By Uche Usim
SEAPORT terminal operators and shipping companies are currently jittery following the Federal Government’s resolve to review the 2006 port concession project in an attempt to address the numerous controversies trailing its implementation.
The government is also believed to be planning an audit of Nigeria’s ports infrastructure to authenticate operators’ claims of acquiring multi-million dollar cargo handling equipment amidst a flurry of petitions pointing to the contrary at the complaints unit of the Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC).
Daily Sun however learnt that in the buildup to the impending review, some stakeholders are already mobilising against it in an attempt to allow the status quo to continue.
Such resistance is however coming after about nine years of having operated without a substantive Port Economic Regulator (PER) which also allowed them exclusive right of determining what charges importers and agents paid for services at the terminals.
But keen watchers of the industry are already attributing the constraints encountered at the ports to the unfriendly operating environment, which has turned it into the most expensive facility in the entire West African sub-region. They have also blamed this scenario for being responsible for the huge cargo diversions to neighbouring West African ports, a development that has robbed the Federal Government of huge revenue over the years.
It was perhaps against this backdrop that maritime analysts are insisting there was an urgent need to review the port concession agreement especially as the tenure of most terminal operators will be winding up by next year, thus giving government enough room to correct the fundamental flaws of the 2006 exercise.
But according to the Executive Secretary/Chief Executive of the NSC, the Port Economic Regulator (PER), Mr Hassan Bello, “the planned review is aimed at carrying out a clinical analysis of the concession, improving on the milestones achieved and correcting its flawed aspects, particularly in the area of arbitrary charges and cumbersome clearing processes.
“To achieve these objectives, we are involving all relevant stakeholders in the maritime sector since their inputs are necessary for the review. That was also the reason the NSC in conjunction with International Maritime Exhibition and Conference Limited, organised a one -day conference on review of the port concession agreement last week, which focused on the rights and obligations of the lessor and lessee; the role of the Economic Regulator and effects of the persistent gridlock on ports access roads on the concession exercise. The programme held on July 30 and had all maritime stakeholders in attendance including the members of the National Assembly”, he explained.
Recall that the Director General of the Bureau for Public Enterprises (BPE) Benjamin Dikki, who spoke at a recent port concession review conference had noted that the NSC has been able to match the challenges of regulation despite resistance from the terminal operators.
He also extolled the operators for improving on port efficiency but added “there were still more grounds to cover”.
When the nation’s seaports were concessioned in 2006 to improve revenue and efficiency through private sector participation, the Federal Government did not appoint a substantive commercial or economic regulator to act as the umpire for the maritime industry because the legislative bill to that effect was not ready.
Consequently, the resulting lacuna arising from the development according maritime and economic experts became a major drawback that reportedly turned the seaport operators (concessionaires) into predators who were constantly at loggerheads with importers and freight forwarders due to what some stakeholders described as the quest to hurriedly recoup their investments running into billions of naira.
Meanwhile, in their battle to survive and grow in business, importers and clearing agents have had to pass the prohibitive charges to the consumers who now pay far more for needed imported goods than necessary.
But when former President Goodluck Jonathan in 2014 appointed the NSC as the substantive Port Economic Regulator (PER), in his efforts to address the controversies in the shipping sector, especially the constant rift between terminal operators, importers and agents, there was stiff resistance by some stakeholders who wanted the prior regime of lax regulation to subsist.
Reacting to the planned concession review by NSC, a seasoned maritime expert and Managing Director of Eyis Resources, Lucky Amiwero, stated that the 2006 port concession exercise was one of the worst things to happen to Nigeria’s maritime industry, as he alleged it was skewed in favour of the concessionaires to the detriment of Nigerians.
“The review of concession is a welcome development. It’s long overdue. We’ve complained for years. Where in the world do you do carry out port concession without a regulator? That to me is not concession. It was simply skewed in favour of the operators and that is why they impose importers and agents with all manner of charges. No one controls them. This is because legitimate importers have had to pay higher container charges than import duty. By the time you pay about N1.5 million on duty for one container and N2.5 million for various port charges’, you may end up running at a loss and that is what is encouraging smuggling”.
However, reacting to the planned concession review, the Spokesman of Seaport Terminal Operators of Nigeria (STOAN), Bolaji Akinola, said the association does not recognise the NSC as port economic regulator and has challenged the Council’s powers in court.
“The port concession agreement is clear on who the interim port regulator is.
Source : SunOnline