Foreign shipping companies have hijacked barge operations exclusively reserved by law for indigenous operators in the Nigerian coastal waters, BAYO AKOMOLAFE reports
In 2018, Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) approved the use of barges to move containers out of Lagos and Tincan Island port as part of efforts to ease gridlock and address congestion at the various port terminals. Barges are long flat bottomed boats used to convey freights through lagoon, canals and rivers. But three years after the approval, there have been cases of impunity, accidents and blames between the operators and regulators.
It was learnt that importers have lost a lot of consignments in the Lagos lagoon because of high tide and rickety vessels used in transporting cargoes. For instance, the President, Barge Operators Association of Nigeria (BOAN), Mr. Edeme Kelikume, said the high spate of barge accidents in recent time could be traced to improper loading by operators and lack of stability on the barges. He stressed the need for the regulatory bodies to inspect and certify the barges, saying those that fail the test would be removed from the system. Also, he said that the association would write terminals and shipping companies not to engage barges, which fail the test. He called on regulators – the Nigeria Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA), Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) and Nigerian Navy – to address issues of overlapping functions and duplication, which, he claimed, have affected barge operation. Kelikume stated that over one million Twenty Equivalent Units (TEUs) and more than 10,000 trucks had been moved by barges in the last three years amid the chaotic port access roads.
Nevertheless, NIWA has decried that there were substandard tugboats and barges moving cargoes from Apapa port to Ikorodu and Epe on Lagos waterways. Its Lagos Area Manager, Sarat Braimah, said that as a result of the congestion at the ports, NPA informed NIWA that they had given some people licence to lift cargoes by barges, using the inland waterways. However, she noted that two months after the commencement of cargo evacuation by barges at the seaports, containers were falling into the lagoon because of the quality of tugboats and barges used. Regardless of the complaints, BOAN blamed the issue on lack of proper regulation, saying that there were some illegal operators in the industry operating without license.
The association raised the alarm that some multinational shipping companies had hijacked the business from the local operators, leading to lack of job. According to BOAN, “we are beginning to see the influx of multinationals coming to take business that is meant for indigenous companies. If you look at the Act that set up NPA, NIMASA, NIWA and the local content Act, these people do not have any right to set up these companies and do barging, especially now that we are having issues of insecurity in this country. When the time comes, we are going to start mentioning their names.”
Also, Mr. Wilson Ugbo of Alliance Integrated Services alleged that the affected shipping companies picked some Nigerians to set up companies to start doing businesses that the law reserves for Nigerians only. Ugbo explained that the foreigners were not licensed and did not pass through NPA before they embarked on operations. He noted that the only way foreigner could come into the business was when the local companies had no capacity or competence to do it. Ugbo noted: “We cannot survive if government do not support us. They should find out these companies setting up businesses and if they remove the veil, they would see that some big companies are beginning to come in.” He explained that those working for the foreign shipping companies, were not members of BOAN. “With what is happening now, we cannot compel them to be members of BOAN because there is freedom of association, but we are pushing for a situation where we can all be under one body, train everybody and give them measures to build the sector. “We need government and all the regulatory agencies to support BOAN, barging is a business that is thriving all over the world, its enough to drive our GDP,” he noted.
Worried by loss and illegalities on the waterways, NPA said that it had rolled out some requirements for barge operations, saying that operations must comply with all extant regulations and that the barges to be deployed should be certified by NIMASA for seaworthiness. For instance, the Authority emphasised that the barges and cargo must have the appropriate insurance cover by a reputable insurance company, adding that the operator must seek clarification from NPA harbour master if the masters of the tugs to be deployed would require Pilotage Exemption Certificates (PEC) and ensure same where required. It said: “The operator shall submit N50 million unconditional bank bond in favour of NPA to qualify for this operation within 10 working days of submitting the acceptance letter. “At the commencement of any towage operation, port operations or signal station shall be informed so as to factor the movement into the traffic management within the channel to avoid the risk of collision. “The operator shall furnish the traffic department of the port with monthly report on its activities, a copy of which should be referred to the office of the assistant general manager, operations HQ for record purpose. “The renewal of your license shall be subject to the outcome of the quarterly oversight review of your operations by the standing committee to ensure you have addressed all observations of the inspection team, particularly issues of safety in operation. The operator shall indemnify the authority against all aspects of the operation.”
The three agencies of government – NIWA, NIMASA and NPA – regulating barge operations in the country’s waterways must enforce the Act guiding the business within their domains.