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 Authority, (NPA), Nigeria Customs Service, (NCS), shipping agents, Standards Organisation of Nigeria, (SON), National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control, (NAFDAC), terminal operators, importers (big and small), licensed customs agents, dockworkers, truck owners, drivers and even motor boys.
Some of the government agencies named above are a regular feature of the port cargo clearance and delivery system.
Specifically, 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.
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 ‘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 on stakeholders in the Nigerian port system, but that is an incorrect judgment.
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 violates import guidelines and import prohibition order 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 in making the port system what it is.
Stakeholders always 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 harbours is that officials of government agencies; notably, Port Health Services, the Nigeria Immigration Service go on board. Curiously, they board the ship empty handed and disembark with loads of goodies including foreign 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 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 security personnel of the NPA, the Police and the Customs who must again, vet the documents before the container exits.
Corruption is as old as the port itself. While we have nothing against the current move to call attention to this rot, may we also affirm that the givers of bribe are more guilty than the takers.
Generations of provider and users of port services have benefitted from these corrupt ports. Who doesn’t know that we only hear of corruption when there is no agreement between the giver and the taker?
It is gladdening that, rather than adopting the usual approach of denial, virtually all stakeholder groups are in unison that the ports are corrupt.
Tactically, they agreed with the recent submission of the ICPC and that of NAFDAC, all pointing to the rot in the Nigerian port system.
Perhaps, it is time to look in the direction of the recently-launched Nigerian Ports Process Manual (NPPM) as one of the game-changers. If each actor in the cargo examination and delivery process knows what to do and when to do it, we may then see the likelihood of sanity. Deviation from the NPPM should be met with sanctions.
Finally, the way to go is automation. With reduction of human contact in the ports, be it for Customs operations, terminal operations or dealing with shipping companies, corruption is likely to be reduced significantly.