New ports clearing system’ll reduce cost of doing business –Edike

Despite initial takeoff hitches associated with the new Destination Inspection Scheme, which took effect with the expiration of service providers’ contracts, the Nigeria Customs Service says the new system will stand the test of time contrary to beliefs in some quarters. Customs Area Comptroller in charge of Apapa Port, Mr. Charles Edike, in this interview with select newsmen insists that it will take transparency and honesty on the part of importers for the system to achieve its set goals and objectives. FRANCIS EZEM was there. Excerpts:

What is the response to the new clearing system so far in terms of compliance?

The benefits of the new system cannot be fully realised if the importers and the agents are not honest by making genuine declaration. I said so because as an importer or agent, whenever you want to import, you go to the portal, go to the classification tool, tell the system what you want to import and the system will automatically interact with you until you get to the point of what you want to bring in.

For example you want to bring in shoes and you type in shoes on the classification tool, it will as you what kind of shoes; is it a leather shoe, plastic, rubber or wooden shoe? Then you go to the one you want and it will ask you again, the soul is it wooden, plastic, or leather it will answer. Then it will interact with you to the point of what you want, you click on it and then it will ask you whether you need any other government agency to intervene such as the National Agency for Food Administration and Control, NAFDAC, Standards Organisation of Nigeria, SON, or Nigeria Environmental Regulation and Standardization Agency, NESREA, or any other government agency, it will tell you then you. It will also help you to classify what you are bringing in, help you calculate the duty, help you with the freight depending on which country you are bringing it from.

So, once you are honest and straightforward during the interaction, whatever that would come out is what you are going to pay as duty and once the PAAR is issued to you based on this, no other Customs officer would ask you any other funny question. The amount stipulated in the PAAR is what you are going to pay. Now where trouble will come is if during the interaction with the system you lied to it. It is all about garbage in garbage out.

If you lied to the system and the officer open the container and check the document and in the document you declared 50 cartons for instance and they find 100 cartons in the container, then there will be wahala. Alternatively, where you are bringing took pick and you declare matches because both of them have sticks, then there is problem or at the back of the container, you put something you did not declare, then there is real problem. The need to be honest, transparent is what will drive this system. The agents and the importers will fully enjoy this system. And of course it also means that the cost of doing business at the ports will reduce because before your container arrives, you would have completed you documentation processes, when your container arrives, you go to the terminal operators, present your papers and you carry your container and go.

Apart from that as you are interacting with the system, if the item is banned, the system will tell you. Some people after importing something, they will tell you they did not know that the item was banned but ignorance of the law is not an excuse. But under the new system, it will tell you clearly that this item is banned; this item need SON, NAFDAC, NESREA or animal and plant quarantine intervention so that right from the beginning you know where you are going to; you are properly informed. So the basic requirement here is transparency, honesty. These will reduce waste of time and you know time is money, so it will reduce cost because after the Debit Note, demurrage follows so it is better to do it right from day one.

What has been your experience in cargo inspection and clearance so far?

As a two-star officer in Apapa Port, when you open a container, look at the left-hand-side; you will see a pouch, which contains the packing list and the final invoice. But importers these days have said since men have learn to shoot without missing, Aneke the bird has learn to fly without perching and so they do not enclose that pouch that contain such vital information there. Now if you are transparent, you should tell your suppliers to put such vital information at the door of the container. So these days it is like importers tell their suppliers not to include such information because before the container arrives here, they would have doctored their documents. Some of them do not know that it pays them to be honest and transparent because the time they are going to waste, the demurrage they are going to pay etc. More often than not the agent will go and tell the importer that ‘Customs say’ whereas Customs did not say any thing, all those monies that he would spend in the process would have been save if he was transparent and honest with his declarations. The bottom line in what the management is doing is that the cost of doing business will be reduced; trade will increase because the international community will have more confidence on us.

At the stakeholders’ forum, the Comptroller General of the service, Alhaji Abdullahi Dikko gave some telephone numbers but importers have not been able to reach anyone on these lines.

I hope you are aware that a day after the trade-up office the CGC opened at the Trade Fair Complex, the following day Apapa command opened a Trade Information Centre at the Customs Processing Centre, CPC. Even people that cannot properly access the system, they do not know how to use the system and how to access the portal, they can come to us and we teach them, people that cannot navigate within the portal, they still come to us, we still help them so that they can make best use of the new system.

