48-hour cargo delivery projection still a mirage

Nearly eight years after the conclusion of Nigeria’s port reform programme designed to enhance efficiency, prompt clearance of cargo has continued to be a mirage despite yearly projection of achieving 48-hour cargo delivery. FRANCIS EZEM reports.

Successive managements of the Nigeria Customs Service have in the last 10 years maintained an annual ritual of projecting 48-hour cargo delivery from Nigeria’s seaports from the date of arrival. As lofty and desirable as this projection looks, especially given that the application of Information Technology has really enhanced cargo delivery, has remained rather elusive.

It was little wonder therefore that the Special adviser to President Goodluck Jonathan on monitoring and evaluation, Professor Sylvester Monye, who also heads the presidential committee on port reform joined the banned wagon of customs managements that project 48-hour cargo delivery though no measures have been put in place to drive and achieve the projection.

The presidential aide had claimed that the dwell time of cargo at Nigeria’s seaports has been reduced from 39 to five days from the date of arrival of the consignment.

The special adviser, who spoke against the background of the transfer of about 5,000 abandoned containers at Apapa and Tin Can Island Ports to Ikorodu Lighter Terminal, disclosed that ultimate goal of the committee was to achieve 48-hour cargo clearance.

Monye was obviously basking on the euphoria of the temporary removal of the trucks that were parked indiscriminately on port access roads such as Mile 2-Apapa Expressway, among several others, which returned less than two weeks after.

Current statistics show that it takes over 25 days to clear a consignment from any of the nation’s seaports, except in ports associated with Roll-On-Roll-Off (RORO) operations.

The cumbersome nature of cargo clearing processes at the nation’s seaports, which has made it practically impossible for consignments to leave the port terminals within thee weeks, seems to have worsened in the recent past.

A recent Corruption Risk Assessment (CRA) report on Nigerian seaports released recently 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) stated 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 efficient 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.

The question that no one has been able to provide answers to is whether these about 100 signatures could all be signed wthin 48 hours. This brings to fore the cosmetic approach to addressing issues in Nigeria as was seen in the claims by Professor Monye, who obviously just wanted to impress the president by deluding the public.

Nearly every Minister of Finance or Transport in Nigeria in the last eight years has laid claims to working on a projection designed to achieve 48-hour cargo delivery.

Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who had last year announced a reduction in the number of government agencies that participate in cargo inspection at the ports from 14 to about six, had insisted that the aim was to reduce the number of days it takes to clear a consignment.

“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”, she had said.

“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” she had insisted.

Though the minister meant well in her desire to make the ports work, the approach was faulty. The minister had supposedly announced the sack of agencies such as National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control, National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, Directorate of Naval Intelligence and Standards Organisation of Nigeria.

Others include 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.

Also barred from participating in goods inspection were the Intelligence Unit of the Nigeria Customs Service, the enforcement unit of the service as well as the controversial Comptroller General’s special squad. But in real sense, all these agencies merely relocated from the port premises but still actively sign import documents from their operational bases.

In fact it has been alleged that they constitute nearly half of these 100 signatures. 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, attributed the unattainable nature of this projection to the presence of these agencies and well as duplication of units by the Nigeria Customs Service.

“I think government should exercise its oversight functions by making sure that things work at the ports, by calling a spade a spade and by streamlining their agencies operating at the ports, they must make sure that things work. He also said: “For example the Customs should choose the number of its units that do cargo examination so that things will move faster”.

“These things are actually man -made problems because if we allow the current Automated System For Customs Data (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”, he also said.

Meanwhile, immediate past chairman of the Tin Can Island chapter of Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), Mr. Kayode Farinto, insists that the dream of achieving a 48-hour cargo clearance at the seaports would continue to be unrealisable until necessary measures were put in place, which also includes streamlining these agencies..

“The inability of the government to enthrone a regime of interconnectivity among the various stakeholders such as the Nigeria Customs Service, terminal operators, shipping companies and other government security agencies that participate in cargo release will continue to hinder speedy and efficient cargo delivery within 48 hours”, he argued “48-hour cargo clearance is achievable in Nigeria since it has been achieved in other seaports, including some West African countries but it is not feasible for now due to the lack of inter-connectivity among the various agencies operating in the seaports”, he noted.

It is therefore expedient for the government to address the real issues to achieve speedy cargo delivery, if not within two days at least within seven days.

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