Nigeria Customs Service and corruption in cargo clearance procedure 

The Nigeria Customs Service is not the only Government agency in the ports, but it is arguably the most notorious, it is tagged the most corrupt, even by port users, especially the licensed customs agents. 

The Nigerian 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 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.

Even though some may claim that it is difficult to ascertain the identity of those who perpetuate fraud in the port system (because the chain of importation and clearing is long), but it can be situated within the same 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 to officials of the Nigeria Customs Service.

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 officers.

In all honesty, the Nigeria Customs Service has over the years created platforms to ensure  that there is sanity in cargo clearance procedure.

 There has been modernization and computerisation and introduction of information technology (IT) devices over the years, History recalls that, there used to be what was called ‘the Long Room’, which gave way to the Customs Processing Centre (CPC) in the late 1990s. Since then, there had been Automated System for Customs Data (ASYCUDA) and later ASYCUDA++. Lately, there has been an upgrade which the Customs calls ‘Nigeria Customs Integrated System’, which is also in its second phase - NICIS 2.

With all the innovations that the Nigeria Customs Service has been introducing, it is shocking that most importers and their clearing agents are still at the mercy of its officials, from the terminal to all the ‘seats’ and to the various exit gates. 

Perhaps the greatest confirmation of the failure of systems is the fact that men of the Federal Operations Unit (FOU) have become another ‘seat’ in the cargo clearing process. The quantum of containers and other items that men of FOU seize daily is a clear pointer that automation has not stopped Customs personnel from being corrupt.

It is also a fact that scanners that the destination inspection agents acquired and used for cargo examination were handed over to Customs at the expiration of their contracts. Sadly, the scanners packed-up shortly after it was handed over. Since then, 100% cargo examination has been the norm. Lack of scanning machines and use of 100 per cent physical examination in the ports have led to so many malpractices. In the absence of scanners, personnel of Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), National Agency for Food Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), State Security Service (SSS), Nigeria Police, National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), Standards Organisation of Nigerian (SON) and others have been having field day. The result is that Nigerian ports have become very expensive, and a fertile ground for sharp practices, including importation of arms and ammunition.

May we ask – would it have been easy for the volume of arms and ammunitions that were imported and cleared out of the port serially in 2017 to pass through? The answer is No.

We recall that, not too long after his appointment, members of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) told visiting Comptroller General of Customs; Col Hameed Ali (rtd) that importers had to contend with scores of signatures before they can take delivery of their consignments at the port. The association specifically alleged that there were 70 of such signatures at Tin Can Island port and about 40 at Apapa port.  These were not prominent when there were scanners.

While we agree that, there are many hurdles to cross before an importer can take delivery, we also don’t agree that there are as many as 110 signatures. But there is a clear violation of the norm in cargo delivery and clearing, which  indicate that, signatures required in the international trade (imports/exports clearance) flow, beginning from trade inquiry should  include:  opening of Form ‘M’, Documentations, submission of Manifest, Berthing Meetings / operational clearance process  ( from  vessel discharge, cargo documentation, examination, Scanning, Regulatory agencies release/endorsements, Customs release, Shipping Company release, Terminal release, Cargo Exiting/Delivery.

All said; 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 identified earlier are involved at one level or the other in making the port system what it is.

Stakeholders always rightly 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 harbour is that officials of government agencies; notably, the Nigeria Immigration Service and the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency go on board.

Curiously, they board 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.

The issue of corruption is not so much about IT, scanning and so on, it about the personnel of the Nigeria Customs Service who have refused to allow the various innovations to work.

On a final note, we can boldly say that, since the ports were concessioned in 2006, the level of corruption in cargo delivery has reduced drastically. There isn’t so much of under hand dealings among officials of terminal operators and shipping lines. The gamut of corruption and personal enrichment is more in cargo clearance where Nigeria Customs Service is the number one player.