Festac barge submerge, I am vindicated – Nweke, former NAGAFF President

Eugene Nweke

A seasoned freight forwarder and former President of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), Dr. Eugene Nweke has stated that the barge that submerged over the weekend at Festac in Lagos has vindicated him.   

In December 2020, Dr. Eugene Nweke had foreseen in a report published by PortNews a possible submerge of a barge “because many of the barges in operation were not structurally and technologically fit to sail the Lagos creeks and other creeks in the country.”

Nweke in the report called for the timely intervention of the Nigerian Shippers‘Council and the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) to begin the re-inspection and reclassification of barges in operation to save Nigerian importers’ investments running into several billions of Naira.  But there was no action until a barge actually submerged.

In the report, the Vice Chairman of Barge Operators Association of Nigeria (BOAN), Dr. Bunmi Olumekun dispelled Dr. Eugene Nweke’s foretold submerge as a layman opinion, saying that all barges being used by BOAN members were not rickety and seaworthy and could not submerge. 

Olumekun who waived Nweke’s vision with a finger said that he lacks knowledge about barge operations and maintained that their barges in operations were seaworthy and complied with the rules as set by NIWA. Although he did not rule out there are some illegal operators who are not registered.

According to him, ‘’Nweke lacks knowledge about barge operation; he should double-check his fact before foreseeing submerging of barges because our barges are certified by NIWA. They are seaworthy although we cannot rule out some illegal operators who use rickety barges but not BOAN members.’’

He maintained that barge operation has come to stay in Nigeria. ‘’All around the world, especially maritime countries, barges are being used to convey cargo from the ports and Nigeria, as a maritime nation, cannot be left behind and is big enough to use the barge for conveying her cargo. It is the way to go and has come to stay in Nigeria.’’

But speaking to PortNews on the latest Festac submerge and how to avert further submerge, Nweke reiterated his 2020 advice to the Nigerian Shippers’ Council and Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency to begin the re-inspection and reclassification of barges in operation to save Nigerian importers’ investments running into several billions of Naira.

According to him, “the nation’s port industry has had enough challenges which, for long, have defied logical solutions and called on the industry regulators to act fast to save the industry of any imminent safety danger which the rickety barges and their owners have posed. 

“Here again, while the ailing challenges confronting our ports and access roads to them seem to have defiled administrative solutions, it has however opened a fiesta of opportunity for barge operators in container operations (transfer) without recourse to safety and security standards and cost implications. Today, Nigeria‘s port creek has become a beehive if not a haven for rickety and non-seaworthy barges operations. Hence, the need for proper barge re-inspection and reclassification, and firm regulation by concerned authorities cannot be overemphasized.

“What is prevalent in the sector presently is nothing but an all-comers affair like in the case of any other sector including the freight forwarding sector devoid of proper regulation. Craft deployed for such critical operations is too old and rickety.

“Failingly, sooner than later, cases of barge submerge and loss of investment may become a new order capable of posing an operational challenge in the industry. The Nigerian Shippers’ Council must not only collaborate with the NIMASA to request and carry out a re-inspection and reclassification exercise on all barges plying our port creeks but ensure the effectiveness/readiness of its rescue operations/apparatus in the face of distress.”

He maintained that many barge operators who ventured into the business for profit and monopoly sake lack expertise and hide the service component of their freight billings.

“Blanket freight charges as obtained in the barge operations are a mere rip-off. There is an urgent need for the Nigerian Shippers’ Council to reposition and properly regulate the barge operations as a deserving sector of the maritime industry.

“Unfortunately, some port operators seem to have signed an MoU purely for profit sake, not for safety and security sake. Port terminal operators have never taken any meaningful step to ensure the sea and operational worthiness of the crafts when engaging the barge operators,” the former NAGAFF President counselled

Although barge operators have suspended operations for two days to take stock, Nweke said that was not the solution and calling for a technical regulator to monitor the activities of barge operators in the industry.

“A technical regulation is required to engender a re-evaluation, reclassification and recertification of the barge before deploying same into our waters. In a nutshell, the seaworthiness of the barge must be verified and recertified and to know years of service before deployment. To state the obvious, many of the barges are begging for urgent refurbishing. Who says steels don’t have a life span or expiration date?

“Operational regulation is also required in terms of moderating sailing times, schedules, restructuring and instituting operational procedures in line with international best standards and safety practices,” said  Nweke who informed that the affected containers were not covered by any form of insurance.

“Just imagine the huge loss and the pains the cargo owners are going through; an operational hazard that is avoidable but because someone in an executive position allowed the administrative laxity to thrive in delicate and sensitive Industry engagements. In a sane environment, someone will have voluntarily resigned from office for failing in his or her duty. But it is not so in an atmosphere where corrupt practices thrive,” said he.

He reiterated the need for an economic regulator whose functions are to engender a harmonised pricing system in relation to defining components of freights and services rates and publishing the same for public consumption.

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