The commencement of evacuation of containers by barges at the Lagos ports was a welcome development that was highly applauded by maritime industry operators. Transport and economic experts also lauded the initiative as water transportation remains one of the key and preferred modes of moving cargoes to their destinations.
For a long time, experts and maritime sector observers have been calling for the use of barges to evacuate cargoes from the Lagos ports in view of the debilitating traffic gridlock that has for some years now bogged down movement of cargoes in and out of the ports. The traffic gridlock has reached a point where export products could not have access into the ports while cleared cargoes could not exit the ports — a situation that has contributed immensely to the present congestion at the Lagos ports.
The Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), for some time now, has been championing the use of barges in cargo movement operations in the ports. Thus the Ports Authority felt highly gratified when in February 2018, APM Terminal received the first shipment of 32 containers of manganese ore for export from the Ikorodu section of Lagos. The government agency was equally happy at the response of barge operators who heeded its call to begin the evacuation of containers by barges from Apapa port to Ikorodu and Epe areas of Lagos.
NPA had licensed some barge operators for the lifting of the containers, working in close cooperation with the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA). And the operation had been going on seamlessly except for some hitches bordering on use of substandard tugboats and barges — a lapse that NIWA had taken up for correction.
In fact, just recently, the Managing Director of NIWA, Dr. George Moghalu, made a comment that gladdened the hearts of port operators when he said that he had given himself a year target for all heavy duty cargoes and containers to be moved around the country through the waterways, in order to save the nation’s roads the severe battering it was receiving from articulated trucks. Moghalu was emphatic that the roads were not built for the use of heavy duty vehicles.
In the light of all these, it was, therefore, shocking that while all hands were on deck to solve the congestion problem imposed on the Lagos ports by Apapa access roads gridlock, and while stakeholders were applauding the introduction of barges for container evacuation from the ports, the Nigeria Customs Service decided to throw spanner in the works. The Customs Service in a circular issued on March 12, 2020 to its various area commands said the Customs Comptroller-General, Hameed Ali, had received intelligence “that the use of barges to evacuate containers in and out of our ports is being abused to the extent that containers are being diverted to illegal warehouses.”
As a result of this so-called intelligence, the Customs CG directed that the use of barges to evacuate containers from the ports should stop with immediate effect.
It is, however, gratifying to note that within a few days, the Customs reversed itself, having thought better of it or in due deference to the avalanche of angry reactions, and even threats of court action that greeted the ill-conceived ban.
Had the ban been sustained, the repercussion would have been unquantifiable. After a few weeks of operation of the barges, the positive effect on the cargo build up at the ports had become evident, as fewer containers were seen leaving the ports by roads. This would have been reversed, with the congestion getting worse.
It also means that the PTML located at the Tin Can Island Port Complex, which had been moving cargoes to its terminal in Mile Two by barges, would been forced to stop the operation. All the efforts of the Nigerian Ports Authority ad Terminal Operators, which has been encouraging owners of containers to use barges to evacuate them from the ports because of the traffic gridlock ,would have been in vain.
While we commend the Nigeria Customs Service for reversing itself and lifting the ban promptly before it could do any damage, we enjoin the Service to key into the efforts of government with regards to the ease of doing business at the ports. Facilitation of trade should be a major priority of the NCS as is the case in other climes. Hameed Ali and his men should know that Customs job is not all about revenue collection, and that this must not be done at the detriment of facilitating trade and commerce in the country.
We also make bold to advise the present management of the Nigeria Customs Service to avoid impulsive actions and knee jack approach to matters that affect the well-being of the port industry and the national economy as a whole. Meeting huge revenue targets and destroying businesses and rendering factories non-functional can hardly be in the interest of the nation.
May we also remind the Service that ensuring that containers being conveyed by barges arrive their destinations without diversion is the sole responsibility of Customs. The barges bearing containers that have not been cleared are expected to be escorted by Customs or adequately tracked. The failure of the Service to secure containers in transit should not be the reason to plunge the whole economy into crisis.
It is expected that where the Customs Comptroller-General gets an intelligence report of container diversion, the most appropriate thing to do would be to conduct investigation with a view to fishing out the offenders and mete out appropriate sanctions or even prosecute them.
As a matter of fact, saying that some importers and agents were taking advantage of the barge evacuation to divert containers to illegal warehouses is self-indicting. It simply means that some Customs officers are collaborating with unscrupulous agents and importers to divert containers to warehouses. Customs should, therefore, put its house in order, and put in place adequate measures that will encourage seamless evacuation of cargoes by barges from the ports.