Transportation industry occupies a central place in the economy of any nation. Historically, it has been a means of achieving national security thereby creating the necessary climate for social, political and economic progress.
Transport provides linkages, channels the flow of persons, commodities and ideas between places and equally mediates relationships and interactions between individuals and communities. At the global sphere, the growth index of any economy is largely dependent on the role of its transportation sector.
The maritime sub-sector is one crucial arm of the transportation chain that has witnessed tremendous growth in the past eight years. The maritime sub-sector could be equated as the water that runs into every valve of the economy hence it is strategic to the growth of our economy.
Nigeria is blessed with seven major ports namely the premier port Apapa, Tincan Island Port, Port Harcourt Port, Calabar Port, Delta Port and Onne Port which was specifically designed for the oil and gas industry. But recently, the Federal Government in collaboration with private investors is considering developing Deep Sea Green Ports at Lekki, Badagry, Ibaka Deep Sea Port, Akwa Ibom State and one in Ogun State. It is envisaged that with the development of such deep-sea ports in Nigeria, ships with heavy tonnage can berth thereby facilitating international trade.
Again, if we take a look at the contributions of the maritime industry to national economy, especially from the perspective of post port reforms, it has brought an appreciable level of efficiency and competitiveness.
Statistics available from the Nigeria Ports Authority(NPA) show that our ports are now globally ranked but within the first quarter of 2014, general cargo including containerised cargo contributed 32.2 percent to cargo throughput at 6,324,366 metric tonnes. Also Foreign Direct Investment(FDI) to the maritime sub-sector is heavy and huge, thereby stimulating the growth of the country’s economy.
After the implementation of the Federal Government Port Reform Programme which led to the concession of port terminals to private operators in 2006, the government noticed a disturbing vacuum in the sector, namely, the absence of an Economic Regulator that will act as a referee in the industry. This vacuum has made it difficult for the nation to enjoy the gains of the programme. Our ports before this time were not competitive, characterised with high tariff, inefficiency, delays and long cargo dwell time.
The inefficiency in the procedures and operations of agencies and service providers and even users was adversely affecting and undermining Nigeria’s competitive advantage in international trade.
In a deliberate remedial effort, the Federal Government in February 2014 appointed Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC) the interim Economic Regulator for the ports sector.
That undoubtedly was a good step in the right direction. To demonstrate its ability to make the ports operational, NSC took legal steps to stop arbitrary charges that terminal and shipping companies were known for.
These groups constitute themselves into a monopolistic cartel that thrives on impunity and disregard to Nigerian laws. Their action has negated the purpose of the port reforms thereby undermine our economy.
Since the coming of Nigerian Shippers Council as the Ports Economic regulator, the Council has abrogated unjustifiable shipping and port charges, promoted the automation of the port processes, successfully resolved complaints from shippers’ and most importantly in 2014 alone, it directed shipping companies and Terminal Operators (TO) to refund a whopping sum of N150 billion of arbitrary charges back to importers.
This is not only commendable but must be sustained by the Council. In this vein, given the recent Federal High Court judgment by Justice Ibrahim Buba, affirming Nigerian Shippers’ Council as Ports Economic regulator, we hereby urge the Federal Government to act without hesitation and give necessary legal and administrative backing on the pronouncement.
We also request stakeholders in the maritime industry, especially the Terminal Operators, shipping companies and Nigerian Ports Authority to close ranks and work with the port regulator so that our national interest will be protected.
We cannot fall back again to the pre-2006 Concession period, whereby capital flight, unwholesome practices, massive corruption were part of the day. We believe that a critical sector like the maritime should be next to oil and gas, hence all hands must be on deck to support its sanitisation and regulatory roles. We cannot afford to fail in this critical sector that touches the blood of the economy.
In conclusion, the time to give the pronouncement a legal/administrative backing is now. We believe this will galvanise the Council to redouble its efforts of cleaning the mess at the ports.
Franklin Uba is a Lagos based maritime expert