Inland Containers Nigeria Ltd. (ICNL) is a leading integrated shipping and logistics company in Nigeria, providing full services in freight forwarding, shipping and logistics solutions via its Inland Container Terminal in Kano and Kaduna dry ports. In this interview with TOLA ADENUBI, ICNL Managing Director, Ismail Yusuf speaks on challenges confronting cargo evacuation from ports in Lagos. Excerpts.
WITH the prevalence of Covid-19 and a lockdown that spanned more than three months, was ICNL operation affected by this unexpected event that has shaped 2020?
Like other firms, ICNL suffered from the effect of the lockdown that was the consequence outbreak of Covid-19. Yes, the ports were allowed to continue operation, but the jobs we were doing at that period were jobs that our customers had ordered for before the lockdown. This was also due to the issue of Forex restrictions imposed by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). Many places where our customers ordered their goods from were all under lockdown as at that period. We were also faced with the challenges of transferring goods that were on ground to different parts of the country due to the movement restriction imposed by various state governments to curtail the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The ports in Lagos are currently congested. Is that also affecting operations at ICNL?
The congestion inside the ports has ensured that we spend more on operations that usually does not cost us much before. Take for example, some of my trucks that come to the Lagos ports from Kano and Kaduna spend about two weeks before they are able to enter the ports. This is despite paying through different roadblocks and checkpoints along the ports access roads to get to the port gate. At times, things become more difficult when these trucks are turned back at the port gate by security officials. In such cases, after paying through several checkpoints and roadblocks along the ports access roads, if a truck gets to the port gate and gets turned back, it starts all over again because all the payment made at those various checkpoints are not documented. So, at times, a truck can pay roadblocks and checkpoints twice on just one trip because security officials at the port gate turned the truck back due to reasons best known to them. If a truck now eventually gets into the ports, it faces another problem of lack of coordination of containers inside the port terminals. Many of the containers stacked inside the port terminals are not properly arranged for easy location and carriage. There is much more to do for our regulators in terms of proper arrangement of containers inside the port terminals. At times, it takes close to an hour for a cargo owner to locate his cargo. I think Nigerian ports can do better than this.
You said your trucks pay at all manners of roadblocks and checkpoints before accessing the ports in Lagos. Like how much does it cost a truck to go through this un-receipted payment regime?
This money paid to the various roadblocks and checkpoints along the ports access roads are not fixed. Depending on the drivers of the trucks, this payment ranges between N50,000 to N100,000. Some drivers know how to maneuver their way through these checkpoints and roadblocks. All we know is that these payments are not fixed and no receipts are issued after they are made. If the government can enforce an electronic call-up regime at the ports, the issue of illegal roadblocks and checkpoints will become history because there won’t be any need for any truck driver to want to jump the queue.
Has the government certified the two inland container terminals linked to ICNL in Kano and Kaduna as port of origin and destination?
The inland container terminal in Kano which is operated by ICNL is not yet a port, but a bonded terminal. At Kano, we are still operating our normal bond where containers are transferred from Lagos to Kano, and Customs clearance and examination is carried out on those containers in the presence of their owners or representatives, before they are moved out to their final destinations. In Kaduna, the Federal Government has declared and gazetted the facility there as a port of origin and final destination.
The Kano State government is currently investing and promoting another inland container terminal, the Dala Inland container terminal in Kano. Is ICNL prepared for the expected competition this might bring?
Competition is good for business because it allows operators to stay on their toes. It brings out efficiency in operations. That the Kano State government is investing in Dala inland container terminal or port does not mean it will not promote others to grow. The more inland container ports we have in Kano, the better for the business community.
How does ICNL evacuate cargoes from the ports to Kano and Kaduna? Has it been through more of rail than the road or more of road than the rail?
When the hinterland container terminals were established in Kano and Kaduna, the best practice of cargo evacuation from the ports in Lagos has always been through the rail. That is what we started with in the 80’s when the hinterland terminals were established by ICNL in Kano and Kaduna. However, due to capacity challenges that bedeviled the nation’s rail sector over the years, we began to tilt towards more road evacuation of cargoes from the Lagos ports than rail. Presently, as I am talking to you, we do road evacuation of cargoes from Lagos to Kano and Kaduna. If the rail comes back due to recent efforts of the present administration of President Mohammadu Buhari, we will shift back to rail because it is cheaper and more efficient. On a daily basis, we move about 50 containers from the ports to Kano and Kaduna. In a week, we move about 300 to 400 containers up North from Lagos. On a monthly basis, we move about 1000 and 1,200 containers from the ports in Lagos up North. It’s cheaper if this is done through rail, but as I said, the rail sector currently lacks the capacity to meet our demand, so we currently do all this through the road.
Are there challenges tied to moving 1,200 containers from Lagos to Kano, Kaduna by road every month?
Yes, there are challenges and we hope the government can help us solve these issues. First among our challenges is the state of the roads. The roads are in very terrible conditions. From Oyo State to Niger State, the roads are very bad. The Birnin Gwarri axis has been taken over by bandits who attack motorists along that route, so everybody is now passing through Akwa, Bida, Lapai and Suleja axis to get to Kano and Kaduna areas. There is a bridge in Niger State that motorists have to pass through to get to Suleja, it is called the Lapai bridge. That bridge has been cut off and is causing motorists problems. We need the government to help us fix this bridge and also the roads. If the rail is working, and we are moving about 200 containers every day, it will reduce the cost of what we spend on movement of cargoes from Lagos up North. Again, rail movement of cargoes is the safest compared to road movement of cargoes. It will be extremely difficult for anybody to mount any obstruction to stop a moving train, unlike what bandits do on the roads to stop trucks and rob them. Aside from being more efficient and cheaper, rail movement of cargoes is more secure compared to movement of cargoes via the road.
Doing business, how do Nigerian ports compare to other African ports?
There are too many agencies of government inside the ports in Nigeria. The port is supposed to be for Customs alone, other agencies are supposed to be invited when the need arises. We were in South Africa; and I did not even see any Customs officer inside the ports. When I asked them how they pay duty, they said duty is paid electronically even before the cargo arrives at the ports in South Africa. The only people we met inside the ports in South Africa were the truck drivers and the terminal operator. All the containers were stacked electronically. The driver will just go to where the containers are stacked and pick it up compared to Nigerian ports where containers are scattered everywhere.
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