Corruption in the ports and the threat by clearing agents

The Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) recently threatened to cripple activities at all the nation’s seaports.Citing serial extortion and unwholesome practices, it consequently gave the Federal Government 21 days within which to correct the anomalies or face paralysis of activities at the port.In the same shoes is the sister National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF) which also supported ANLCA. It has also threatened to go on strike, even though it initially stood on the fence.Both leading associations of freight forwarders and customs license operators were unanimous that the nation’s seaports are indeed very corrupt.For instance, the ANLCA in its justification stated that: “The Nigeria Customs Service, as the prime statutory agency at the ports engages in a practices that are tantamount to approbating and reprobating. The Nigeria Customs Service issues the Pre -Arrival Assessment Report (PAAR), undertakes the assessment and subsequently release of cargoes from the ports, with the multiplicity of units in the clearance chain which are unnecessarily encumbered by incessant alerts and arbitrary jack up of customs duties which is not in compliance with the international valuation principles (which is in the general Agreement on Tariff and Trade (Article VII GATT) as domesticated into valuation Acts) and then constitute units that intercept the same duly exited cargoes within 500 meters radius of the ports”.We agree in totality that it is not only Customs that is guilty of corruption in the ports. The port system comprises of a web of suppliers and users of shipping services on one side and suppliers and users of ancillary services on the other. Spread across this winding and complex web are players such as: Nigerian Ports Authority, (NPA),Nigeria Customs Service, (NCS), and its service providers, shipping agents, Standards Organisation of Nigeria,(SON), National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control, (NAFDAC), terminal operators, service providers (including scanning)  importers (big and small), licensed customs agents, dockworkers, truck owners, drivers and motor boys.It is difficult to ascertain the identity of those who perpetuate fraud in the port system, because the chain of importation is long; hence it can only be situated within the chain; that is, from the point an importer opens his ‘Form M’ to when the goods are actually procured and packaged and freighted into Nigeria as an import and up to the point at which it is cleared from the port and delivered to the consignee.In analysing the phenomenon called corruption in the port system, a lot of people tend to pin it down on stakeholders in the Nigerian port system, but that is an incorrect judgment.Our findings have revealed that corruption is (in most cases) engineered from the point at which a consignment is procured. A situation when an importer defies import guidelines and import prohibition orders of the federal government makes the consignment and its importer susceptible. By implication, the licensed customs agent inherits the liability.To ensure that the (offending) consignment is cleared out of the port, he (the clearing agent) begins to define ways and this means being at the mercy of officials of government agencies, notably Customs.The notoriety and high rating which the Nigeria Customs Service enjoys on the corruption scale is not to say that other players are angels; virtually all the actors whom we have identified above are involved at one level or the other in making the port system what it is.Stakeholders always rush to label customs personnel as the most corrupt, but as much as we do not want to draw a corruption perception table, we will like to look at them one after the other.The first thing that happens once a ship comes into the harbours is that officials of government agencies; notably, the Nigeria Immigration Service go on board. Curiously, they board empty handed and disembark with loads of goodies including foreign drinks and other assorted items. That is the first act of corruption.  From that point, the terminal operator takes over and moves the consignments to designated storage facilities, while the importer or his licensed customs agents begins the process of taking delivery. From this moment, he is at the mercy of the container handler operator at the terminal, the Customs officer (and sometimes, the dockworker) at the terminal. If he is lucky and the container is not problematic, it may not be necessary to open his container for full examination; if this is so, he moves to the gate and still contends with a horde of agencies including the Police and the Customs who must again, vet the documents before the container exits.Having said all that, the current move by the duo of ANLCA and NAGAFF to call attention to the rot in the port is rather late. There are questions to ask the two leading groups: Are they just noticing that the port system is rotten. Are they just realizing that the need to collaborate, having snubbed each other for years and having behaved like rivals for as long as NAGAFF has existed? What scores do they want to settle with the government agencies? On which side are the clearing agents on the corruption scale?Corruption is as old as the port itself. While we have nothing against the current move to call attention to these rots, may we also affirm that the givers of bribe are more guilty than the takers?Generations of clearing agents have benefitted from these corrupt ports, so why are the modern day leaders of these groups playing holier-than-thou? Who doesn’t know that we only hear of corruption when there is no agreement between the giver and the taker?We dare say that, it would have made more sense and gotten more sympathy if the call for strike had been on account of the bad access roads into the ports and other common problems.We think that, by issuing warning of imminent shut down of ports, the two associations may simply just be seeking attention, nothing more.