Nigerians, especially stakeholders in the nation’s maritime industry say it very loudly everywhere that Nigerian ports are the most expensive in West Africa, and probably in Africa. The high cost of doing business in Nigerian ports is high largely because of the cost of clearing.
By cargo clearing, we are not referring to customs clearing alone, but 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 include: 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. 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 nauseating to see DSS and the Police getting so directly involved as if cargo clearance is there major reason for being in the port.
In all, these agencies have subdivided themselves into splinters and they are all involved in the cargo delivery process. Virtually, all administrations have made futile efforts to streamline the presence of these agencies; perhaps the most daring was during the regime of former military President, General Ibrahim Babangida (rtd), which reduced the agencies to five. At the end of the intervention, only the Nigeria Customs Service, Police, State Security Service (SSS), Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON) and National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) were left in the port.
The immediate past Finance Minister; Dr Ngozi Okonjo had at one time also intervened and declared that the federal government was planning to take action on the number of its agencies in the seaports.
Also, the Senate had at one time condemned the presence of multiple agencies operating in Nigerian ports. This position was made public recently when the upper chamber’s Ad-hoc Committee on the activities of the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) visited the ports in Lagos.
The committee was responding to complaints by concessionaires at the Lagos Port Complex and Tin Can Island port that there about 25 government agencies in the ports. They had told the senators that these agencies work against international best practice and that the lawmakers should request for the recommendation of a sub-committee of the Presidential Task Force on Ports Reform.
Without mincing words, the nation’s port system has been under siege by these agencies whose operatives have become so powerful and who have become a big clog in the wheels of effective and timely cargo clearance and delivery.
Government’s efforts at ensuring that cargoes are delivered to consignees within 48 hours have been made nonsense of by these agencies and their personnel. There had been previous orders that these agencies should vacate the ports, but these have been out rightly disobeyed by the offices of these agencies and this is largely why more of them have found their ways into the port system.
The former finance minister was reported to have ordered at that time that: “the unauthourised agencies must withdraw from the ports within two weeks. The Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) and the Task force from the presidency must monitor compliance to ensure that the directives from government are strictly carried out within the given time frame. They must also ensure strict and total enforcement,”, even as she also directed as part of the new arrangement that: “Customs would work 24 hours and seven days a week to make our ports function efficiently.
And apparently confirming that the plethora of government agencies encourages corrupt practices, she also charged port users to “stop the extortion and corruption prevalent in the port. We are going to reduce the check points to reduce the cost of doing business in order to achieve faster turnaround time”.
These take us to the trending ‘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, “the Apapa Port shall resume 24-hour operations within 30 days of the issuance of this Order and there shall be no touting whatsoever by official or unofficial persons at any port in Nigeria.’’
On the harmonization of activities of agencies operating at the ports, Osinbajo ordered 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 more than one year 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.
As desirable as ease of doing business and 24 hour cargo clearance are, a few things have to be put in place and put right, even after the number of agencies has been pruned down.
The ports need a fully automation, where containers are compulsorily scanned and not subjected to physical examination.
To achieve 24-hour cargo clearance, the ports access roads must be repaired, there must be uninterrupted power supply, and similarly, the ridiculous port charges must also be removed.
It is desirable that businesses be done with ease at the ports and that cargoes must be cleared within 24 hours, but there is no alternative to the much-mouthed Single Window. We agree with those who have postulated that, one of the ways to achieve 48 hours cargo clearance is for the importer to abide by rules of engagements and by adherence to regulatory requirements.