Federal Government’s prompt response to the COVID-19 pandemic curtailed spread of the virus through Nigeria’s seaports. This is unlike many developed nations, which shut seaport operations with dire economic consequences.

The outbreak of the coronavirus in the Wuhan province of China sometime in December 2019, definitely took the world unawares. Thus no one, including developed countries with very sophisticated healthcare systems thought it could have such devastating effects, as the entire global economy had to shut down to prevent its spread. The hydra-headed nature of the ailment, given that it is novel compounded the situation, as no particular drug or vaccine is known as reliable cure, thus leading to very high rate of mortality. Expectedly, there were predictions that Africa, given its poor health systems might become the epicentre of the virus. There were apprehensions that densely populated countries in the continent including Nigeria would have corpses litter the streets if adequate care not taken.

It was in the light of these global concerns that the Federal Government of Nigeria took prompt and adequate measures towards the prevention and control of the spread of the virus. President Muammadu Buhari rose to the occasion, in what many described as a rare display of purposeful leadership by rallying the governments of the 36 states of the federation including the Federal Capital Territory FCT, Abuja and other government agencies, including the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency NIMASA. For instance, the President immediately set up the Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19, headed by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation SGF, Boss Mustafa. The taskforce was primarily charged with the responsibility of coordinating the government’s response mechanisms against the pandemic. The taskforce, which also works in cooperation with the Federal Ministry of Health and the National Centre for Disease Control NCDC, as well as Ministry of Health in all the 36 states of the federation and Abuja, the FCT, among several others, coordinates the response mechanisms. The essence of centralising the government response mechanisms was to ensure effective coordination and cohesion among the relevant health institutions in the country. In line with this, anti-COVID-19 protocols were issued, one of which was restrictions in flight operations at the nation’s airports.

 Similarly, the Federal Government through the Port Health Office, a unit of the Federal Ministry of Health placed vessels from some Asian countries especially China, Japan, Thailand and South Korea on strict surveillance. These countries then had the highest number of people that tested positive to the disease and the attendant high casualty figures in some of these countries.

The motive behind this restriction was to curtail influx of foreign nationals, especially from high risk countries with a view to checkmating the spread of disease in Nigeria through her seaports and other land borders, though the country was yet to record its first case at that time.

Under the new regulations at the seaports, all vessels coming to Nigeria from China, Thailand, Japan, South Korea and any other affected country must notify the Port Health Services, stationed at the seaports and land borders, failing which the vessel would not be allowed into Nigeria’s territory.

The President also announced a total lockdown on Lagos and Ogun States as well as the FCT, Abuja, which then recorded the highest cases of persons that had tested positive to the COVID-19 virus. In addition to making funds available to the authorities in these three locations, the President also encouraged other state governments to impose partial lockdown in their various states in addition to other measures that could stem the spread of the pandemic. In addition to these measures in the affected areas, the government also imposed a temporary restriction on inter-state travels across the country, which was reviewed from time to time as occasion demanded.

The President however directed that all the nation’s seaports should be allowed to operate at full capacity, having classified them as providers of essential services. This policy no doubt achieved its dual purposes of ensuring that the nation’s supply chain ran its full course while also curtailing the spread of the virus, as no major incident has been recorded around the seaports. It is therefore on record that shippers (importers and exporters took delivery of their consignments even while the lockdown lasted under a seamless and efficient port operation. Even with this, the nation has not recorded any major issue at the seaports in relation to the COVID-19, as the virus has been put under control, especially at Nigeria’s seaport facilities, which is a major feat.

NIMASA DG, Jamoh (middle) presenting fast intervention boat to Lagos State Government to enhance movement of COVID-19 response materials and other logistics

It is impressive to note that this feat was achieves at a time the operations of so many seaports even among developed economies of the world were completely shut down while several others were left to operate skeletally, leading to the unprecedented disruptions in the supply chains of the affected countries.

NIMASA, Nigeria’s apex maritime regulatory agency, unarguably played a very leading role in achieving this rare feat, having also swung into action immediately. This is even more commendable given the fact that the new Management team led by Dr. Bashir Yusuf Jamoh had just taken over the reins of leadership of the agency less than one month earlier. This, to many stakeholders provided the first acid test for the new management in which it proved itself worthy. It is therefore on record that the agency remains one of the first corporate bodies to to take concrete steps toward stemming the spread of the virus. To this effect, NIMASA did not waste any moment in reaching out to both Lagos and Federal Governments on the fight against the pandemic.

NIMASAspecifically, committed itself to the government’s resolve to fight the spread of the virus in the country by deploying both human and material resources. For instance, the agency donated a total of 20 ventilators to the Federal Government in addition to the donation of N50 million; with N30 million going to the Presidential Committee on COVID-19 Intervention and N20 million to the Lagos State Government to boost its efforts at controlling the spread of the pandemic. This gesture was strategic, given that Lagos, apart from being the most affected state, also houses the country’s to biggest cargo seaports, the Lagos Ports Complex, and the Tin Can Island Ports Complex, both in Apapa. The DG also announced that NIMASA has volunteered six of its fast intervention vessels to facilitate movement of health workers and other logistics in the maritime industry, just as volunteers from the agency were deployed to join first responders from the NCDC, Lagos State and other states in managing the spread of the pandemic.

