When the Federal Government decided to reform the seaports through a concession scheme, it did not mince words in telling the whole world that one of the core objectives of the exercise was to bring about efficiency to the port system, among several others.
Government had believed that the exercise will not only make ports efficient, but also make them competitive among their peers in the West and Central African Sub-region. The reform, which adopted the Land Lord Port Model of the Port of Antwerp, Belgium, stripped the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) of its cargo handling functions and gave same to private terminal comprising both indigenous and foreign ones to check delay.
Regrettably, more than seven years after, these objectives are far from being achieved, as cargo processing at the seaports and land borders have been characterised bureaucracy and duplication of functions for corrupt and selfish reasons.
A Corruption Risk Assessment (CRA) report on Nigerian seaports released last month by the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), indicated that it takes over 79 signatures to clear a consignment from Nigeria’s seaports.
The report was the outcome of a four-month corruption assessment study carried out by the commission in conjunction with the Technical Unit on Governance and Anti-Corruption (TUGAR) and the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP) with the support of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) claimed that an importer or clearing agent requires a minimum of 79 signatures of government officials to clear goods.
Consultant to the ICPC on the CRA study, Mr. Constantine Palicarsky who presented the report to stakeholders at a validation meeting, also identified the lack of standard operation procedure by the various government agencies as a major hindrance to port operations thus giving rise to corruption in the system.
He had insisted that while it takes 79 signatures to process a cargo in some ports, it takes over 100 signatures in other ports, an indication that the process is not harmonised, which breeds corruption. A frontline freight forwarder and pioneer chairman of the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN), Mr. Tony Iju-Nwabunike, who spoke in an interview on this development, noted that he concurs with the report of the anti-graft agency on the report.
According to him, it takes well over 100 signatures, going by the number of government agencies that participate in the clearance of cargo and the number of documents signed. He also said: “For example the Nigeria Customs Service should choose the number of its units that do cargo examination so that things will move faster.
The same documents must have gone through more than 79 persons, so whoever says that it takes more than 79 signatures to clear a cargo in Nigeria is correct”.
According to him, the real problems are those security agencies including those special units of Customs that have positioned themselves to extort money from port services users.
On the way out, he noted that Nigeria does not need Automated System for Customs Data (ASYCUDA 007) to attain 48-hour cargo delivery. He argued that even under this system, which allows a stakeholder to sit in his office and everybody sees what is happening but, regretted that an average Nigerian security agent would want to be in the port to see what is happening because of what they are going to get in terms of gratifications.
“So these things are actually man -made problems because if we allow the current ASYCUDA to work as it should, within 24 hours not even 48 hours one should take delivery of his consignments.
But there are so many bottlenecks created by some people who actually make things difficult to do the clearing and forwarding, to take delivery of the goods at the ports”.
It was probably in reaction to these man-made bottlenecks that founder of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), Dr. Boniface Aniebonam, insisted that it still takes over 21 days for cargo to be cleared from Nigeria’s seaports, several years after the port reform.
Aniebonam, who was reacting to claims by some regulators that the reform of the ports has brought about a level of efficiency in the clearing of cargo had challenged those making such claims to come up with concrete data to substantiate their claims.
This rather ugly development apart from contradicting the Federal Government’s port reform programme, it also seems to have thwarted recent efforts by the government to make the seaports work.
Senior Special Adviser to the President on Maritime Services, Mr. Leke Oyewole in 2011, hinted that the government plans to finance substantial part of its 2012 budget from revenue generated from the maritime industry. It was probably in line with the projection that the government took specific steps to enthrone a regime of efficiency at the nation’s seaports.
For instance, apart from evacuating some Independent Power Project equipment imported by some Federal and state government agencies, the government had reduced the number of security agencies operating at the ports. It was therefore in an effort to make the seaports more efficient, cheaper and more user-friendly, that the government announced the sack of some government agencies such as the National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) and Standards Organisation of Nigeria from participating in cargo examination at the nation’s seaports.
Also affected in the shake-up, which reduced government agencies operating at the seaports from 14 to about six are Directorate of Naval Intelligence, Nigerian Plant Quarantine Services, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission, National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency and the Federal Environmental Protection Agency, among others. Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who addressed stakeholders on the resolve of President Goodluck Jonathan to revamp the seaports had also disbanded all the special taskforces put in place by the Comptroller General of Customs, Alhaji Abdullahi Dikko.
The Minister said; “I am here with a simple message from Mr. President and that message is that it is time for our seaports to start working and they must start working for honest and hardworking Nigerians not for those who are working to make things more complicated, make money out of our ports and make things more difficult for honest business person man or woman in this country’.
“We must make our ports work for Nigerians who want to create jobs, that is really what Mr. President wants us to do and our being here today is a demonstration that we need to act and that this is no longer time for talking.
We know that without an efficient port system, there would be high cost in the economy and so what we are doing now is to reduce those costs so that our business people would have the wherewithal to create more jobs” the Minister insisted. Regrettably, nearly two years after, things seem to have taken a more dangerous dimension.
This calls for more concerted efforts by the anti-graft agency and every well meaning Nigerian to make things work at the seaports.
Information from National Mirror was used in this report.