Maritime: Freight Forwarders Decry Increased Charges By Shipping Lines, Terminal Operators; Battle Ready

By Stephen Ubanna

Between 2018 and now, there have been an ongoing conflict of interest between Shipping lines, terminal Operators and Freight Forwarders, truck drivers, over the issue of holding bays and increase in service charge/rates  at the Lagos ports of Apapa, Tin can Island and Port terminal multi-services terminal limied, PTML.

There is no gain saying the fact that the proposed new charges that was said to have been introduced by the shipping lines and Lagos ports based terminal operators had forced the Freight Forwarders and truck drivers to weep. They may have realised that this run counter to the Customs and Excise Management Act, CEMA, Cap 20, and took up the gauntlet to resist it with all their might to draw the attention of President Bola Ahmed, Adegboyega Oyetola, a former governor of Osun state and minister of marine and blue economy and Emmanuel Jime, Executive Secretary, Nigerian Shippers Council, NSC, to apply the sledge hammer against them and restore sanity at the ports.    

   Freight Forwarders, had alledged that Maerskline and three other Shipping Lines, particular, had started the  problem by taking   advantage of the fact that over 70 % of the volume of cargoes imported into the Nigerian market  are coming through   the Lagos ports  terminals and therefore proposed  to increase their  charges by over 350%, as alleged by the aggrieved Freight forwarders who are determined to resist the increased service charges.

The aggrieved Freight Forwarders were said to have threatened to ground the Lagos seaports if the shipping lines and terminal operators fail to withdraw the new charges and allow the status quo to remain.

 The Freight Forwarders major worry was that Jime, the Executive Director of NSC, who ought to have addressed the problem when it was brewing up at the early stage had failed to live up to his responsibility claiming ignorance of any increment in the service charge of the shipping lines and terminal operators.

 Given that the shipping lines  and the terminal operators are not  ready to backpedal in their decision to implement the  new charges to remain afloat  may have informed why   here are fears in both official and unofficial circles  that some of the Nigerian importers  who may have relocated back to Nigerian seaport ports from Benin Republic and other West African countries seaports back to Nigeria  to  take delivery of their cargoes  may want to return to these West African countries again to do their importation.

Recall that in 2021, the government had sent a message to the shipping companies and terminal operators at the Lagos ports and the south eastern ports of Federal Ocean Terminal, Onne, Rivers Port, Port Harcourt and Delta port, Warri , including  Calabar port    that they must not put additional burden  on importers with their Freight Forwarders  and  the country’s consumers by increasing  their service charges stressing  that  ‘’it would no longer be accepted’’.

Rotimi Amaechi , a former governor of Rivers state and the then minister of Transportation ,before the split into in ministries of Transportation  and marine and blue economy  by the present Tinubu’s Administration and who has the backing of the then Katsina state born Nigerian President had warned that any shipping company or terminal operator, that unilaterally increases its charges/rates would be ‘’backlisted and sanctioned accordingly’’, but that was how far he could go. This is may have informed why the shipping lines and terminal operators have to try it again as the government can only bark and not bite.

Going by the provisions of the NSC CAP  133, Law of the Federation, LPN, and its subsidiary regulations: Local charges on imports and Exports, 1997, ‘’ any review of shipping and terminal operators’ charges/rates must be negotiated and approved’’ by the maritime agency.

Vicky Hastrup, Executive Vice Chairman / CEO, of ENL Consortium, described as the Iron Lady in maritime circles, who could not hide   her feelings had said that ‘’the Shipping companies and terminal operators have every reason to hike their service charges /rates because of the challenges which they are facing on a daily basis.

She had alluded to the high cost of Automotive Gas Oil, AGO, popular diesel to power their generators and cargoes handling equipment at the ports, which had tripled, over the last four months due to Tinubu’s economic policies, particular, removal of fuel subsidy and unification of the both the official and parallel exchange rate markets.

She noted that the situation has been made worse as the naira now falling freely fall to the North American country of the United States, US, dollar, at both the official and the parallel market as it currently exchanges N1070.00 to the dollar at the black market.

 Mrs. Hastrup, asserted that the rising overhead cost of the shipping companies and the terminal operators, profits had been eroded significantly as a result of ‘’sliding value of the naira, high inflation rate which currently stood at over 26.72%, going by the report of the National Bureau of Statistics, NBS.   

The ENL Consortium Vice Chairman major worry was that’’ most of their commitments both within and outside the country  are in the US dollars but the shipping companies and terminal operator still charging for the services provided to the importers with Freight Forwarders at the nation’s seaports in naira which was not good enough for them to sustain their investment on port development and procure more cargo handling equipment.

 She had said that between 2006 and now, the terminal operators particular, had collectively invested over $2 billion  at Apapa and Rivers port, PortHarcourt   where the quay aprons were built more than 100 years ago and Tincan Island port which is, about 48 years, including the dilapidated  quay apron at Onne port needed total rehabilitation.

