The decision of the Nigerian Ports Authority to divert cargoes from Lagos to the Eastern Ports is a welcome development, but there are concerns about the ports’landlord’s sudden move and the state of readiness of the affected ports to start receiving cargoes, MUYIWA LUCAS writes.
The Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) may well deserve a pat on the back for its proactive measure to reduce head-on the congestion of vessels and cargoes at the Lagos Ports Complex.
The General Manager, Corporate and Strategic Communications of NPA, Mr. Adams Jatto, said the NPA, shipping firms and terminal operators agreed to decongest the Lagos Pilotage District, to reduce the waiting time of vessels at the Lagos Port Complex Apapa.
He said as from yesterday, “vessels, which have waited to berth at any terminal within the Lagos Pilotage District will be diverted to other terminals with capacity to berth vessels within the district. In the event that all terminals in Lagos cannot discharge any vessel within four days, such vessels will be diverted to the Eastern Ports (other pilotage districts) for immediate berthing.”
He assured that “NPA will liaise with other relevant government agencies on behalf of stakeholders to expedite the clearance of vessels and cargoes, where necessary”.
The eastern ports under the NPA port district are in Delta, Rivers and Cross River states. They include Onne Port, Rivers Port in Port Harcourt, Calabar Port and Delta Port, Warri. The ports in Calabar and Warri have suffered low patronage since they were concessioned in 2006.
According to the statement, the decision by the NPA is to aid the “Ease of Doing Business”policy of the Federal Government and curtail the negative economic impact that the long turnaround time of vessels has on stakeholders.
But for some freight forwarders, the pronouncement by the NPA is another cart before the horse policy of the regulator. According to them, the NPA diverting ships to Eastern ports is a mere propaganda because the Authority lacks the power to divert or force any ship whose destination is Lagos ports to go to another port, especially when the vessel owner, shippers, importers and the consignee’s have paid for Lagos ports.
They argued that sudden diversion of vessels or cargoes are only permitted in time of war, or serious security problems and in agreement with the shipping company and the consignees.
“Cargo destination are always predetermined from the port of loading and paid for. It is only importers and consignees that can determin where their goods goes to and not the NPA. If the NPA does that singlehandedly, the consignee can sue it and the shipping company. So, it is a tough call for the regulator,” Mustapha Hussein, a forwarder at Tin Can Port, said.
Yet, questions are being asked of how the Authority would execute this policy since it is cost effective. Hussein said the NPA will determine at what point it hopes to divert vessels to the eastern port. “Will the diversion be at the point of loading, halfway or after berthing at Lagos port? Who pays for the extra cost of security, route change and the extra insurance cost? What type of vessels is the NPA diverting or intending to divert and to which of the Eastern ports?” he queried.
House committee report
Stakeholders are concerned that the recent report by a House of Representatives Ad hoc Committee to determine why the eastern ports are not being put to maximal use.
In the report, it was identified that inadequate survey and unreliable nautical charts are some of the obstacles that scare away vessels from the region. It further revealed that inadequate marking of channels with appropriate navigational aids; poor road infrastructure remains major challenges to the ports in the region.
Others are poor and obsolete equipment, lack of tugboats and pilot cutters, shallow berths and draught deficiency of navigable channels, absence of breakwaters, high siltation and long river passage, among others.
On the nautical charts, the report noted that the original survey data used for Calabar port and the two charts used for entering Calabar port were acquired by the British Colonial government in 1903 and 1974. While that of Port Harcourt, Onne and Warri ports were acquired in 1910 and 1984 respectively.
According to the Committee, “This state of affairs is true for uncharted waters, thus, inadequate survey and unreliable nautical charts remains the main reasons very few vessels call at the Eastern ports in focus. For instance, the original survey data used to produce the two charts used for entering Calabar Port were acquired by the British Colonial Government in 1903 and 1974, while that of Port Harcourt/Onne and Warri were acquired in 1910 and 1984.
The report further said: “Although the NPA supplied the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office (UKHO) survey data for updating these charts between 1988 and 2016, the update does not cover the entire spectrum of hydrographic survey, to guarantee the level of confidence to be placed on them.
Pertinently, the Nigerian Navy (NN) has commenced the actualisation of the National Charting Scheme by developing indigenous charting capacity.
This will not only ensure self-reliance in surveying and charting of Nigerian waters, but will also end the practice of sending survey data to the UKHO, whose decision on what to be included in the chart most times differ from local need for which the charts were published.
This way, the NN will produce charts that will support maritime activities in and around these Ports,” the report said.
Besides, the objective of diversion to the eastern ports may not be achieved is a section of the report is considered. This section, which deals with the problems of poor and obsolete equipment, it was discovered that poor cargo handling equipment and other infrastructure in these Ports is a major hindrance to optimal utility of the Ports.
“Most cargo handling infrastructure are degraded and do not attract shippers. Most terminal operations are encumbered by dearth of essential infrastructure for easy evacuation of containers.
The consequence of this is the accumulation of avoidable demurrage and strain on port workers. The turnaround for shipping companies would be affected and hence, the use of ports where there are modern equipment.”
The House committee, chaired by Buba Yusuf Yakub, with Okuta Matthew as Clerk, in its 16-page report, also identified lack of tugboats and pilot cutters to serve the vessels going to Eastern Ports.
It noted that prior to this time, shipping firms were billed for these tug boats which were never made available to them, but the vessel agents have continued to hire tug boats, notwithstanding that it is the responsibility of the NPA to provide them.
Others are shallow berths and draught deficiency of navigable channels. On this, the Committee submitted: “The average berth depth of Eastern Ports stands between six and 11 metres (with high silting which seriously affect safety of navigation) compared to the Lagos port with berth depth ranging from nine to 13.5 metres.
With this deficiency most eastern ports would not be able to accommodate large container-bearing vessels except vessels with flat bottom.
“The draughts of the channels leading to the Eastern ports are also lower than that of Lagos. Lagos Port has an average draught of between nine and 13.5 metres), Port Harcourt -7.1 and 9.1 metres; Warri 6.4 and 7.6 metres; Onne eight and 11 metres, and Calabar has 6.4 metres during high tide. These draught levels impose additional constraints for the Eastern Ports.
“The shallow nature of ports outside Lagos Ports has discouraged ship owners and importers to divert their ships to Lagos even when their goods are meant for areas like Southsouth and Souheast.
This shallow berth depth is one of the major reasons why these ports are not being patronised. The Committee discovered that lots of dredging contract was given out in the last 10 years and yet the depth of these ports is still shallow.