By Iju Tony Nwabunike
Last week, on the invitation of the Minister of Transportation, I participated with other notable maritime stakeholders, in a meeting on the implementation of newly launched Nigeria Port Process Manual (NPPM).
Whereas the NPPM was conceptualised to promote transparency, accountability, predictability and eradicate corruption in the port system, this is not the first time we are having laudable concepts on paper on how best to harvest benefits from our ports.
My about three decades of operation and full-time presence in our maritime environment confirms that we have ideas, know the good things to do to become great but allow narrow minded interests and in some cases, corruption to reign over our good intentions.
This has had its toll on the safety of the crew, cargoes and vessels transiting within and around our maritime domain thereby entrenching a controversial identity of a viable maritime country with unsafe waters on us.
Crew members of some foreign-flagged waters sailing through the Gulf of Guinea and in some cases Nigerian waters have either been kidnapped or killed during attacks on vessels.
These incidents, which threatens commercial shipping activities on our waters have earned us a badge of notoriety among our peer maritime nations which we must seek lasting solutions to, as a matter of urgency.
Commercial shipping and the entire maritime industry has become a fulcrum on which the nation’s prospects for economic sustainability rests.
While many describe our maritime industry as second to oil, I see it as embedded in the oil and gas industry because oil activities only thrive in a safe and enduring maritime sector.
Even the much talked about the agricultural business expansion can only earn foreign exchange through export when shipping of farm produce and commodities happen from maritime activities.
You cannot transport crude oil or ship in refined products without the use of vessels traveling on water and using ports, jetties or anchorage areas for berthing or resting on transit
It is therefore apt to conclude that amount of security provided for this critical sector is too much.
The causes of maritime insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea are multiple and multilayered, and they are manifest in violence, corruption, and in communities that resort to any means available to improve their circumstances—even if through illegal trade, insurgency, or piracy.
It is worrisome that the GoG where Nigeria holds a great stake accounts for 95 per cent of maritime kidnappings in the world
Proximate and adjoining maritime states in the Gulf of Guinea include Liberia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, São Tomé and Príncipe, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola.
Nigera is the largest trading entity with the biggest stake controlling over fifty percent of the total maritime trade volume in this area and by default has become quick to mention country whenever GoG insecurity issues are raised.
On 17 July 2020, eight pirates armed with machine guns boarded a product tanker underway around 196 nautical miles southwest of Bayelsa, Nigeria. They held all 19 sailors onboard hostage, stole ship’s documents and valuable items, and escaped with 13 kidnapped crew members.
This is just one example of a regular trend on our waters. So seafarers are endangered in their efforts to bring cargoes to Nigeria or take exports from our country.
While we were seated in Abuja, discussing the NPPM, some fishing companies were in mourning mood in Lagos as two seafarers were reportedly killed, as daredevil pirates attacked and boarded a fishing trawler within the Escravos in Delta State.
The fishing boat simply identified as MV. Ft Rose lll and owned by Atlantic Shrimpers Limited was said to have been attacked on 30th of January 2021.
The two sailors, unfortunately, lost their lives in the attack at about 6a.m local time, while other crew members aboard the vessel sustained various degree of injuries.
Corruption Question Mark
Our port processes have been largely manual, analogue, archaic and not in sync with modern realities.
From access control to cargo examination and submission of manifests by shipmasters, we have remained complacent with a system on slow mode by default.
It is only recently that the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) stepped up efforts for electronic call up system of trucks into the ports and Nigeria Customs Service commenced move for procurement of modern scanners.
Accessing the ports and physical examination instead of using scanners have been lucrative areas of corruption and inefficiencies in our port system. One finds it difficult to understand why we allowed such unproductive methods to thrive for many years.
We can only imagine our losses as a country from this high degree of complacence considering that concealments could escape detection by physical modes during examination and time spent to physically examine 5 containers could be used to examine 100 containers when you apply the right machines and human capital expertise.
The disjointed approach to common technology based interface like single window platforms and Nigeria Integrated Customs Information System (NICIS II) makes government agencies work at cross purposes.
There was the controversy of NPA and Nigera Customs Service flexing powers on whose side the single window system should be domiciled.
There is also the reality of many government agencies laying ambush to seize released containers from the ports after it was assumed to have participated in joint examination before such containers exited.
Bottom line outcomes of these disjointed approach to port processes was that money found their way into private pockets and prohibited goods may have entered the country while government lost revenue leaving the country with additional economic, social and security challenges.
I view the plans by Lagos State Government to restrict movement of trucks to certain periods of the day as counter productive to the dream of achieving 24 hour port operation and a more robust economy.
Emphasis should rather be on upgrading the support infrastructure like roads, power supply, bridges and ancillary services to support existing logistics like the laudable Bola Tinubu Truck Park.
Like the representative of the Independent Corrupt Practices and related offences Commission (ICPC) representative noted and I agree that almost all the government agencies operating in the port are complicit in corrupt acts one way or the other. This is a shameful and backward trend.
If the Nigerian Port Process Manual (NPPM) must be seen as a document of high value beyond the paper on which it was printed, it’s initiators and drivers must continually practice an all-inclusive implementation mode devoid of personal ego or one government organisation trying to assert superiority over the other.
Since the manual itself and the ports economic regulator ( Nigerian Shippers Council) that is to implement it are not backed by any law, except by executive fiat, it is important that it’s provisions are not in conflict with any extant law governing our maritime activities.
The process of making Nigerian Shippers Council a stronger economic regulator by an Act of the National Assembly should be activated and expedited
In tackling insecurity, the government should deliberately engage youths of coastal communities close to the Gulf of Guinea in fighting maritime crimes in a manner similar to the Civilian Joint Task Force (JTF) it is presently deploying in fighting insurgency and terrorism in the North-East part of the country.
Interventionist organisations such as Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Presidential Amnesty Office and other similar bodies could be contracted as first line of communication with the youths to make piracy, sea robberies, kidnapping of crew members and attack on ships less attractive and difficult to carry out as indigent youths will be enlisted into the fight against these maritime crimes.
While lauding the recently announced intervention by the European Union to help secure the GoG, Nigera should take the lead among Gulf of Guinea Commission countries in getting them to replicate our Suppression of Piracy and Other Maritime Offences (SPOMO) Act and enlist non-government actors in the quest for orderliness in the area.
Individual and corporate attitudinal changes are also very crucial in this regard. More than ever before, there is the need for a more robust inter-ministerial interface in making the NPPM work better, faster and more seamlessly.
Most of the agencies of government operating in our ports are under different ministries with various chains of command. In this regard the transport ministry should seek and sustain support of other ministries such as health, trade, internal affairs, agriculture, police affairs, justice and others to enjoy counterpart support of other ministers.
The NPPM is in itself not an end but a means to an end which should be flexible and adjustable with time in line with current realities.
At the level of Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) where I lead as National President, we have a resolve to support government in achieving it’s laudable objectives for setting up the NPPM.
We should critically pursue solutions to the problems of security on our waters, strengthen our use of technology for faster and more secured system as well as resolving to pursue national interest beyond personal gains
When people don’t get punished for corruption, tendencies are that they will come back to commit the same ‘profitable’ crime over and over again. Meeting illegality with a stiff sanction is the way to go
While thanking the Federal Government for putting the implementation meeting together and it’s other efforts towards realisation of the NPPM dream through agencies like Nigerian Shippers Council and Nigerian Ports Authority, I urged that it be seen as a step towards the right direction but not as final destination.
Nwabunike, a Maritime business expert/practitioner and National President of the Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), writes from Lagos