As the Nigerian economy goes into COVID-19 induced pressures, the Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Shippers Council, Hassan Bello, in this interview, said the crises is under control at its end while the various programmes and plans for reforms and professionalisation in the industry are still underway. Excerpts
By Eguono Odjegba
WHAT is the level of private sector involvement in the ports automation, especially the terminal operators and freight forwarders?
Yes the terminals are part of the automation process. You know Customs service is well ahead on the automation; it is the leading government agency. Its right there, you know, I am really impressed with the Customs, and no matter how digital the other people become if the government agencies are not, you will still have some discrepancies and discrimination.
So let’s start with them and then we will bring others on board. When you are informed you don’t need to be at the port, it’s better for everyone. Why do you need to be at the port, you can do your work online, you know, as long as it is people speaking with one another, all of us are one government, and one system.
Then there is the issue of freight forwarding, freight forwarder must organise and professionalise. They can’t just go to the port and be milling around, swarm of them.
Dragging the industry
No, there must be a consolidation of freight forwarders. Let them merge, let them come together and form freight forwarding companies instead of individualism. We can no longer continue to have 10 people pursuing one container, they have to organise, otherwise, they will be bypassed.
There is going to be a great deal of revolutionary economy, post COVID-19. You know, we need consolidations of freight forwarders, because the freight forwarding profession, if care is not taken, is moving toward the informal sector and dragging the industry with it.
That is dangerous but I am happy I have been working with freight forwarders. We are together all the time and I have seen the zeal to adapt, they are extremely learned in the way they do things, that’s what we want but then there are also issues of touts amongst them.
To professionalize and get integrated as it were?
Yes get integrated and increase their net worth so that they don’t have to come in their large numbers over tiny transactions. That way they will be moving millions and tonnes of cargo into the port.
They should have business addresses; they should be formal, now they are informal. If they are formal, we wouldn’t be having the problem of container deposit and all that. Nestle doesn’t pay container deposit. Nigerian Brewery will not do that because they are organised. So what is happening on that issue of container deposits the Nigerian shippers are losing billions of Naira. They are respected, they are well known and acknowledged, you know, so there’s no need for you to deposit something before you take container because everybody knows they are consolidated, with warehouses and well organised.
As the economic regulator, what is the Nigerian Shipper’s Council doing about the container deposit crisis?
Nigerian Shippers Council has been doing advocacy. We know that container deposits add to the cost of doing business, so that’s why we are committed to resolving the problem. We are worried about the issue of trapped deposits; they have returned the containers but they can’t collect the deposits, and it’s still there with the shipping companies.
If the agents or importers are going to return the containers within five days there may be some issues that are beyond their control, so why should they be charged? So that is why the freight forwarders should come together and form companies, well known companies, formal and professional.
But then we are also trying to bring the insurance companies into maritime so that there will be apportionment of risk because why should we bear all the risks? The insurance companies would say insure this with me, and the shipping company and I will return your container.
The whole thing is to return the containers. So you freight forwarders pay N2000 per container, the insurance company will have to find a way to bring back that container. We were supposed to have had a meeting with the National Insurance Association, Marine Office Committee. We will also engage the regulator, the National Insurance Commission, NICON. We want them to design policy insurance for transit cargo exiting the ports.
Even the trucking, we have to reform the trucking system; there must be companies with, maybe, a minimum of six-truck fleet. There is so much informality encumbering the system and we are pursuing legislation to address them, like carriage of goods by land; there is a bill which will formalise all this.
That’s what the investors are looking at and they don’t know, investors will not come to your country unless they know how much it will take to transport a container from Port Harcourt to Maiduguri, they don’t know.
Until now Shippers’ Council has done indicative freight rate and if you are carrying egg from Maiduguri to Kano and there was accident, and all the eggs got broken, they will say ‘its God that caused it’. No it’s not God, it’s carelessness and somebody has to pay. We are so informal and that’s what we want that bill to take care of.
Every movement must be insured, there must be a contract between the owner of the cargo and the transporter of that cargo so that if there are consequences there will be responsibilities. We need to formalize our transport system; it cannot continue to be informal.
Talking about the glut in the crude market and lean foreign reserve, one can say that the maritime is the next gateway. What is the Nigerian Shippers’ Council doing to boost its traditional exports?
What I told you is about to make our ports efficient, to make our virtual-ports operate efficiently and then have a regime for export. It’s the export that will make the maritime be a substitute for oil you know even the import economy, the ports have provided for Nigeria all the billions or trillions of Naira Nigeria Customs makes.
Most of it is from the maritime. Customs is not separate from the maritime industry, but now is our time to reinvigorate the export regime. We are so careless that we have become an import dependent economy, we should change that. Even our ports are not configured correctly; about 800 trucks are lying there to get into the port for over three months.
Shippers’ Council, as you know, has been waging a real fight to see that exports are going. We have started today, the trucks are going into the terminals, we met throughout the weekend and every day we are at it, we can’t just joke with exports, otherwise we will perish.
There must be export and so we have to protect it, Export Promotion Council, Central Bank, Nigeria’s Ports Authority, Nigerian Shippers’ Council, Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Finance have to come and sit down and review the whole export process.
What is the bureaucracy that makes perishable exports to be degraded before they access the ports? We have to identify this and deal with it. Even in other countries, you have soldiers escorting exports direct.
Then access to finance, exporters and farmers must have direct access and the Central Bank must actually be commended for what they are doing, direct intervention into the economy, we don’t have an elitist Central Bank now, we have a practical Central Bank.
Two major misunderstandings threatened the response measures put in place to keep the port economy running in the course of COVID-19; the differences between the governments over lockdown measures and terminal operators who apparently weren’t on the same page with the Nigerians Shippers Council on the issue of directives on demurrage waivers. How were these challenges resolved?
Well you know we are dealing with our ministries and making input, the fact that the port was open was also a direct intervention by Nigerian Shippers’ Council. We advocated that the ports must open and operate within the circumstances we find ourselves. As I have told you, raw materials, food, medicine, to fight the pandemic will need the ports to get in some things. Then, palliatives must be given to encourage shippers and that’s why we said demurrage should be suspended during the lockdown, we never had any issues with that. We have to commend the shipping companies who agreed with what we said.
They agreed with our directives, initially they had to adjust their system and now everything is going well. But the most challenging thing we had was in Rivers State when the workers were not allowed into the ports because the ports were not seen as an essential service and that was also dangerous, because if you go farther, it has repercussions on contracts and so many other things, a ship came carrying fish and stayed on the anchorage for five to seven days. You must offload within the shortest time.
But the Rivers State government denied them. So the workers because of the treatments said they are not going to offload and we had to intervene for them to offload. We intervened with the state government to allow port workers free access to port. But another challenge is the interstate boundaries; some lock their states, of course adjust passing but don’t lock your states against cargo.
When they say open the ports it means cargo must move. So we have been able to sort these things out. Our ministry is intervening from all what we have said through the presidential task force on COVID-19.