Friction among personnel of government agencies in the ports

The recent clash between Customs officers and personnel from the security department of the Nigerian Ports Authourity(NPA) has once again brought the issue of the presence, responsibility and relevance of some of these government agencies to the fore.

From our findings, the fracas was ignited as a result of the flag-off of the new NPA access control at the Tin Can Island Port. The NPA invited the Police to ensure total compliance.

To ensure this, security personnel of the NPA subjected port users and officials of other government agencies to full scrutiny. Everyone without port pass (including government officials) were denied access.

The process was reportedly going on smoothly, until a Customs officer in mufti allegedly refused to identify himself and also submit himself to checks on the request of the NPA officials.

The situation gradually degenerated into a riot and the Police fired teargas at the crowd of port users which had gathered at the gate.

We note the immediate response of the spokesperson of Customs at Tin Can port; Uche Ejesieme, who cleverly waived it off as non-issue. We also note the response of the Port Manager of Tin Can port; Umar Abubakar, who also explained that the issue of port pass and crowd control was a normal routine at the port.

Away from the Tin Can port face-off, to the larger manifestation of inter-agency relationship and rivalry in the nation’s seaports.

It is a fact that, Nigerians, especially stakeholders in the nation’s maritime industry acknowledge that Nigerian ports are the most expensive in West Africa. The high cost of doing business in Nigerian ports is high largely because of the cost of clearing and cargo release, that is, the totality of the cost of getting the goods out of the ports, which include shipping and terminal operators’ charges and cost of customs clearing.

Even though the only dominant name in clearing is Customs, several government agencies are a regular feature of the port cargo clearance and delivery system.

The list includes: Nigerian Ports Authourity, Nigeria Customs Service and its several units, National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON), Plant and Animal Quarantine and Department of State Security (DSS), the Police and its many units.

The first thing that happens once a ship comes into the harbour is that officials of government agencies; notably, the Nigeria Immigration Service and the NIMASA go on board. There have been allegations that they board the ship empty handed and disembark with loads of goodies including foreign currencies, 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 temporary storage facilities, while the importer or his licensed customs agent 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, NPA Security personnel, the Police and the Customs and who must again, vet the documents before the container exits.

It is this anomaly that led to the ‘Executive Order’ that was given by acting President; Yemi Osinbajo, which also borders on ease of doing business in Nigerian ports.

While reeling out the order, the Vice President had directed that, “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 backend procedures.’’

There is nothing new about the list of agencies to be in the ports.  They still remain the same contained in the October 26th 2011 directive of the Federal Government. They are:  Nigerian Ports Authourity, Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, Nigeria Customs Service, Police, Nigeria Immigration Service, Department of State Security (DSS) and Port Health.

It is already almost three years since the orders were given, yet what we see is bickering and mutual suspicion among the affected agencies. It is still a far cry from achieving 24 hours cargo clearance. There is nothing to indicate that it is achievable. Truth be told; the Vice President’s directive on Ease of Doing Business has been largely ineffective. His directive on the number of  agencies that should operate from within the ports have been largely undermined. 

We are sure that the Vice President must have heard or read that, those agencies which he ordered out of the ports now create check points from where they ambush cargoes that have been cleared at the ports. Sadly, even agencies that operate from the ports are also seen mounting check points. This is a clear negation of the principle of Ease of Doing Business which the VP has been propagating.

If there was adherence to the dictate of the dictates either the Vice President’s Executive Order or the principle of Ease of Doing Business, there would have been nothing like the fracas at Tin Can Port.

The truth is, Nigerian ports are have negated virtually all the principles embedded in the Executive Order, and they have no respect for the much-mouthed Ease of Doing Business.

Apart from the bad access roads, the plethora of human beings (port users and government officials) who are visible in the ports, create avenue for bedlam such as was witnessed recently at Tin Can port.

Our ports operate as if the International Ships and Ports Facility Security (ISPS) Code has no place there, even though it is often touted as being compliant.

With the exemption of the terminals, most of which have developed their crowd control mechanism in line with the ISPS Code, entrance to most of the nation’s sea ports remain an eye sore

Coincidentally, Tin Can port, which experienced the recent security breach has been notorious for its heavy human traffic.  

We think that, rather than give up in the implementation of its crowd control devices, the port management should be more creative and engage its stakeholders a lot more.

Finally, it is erroneous as it is being claimed in some quarters that, ‘it is Customs port’, hence its personnel can not be questioned over their conducts. The sea ports belong to the Nigerian Ports Authourity, it is the landlord; it only allows each stakeholder (Customs inclusive), a commensurate level of influence in line with the stakeholder’s statutory responsibility.