Monrovia – The port of Monrovia, dubbed the gateway to Liberia has come a long way. At the height of the civil war, the port was the setting for the demise of former President Samuel Doe who was captured after a fierce battle with forces loyal to Prince Y. Johnson on September 10, 1990.
As far back as the second World War when U.S. military forces landed in Liberia to ensure the flow of rubber exports for use in wartime materials, the port has remained a relevant part of Liberia’s economy. U.S. forces during WWII improved the port facilities in Monrovia and even built an artificial harbor and in 1948, the new 750 acres (3.0 km2) bay opened. In 1971, Liberia took over the port from an American company and created the National Port Authority to operate the facility.
But Doe’s capture and the turning over of the port to West African Peacekeeping Force(ECOMOG) paved the way for aid agencies to use the port as a key delivery point for food and other necessities for Liberians stranded, homeless and hungry.
24-Hour Navigation a Boost The end of the war came with new challenges and endless possibilities at a nerve center with its own limitations. Bottlenecks and delays coupled with the lack of capacity and machinery made the passage of vessels a bothersome adventure for local and international businesses in the post-war nation. Quite recently, fortunes changed for the better with the installation of a new port navigation system that enables 24-hour access to the port for the first time in three decades. The system will facilitate a reduction in the current two-day average stay by container vessels calling at Monrovia, which previously could not depart the port if loading and unloading operations were completed after 6 p.m. local time. Mr. David Williams, Managing Director of the National Port Authority, in an exclusive interview with FrontPageAfrica explains that the Aids to Navigation is paramount to the safe passage of vessels entering and leaving a port. “The twenty-four hour operations, reduces a vessel’s turnaround time in port; meaning that a vessel may berth at any hour of the day and leave the port at any hour, day or night. Transit time of a vessel is reduced by about twelve hours. The installation of aids to navigation brings the port to its normal operating time, 24 hours around the clock, which brings it on par, with respect to berthing and unberthing, with other ports in the region and the world at large.”
APM in Agreement Mr. George Adjei, managing director, APM Terminals Liberia said recently that the return to 24-hour accessibility to the port is another major milestone in the development of the Liberian economy as a global trading partner. “It increases the ability of APM Terminals Liberia to serve the people and businesses of Liberia, and the region.”
The installation of the Aids to Navigation is only the latest in a recent wave of steps aimed at returning the port to its pre-war or even better status. The new navigation system is expected to increase the traffic and trade volumes at the port especially in the wake of the Liberia’s recent accession to the World Trade Organization. The WTO formally approved Liberia’s membership in December of last year and the accession to the global trade body was ratified by the Liberian government earlier this month. The timing of the Accession completion could not have come at a better time for the port which has seen a laundry listing of consumer complaints complicate the workings of the management which has had to struggle in the past with handling capabilities and process particularly in clearing goods. It is an issue Mr. Williams believes is now a thing of the past. “A one-stop-shop is presently in operation at the Port, and sort of alleviates the process of moving between offices for processing document. Admittedly there was equipment handling shortage in the facility. The service provider with respect to cargo movement has increase the number of equipment to enhance delivery. There are currently about ten (10) reach stackers, ten (10) TT’s and a number of Forklifts. We have also extended our cargo clearing time from 5:00PM-7:00PM. We have also created additional windows for cargo processing and banking to reduce waiting time in the process of clearing.”
Increase Revenue for Government In addition, the NPA management recently signed a contract value at over US$6 million with Smit Lamnalco for the supply of marine crafts, marking the second for several procurable items under the terms and conditions of the Kuwaiti Loan for the rehabilitation of the Greenville Port in Sinoe County. For Williams, the move will lead to increase revenue for government. “The Port of Greenville was once the largest log exporting port on the West African Coast, but business dwindled as a result of Liberia’s political upheaval over nearly three decades. The objective of the Kuwait Loan is to revitalize the Port of Greenville into a vibrant port with the appropriate infrastructure and equipment, and creating massive job opportunities, increase revenue from towage and pilotage, safe berthing of vessels, secure port environment for the transaction of port activities along the berth, basin and the port at large.” Additionally, in the past few years, the Maersk Group’s has invested $34.5 million to double capacity to 200,000 TEUs by 2017 at the facility to support a projected expansion in trade. APMT began operations in Monrovia in February of 2011, has invested over $100 million in the facility to date. But all this would not have been possible without perseverance and overcoming earlier obstacles. When the Sirleaf administration took over in 2006, the country’s only functioning seaport was a quagmire, riddled by corruption, cargo theft, and a glut of untrained workers.
Changing Faces in Management The port has changed managers four times from 2006 through 2011, Togba Ngangana, George Tubman and Matilda Parker, successive managing directors at the NPA, enacted a series of reforms to restore the authority and port operations. It took a collective decision by the government and stakeholders to hire internationally recruited financial controllers to work with NPA directors on fiscal matters.
