The Cargo Defence Fund (CDF) of the Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC) did well last week to organise the second in the series of its roundtables on critical issues affecting shippers. The CDF roundtable was hosted by the Minister of Transport Senator Idris Umar, who was represented by the Permanent Secretary of the Federal Ministry of Transport, Engr. Nebolisa Emordi.
I managed to spend about an hour at the event before leaving and I must commend the NSC and CDF for a job well done. Platforms for frank talks like the CDF roundtable will help a great deal in building trust, mutual understanding and resolution of conflicts.
I stumbled on a stakeholder who said he had wanted to see me for over six months. She complained that I was difficult to pin down. She was quite happy to see me and we discussed matters of mutual benefit. That is how it works; the roundtable can become a place to meet people who might ordinarily be difficult to see.
I did not speak during the discussion. I was content with listening to all the knowledgeable speakers and learning from their experiences which they freely shared.
If I had spoken, I would have hammered on one major causes of delay at our port; vessel inspection.
Checks on ships at berth are statutory and are carried out all over the world but these vital components of port operation are being grossly abused on a daily basis and with impunity at our seaports. The checks carried out at our ports by security agencies are often abused and fraught with corruption.
Typically, after a long voyage and upon arrival at a port, Customs officers will board and rummage a ship. To rummage a ship means to search it and ensure that duty-free goods and goods that do not comply with the laws of the country of the host port do not find their way out of the vessel.
Usually, the Customs officer in charge of boarding and rummaging will seal the bar and other storage areas leaving only what is necessary for the crew to survive while at port. Apart from Customs, Port Health Service officials and immigration officers also board. The Port Health officers ensure that communicable diseases are not transmitted from the ship to the host community through goods or persons while immigration officers board to ensure compliance with the nation’s immigration laws. The Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) also inspects for Port State Control.
In other climes, all of these checks are carried out simultaneously and will typically last for about an hour. I raised the alarm not long ago that our checking officers keep the vessel waiting for an average of four hours translating to huge financial implication to the Nigerian economy.
In shipping, time is money and the longer you keep the ship in port, the more cost it incurs and shipping lines will rightly factor this into what they charge as freight.
My recommendation had been that while these statutory checks are going on, stevedoring operation should commence to save the ship time and money.
Now apart from the time factor, our officers also do not conduct themselves in the best professional manner when they board these vessels.
The Nigerian factor has crept in as they practically go cap in hand to the ship captain using everything within their official powers to rip off the captain and his crew of valuable commodities. They even go as far as asking for money from some ship captains. You will see some of these officers emerging from the vessel with cartons of goods and bottles of choice wine.
The other aspect of the activities of our security agencies which is worrisome is sampling of regulated goods. This process has also been heavily abused by our security operatives.
Typically, officials of the Nigeria Customs Service; the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) and the National Agency for Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) take samples of regulated imported items for test to ensure compliance with safety standards. Several items including electrical/electronic items, household items, liquor, building materials and other commodities fall under goods that are so tested by the regulatory bodies.
One would have thought that one or two pieces of such goods that require testing will be sufficient to take to the laboratory but what we see at the port today is massive looting by officials of these agencies in the name of sample collection. They collect the items in large quantity and they don’t return them even after the so-called tests are concluded.
It is another form of corruption which has eaten deep into the fabric of the Nigerian nation. And woe betides the importer or agent who refuses to cooperate with these unscrupulous government officials.
You see these officials gleefully stuffing their vehicles everyday with all manner of items which they take home and distribute to their families and friends. Some are even taken as offering and gifts to churches and pastors. The so-called samples never get to the laboratory;
they end up in personal homes.
It is corruption at its highest level. What I call “Authority Stealing”, apologies to the late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
It is not enough to blame shipping companies, terminal operators, service providers and the rest. The CDF will do well to commission an investigation into this and find ways of address this twin problem.
If CDF is able to assist in cutting down the time vessels spend waiting for inspection at the port and on the barefaced stealing carried out in the name of sampling; cost and time will be saved and the shippers will be the beneficiaries.