Cargo clearing has worsened – Stakeholders

When President Buhari came to power, stakeholders were ecstatic that the impediments to cargo clearing which has remained a major setback to the growth of the Nigeria maritime industry will be addressed.

This optimism was also renewed when a retired army officer, Hameed Ali was appointed the Comptroller General of the Nigeria Customs Service (CGC). Stakeholders strongly believed that as someone coming from the outside, he will overhaul the process and remove man made bottlenecks especially from the Customs stable.

SHIPS & PORTS DAILY discovered that all that optimism may have disappeared into the thin air. The worrisome aspect is the fear expressed by many that corruption in the Service may have been on the ascendency since Ali took over as the Customs boss.

Although analysts believe the CGC has shown his dislike for corrupt officers by sacking a lot of them, they argued that the action though commendable is like a flash in the pan as corruption in Customs has eaten deep into the fabrics of the system and most officers, especially the ones in charge of release of cargo cannot do without bribery.  They contend that since the sack fever began, most officers with their hand in the till have not betrayed any fear.

A stakeholder that preferred anonymity told SHIPS & PORTS DAILY. “Yes the CG is sacking some officers but I can tell you that some of the officers are not bothered at all. They are even bolder to collect bribes with the excuse that ‘let me make the money, if they sack me I will go. I advise that beyond sack, the authorities should apply more stringent measures like sending them to prison,” he said.

During the regime of Goodluck Jonathan, stakeholders and rights activists lamented severally about the multiplicity of government agencies at the ports which they consider a great impediment to release of cargo at the port. The shout was very hoarse that the President mandated the then co-ordinating minister of the economy, Ngozi Okonjo Iweala to set up a committee to reform the ports. This was done and the process was streamlined as so many agencies were sent packing from the ports. A lot of other measures were put in place which helped to remove some of the perceived impediments.

Now again, importers and agents are lamenting that the government agencies that were sent packing from the ports have found their way back thereby constituting a clog in the clearing wheel of progress.

President Save Nigeria Freight Forwarders Importers and Exporters Coalition (SNFFIEC),Osita Chukwu told SHIPS & PORTS DAILY that the whole clearing process has become muddled up since this regime came to power.

“Imagine a situation where your consignment is released by a qualified customs officer duly appointed for that purpose, having followed the due process, you load your cargo into a container and suddenly another officer tells you that you cannot take delivery because he has cancelled the approval.

“Nobody is controlling anybody. You see all these officers trying to assert themselves here and there just to extort money from importers and agents,” he lamented.

He said that the rate of bribery and corruption among customs officers has worsened and that this is accentuated because the current CGC is not an insider, arguing that as long as an outsider who has no knowledge of Customs procedures is in charge, they will steal right under his nose without the man knowing what is happening.

“For me the former regime had a better plan when it comes to port reforms. Jonathan had a special adviser to the president on maritime and it was this man that exposed the president to the magnitude of corruption at the ports and this was why that regime made progress with port reforms.”

But he also blamed agents and importers as engaging in fraudulent acts to truncate the process. “There are some agents and importers that do concealment, under declaration and falsification. Some of these agents connive with customs officers to cheat and this is a serious impediment to cargo clearing.”

National President of the Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents (ANCLA), Prince Olayiwola Shittu said recently at a function in Seme that the incidences of non-harmonization of vehicle value across borders in Nigeria as well as, some customs officers disturbing smooth cargo passage are major impediments to smooth customs operations at the borders, particularly at Seme Border.

Other hindrances, according to him, include the existence of many unapproved checkpoints and customs officers engaging in cargo clearing jobs while still in service.

Apapa Chapter Chairman, ANCLA, Emeka Chukwumalu believes that as long as the Nigeria Customs remain the way they are, corruption will never go away.

“We fought these things before under the last regime and when we think we were succeeding, this regime came and we went back to square zero.

“While I do not exonerate agents and importers but dishonesty on the part of Customs officers remain the greatest threat to the clearing process.

“The customs that I see are not really interested in making money for the government but their own pockets. Every move they make when they are clearing your goods is a way of getting you hooked so that you settle them. At the end they create serious delay,” he noted.

An importer, Mr Ernest Obiejesi, the managing director of Big 4 Agencies said that one of the difficulties they face now is that after Pre-Arrival Assessment Report (PAAR) has been sent to your system and you print and do your payment; the officer will secretly post another value to his own system which he will not show the agent.

He noted that it is when the agent appears to take delivery that the officer will throw up the one in his system telling the agent that he did not pay the appropriate duty which creates another round of delay and expenses.

Emma Agubanze, NAGAFF Deputy President in charge of Logistics told SHIPS &PORTS DAILY that the various desks in customs like CIU, Valuation, and Enforcement among others were created for different purposes, especially to checkmate each other. He however noted that most of the units have abandoned their primary roles and are all involved in cargo examination and these constitute huge bottleneck. He also said that the agencies that were sent away by the government, including the ones that were not at the ports before has all come back and the process has become messy.

Agents operating at the border post also complained of series of unfavourable acts against them by some customs officers among which is the diversion of already- cleared vehicles by officers of the Federal Operations Unit (FOU).

Tony Anakebe, a maritime commentator said that the muddled up clearing procedure at Nigeria ports has made it so costly that it is much cheaper to bring cargo through the port in Ghana or Benin, clear it within one week and take the risk to bring it into the Nigerian market, through the land borders than going through Nigeria ports.