While officially presenting these items, Jamoh said: “The coronavirus pandemic is upon humanity. It came suddenly upon a virtually unprepared world, and demands drastic actions from all and sundry to contain the virus and salvage our common humanity. We are concerned about the effects of the pandemic on the socio-economic life of the country, especially at a time NIMASA, Nigeria’s maritime industry regulator, is driving a Blue Economy campaign, to make maritime a key part of President Muhammadu Buhari’s economic diversification agenda.”                                                                                                                                                The agency had also volunteered four fully equipped brand new ambulances, four Hilux trucks and four 36- sitter coaster buses to support and facilitate land based transport and logistics in the Federal Capital Territory Abuja, Lagos, Delta, Rivers, Cross River and Kaduna States.                                                                                                           Other medical equipment donated by the agency to enhance the fight against the COVID- 19 in Nigeria include, 60 beds, 20 -patient ICU monitors, 20 oxygen concentrator, 10 infusion pump, 10 syringe pump, 20 oxygen giving set, 10 suction machine and 100 sets of personal protective equipment PPE, among others.                                                                                                                  “This is our little contribution to aid the robust efforts of the Federal and State Governments to fight the virus. It is our token of love, concern for Nigerians and a gesture of appreciation to the authorities’ proactive measures in this collective fight against a common enemy”, Jamoh added.    

In line with the physical distancing protocol announced by the NCDC as part of measures to contain the spread of the virus, the agency streamlined its operations as part of efforts to curtail the spread of the deadly Corona Virus. This was also in compliance with government’s directives to Ministries, Departments and Agencies MDAs contained in a memo issued by the Office of the Head of Service of the Federation that all non-essential public servants on grades level 12 and below should stay and work from home.

The agency therefore asked members of staff within the category to comply with the directive as a measure to curtail the spread of the pandemic. A statement issued by the agency then said: “In furtherance to procedures in the prevention of spread of the deadly coronavirus among staffers and external stakeholders of the agency, the Executive Management led by the Director General, Dr. Bashir Jamoh further directs all heads of departments, units and zonal coordinators to identify some essential staffers who will be on duty in their locations on a rotational basis for the next couple of weeks, in order not to totally halt the operations of the agency until the situation improves.                                                                                                                                   “Furthermore, all visits to the agency are restricted to Tuesdays and Thursdays between 12noon and 2pm only, for visitors of Assistant Directors and above. Shipping companies and agencies as well as other critical stakeholders who transact business with operational departments and units of the agency are however exempted from this condition. The media and others can reach the agency on the various online platforms; among others.                                                                                                               “The management further advises all staffers that have traveled to countries with high incidences of COVID-19 recently to self-isolate for 14 days and inform the NIMASA Search and Rescue Base SRBC Clinic for close monitoring.                                                                                                                         “The agency equally advises all staffers and citizens to familiarise themselves with the much publicised precautionary measures on COVID-19, such as a high level of hygiene, physical distancing, avoiding large gatherings and above, all staying safe during this period”.

In all these the agency did not lose sight of the need for strategic partnership among other agencies and stakeholders in fighting the pandemic and therefore extended hands of partnership to other agencies and stakeholders including shipping companies and terminal operators, among others.The DG had while playing host to other stakeholders during one of such strategic partnership meetings, reiterated NIMASA’s commitment towards the growth and development of the country’s shipping industry. He also said that while the government is concerned about the lives of the citizens in the country, the economy must be sustained, hence the need for collaboration with relevant agencies.

It was in the light of this that the agency issued guidelines for vessels calling at the nation’s seaports in line with the efforts of the government towards ensuring that shipping activities continued in a manner that would not allow further spread of the virus.                                         While also acknowledging the fact that the coronavirus pandemic has slowed down activities in the industry, he appealed for more understanding as the global economy is going through a trying time, of which Nigeria is not exempted.                                                                                                      “We are in trying times and all hands must be on deck to sustain the Nigerian economy. Let me assure all stakeholders and the shipping community that as a regulatory agency we will continue to embrace collaboration. This is a phase and it will soon be over, because today’s pains are necessary for tomorrow’s gains.                                                                                                                         “The recent guidelines issued by NIMASA were based on consultations with the International Maritime Organisation IMO and in line with best global practices, which are still open to review as time goes on, all in the best interest of everybody involved.                                                            “The world was not prepared for the pandemic and that is why we are trying to ease the pressure on our industry, while taking necessary precautions to safeguard lives. We will continue to review these guidelines where necessary to ensure that shipping does not suffer, especially when it comes to movement of medical facilities through the sea”, the DG also said.

Currently, the total number of cases of the pandemic across the globe stands at about 61.6million persons, 1.44million deaths and well over 39.4million persons, who recovered, Nigeria with a population size of over 200million accounts for about 67, 220 persons infected by the virus, 62, 686 and 1, 171 deaths, one can confidently say that the country has no doubt done well in containing the pandemic. It is also a statement of fact that NIMASA remains a strategic partner that made this great feat possible.