We learnt that the service providers left over 99,000 unprocessed Risk Assessment Reports and the management has given them up to January 31 for the importers to apply and clear them what has been the response?

The backlog of RARs left by the service providers is in deed is a challenge but the CGC in his wisdom immediately released that circular, which states that goods that have arrived on or before November 30, 2013 with approved e-Form M and processed final documents but without RAR are directly to apply to the Customs Area Controller for provisional release upon payment of duty and other necessary clearing processes.

Secondly, importers who have completed their documents whose RARs are pending in the bank and could not be transmitted to nice’s platform as at November 30, 2013 by service providers are directed to access their RAR from authorised dealer banks and commence their clearing process. What all these means is that if you got your RAR, whether the Customs portal is shut for them to access, what you need to do is go the bank, get the RAR, which the service provider provided for you, get in there, come to the CAC, make an application and continue with the clearing processes. For the first two days, we noticed a large volume o application numbering over 317 applications for provisional release but surprisingly they did not go and pay. Only 43 paid and the second day it continued but we met than and they expressed fears that what if there is a difference between the RAR and the PAAR when it comes out; how will they explain to their importers and and we assured them that if they are transparent, there will not be any difference between the RAR and the PAAR and that if there is going to be any difference, it will be negligible provided they do not doctor their invoice and Form M because it is based on these same documents that we will give you duty to pay. And after explaining to them, the next day many of them came in large numbers and our revenue even went up and the CGC sent six Assistant Comptrollers General to come and assist us talk with the agents, three ACGs to Apapa and three to Tin Can Island Ports. With the support of the ACGs we called the big agents, the small ones and even the officers and today, it is a lot better. Before the talk, we were making N400 million and N500million revenue per day but after the talk it shut up to N1billion per day and I had a little dance to myself.

The CGC claimed that most of the scanners are faulty and so you subject most of the consignments to physical examination, which negates the spirit of the reform. What is your take on this?

Before we took over, the manufacturers of the came down and inspected the scanners to determine the state of the machines. They were actually not good enough for us and then what the CGC said was that he was going to make arrangements to acquire additional 50 scanners but that they will come in batches to complement the ones we have now, which we are managing. In fact APMT called me recently to say that there is an improvement in the number of containers taken to the scanning site and gradually, things are getting better and of course, Rome was not built in a day.

Now that the service has gone full blown e-clearance, what efforts have been made to protect the system from hackers?

I have heard the CGC at various for a say that the Customs server is as solid as the solid rock itself and I know that some hackers have tried in the part without success and you know we are talking about government revenue so everything is being done to protect it from hackers.

How elastic is this new system in terms of adapting to change?

It is the government that owns both the policy and its elasticity. If today government says about turn, you make about turn, if it says left turn, you turn left and if it says right turn, you do that without question. If it says halt, you obey immediately. If they tell you to turn left at a time you know that you should turn right, you turn left and say this and this is the consequences of my turning left. Customs will always advise. Policies come from government such as fiscal policies, Customs will advise but it is for the government to accept or not accept. There are two main doors out of this place, government may say go out through the other one but some one may now say that is too far why not this nearby one but government may have calculated that there might be obstacles that you may not see before you get to the door you believe is nearer. So government in its wisdom may decide and direct the CGC and the only thing we will say is yes sir. Government is the owner of the policy, the elastic and the machine used in sowing it.

A lot of people believe that Customs is condemning the scanners as a ploy to get the sympathy of the government to approve the 50 scanners. Most of these scanners were inspected and approved by relevant government agencies. What do you think?

When you bring in a new car, you clear it and even before you begin to use it your friends will come and say this car is fine, they begin to praise you. But if you do not maintain the car, knowing that you are going to use it for over six months for instance and that after that time you will transfer it to another person, the zeal to maintain that car will also fall. This scenario is what is playing out there now. For example part of the terms of the contract is that the service providers will still be supplying consumables such as diesel for three months after the end of the contract, go and see the tank, instead of filling the tank, they will fill three quarter and wait and after another day they will put small so that by the time they will be going, thing will be left there. They knew when to go and so the issue of maintaining these machines was no longer a priority. If they knew they would stay longer, they would have continued to maintain those machines.

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