By Comfort Oseghale
One year after the Federal Government issued an executive orderasking agencies like the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control to vacate Nigerian seaports, it has begun reversing the decision.
Last Thursday, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, ordered NAFDAC’s return back to the ports as a result of a recent BBC documentary on codeine abuse in the country.
According to the Director-General of NAFDAC, Mojisola Adeyeye, the decision was part of the Presidential Enabling Business Environment Council (PEBEC) reforms.
The statement read, “NAFDAC with the active support of the Office of the National Security Adviser, PEBEC and Ministry of Transport, has been returned to the seaports and borders to effectively control importation of unregulated products, falsified and substandard drugs, unwholesome foods, narcotic drugs and hazardous chemical substances and foods.”
While we applaud genuine efforts towards creating an enabling business environment and the control of unregulated products, returning NAFDAC back to the seaports should not be misconstrued as part of those efforts.
The FG by going back on its decision which it made a year ago and was reportedly based on a desire to reduce clearing time and the cost of doing business, is doing the exact opposite.
The Executive Order issued by then Acting President, Yemi Osinbajo on 18 May, 2017 had said: “All agencies currently physically present in Nigerian Ports shall within 60 days harmonise their operations into one single interface station domiciled in one location in the port and implemented by a single joint task force at all times, without prejudice to necessary back end procedures.
“The new single interface station at each Port, shall capture, track and record information on all goods arriving and departing from Nigeria and remit captured information to the head of the MDA and the head of the National Bureau of Statistics on a weekly basis.”
Going by the executive order, it is assumed that the Single Window interface is still operational at Nigerian ports. This means that NAFDAC, SON and all other agencies which were previously ordered to leave the ports, at any point in time, can access information on all goods being imported into the country.
If this information is available to these agencies, it therefore follows that there is no pressing need for them to be physically present during cargo examination to do their jobs. We must recall that at the timethe executive order was given last year, the Managing Director of the NPA, Hadiza Usman had said that the agencies ejected from the ports were to come in when their services are required.
The impression that NAFDAC cannot effectively perform its job of regulating drugs in the Nigerian market unless it has representatives permanently at the seaports is false. NAFDAC’s job does not end at scrutinising drug and food imports at the seaportsand borders. Since the BBC documentary on codeine abuse, NAFDAC has yet to make known any strategy to control the dispensing of restricted drugs at pharmacies.That too is an important aspect of their duty which has been neglected, hence the careless dispensing of codeine to vulnerable youths who have no medical use for it. Care must be taken also not to insinuate that all substandard products in the country are imported. There are substandard products being produced everyday in covert factories all over the country. Several police raids on illegal alcohol factories producing fake alcoholic beverages attest to this.
It is unfortunate that Nigeria is losing this battle to simplify the cargo clearing process at its seaportsand borders. The cumbersome process along with the accusation of extortion from the numerous government agencies involved has been one of the biggest drawbacks of Nigeria’s maritime economy which is import dependent. At a time when maritime nations are simplifying their processes by computerising them, Nigeria is still relying very much on 100 % physical examination and paper clearance. Our reluctance to eliminate the human element in cargo clearance is the reason why we have been unable to rid our seaport operations of corruption.
Thebattle to simplify our clearing process did not begin today. In October 2011, former Minister of Finance, DrNgozi Okonjo-Iweala, had issueda quit order to NAFDAC and seven other agencies in a bid to reduce the cost of doing business in Nigerian ports and eliminate delays caused by the presence of multiple government agencies at the ports.
At the time, former President Goodluck Jonathan had expressed his desire to prune the number of government agencies at the ports from 14 to four. The order which was the first of its kind did not go down well with the affected agencies because a month after it was issued, some of the affected agencies remained at the ports.
A news report revealed that only SON compiled with the directive immediately. Others such as NAFDAC, NDLEA and Nigerian Quarantine Service, with five others, remained actively involved with cargo examination. As a result, the presidency reportedlyordered the arrest of any official of the affected agencies who defied it.
Soon after the order was given several stakeholders expressed their support. One of them, the Chairman of the Seaport Terminal Operators Association of Nigeria (STOAN), Princess Victoria Haastrupdescribed the order as long overdue.
She was the opinion that the presence of multiple government agencies, the high rate of physical examination of goods and the largely manual procedure involved in cargo clearance were the major factors responsible for the unnecessarily exorbitant cost of doing business in Nigeria’s seaports.
“The affected agencies have an important role in ensuring that adulterated and sub-standard goods do not find their way into this country. However, our position has been that officials of these agencies did not need to be permanently stationed at the ports. Customs should be able to perform these roles to a large extent and the representatives of the agencies can be invited at irregular intervals and as may be required by the Customs,”Haastrup had said.
President-General, Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria, Comrade Nted Emmanuel also expressed similar sentiments. He accused the multiple government agencies at the seaports of institutionalizing corruption and encouraging exorbitant charges which wasdetrimental to the business environment in the country.
The then Chairman, Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) LocalContent Group,VassilyOyeBarberopoulos,went a step further, accusing the numerous government agencies at the seaports of creating additional costs on imported materials. He had specifically accused officials of theStandards Organisation of Nigeria (SON), of requesting N150,000 on a container of goods.
Despite the outpouring of support from concerned port stakeholders for the quit order, less than a year later, the evicted agencies began a subtle campaign to stage a return back to the ports. In 2012, they enlisted the help of the House of Representatives who pitched itself against the Federal Government when it ordered the return of NAFDAC and SON to the seaports. When the Federal Government stood its ground, the affected agencies left the ports reluctantly. By 2016, eight of these agencies sneaked back to the seaports, increasing the total number back to 14 again.
Seven years later, the same scenario is replaying itself again. Only this time NAFDAC has capitalised on the BBC codeine documentary to argue its case on why its presence is needed at the ports.
With NAFDAC’s victory, it should come as no surprise when the other evicted agencies begin their comeback campaign. Already SONhas begun a subtle campaign using the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders.
The group’s founder, Boniface Aniebonam, made a case for SON last month, saying their return to the ports would help in the identification of substandard products which were currently flooding the markets. He went as far as saying SON’s presence at the ports was even more vital than NAFDAC.
It is sad that a time when all stakeholders should be concerned with how to make Nigerian ports more efficient, government agencies have busied themselves with competing for the coveted position of being present at cargo examination processes.
This curious interest in being physically present at cargo examination has totally diminished the role of these agencies to being only effective at the seaports. That means outside the seaports, these government agencies are unable to effectively discharge their duties.
Then again what exactly is the role of the customs in all these? It is the job of the Nigeria Customs Service to prevent dangerous and harmful products from being imported into the country. Already, due to the broken-down scanners at the seaports, cargo examination in Nigeria is currently 100 per cent physical. In doing this, the customs know what documents to require from any importer of food, drugs, machinery or household appliances. If the necessary documents are not available, it goes without saying that the goods will seized immediately. Even when documents are available but the customs suspect foul play concerning the condition of the imports, they have been known to investigate the cargo and then call in the relevant government agency, especially if their suspicions are confirmed.
Except the Comptroller General of Customs, Hameed Ali, believes his officers and men are not only unable to play their statutory role but also do not cooperate with other agencies of government, it is best the Federal Government maintains the status quo of the executive order it issued last year.
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