By ANIEBO NWAMU

The impact of covid-19 on international shipping has been harsh. And it is not likely to go away in the next two years, just as the dreaded pandemic won’t. In the face of dwindling revenues from oil, Nigeria should now be turning to the marine economy for succour. Fully exploited, maritime could make more money for the nation than even oil, a development economist told me recently.

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Oceans and seas are indeed custodians of great wealth: maritime activities include not only shipping, fishing, stevedoring and ship building but also transportation (road, sea, rail, and aviation), tourism, freight forwarding, security, banking and insurance.

Now that the federal government is on the verge of restructuring its public service by digging up and reviewing the Oronsaye Report, I hope the National Transport Commission will finally become reality. A bill to that effect has already been passed by the legislature and has been waiting for the president’s assent. The framers of the bill sought conversion of the Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC) to the National Transport Commission (NTC) to drive the process of providing an economic regulatory framework for the transport sector. It would be a mechanism for monitoring compliance of government agencies and transport operators, and protecting the rights and interests of service operators and users of the transport sector in the country.

Where is transportation minister Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi? The “National Single Window” project approved by the federal government since 2016 has yet to take off. The project aims to collapse the operations of all government agencies at the ports into a one-stop shop for efficient and seamless port operations. A regulator would, of course, mean the existence of a single window for payment of port and other charges, and then elimination of arbitrary charges and unnecessary bureaucracy, which would certainly encourage the ease of doing business. Meanwhile, Nigeria is now the only country in the West African region without a “Single Window” project; other countries have since commenced theirs.

For now every attention is on covid-19. It’s good to hear that the NSC has been a warrior in the fight with the disease. Its executive secretary/CEO, Barrister Hassan Bello, has played a major role in the easing of maritime activities since the covid-19 crisis emerged. Apart from making donations of N5million worth of protective gears for port users and another N5million for the collective fight against covid-19, the council, as the economic regulator of the maritime industry, has ensured that all agencies and stakeholders are brought together to guarantee a smooth running of ports operations despite the covid -19 lockdown. Working in partnership with the NSC have been other government agencies and banks as well as several port workers including terminal operators, shippers, freight forwarders, shipping lines, trade unions and haulage operators.

Two or three importers recently complained about threats to their consignments following the closure of Rivers and Onne ports and refusal of the Rivers State government to recognise port operations as essential services in times of covid-19. For weeks, ships with consignments of perishable items such as frozen fish and wheat worth billions of naira were unable to berth. Disapproval of the state’s overzealousness in enforcement of restrictions of movement at this time attracted the attention and intervention of the Shippers’ Council.

The Rivers State covid-19 task force, which got port workers arrested at the time the state imposed total lockdown on Port Harcourt and Obi Akpor LGAs, was clearly in error. Its superior, the Presidential Task Force on Covid-19, classifies port operations as essential services; otherwise, importation and delivery of food items, petroleum products, medical supplies and facilities would be impossible. Apparently in a bid to prevent a similar uproar in Lagos, the Shippers’ Council had provided buses for conveying freight forwarders and other workers from different locations to the ports.

While vigilance at the ports is necessary, attention however ought to be focused more on passenger ships with potential for bringing in human beings exposed to the global pandemic. The current restrictions on international travel have made threats from seafarers unlikely, though.

Along with his colleagues, Bello has been busy both at sea and on land. And the council’s engagements with other stakeholders have been most fruitful: It has parleyed with the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), terminal operators (Ship Terminal Operators of Nigeria, STOAN), service providers like CRFFN (Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding of Nigeria), ANLCA (Association of Nigerian Licensed Agents) and NAGAFF (National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders). On each occasion, NSC preached synergy, cooperation and compliance. There is little doubt its messages have been well received.

After holding talks with the NSC, operators currently evacuating cargoes from the ports via barges and truckers agreed to reduce their charges by 30%. Similarly, the council has directed shipping companies to suspend the collection of demurrage charges, and to refund charges collected from March 30, 2020, when the lockdown in Lagos State began. This, NSC said, is to ameliorate the fiscal burden on port users. It was an incentive for owners of cargo to accelerate the process of taking delivery of their cargo. Erring shippers – those who abandon cargo at the ports — may be sanctioned.

It is satisfying to know that the NSC set up a “Maritime Task Team on COVID-19” composed of not just its own officers but also those of sister agencies NIMASA, NPA, Nigerian Ports Consultative Council, Nigerian Navy, NCS, Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria, among others, to handle the day-to-day challenges at the ports.

The Shippers’ Council is currently leveraging ICT to set up an online community so that certain port users can work from home. It is adopting a multi-modal evacuation of cargo by road, rail and inland waterways. It envisages that, soon, port workers will be working round the clock. Even during this year’s Easter holiday, the Council together with the customs and other stakeholders provided full service, to the delight of terminal operators and freight forwarders.

To be sure, the nation will reap many benefits when all activities at the seas and oceans, on land and in the air are placed under the care of just one body like the envisaged National Transport Commission. The current Shippers’ Council, as midwife of the soon-to-be NTC, could be entrusted with higher responsibilities. Much wealth is waiting to be harvested from maritime activities.

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