“Most clearing agents are not sincere"
Dr. Steven Ekoro is the Controller and Station Coordinator of Apapa Command of the Nigerian Agricultural Quarantine Service (NAQS). In this interview with Shipping Position Daily correspondent Dapo Olawuni in Lagos last week, he talked about the importance of Quarantine service at the port and how the command is implementing this mandate.
“We protect the economy from being ravaged by pests and diseases”
“The war against Boko Haram is infinitesimal; the greatest war is war against pathogens”
Tell us briefly about NAQS function being an agency inside the port? The Nigerian Agricultural Quarantine Service (NAQS) is made up of three basic departments, the plant Quarantine, Animal Quarantine and the Aquatic Quarantine. The three different units were harmonised to ensure corporate best practices in the implementation of NAQS’ mandate.Our major mandate is to prevent the entry of foreign pests and deceases that accompany imported goods coming into the country, in the event that they come, we make sure that they are not established or spread. This is why we carry out inspections on every vessel coming into the port. What we do here is also replicated at the airport and land borders to ensure that Nigeria- bound cargoes are free from pathogens and pests. We are the first line of defence to Nigerian Agricultural economy. Just like the customs are here to make revenue, we are not here to raise revenue; we protect the economy from being ravaged by pests and diseases.
You can imagine the large quantities of agricultural products that pass through the borders and the risk they can cause if not checked by NAQS professionals, the impact it would create on the country's agricultural economy would be very enormous. The war against Boko Haram is infinitesimal, the greatest war is war against pathogens, this is why under international law, countries are not allowed to use chemical and biological weapons. We are on red alert to ensure they are not allowed into the country through Apapa.
What is the seminar you held last week about?The seminar is the first in the series since I got posted down here from Lagos, it is meant to activate our staff and officers on the rudiments of their job so that they would be up to the task and know the right thing to do when they come across stakeholders, verification and authentication of documents and so on. The training is first of its kind here in this Apapa command. I was posted here in the last week of April and I resumed here in the first week of May as the Controller of Apapa Command.
What is your assessment of the level of export activities at Apapa port? Before now, importation has been on the increase, but now since the coming of the present administration which is encouraging Nigerians to embrace agricultural activities, export volumes have increased, the diversification of the economy by the present administration encouraged most farmers and exporters into agricultural produce, so we are now seeing export based agricultural products by almost 25% increase at our seaports here, so export is encouraging, it has improved more than what it usually was.
Nigeria does not have Quarantine facilities, what do you work with at the port? In terms of facilities, our CG has promised to upgrade some of our facilities in order to build our capacity to perform very well, this is work in progress.
What kind of facilities do you require to function better? For example, the installation of Internet facilities, we have what is called the Quarantine bay so that when we seize products which are of high risk and carrying pests, the goods would be quarantined in the mean time to see their observation and behaviour before we now release them. So it is in the pipeline for us to have a Quarantine bay for animal products, for fish and for plants.
Yam exportation was flagged off at Lillypond Terminal recently by the Minister of Agriculture, why were the yams returned? On the yam issue, newspapers have carried the news all over, the minister at that level are handling it, so I wouldn't want to comment on it, it is being handled at ministerial level in Abuja.
On the ease of doing business, how are the ports coping? When the ease of doing business order was issued from the presidency, a meeting was called and the Quarantine was fully represented, they set up a committee and Quarantine was also there represented by myself. When we started it, certain things were streamlined, such as the multiple checks at the access gate and checks at the terminals, we agreed that everything should be done at once inside the terminals, and even in the case of export terminals, it should be located within the terminals. The only challenge we are having as far as the ease of doing business is concerned is the road, the road is so bad and because of this, it is negating the ease of doing business, but from what we are now seeing, the NPA which is the main authority and Flour Mill have come into an agreement to see what they can do about the road to remedy the situation and allow trucks to move freely. Even, the 24 hours operations have started, but you must understand that some of these measures are long-term measures, some are medium-term measures, but for the short-time measures, it is going smoothly. We at the Quarantine service keyed into the 24 hours port operations, sometimes our officers do come in the night to make sure that we facilitate the ease of doing business like other agencies.
Currently there are no scanners at the port, how do you carryout examination? One of the rudiments of the ease of doing business is joint examination, the various agencies have been tasked that examination of containers should be done jointly; our staff are also participating in this with the Customs, the NDLEA, SON. We had a meeting and we all agreed that we should be doing joint examination, but as individual agencies, if there is an area that you need to flag down, you raise an alarm.
Are there any clash in mandate with port health and other agencies? As various agencies of the government, sometimes we normally have overlapping functions, the main function of the port health is to look into deceases on humans, the immigrants coming into the country, but we deal with pests, deceases and pathogens that accompany imported goods, especially agricultural products, when they come into the port, we prevent them from going into the society as soon as we have identified that the product is bad. We put the product on hold and we treat them before we allow them into the country. This is the main idea of our being at the examination bay. Our mandate is to ensure that we protect Nigerian Agricultural economy.
Paletisation was reintroduced during the ease of doing business, what happens to a cargo with bad pallets? We are the first line of defence as far as agriculture is concerned to make sure that we don't pests and deceases into the country, if in the event where plastic pallets can introduce pests and deceases, it is the duty of Quarantine to raise an alarm. The cargo itself may not even be an agricultural product, so the agency concerned would look into it, at the port here we work together, when you raise an alarm, other agencies concerned would now look into it. When there is a tendency of a cargo carrying pests and pathogen, the Quarantine would write a report on it, this is why we are on red alert channel to make sure that such products do not come in through the seaport, airport and the land borders. The pathogens and diseases may not come in through agricultural products. For example, in the case of Ebola, it did not come through agricultural products, but the Quarantine swung into action to make sure that we contain it, so also is the monkey pox that we are talking about today, we are working assiduously to make sure that this disease does not come in through the seaport.
How do you deal with cases of document forgery? This is a common case here, we deal with stakeholders, some of them are sincere while some are not, this was why at a time, the Nigeria Customs had to be armed to make sure that they would be able to combat smuggling, these people are always there to circumvent government directives, this is why our document verification and authentication is very important and we also brought this up during the seminar. Apart from the seminar, at every opportunity, we always teach our staff on how to verify and know the difference between original and fake documents. Every document that has classical information and security features are checked, when there is a deviation, we raise alarm. Recently, about a month ago, we had a case of such where somebody brought in a fake document, but by the time we looked at it we found out that the documents were faked, we had to inform the authorities, the matter is still on. Most of the clearing agents, religiously they are not sincere, and on our own part we need to carry out stringent document verification and auditing.