Monday, 30 September 2013

The grandstanding and hypocrisy of Customs 

Some top shots of the Nigeria Customs Service are often too quick to point accusing fingers at terminal operators for the delay in cargo clearance at the port when the Service is actually the one guilty of violating the standards it tries to enforce.
Prevailing clearing processes and the high rate of examination of imports by Customs are inconsistent with the national aspiration of attaining 48-hour cargo clearance at the port and are not in sync with best practices in those efficient ports we often allude to.
Customs is to blame for both the delay in scanning and the delay in the release of goods.

Using the Lagos Port Complex, Apapa as case study; Customs and the container terminal operator have pegged the number of containers that will be scanned at not more than 200 per day. It is the discretion of Customs to nominate the 200 containers out of a huge pile of thousands of boxes. The problem arises when arbitrariness sets in. For one, Customs fails to give advance information to the terminal operator on the containers it wants scanned. Customs officers saunter to work at 9am; hand out a list of containers and expect the terminal operator to perform magic and position the containers in the twinkling of an eye. Faced with such a precarious situation, the terminal operator is inadvertently hamstrung because he has to move piles of boxes to get to the nominated containers and in the course of doing so, Customs gleefully goes to town with all manner of tales about how inefficient the terminal operator is; how it lacks efficient cargo handling equipment and adequate space for cargo examination among other familiar refrains.
My research shows that the terminal operator incurs huge cost to move containers to the scanning site because to get to a container, at least five others have to be moved. So to dig out the 200 containers that will be examined in a day, a minimum of 1,000 containers will have to be moved. You can do the maths and find out the amount of energy and time required for the exercise.
The other major problem is that of physical examination. It is a well known fact that at least seven out of ten boxes that pass through Nigerian ports are examined physically by Customs officers. I have never seen this done in any part of the world and I have visited quite a number of ports in other African countries, Europe, America, Asia and in the Middle East. The most I have seen outside Nigeria is five percent.
The level of our physical examination is simply outrageous.

I understand it takes Customs and other government agencies an average of two hours to physically examine a container and since they work from 9am to 5pm; it means an examination team will do only four containers in a day. How many examination teams are working at Apapa? Three, four, five? How many containers can realistically be physically examined in a day? My guess is not more than ten whereas if we don’t want congestion, at least 2,000 TEU must exit the Apapa port every day. My calculation is based on the projected volume of containers at Apapa port last year.
I’ve based my arguments on Apapa port for obvious reasons. First; it is the dominant port in the country and the Apapa container terminal is the largest in West Africa.
Second; scanning and customs inspection at Apapa are carried out inside the terminal unlike at Tin Can where this processes are performed outside and thus have less direct impact.
The motive for Customs officers’ insistence on this unnecessarily high rate of physical examination is money and it doesn’t seem to matter to them that so many businesses are hurt in the process.
Terminal operators (and sometimes Customs agents) come under the heat for the shortcoming of Customs. Terminal operators get very narrow window of operation because of Customs’ inefficiency but for how long can this continue?
To be continued

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