Recent revelations at the seaports have cast doubts on the continued relevance and infallibility of the celebrated Customs fast track system that was introduced to austensibly engender trade facilitation.
When it was introduced by the immediate past Customs Comptroller General; Dikko Inde Abdulahi, almost 200 companies were registered for the privileged fast- track concession platform, the list has since grown to include even non-quoted but supposedly credible firms.
At inception, the platform was created by Customs to encourage importers, exporters, licensed customs agents and other operators who are compliant with global best practice to facilitate trade. The companies enjoy special concessions like express processing of PAAR, priority release of consignment, inspection at owner’s premises and exclusive membership of what it called the then called ‘Compliance Ambassadors Club’. Whatever has become of the club!
Majority of the companies that enjoyed the platform included pharmaceutical companies, automobile companies, local manufacturing companies, multi-nationals, among others.
The fast track window, otherwise called Blue Lane in Customs parlance, allows importers to carry their cargoes straightaway from the ports to their warehouses (without any form of delay) where customs processes such as examination and payment of duties are carried out, instead of doing so in the ports.
The system allows the importers to save port storage charges since port concessionaires charge an average of N8 000 per container daily for storage charges.
It was confirmed that the idea of fast-track model was designed in conjunction with the Manufacturers Association of Nigerian (MAN). It was opened to members of MAN as well as companies that import more than 20 containers per month. Records showed that, at inception, these companies account for about 30 percent of the cargo volume in the nation’s seaports.
From Customs records, fast track helped to reduce delays and cargo clearance time at the ports drastically. Importers that are not on fast track also assisted because the volume of cargoes that enjoy the privileged exit through fast track reduced the pressure.
But, that is how far the ‘good news’ about fast track goes, as reports have indicated that, Nigerian importers now abuse the privilege that the system grants them.
There have been series of reports of seizures of arms, drugs and other banned and prohibited items being shipped into the country through the seaports. In some cases, the items escaped the supposedly prying eyes of Customs officers.
Sadly, it was discovered that some of these items were brought into the country by organizations that enjoy the privilege of fast track.
An instance will suffice here. In 2017, 17 containers of raw materials stuffed with substances suspected to be cocaine were intercepted at the Tin Can Island port. The containers belong to a manufacturing company which enjoyed fast track.
At one his media briefings in Lagos, the CG of Customs; Col Hameed Ali (rtd), confirmed that the seizures were as a result of abuse of fast track.“The company which imported the tyres is enjoying the facility of fast track, which is given to the factory for quick processes to reduce cost and speed the time”, he told the media.
And recently, the Customs Area Controller in charge of Apapa command of the Nigeria Customs Service, Compt Abubakar Bashir alluded to the fact that the fast track system has further failed.
He told stakeholders that not less than 5000 containers are being cleared from Apapa under the fast track scheme without proper checks.
He said examination is only conducted on the containers after they must have arrived safely at the owners’ warehouses. Of course, this is in line with the dictates of fast track.
"Today, we have what we call fast track, we have approximately five to Six thousand containers that moves out of this port without any examination in the port, the examination is being done at the owners premises. Because of the ease of doing business, government is shying away from giving you additional charges"
What the Comptroller said is not different from what we all know, the only shocking fact is the admittance that may be as many as 60000 containers are released into the country daily without check, all because of fast track. What if these containers are stuffed with banned and prohibited items such as arms, ammunition, hard drugs. This has happened severally in the past.
We are told that more than 40,000 and sundry cargoes are cleared every day using the system and that about N160 million savings in storage charges per day is made, while another N1.12 billion for the average seven days cargo dwell time in the ports is saved for the importer through the fast track system. Cumulatively, in one year, about N409billion is saved by consignees who enjoy the fast track clearance system.
It is a fact that importers will lose if the system is stopped, but it is evident that, like everything else, Nigerian importers and their cohorts within and outside the system have turned an otherwise good intention into ventures that are life-threatening, a drain pipe and an avenue for importing banned substances.
It’s sad that Customs also acknowledge that such abuses are perpetrated in conjunction with unscrupulous officers.
Apparently shocked at the rate of its abuse, the CG of Customs had once threatened to scrap the process of fast track, so why has he not done that?
With the serial discoveries of abuses, the CG of Customs need not wait any longer, he has enough reasons to act now and put an end to the fast track system. For the simple facts that it has been aiding importation of banned and prohibited items, we lend our support for those who have called for the scrapping of the Fast Track system.