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 Authourity Nigeria Customs Service and its service providers, shipping agents, Standards Organisation of Nigeria, National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control, terminal operators, service providers including scanning importers (big and small), freight forwarders (or licensed customs agents), dockworkers, truck owners, drivers and motor boys.
On a good day and from as early as six o’clock in the morning, the frontage of Lagos ports is always busy; filled with people milling around the gates in their quest to gain access into the ports. Of this lot, only a few have genuine reasons to be in the port. The rest are only interested in how they can make a living from the system.
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 ‘Letter of Credit’ 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 form the port.
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 judgement.
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; albeit in varying degrees.
This brings us to the critical issue of causal factors in corruption in the port system. We are of the opinion that transactions in the port system will be more devoid of corrupt tendencies if all stakeholders imbibe the tenets of integrity and best practices in port operations.
This paper once had cause to ask the chairman of the Port Industry Anti-corruption Standing Committee, Mr Val Usifoh about the prevalence of corruption in the port system and an identification of the most corrupt agency. He had avoided fingering any agency; rather he said: “I agree with you that corruption is pervasive, but to start drawing a league table on corruption is difficult and it may not be appropriate”.
Mr Usifoh’s response is representative enough of what most stakeholders are likely to say about the cankerworm called corruption and how deeply it has eaten into the fabric of members of the port community so much so that it may be difficult to exonerate any group.
An appraisal of their roles will suffice here: stakeholders always rush to label customs personnel as the most corrupt, but as much as we do not want to wish to draw a ‘league 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 to us 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 vet the documents again before the container exits.
On the other hands, the importer or his licensed customs agents is left at the mercy of Customs officers if the consignment is problematic or he is at the mercy of the officials of terminal operators if the container has to be transferred from the port to off-dock terminals.
We have taken the pains to x-ray this process to underscore the complexity of cargo clearance and delivery in the nation’s seaports.
The question as to which of these groups is most culpable may not be quite straight forward. It will be difficult to exonerate any group from the cankerworm.
However, the tendency to take advantage will be reduced drastically if the importer does not violate the import guidelines and government policy on import prohibition. It is equally less likely that government officials will toss him around and extort money from him, if the licensed customs agent makes genuine and honest declaration on the Single Goods Declaration form.
We also think that the various anti-corruption committees in the port and the in-house ones within the agencies have not done enough. With the exemption of the Port Industry Anti- Corruption Standing Committee, we dare say that other corruption monitoring units (including the ones being promoted by the Customs) only exist on paper.