 She had alluded to the recent remarks by Bello-koko, Managing Director, Nigerian Port Authority, NPA,  that the Authority would need $800 million  to fix the dilapidated quay aprons at the country’s seaports. The question on the  lips of most people  was: when would  the rehabilitation work begin  given the poor state of the econonomy..  This is where Oyetola, the minister of marine and blue economy may have to use his contact  with the President to get a Presidential approval for the funds to facilitate the repair of the dilapiadated quay aprons  at the Lagos and the south eastern [ports.

.The Leadership of the Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria, MWN, on its part, had thrown their weight behind the shipping companies and terminal operators move to review their tariff ’’, urging the NSC, and other relevant maritime government agencies, ‘’ to accept the proposed new tariff on vehicle imports, at Tincan Island port and PTML and other merchandise goods , noting that such has never been done    ‘’ over a decade’’.

MWUN, noted that PTML and the other terminal operators under the umbrella of the seaports Terminal Operators Association of Nigeria, STOAN, has over the years ‘’borne the burden of the wages, salaries and allowances of Dockworkers and needed a breather’’.

The Union had made it clear to those that cares to listen that STOAN, can no longer shoulder such burden due ‘’to the general inflation, deteriorating economic conditions and other inhibiting factors hindering business in the country’’.

Bonniface Anniebonam, founder of National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders, NAGAFF, who is worried what may likely be the outcome of the face- off between the Freight Forwarders, and the shipping lines and terminal operators if they should go ahead with their threats has appealed to the aggrieved Freight Forwarders ‘’ to remain calm, close ranks and work together for their common good instead of threatening fire and brime stone’.

The NAGAFF founder who was said to have hit hard at the ‘’wobbling and fumbling’’  Jime led NSC, to meet up their statutory responsibilities whose mandate it is’’to protect the interest of shippers at micro level’’ had said that the Council, by shying away from their responsibility was uncalled for at this critical moment that the Freight Forwarders are no longer  finding it funny .

 The NAGAFF Chief had said that the inability of the NSC, to effectively put the shipping companies and terminal operators under control may have informed why’’ they could operate freely as business enterprises which ultimate goal is’’ to maximise profit’’.  

Although, Anniebonan may not have come out categorically to support the shipping companies and terminal operators review of their charges, which MWUN, had said was long overdue, but he had somewhat  made people to understand  that ‘’their operational cost  have increased  after the removal of petrol  subsidy   on May 29, 2023’’ by the Lagos state born Nigerian President.

Putting on the garb of a business man who do not want to rock the boat, he had stated that ‘’there is urgent need for the shipping lines and terminal operators to break even to remain in afloat’’.  As a prelude to resolving the crisis between the wo parties, he had suggested that ‘’what shall be appropriate at the moment is for the Leadership of the NSC, to call for an emergency meeting of the stakeholders, shipping companies and the terminal operators to seat and work out a competitive increase in charges that is reasonable and affordable as obtained in in other maritime nations in the West African region.

The NAFF founder,  fears that if nothing urgent is done to  resolve the crisis  between the aggrieved Freigh Forwarders , shipping companies  and terminal operators  by NSC, the Nigerian shippers may forced to act   which may throw the country ‘s sea ports into chaos.

The eadership of NSC, may have read the handwriting on the wall that there is  danger ahead at the nation’s seaports  which may force  some shipping lines which are not ready to risk their vessels putting on Nigerian waters to divert their ocean going vessels laden with Nigerian -bound cargoes to the Autonomous Port Of Benin, Cotonou, Lome port in Togo or Tema port in Ghana and bring such imported cargoes  by road to Nigeria that the agency  has embarked on   dialogue, consultation  and initiated  communications at various levels  to resolve the conflict of interest between the two parties  without throwing the  country’s eaports into violence’’.

Whle Freight Forwarders have decried  the arbitrary increase of charges by the various  shipping companies and terminal operators,  Anniebonam may have introduced a new dimension into the crisis  as he has called  on Adewale Adeniyi, the Customs Comptroller General , ‘’ to ensure  that   appropriate  duty  assessment  on imported cargoes  followed standard  operating condition’’ as obtained in other maritime nations.

He had said that , ‘’ at the moment  imports  into the country  are over valued  for Customs purposes, noting   that ‘’the quest by the revenue generating agency  ‘’to meet up  its target  may have been the  immediate and remote cause  other than the pursuit  of trade facilitation  and compliance  to import and export  regulations’’.

He  asserted that  with the lifting of  ban  on the  43  items imposed by the previous Administration   by the Tinubu Administration, which requires   ‘’the compliance level   by importers and Exporters will increase if the right is done   in making correct  declarations for customs purposes’’.

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