and they were finding it difficult to pay duty. That affected the clearing process and when you have a backlog, you know what happens.
Before COVID-19 and now can you give us the average of how many vessels the port received?
Sometimes I do not like talking about number of vessels but when it comes to containers, when you look at it, from what we use to receive, it reduced by about 25 per cent. This is not peculiar to Tin-can or Nigeria, it is worldwide and a global issue. We know that while the airport was shutdown, the seaport were not shutdown because of its key status but definitely importers also are not traveling; that also affected cargo and throughput.