The seizure of 661 rifles by operatives of the Federal Operations Unit, Zone ‘A’ of the Nigeria Customs Service was indeed the first of its kind in recent times in records of seizures of arms and ammunition by men of the NCS.
Coming at a time when the level of insecurity in the country is high, Nigerians and maritime stakeholders have expressed serious concern about how a massive seizure of 661 rifles will escape Customs attention at the ports.
According to the stakeholders, it appears the Nigeria Customs Service trade facilitation tool is falling apart as it has failed to harness full technologies that would not only enhance quick clearance of cargoes but also prevent illicit import from entering the country.
This again has brought to the fore the urgent need for the Customs management to acquire functional scanners at the ports and border stations to forestall future occurrence.
In 2007, the service providers namely Cotecna Destination Inspection Limited, Global Scan system and SGS Scanning Aystem installed scanners at the nation’s seaport and border stations under a Build, Own, Operate and Transfer (BOOT) basis.
The scanning machines were installed at Tin Can Island, Apapa and Port Harcourt ports as well as Banki and Seme land borders. They were also installed at the cargo sections of Kano, Lagos, Port Harcourt and Abuja airports.
The service providers operated and maintained the scanners for seven years before transferring them to the Nigeria Customs Service. But after takeover by Customs in 2013, the facilities have not functioned well with customs management laying blame on the former service providers for installing what it termed “obsolete scanners”.
Due to the dearth of functional scanners at the port, the level of physical examination at the port has risen with about 92 percent of imported cargoes manually inspected in 2016, a development which made it easy for importers to smuggle all manner of contraband goods into the country and contributed to the increase in level of corruption among Customs officers.
Addressing journalists at the FOU headquarters in Lagos on Monday, Comptroller General of Customs, Hameed Ali said that because the scanners were not working, officers should do more of manual inspection of cargoes even though it is not going to facilitate trade.
He said, “Customs has pride itself on clearance of goods under 48 hours in the past but because of the unavailability of scanners, we have now compel our officers to ensure proper examination although it is not going to facilitate trade as we want it but for security of this country, we would rather go through the pains to conduct examination on every container at the port.
“We have instructed our officers that no matter what, even if it is only three containers they can examine in a day, they must make sure that any containers that get out of the port is properly screened.”
But the truth is that human error is inevitable with physical examination due to the rigorous nature of the process as shown in the case of the 661 pump action rifles.
Speaking on the development, Founder, National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF) Dr. Boniface Aniebonam blamed the Customs management for failing to provide scanners to aid officers and men of the Service to perform optimally.
He said it is high time the Customs management made provision of functional scanners at the ports and border stations a priority.
On his part, President, Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) Prince Olayiwola Shittu however noted that while having functional scanners at the port is critical, there is need for a total overhaul of the clearing process in the port to avoid future occurrence of containers exiting without proper checks.
According to Shittu, no consignment can exit the port without the collusion of Customs officers and other security agencies.
“Presently, many security agencies are involved in cargo clearance yet things like this do happen. So we must show concern because nothing can leave the port without the collusion of security agencies. It will take an inter-ministerial approach to deal with this issue. Customs also must look at its own documentation process, examination, release and total over haul of the clearing process.
“The scanners are essential but they are not the only solution. Scanners are to facilitate trade especially when you need to scan homogenous goods.
“That has not remove the fact that corruption can only thrive with personal contact. Even if we increase the number of agencies to 100 per unit, as long as there is personal contact, corruption must take place. If there is no documentation preceding examination and subsequent disappearance of this container, then somebody must have colluded for it to be loaded and pass through the gate. So we cannot rule out the issue of connivance,” Shittu told SHIPS & PORTS DAILY.
Shittu added that in carrying out the total overhaul, stakeholders should be involved as according to him, “most of the times when committees are raised, it is among themselves. That is why reforms in the port have not seen the light of the day because you are asking people who are culpable to reform themselves. It cannot work”.
Also speaking, a former Comptroller of Customs, Ralph Nwadike said there is need to investigate the reason for the failure of scanners after they were handed over to Customs by the service providers.
“The way the destination inspection left is not the best way they are suppose to leave and if they left without a proper handover, then has somebody being queried why they did not hand over properly?”
On the seized arms, Nwadike said some of the officers knew about the consignment as according to him, the documentation did not follow due process.
He however noted that not all Customs officers are corrupt as some have good intentions to serve the country but “the facilities are not there. The atmosphere is not provided for them to work with all sincerity. That is part of what is playing out.”
Copyright 2016 Ships & Ports Ltd. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit given to www.shipsandports.com.ng as the source.