Cargo examination and the scanner dilemma

Customs mobile scanner

On July 7 2018, truck drivers in Nigeria under the aegis of the Association of Maritime Truck Owners (AMATO)and Nigerian Association of Road Transport Owners (NARTO), embarked on an indefinite strike over the inability of government agencies to manage the Apapa traffic and enable the drivers evacuate thousands of containers trapped in the Lagos ports. There were also allegations of extortion against government agencies such as the Nigerian Navy and the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), charged with easing the gridlock. A six-days of a total breakdown of port operations as a result of the strike, it was eventually called off during a peace meeting brokered by the Nigerian Shippers’ Council, between the navy, NPA and the truck drivers. Just like the Apapa gridlock, non-functioning cargo scanners are another major challenge of Nigerian seaports that have seemingly defied solution for years. For stakeholders in the haulage/freight industry, this has been a sore point. Cargo scanning refers to a non-invasive method of inspecting and identifying goods in transit to specified destinations. It is frequently sued to scan freight shipping containers and this means that scanners can be mounted on trucks to scan vehicles, containers and other objects, without opening them. This it achieves by producing X-Ray images of the scanned objects. Not only does cargo scanning quicken the cargo clearing process, it is also more efficient than physical inspection because of its ability to detect contraband and other illegal goods, which may escape physical detection. That way, a country protects its sovereignty from the influx of illegal arms and substandard goods. For decades prior to the Federal Government’s Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) modernization programme in 2005, 100 percent physical examination was employed in cargo clearance. At this time, Nigerian seaports had acquired a notoriety for its unfriendliness; goods were delayed for weeks and months on end before they could be cleared, cumbersome documentary process and an unwieldly number of government agencies involved in the clearing process. An estimated 40 to 60 containers were being examined physically on a daily basis at the Apapa Port, while 50 to 70 containers were being examined daily at Tin Can Island Port.

To ensure the competitiveness of Nigeria seaports, the government embarked on a modernization program.

In 2006, cargo scanners were acquired by service providers, namely Coctena Destination Inspection Limited (CDIL), SGS Scanning Nigeria and Globalscan System. Each of them were allotted specific customs commands they were to supply the scanners to. The contract, which was based on build, own, operate and transfer (BOOT) terms, also provided that the service providers were to provide training services and technical support to the NCS on risk management, valuation and classification. Cotecna, a leading, testing, inspection and certification company with over 40-year experience, was charged with the task of managing the scanners. The contract, which ran for six years, ended in December 2012 but while it lasted, the number of containers scanned daily went up to 150. At the expiration of the initial six-year contract, the Federal Government opened a transition contract agreement with the service providers to ensure a seamless transfer of functional scanners to the NCS. This new contract was extended to November 2013. A Transition Implementation Committee on Destination Inspection Scheme was constituted by the then Coordinating Minister of Finance, Mrs. NgoziOkonjo-Iweala, in July 2013 to oversee the transfer.

By the end of 2013, the transition process was completed and the scanners handed over to the NCS. Unfortunately, this giant leap in modernizing the NCS did not last very long. A year after the handover, the scanners had stopped functioning and Nigerian ports and borders were once again returned to the analog era of 100 percent physical examination. The formerly efficient cargo clearing process was now bogged down by prolonged delays and accumulated rent and demurrage on importer/customs agents. Industry stakeholders frustrated by the setback, accused the customs of sabotaging the system by mishandling the scanners; the allegation was quickly rebutted by the customs. Then Public Relations Officer of Apapa Customs, Emmanuel Ekpa, claimed that the customs had made initial effort to fix the scanners immediately they stopped functioning. When they were unsuccessful, they went a step further to bring in experts from outside the country who were also unable to fix the scanners. The claim was quickly dismissed by Musa Umar, a former employee of the CDIL, who insisted that CDIL and other inspection agents, had handed over fully functional scanners to the Customs. He said the scanners were new, having been purchased in 2010 and handed over in 2013. Umar said, “All the scanners were upgraded to the most current system and certified to be in good condition before the handing over; it was part of the contract stipulation.  That was the only way the inspection agents could receive a certificate of delivery; nobody can say we handed over obsolete scanners. The Nigerian government is sorely lacking in the area of maintenance culture; you can’t get good result when you have a poor maintenance culture. This is what has affected infrastructural development generally in Nigeria.”  Another source reportedly claimed that while the scanners were still being managed by the Destination Inspection (DI) agents, they were being periodically maintained by the manufacturer of the machines. DI agents got the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) to bring its technicians for the maintenance until the NCS said they were unable to sustain the contract thereby resulting in its termination.

The problem confronting Nigeria’s modernization of the cargo examination process obviously has nothing to with our inability to purchase scanners but everything to do with a poor maintenance culture and lack of accountability. The purchase of new scanners without any attempt on the part of the government to reach out to the OEM, in order to ascertain if the old scanners can be salvaged proves this. Purchasing a new set of scanners is not the solution; the problem will most likely repeat itself if no individual or agency is held responsible for their maintenance. To ensure the efficiency of cargo examination and improve competitiveness, nothing prevents the government from engaging the Original Equipment Manufacturers to repair the previous scanners and putthem back in use alongside new ones that may be acquired. As the NCS has proved itself incapable of handling something as sensitive as the operation and maintenance of multi-million scanners, in order to avoid a repeat of history, it is advisable that the scanners are best left in the hands of contracted DI agents who will operate and maintain it. In a country notorious for sabotaging well-meaning efforts geared towards national development, one must not rule out the possibility of sabotage from within the government agencies. This is because physical examination of cargo provides an avenue for officials of the government to extort importers and customs agents for money and other valuable items in their containers.

Nigerian seaports are still operating at a disadvantage to their West African neighbours. This is because there are numerous unsolved problems like the un-motorable port access roads which in turn causes a gridlock that stretches for many kilometres, grounding business and movement. That alone has made 48-hours cargo clearing impossible without factoring other challenges. According to the Chairman, Seaport Terminal Operators Association of Nigeria (STOAN), Princess Vicky Haastrup, more than N20 billion is lost delays, illegal charges, insecurity and traffic jams now prevalent with Nigerian seaports. This amount is a good chunk of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This is unfortunate especially at a time Nigeria needs all the foreign exchange it can get due to plummeting oil prices. Until Nigeria modernizes cargo examination in addition to resolving other challenges at its seaports, the loss of huge amounts of revenue to our West African neighbours will remain inevitable.