Okonjo Iweala’s Losing Battle at the Ports

Containers-inspection-at-Apapa-Pot_0168 (photo-by-Sunday-Adedeji)

Containers-inspection-at-Apapa-Pot_0168 (photo-by-Sunday-Adedeji)

One after the other, regulatory agencies that were driven from the ports in 2011 to decongest the ports and reduce the cycle of clearing goods are finding their way back

He could hardly curtail his anger. As he walked along the corridor of the Nigeria Customs Service, NCS, Apapa Port Command, he bemoaned the insensitivity of officials of the command over their extortionist tendencies. Not minding who was listening to his complaint, this clearing agent who would not want his name mentioned for fear of reprisal told the magazine that clearing of goods through the command was akin to a camel passing through the eye of a needle. He said for almost three weeks, he had been parading the command just to clear some imported cars, but the fee officials of the command asked him to pay was just too high. He has, therefore, vowed to patronise other neighbouring seaports henceforth, where port charges are not so high.

Just as this agent was lamenting the high cost of clearing his goods, Samson Orien, a freight forwarder, said security operatives that were earlier sent packing from the ports were back, slowing down the pace of transacting business, thereby causing congestion at the port. “Sometime in 2011, some of our members through our association complained to government to streamline the number of agencies operating at the seaports because they contribute to port congestion, and in October 2011, government sent some of them packing. Now some of them are back secretly, and those agents who don’t know their rights fall prey to them,” he explained.

One of such regulatory agencies that is back at the port is the Nigerian Plant Quarantine Services, says Orien. He however explained that only unsuspecting clearing agents, especially those who are new to operations at the ports, do fall prey to their antics. According to him, “Those of us who know our onions always challenge this agency whenever they approach us, but for those who don’t know their right, or who are not conversant with the directives about those agencies that should operate or not, fall prey to them.”

There are also complaints from stakeholders that NCS is also making life difficult for importers. Since the expiration of the Destination Inspection, DI, contract, which saw the NSC taking over from Cotecna Destination Inspection Limited, SGS, Global Scan Systems Limited and Webb Fontaine, there has been complaint that NCS is finding it difficult managing the scheme and effectively running it.  The command too has introduced the Pre-Arrival Assessment Report, PAAR, which replaced the Risk Assessment Report, RAR.

Orien said when the aforementioned companies were in charge of the information-driven scheme, which entails providing computerised risk management system and scanning services for all imports into the country, operations at the ports were run smoothly, but “since the NCS has taken charge, the process has become slow, and there have been cases of irregularities, as well as corruption, whereby some officials extort monies from clearing agents.” It would be noted that the DI scheme is one that particularly thrives where the level of integrity is very high, but in the word of Olayiwola Shittu, national president, Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents, ANLCA, “some officers of the customs command constitute a clog in the wheel of progress.”

Goodie Ibru, president, Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry, LCCI, put it more succinctly when he said: “There should be no reason for three units of the customs to be involved in cargo examination. The number of security agencies also involved in the process should be reduced to a maximum of two.” But Emmanuel Ekpa, chief superintendent of Custom and the Apapa Command public relations officer, denied these claims. He said the command has trained and is still training officers to man the scheme, and they are not doing badly. On the proliferation of officials of the command in clearing of goods, he said although there are various departments handling different assignments, the NCS is one body and remains same.

The proliferation of government agencies at the ports is now giving importers and clearing agents a nightmare. Before the ban, when a cargo was to be examined, there were security operatives from the State Security Service, SSS, Directorate of Military Intelligence, DMI, National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, NDLEA, port police, regular police, plant quarantine, berth quarantine, officials of Standard Organisation of Nigeria, SON, National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, NAFDAC, and many more, who must perform their respective duties before clearance of goods. Because all these agencies must sign the documents forwarded by the clearing agents, the process of clearing goods was so slow, leading to congestion.  The actions of the agencies did not go unnoticed, so much so that in the World Bank report of 2011, Nigeria was ranked 133 among 183 economies in the world that were assessed. The bank beamed its searchlight on operations at the ports and concluded that excessive document requirements, burdensome customs’ procedures, inefficient port operations and inadequate infrastructure contributed to why the ports were always congested, leading to delay in clearing of goods by those doing business at the ports.

The ranking jolted the federal government into action. Shortly after the report was released, it set up a committee on port reforms, and one of the recommendations the committee came up with in removing all the impediments that caused delay in cargo clearance was the pruning down of agencies at the ports.

Narrowing down on the activities of the agencies, the report from the committee said, “These agencies through their daily activities have made business at the port very unfriendly as they cause delay in clearing of goods which ultimately adds to the cost of importation. It is against this background that this working group has painstakingly considered the inherent challenges and came up with short term, medium and long- term recommendations to ensure 48-hours cargo clearance.”

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, minister of finance and coordinating minister of the economy, thereafter handed down a presidential directive streamlining the number of regulatory agencies operating at the ports from about 16 to just six. By her directive, only duly accredited government agencies, such as the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, NIMASA, Nigerian Port Authority, NPA, NCS, Nigeria Immigration Service, NIS, Nigeria Police Force, and Port Health are authorised to be present at the ports.

Agencies that were banned from operating at the ports included the NDLEA, SON, and DMI. Others are Nigerian Plant Quarantine services, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission, ICPC, SSS, National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency, NESREA, and the Federal Environmental Protection Agency, FEPA. In ordering these agencies out of the ports, Okonjo-Iweala explained that whenever their attention is needed during clearance of any consignment, they would be invited by NCS, as it is done globally.

With the intervention of the federal government, Felix Inuks, general manager, Shipping/Logistics, national clearing and forwarding agency, NACFA, said that clearing of goods at the ports drastically reduced from about 39 days to less than 10 days. He said it is even possible to clear goods within five to six days if the unwanted agencies are kept at bay.

Expectedly, the affected regulatory agencies did not take their expulsion from the seaports lightly, and some actually lobbied to return. But because the Port Reform Monitoring Committee, earlier inaugurated to checkmate their activities, was serious about its mandate, it did not listen to them. Some stakeholders and freight forwarders who spoke to the magazine admitted that was not the first time these agencies were sent packing from the port, and they were unanimous in putting the blame at the foot of the government, who they claimed lack the tempo to sustain whatever directives it gave in recent past. With the report that some of the agencies are secretly back and operating at the ports, it appears the stakeholders are justified. Moreover, the issue of readmitting some of the ousted regulatory agencies back to the port came to light at the House of Representatives recently. The presidential committee on Port Reforms quickly dispelled rumours on the purported moves by the House to relocate the agencies back to the port.

Ibru, however, commended the pruning down of the regulatory agencies saying, “Since the presidential directive ordering the reduction in the number of the agencies, there have been notable improvements in cargo clearing process.”

It is to sustain the momentum that necessitated the outcry from stakeholders that searchlight be beamed on the port to checkmate the return of unwanted regulatory agencies, so that the objective of fast clearance of goods at the ports within 48 hours as is the case with other countries will be achieved.

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