Foreign shipowners have slammed a $15,000 (N5.4 million) surcharge on Nigerian importers due to their inability to discharge cargoes at the Rivers and Onne port complex caused by the disruption of ports operation in the state.
Recall that governor Nyesome Wike has imposed a 24-hour lockdown on Port Harcourt and Obi Akpor local government areas over the COVID-19 pandemic and has refused to place port workers under essential duty contrary to the guidelines of the presidential task force on COVID-19 which classified port operations as essential services.
The federal government had said despite lockdown, ports should remain open to trade so as to facilitate importation and delivery of essential goods, such as foods and medical supplies.
But in the last one week, many port workers, including staffers of the regulatory Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), terminal operators, shipping agents and dockworkers have been arrested, with vehicles conveying them to work impounded.
However, due to the inability of port workers to have access to their facilities, it has become impossible for vessels to berth and discharge consignments especially at Onne port thereby leading to long vessel queues at anchorage.
Speaking on the development, Olufemi MacJulius of Fejudam Shipping Services, said the vessel carrying his bulk cargo of wheat is waiting at neighbouring Bonny because it cannot approach Port Harcourt as a result of the lockdown.
“We pay a demurrage of $15,000 every day because the vessel is not able to berth as a result of the fact that port workers, including pilots and stevedores cannot come to work out of fear of arrest and detention, if not prosecution by the Rivers state government,” he said.
“A vessel laden with a consignment of Muriate of Potash (blended with urea and other compounds to make fertilizer) was unable to berth at the Onne Ports as a result of the same situation.” The inability to discharge this consignment may affect planting this year, given that the rains are already here.
Another consignee, the managing director of Africa Atlantic International Agencies Daniel Kalu, said the vessel transporting his consignment of 4,500 metric tons of frozen mackerel fish worth millions of euros have been unable to berth at the Rivers Port for about two weeks, a situation which he said could make his company lose the entire consignment.
“Even if we get the consignment out now, we already would have lost half of our investment because the fish has lost quality and we won’t be able to sell at the standard price,” he said.
“That is not to speak of the demurrage that we must pay to ship owners for keeping their vessels longer than expected. We pay a demurrage of 7800 US dollars per day.”
He added that the same vessel had called in and discharged cargo at the Lagos ports before heading into Port Harcourt where activities are on standstill.
The port users expressed worry that apart from the loses that investors in perishable goods like frozen fish and wheat for food processing will incur from the closure of the ports, the situation will affect the food supply chain in the south-south and south-east regions of the country as well as the image of Nigeria in the international maritime community.
Meanwhile, the Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria (MWUN) whose members were arrested by the state taskforce has insisted on a nationwide strike except their members are released from the custody of the state government.
The association had said being essential services providers, the dockworkers ought to be allowed to work at all seaports in the country, especially as most seaports are under the ownership and control of the federal government.
Adewale Adeyanju, president-general, MWUN in a statement said, “We wish to use this medium to state that if nothing is done to effect the release of our members, the union will have no option but to withdraw our services in the entire nation’s seaport, terminals and jetties in solidarity with our detained members as an injury to one is an injury to all.
“We were informed that the affected dockworkers were returning from essential service operations to BUA/PTOL terminal, Port Harcourt and were unlawfully and forcefully arrested, and detained by Rivers State Taskforce on enforcing COVID-19 Lockdown despite presenting duly signed ‘Essential Duty Port Pass’ issued by the NPA.”