But even amid the streamlining effort, the port endured issues of accountability and allegations of corruption. Last July, the government indicted the former NPA Managing Director, Matilda Parker and two others for alleged economic sabotage, theft of property and criminal conspiracy. The Special Grand Jurors for the County of Montserrado upon oath unsealed the indictment against Parker, suspended NPA Comptroller, Christina Kpabar Paelay and the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Denmar Enterprise, Deneah M. Flomo for allegedly robbing government of US$837,950. The case is currently in the courts. For a state-owned enterprise that has seen the worse including strikes and disruptions in 2010 that saw the entire workforce under the banner of the Dock Workers Union go on strike over bad labor practices, and stall activities for an entire day, it has come full circle. A similar strike in 1981 crippled the port for a month before the late President Doe dismissed the strikers. Today, Williams says relationship between the port and Truckers Association as well as the dock workers have improved. “The relationship with the Port Truckers Association is cordial. As a Port Authority we set the rules, in terms of access to the port and Organization like the Port Truckers Association has adhered to it. Every action or program by the Port Truckers Association operating in the Port is channeled through the Port for advice and subsequent approval. The Port Truckers Association is an integral part of the port operations and the safe delivery of goods and services.” For the foreseeable future, Mr. Williams says he sees no current major obstacles - structurally or politically, that could stall the ongoing revival of the port. “Progress is however being undertaking on an incremental basis. i.e. the internal road of the Freeport, using PPP (Public Private Partnership) approach to port development, after which, focus will be directed to the Administrative Headquarters at Denco’s office complex.” Another intriguing aspect to the rejuvenation of the port is the port is the recent installation of the Contingency Fuel Unloading Facility which is expected to deliver petroleum products i. e. Gasoline & Diesel to LPRC tanks as an alternative measure for the supply of fuel to the country should the existing fuel unloading jetty goes down, due to its deplorable condition. New Fuel Oil Jetty Under Construction Williams explains that the installation of petroleum facilities at one of the new berth (Jetty) is an alternative measure for the supply of fuel to the country should the existing fuel unloading jetty goes down, due to its deplorable condition. “Presently, a new Fuel Oil Jetty is under construction which when completed will replace the current Oil Jetty which has live its life and is in a state of disrepair. The New Oil Terminal is expected to accommodate vessels up to sixty thousand deadweight tonnes, as compared to the current fifteen thousand tonnes.” Besides the infrastructural changes, Mr. Williams says the NPA is fully engaged with the revitalization of the ports of Greenville and Harper. “Currently, Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) has completed their mini mill for the production of Crude Palm Oil (“CPO”) for local consumption and is in the process of building their Baulking Station in the port for the storage of CPO for export. Once the port is fully operationalized, we expect CPO, logging, and iron ore to be shipped through the port and will lead to more employment for the residents of Sinoe County. Similarly, as you may or may not be aware Harper Port is currently undergoing development initiatives. Once the port is modernized this will also lead to more employment and a free flow of goods and services. In the southeast over the past year, we have hired residents for both Harper and Greenville in various capacities.” While Williams sees an upswing in the shifting fortunes of the port, he says it is still a bit early to make comparisons, particularly amongst ports in the West African sub-region. “At this juncture comparison should not and cannot be made to other West African Ports. Our recovery and development is ongoing.” Williams recalls that the Freeport of Monrovia used to be transshipment because of the stability enjoyed and duties payment. But the civil war greatly affected the country and left the port infrastructures into ruins, neglect of facilitates. “During this period, we lost the market. We are now rebuilding our infrastructure, modern marginal quay, modern cargo handling equipment, increase in cargo turnaround time but let me say the port can’t operate in isolation of national development and diversity in economic activities around the country i.e. road connections, remigration of our people, jobs and movement of goods and services. These are factors that can triggle port productivity. So places like Ghana and Ivory Coast made significant infrastructures development. We are catching up giving the level of projects now and the potential for future investment.”
Revival on Course – No Turning Back For now, Williams is confident that Liberia has seen the worst of the nagging bottlenecks and complication shippers and consumers encountered in the past. “With a focus and sense of direction for progress and development, in so doing bottlenecks, obstacles and impediments can be overcome.” Williams says the port revival being witnessed is part of a strength-based approach he envisioned when he ascended to the post. “I had to identify the strength of my colleagues. My goal was to use a strength based approach and collaboratively working to identify projects in sync with GOL development agenda i.e Roads, intermodal means of transporting goods, and above all making the Port efficient and regaining the transshipment trade; Liberia prior to the war years was the Hub for transshipment. As a result, Williams says management embarked vigorously on a discussion process as to the better way to revitalize the Port System. “It was with this mindset and Government Agenda for Transformation (AFT) that we rigorously initiated such programs as: rehabilitation of the Greenville Port to create an enabling environment for investors; Aids to Navigation for 24/hours operations at all of our Ports; Manpower Development, Dredging of the Port, Rigid Pavement of Internal Roads at the Freeport of Monrovia, Rehabilitation of the Port of Harper, the use of PPP ( Public Private Partnership) approach to Port development a global trend, collaborating with our partners to make the Port a true gateway to the economy i.e LRA, LPRC, APMT, Firestone, Iron Ore Concession Companies, etc.”