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Shippers council tackles extortion amid rising haulage cost

Over the last two years, the Nigerian Shippers Council, the economic regulator of the port, has been tackling the issue of extortion along port access. This problem was previously a major contributor to the high cost of haulage. However, with the efforts made by the council, the issue is gradually becoming a thing of the past, ANOZIE EGOLE writes

Port access roads used to be known as centres of extortion as non-state actors milked trailer drivers who were trying to enter the port complexes. They were usually made to pay through their nose before they were able to gain access to the ports, especially in Lagos, the country’s maritime hub. Despite the complaints of the trailer operators, the extortion persisted. This is despite the rising costs of haulage occasioned by the hike in fuel prices.

However, the appointment of Emmanuel Jime as the Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Shippers Council in 2021 has changed the narrative. In the two years he was at the helm of affairs at the council, he battled the extortionists to a standstill. He had returned some sanity to the country port access roads.

The address the issues of corruption along the ports’ corridor, the Ports Standing Task Team was constituted. The PSTT clamped down on non-state actors who were terrorising trailers heading into the port complexes. The team has been to reduce the menace of extortion along the ports’ corridor in the last two years, thereby, reducing haulage costs.

Apart from successfully tackling the issue of extortion along the port access roads, Jime also ensured a friendlier working environment in the sector and promoted stakeholders’ engagement, though some people argued the agency still needed to step on this.

When he was appointed in June 2021 to replace Hassan Bello, many industry operators were skeptical about his ability to fill the shoes of his predecessor at the NSC, being a former managing director of the Nigerian Export Processing Zones Authority, Jime was relatively unknown in the port industry.

Fostered collaboration

The Managing Director of ENL Consortium, Mark Walsh, said “When I look at the situations on the ground, they have been working directly with terminal operators and shipping companies to try and move the industry forward. I think they have been involved much more with the terminal operators, they are also coming to check and monitor the terminal operators and they need to be commended.”

A former National President of the Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents, Olayiwola Shittu, said the shippers council under Jime promoted stakeholders’ engagement in the industry.

Shittu, who is also the Chief Executive Officer of Skelas Group, said, “The council has tried to reach out to stakeholders seeking cooperation. That is very scarce in our industry where there is stiff competition among leaders of government agencies, but the council’s leadership has tried to reach out to other agencies.

 “They have made us know that stakeholders can work together, but the handicap is the Act setting up NSC. There is just no power for enforcement; they are not given any teeth to do what they are supposed to do.

“Those they are supposed to be regulating have the sympathy of their colleagues who do not want shippers council to survive, but the council has tried to weather the storm. We just hope that one day, either this government or another will let the shipper’s council function at its best and let us see whether it will drive the train.”

Also assessing the council in the last two years, a former National President of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders, Eugene Nweke, said the activities of the council were obvious like that of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency and Nigerian Ports Authority.

“So, you would not oftentimes see what shippers council is doing because it is not awarding contracts on waterways, port repairs, etc., but they are giving their all to safeguarding the industry.

“The direction they are heading to in the industry is in line with their establishment law because of this specific role they play so that the shippers’ interest is taken care of,” he explained.

According to Nweke, the commitment of the council has been beneficial to the maritime industry.

“Their in-depth commitment to their role on behalf of the shippers, building everybody on business operation and agility in the industry, all leading toward producing a conducive environment for shippers and consumers and the other users of the industry services. That is the key role of shippers council is playing.

“Look at this, they are trying to ensure that goods get to the shippers and encourage other shippers across other states to come on board and pursue common purpose,” Nweke said.

Jime’s appointment was greeted with resistance by some members of the council. But it did not take him long to win over those who opposed his appointment. He had been able to convince them that he was fit for the job.

Although the council is still struggling to take its place as the economic port regulator, under Jime, it had started to put structure in place that would enable it to carry out this function.

For instance, the NSC has challenged the maritime command of the Nigerian Police Force over its involvement in cargo clearance processes in whatever guise as illegal and should be discontinued.

The council had also made it clear to the Nigerian Ports Authority and Nigerian Inland Waterways Authority, that none had a direct duty to impose or determine costs of barging and evacuation of containerised cargoes from the port without its concurrent approval.

 Also, the council has taken very bold steps at reinventing the Ports Community Committee in such a manner as to be at par with the processes already established by the NPA which was formerly carrying out the assignment.

 There was also a growing call for sensitisation and advocacy on the council’s roles as the economic regulator in light of the prevailing executive order and its concomitant superstructures.

Whereas there had been reported cases of pockets of opposition here and there amongst critical players and development partners, such posturing has not in any way invalidated the council’s powers. They have helped to reinforce its importance in the current circumstances.

The proof lies in the council’s increased powers of arbitration in import-export trade and shipping disputes, as well as operational costs regarded as arbitrary and overly oppressive for trade.

Gradually, there is an improved industry understanding of the status of the council with its authority as the ombudsman whose interventions can no longer be ignored or neglected without consequences.

Oversight functions

The Nigerian Ports Process Manual and Ports Standing Task Team was one of the superstructures through which the NSC within the last two years had been able to maintain its oversight port economic regulation role. While NPPM simply encapsulates the general and specific rules for an efficient port system, the PSTT is given the mandate to drive the process and to ensure compliance. Every port user and player is wholly subject to the process.

Under the last administration, PSTT, a sub-organ of the NSC, cleaved through various human barriers and restored efficiency to port trade across the board.

Jime further ensured that the NSC evaluated the cost component of the entire shipping value chain through constant monitoring and engagement while promoting efficient service delivery as embedded in the NPPM.

The NPPM is a harmonisation of the Standard Operating Procedures that were being operated by different entities now brought in as one document upon which everybody had arrived at a consensus. This is the document that will guide how the port industry functions.

Referencing the effectiveness of these platforms, a clearing agent, Mr Tochukwu Nwegboi, said, “Today, we are happy to report that for instance, the average turnaround time in our ports has reduced drastically due to the activities of the PSTT, which has ensured the following of the strict provisions of the NPPM guidelines, so that now there is joint boarding of vessels.

“There is also a joint examination of cargo. In the ports, we had different agencies of government who took their time and decided at their own pace whenever they would perform a function. This is no longer the case.

“We believe that if you save time in the manner in which cargo examination is done if you save time in the manner in which you board the vessels that have berthed in our waters, there is a tremendous amount of efficiency that is then brought to bear on the conduct of business in the ports,” he Nwegboi said.

 According to him, shippers are happy that they have been given the tools by the establishment of the document and of the work of the ports having a task team that has collaborated and assisted all the other divisions that are present in the NSC.

“Don’t forget the PSTT under Jime’s leadership has also extended its activities to cover access to the ports. We all remember many years ago, the gridlock that visited access into the ports, whether it is in the area of the trucks coming in, whether it is in the area of containers that were littering the ports. Now there is sanity, some level of order is beginning to develop and we can only continue in that pathway because it guarantees that we can be more sustainable in the way we are ensuring quality service delivery in our ports,” he asserted.

Also, a clearing agent, Mr Johnpaul Ejiogu, said that the immediate past administration of NSC, recorded success in the area of improved export system, which was formerly heavily impaired by unwarranted superstructures put in place to extort shippers.

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