He blamed the delay in cargo clearance on the 100 percent physical examination of cargo by Customs, against the global best practises of scanning. He listed other impediments to speedy clearing to include irrational interception of containers at the ports by multiple government agencies and the failure of operators to imbibe automated clearing procedures.

Beyond importers and agents, most stakeholders have quarrelled with our clearing procedures convoluted by human beings which have made cost of doing business in Nigeria very high.

Some have argued that because of unnecessary delays which shoot up payable fees, there has been massive diversion of cargo to neighbouring African countries, especially the Republic of Benin and Togo.

This is because it is more convenient and cost effective for even Nigerian importers to route their consignments through the seaports in these countries and later bring them into Nigeria by road, exploring the opportunities provided under the Economic Community of West African States ECOWAS Trade Liberalisation Scheme (ETLS) and Nigerian government is the one losing.

As Nigeria, a country with huge trade volumes, experts believe that adopting the single window (SW) platform for cargo clearance is a major step to arresting delays in cargo clearing. They however noted that for it to work efficiently government needs to eliminate sharp practices, revenue leakages and boost the nation’s march towards full compliance with international best practices.

They identify two major challenges as a setback, lack of transparency and inadequate infrastructure. “Transparency is still a luxury agencies of government cannot afford willingly and since the SW works effectively on it, different strategies will be used to frustrate its adoption in the country. Infrastructural challenge also threatens the system once it ensures fast clearance of cargoes from the port, which may clog the deplorable roads network.

Stakeholders believe that a proper adoption of the single window platform by the customs authorities will help eliminate the delay created by human elements at the ports during clearing. Valentino Mintah, a Ghana born British citizen said during a workshop that Single Window platform for cargo clearing is the elixir needed to move the country forward. It would significantly remove the human touch points, by which the manual processes have been used to encourage some amount of leakages.

“Those who want to serve the nation in the most transparent manners would find it a great environment. But for those who may have something to hide, the SW may pose an issue to them.” She said.

According to Mintah, SW is for creating an enabling effective environment for importers, exporters and agencies that are involved in international trade to make a simple, fast and cost effective choice, in the course of moving their goods from one country, across the border into another country

A recent survey on Nigerian seaports conducted by the National Freight Information and Transport Hub (NAFITH), an Iranian based company, reveals that the end cost of routing containers through seaports in Ghana, Benin Republic, Djibouti, Togo, Jordan among other countries is more competitive, compared to Nigerian seaports.

“The end cost of a container in Nigerian ports is very high, compared to ports in other neighbouring countries and there is need to reduce the cost for the benefit of Nigerians,” Sameer Mubarak, chairman of NAFITH, said recently, while presenting the survey in a forum in Lagos.

According to Mubarak, the prohibitive import processing cost in Nigerian ports is engineered by several clearing bottlenecks, cargo delay at the port gate by multiple government agencies, including the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) security and the perennial traffic congestion on the roads leading to Apapa, the major seaport in Lagos.

Listing the areas that contribute to high cost for the importer, Mubarak stated that apart from the cost of freight, Nigerian importers spend a lot of money on paying for demurrage and storage charges to shipping companies and terminal operators for not taking delivery of cargo as when due. “The perennial traffic congestion on the roads leading to port including the delay at the port gate also results to high cost of haulage.

Recently the managing director, Ports& Cargo Handling Services, Muhammed accused the Nigeria Customs Service and other government agencies operating at the nation’s ports for contributing to delays in cargo clearance.

Bulangu, who was reacting to the call by the Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC) Executive Secretary, Hassan Bello who visited Terminal `C’ of the Tin-Can Island Port, Lagos  on the terminal to improve on cargo dwell time said it is not in the interest of the terminal operator to delay cargo at port.

The delay, he said is caused by inefficiency in the processes being implemented by Customs and other government agencies. He added that occasionally importers sometimes delay the clearance of their cargo until they get a buyer for it.

According to him, cargo release does not rest with the operator but Customs and other government agencies operating at the port. He noted that the shorter the dwell time, the more money the terminal would make.

“Concerning the dwell time of cargo, the port is a transit area. For us, we don’t like the cargo to stay beyond the agreed free period. We want the cargo to go for new ones to come because that is what pays us.

“Where there is efficiency, there shouldn’t be storage charges. But the inefficiency is something that has to be shared with so many organizations because of the processes that have been put in place by the various government agencies and even the importers themselves. Some of them don’t have where to keep the cargo; they look for a buyer before they come forward to clear their cargo,” he said.

He added that the delay in examining containers already positioned which sometimes required that the containers be repositioned has also created a lot of overhead cost to the terminal.

“There is a limit to space we can provide for examination. We can’t provide space to examine all the containers at the same time. That is why sometimes, you will hear complaints that I have booked my container for examination, it has not been positioned.

“If we positioned 150 containers and Customs examines 80, what do we do?  Those 80 may not be delivered that day, so we have to take them back into the stack and in matters of operation, every activity costs money. If there are 100 people that want their container examined the following day, it means you will not be able to bring the 100. Sometimes, you might not even be able to examine anyone that has been booked of late for examination. These are some of the challenges we face which many may not know of but these are the realities,” he said.

Bulangu also chided importers for lack of transparency and honesty in their import declarations saying that the insincerity of the importers is what gave room to what the government agencies are doing.

“The average importer will import contraband, engage in concealment or under-declare. That is why the Customs area is a beehive of activities; negotiations here, negotiations there, because people have something to hide,” he said.