The way we are
There is a major problem at our seaports and that problem is basically that of an ambiguous clearing system. Unfortunately until the Minister of Transport, Senator Idris Umar, intervened penultimate week, the problem had almost degenerated to an unmanageable level with the principal actors digging in their heels.
Customs officers and their agents were shouting themselves hoarse and heaping all the blame on terminal operators. Senior government officials who visited the port were overwhelmed by the loud voices of the agents and in an attempt to please them, took rather simplistic paths and made public pronouncements that compounded the situation.
It was the Transport Minister’s intervention that brought calm to the whole situation. He adopted a completely different approach. He decided to set up a committee made up of all the stakeholders to critically examine the various issues and make recommendations to government. He also gave them a deadline of one week. That was leadership in action; contrary to the unproductive approach of other government officials including the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Maritime Services, Leke Oyewole.
I am aware that the Committee set up by the Minister has completed its assignment and submitted its report last Friday. I have seen the report but I must state that the recommendations made will only address the problem in the short term. We need a long term solution to port congestion so that we don’t keep going through this every now and then.
To evolve a long term solution, it is important to understand the real cause of the problem and to do this; I like to share an online post with you.
Responding to the issue of corruption at the port, a fellow maritime reporter posted the following on our website:
Is there any government agency that is as corrupt as the Nigeria Customs Service?
Just the other day we were with the Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Shippers' Council, Mr. Hassan Bello, who paid an unscheduled to the Tin Can Island Container Terminal (TICT) and we were opportuned to visit the office of the Officer in Charge of the Ashaye car park, a Deputy Comptroller of Customs whose name I know but cannot mention.
In the course of the visit, my colleagues placed their recording device on his table and because I could find a space in the front of the table I had to go behind the Deputy Comptroller's table to find a way for my own midget and lo and behold, what did I see under the officer's table? Bundles of bribe money in one thousand naira notes stacked under his table and that was just about 12 noon. So imagine how much that man will take home at the end of the day's job.
In my opinion, this colleague’s discovery is at the heart of the matter; corruption. Because of the stupendous money Customs officers and operatives of other government agencies at the ports are making every day, they have entrenched a cumbersome and inefficient process that benefits them and makes everyone else their slaves.
Does anyone sincerely believe that a Customs officer who makes the kind of money described above will allow an efficient clearing system take root at the port? No he won’t. He will do everything possible to sabotage efficiency and look for ways to heap the blame on others.
We conveniently forget that officials of government agencies are the greatest threat to prompt cargo clearance. They have erected all manners of human barriers that make it impossible for cargo to be cleared out of the ports in good time.
I buttress my argument here with the recent Corruption Risk Assessment (CRA) report released by the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC); the Technical Unit on Governance and Anti-Corruption (TUGAR) and the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP) with the support of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on Nigerian ports. The report revealed that an importer or agent will require a minimum of 79 signatures of government officials to clear his/her goods at the nation’s gateways. And each signature costs money.
This mind-boggling revelation has not been acted upon by anyone. It has been conveniently kept aside.
The CRA also identified ineffective administrative practices, weak institutions and huge discretionary powers enjoyed and exercised by officials of government agencies as a major source of corrupt practices at the ports.
The CRA findings confirmed that government officials in the port not only enjoy huge discretionary powers but are also able to delay indefinitely the required signing of documents without consequence.
The CRA, conducted in six major Nigerian ports including the Lagos Port Complex (LPC) Apapa, Tincan Island Port, Port Harcourt Port, Onne Port, Warri Port and Calabar Port is a prevention tool which interrogates processes and procedures in a given system as well as identify areas which are vulnerable to corruption with a view to providing recommendations.
Since that report was released by the ICPC – an agency of the Federal Government set up to fight corruption – no one has taken any action. The Federal Ministry of Finance and the Federal Ministry of Transport which supervise the Nigeria Customs Service and the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) respectively have not deemed it fit to act on the report.
Now that import volume has peaked and containers have built up at the port, the consequences of government inaction have become glaring.
Apart from the issue of corruption at the port, we do not have a clearly articulated cargo clearing policy. Can anyone show me a document that details the processes involved in clearing cargo at the port?
Agreed, the Nigeria Customs Service relies on the Customs and Excise Management Act (CEMA) to perform its operation but I think we need to have a well documented and published cargo clearing policy. A step by step procedure that also indicates the time to be spent at each stage and who to hold responsible if the time is exceeded, will do our port system a lot of good.