Some months ago, nigeriamaritime360.com on this platform expressed worry about the absence of a single window for the smooth operations at our ports with the attendant benefits.
Sadly enough, to date, nothing concrete has been done to the effect!
We are now more particularly concerned especially with the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the whole world. Nigeria would have concentrated her resources on other aspects of curtailing the pandemic in the area of social distancing had our concern been looked into in the area of the National Single Window Project.
We said at the time that Nigerian ports, over the years, had earned an unenviable sobriquet of being the costliest within the sub-region in terms of transaction of business.
On the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index, Nigeria is currently ranked 146th out of 190 countries ranked by the global financial institution in its latest ranking in 2018, a drop of one step from 145th spot it occupied in 2017.
This unpalatable statistics is a fall out of the embedded encumbrances in cargo clearance and delivery procedures at the ports.
The cargo delivery and clearance system at our ports is fraught with multiple problems which are largely man-made to complicate the process that would easily engender illicit practices.
The ports have become breeding ground for multiplicity of charges and agencies with conflicting roles and often overlapping functions which make the ports unfriendly and transactions unattractive.
Over the years, government had implemented various reforms in the port industry, especially the cargo clearance procedures, to give a semblance of sanity to the sector.
Almost all the agencies of government that are connected to the process of cargo clearance and delivery system, had undergone one form of automation reform or the other to simplify the process of goods clearance and enhance trade facilitation.
More importantly, the Nigerian Customs Service, which is central to the process , had undergone series of modernisation programmes to enhance ease of doing business and engender safe, fast and efficient cargo delivery method.
The introduction and implementation of various stages of ASYCUDA system and the latest NICIS 1 and NICIS 11 automation process have helped in no small measure to simplify Customs clearing system.
The Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) has had its own fair share of automation reforms.
The deployment of the Command, Control, Communication and Intelligent System (CCCIS) and other automation projects has helped to enhance the roles and functions of the agency.
The same technology-driven reforms at Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) , SON, NAFDAC, NDLEA, Police, Plant Quarantine have all shaped and improved the efficiency of these agencies at the ports.
The terminal operators, shipping companies and freight forwarders have all embraced technology to improve their efficiency.
However despite all the reforms in the operations of these agencies, most of which are involved in cargo clearance procedures, the process is still fraught with delays and other forms of man-made problems.
Ironically, the National Single window project which all the players in the chains, including the government, have acknowledged to be the solution to the embedded problems in port transactions, has largely been ignored.
We at nigeriamaritime360.com became worried by the inexplicable delay and apathy to deploy the single window automation system that is meant to enhance efficiency in the cargo delivery method.
Single window, historically, is a concept developed by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and countries in other jurisdictions.
It is encouraged by the World Customs Organisation (WCO) among its member nations and facilitated by World Trade Organisation (WTO) as a one stop single portal where both local and international trade actors can access fast and efficient transactions.
In the Nigerian version, Nigerian Trade Portal is created which will link all the agencies of government involved in goods clearance and the traders where all the trade information is available for ease of transaction and seamless cargo clearance procedures.
It is a digital interaction among all the players in the imports and exports trade devoid of physical interaction.
But curiously, almost a decade when it was introduced in Nigeria, the project has not fully been implemented.
Rather than embrace the project, each agency such as the Customs and the NPA has embarked on localised automation process that is only meant to improve their operations which other agencies do not have access to.
This platform is saddened by the delay in the implementation of this project which will eliminate corruption, delay in goods clearance and enhance efficient service delivery.
We are more disturbed that Ghana, which introduced the project in 2015 after Nigeria, has embarked on its full implementation and is now enjoying its full benefits.
The new system comes with multiple advantages such as secured transactions, increased transparency, financial inclusion; it frustrates the use of cloned or forged trade documents.
The system has rendered obsolete paper invoices and bank confirmations with the attendant delay and inconvenience to members of the trading community.
Perhaps what is very significant is that the new addition to the single window project will make it possible for port users to clear and take delivery of their consignments within 24hours.
These are the benefits which the delay in the implementation of the project has robbed us of in the country.
Rotimi Amaechi, Minister of Transportation, had in 2016 pointedly accused Nigeria Customs of deliberately frustrating the implementation of Single window project.
The Minister alleged that the Customs has refused to key into the platform of the automation system created by West Blue Consulting which was contracted by the government to drive the project.
In 2010, when this project was to be first implemented, it was the same Customs which allegedly instigated the revocation of its contract in 2012 which was awarded to a firm called Single Window System Technology Limited over allegations of impropriety and breach of due process.
The Customs management then had claimed the service was not carried along in the award of the contract.
In 2013, the Customs launched its own version of single window which had no impact on the process at the port. We couldn’t confirm if it incorporated other agencies.
However, the West Blue Consulting was later engaged to develop Nigerian Trade Portal under the single window project but one thing led to the other and the contract was again terminated and the Infrastructure put in place by the contractor was abandoned.
It was the same contractor who developed in Ghana what today is the first of its kind Single Window project in the sub region.
With this sequence of events, we are tempted to align with Amaechi in his accusation of sabotage by Customs.
Why is Customs afraid of single window project when all other stakeholders are ready to embrace the initiative that will enhance their businesses?
It even sounds more curious when one notes that the efforts will not only enhance the revenue profile of the Customs but also promote trade facilitation, two important core functions of the agency.
Without fear of contradiction, we dare say that the propelling reason for the delay and subtle frustration of the project is due to its potential for eliminating physical contacts with the trading public.
It is an incontrovertible fact that if you remove physical contacts between the agencies of government which participate in cargo clearing process and the trade actors, extortions and other forms of illicit activities will be drastically reduced, if not totally eliminated.
Under the single window project, an importer or his agent doesn’t need to come to the port to transact business.
He doesn’t need to see any officer of any of the agencies involved in goods examination and release.
All transactions and interactions are done electronically.
That is why in the countries where the system is used, there is virtually no human presence at the port. This to a large extent in the trying pandemic period would have been a great benefit to this nation.
It was at the point of evacuation that trucks would be called in to move out the cargo.
We dare say the personnel of our agencies at the ports, especially Customs officers, dread this scenario.
Apart from pecuniary interest, ego is another major factor delaying the implementation of the project.
There has been a silent competition between the Customs and the NPA on which agency to take custody of the project.
Both agencies, unfortunately though, are flexing muscle on who to have the authority over the implementation.
This much could be gleaned from the outburst of Amaechi in 2016 when he was commissioning the NPA’s CCCIS.
In 2017, both the Customs and the NPA said they were collaborating to introduce the much-awaited National Single Window project, but nothing has come out of it.
In January 2018, the Ministry of Finance, the supervising ministry of Nigeria Customs Service and the Ministry of Transportation, supervising ministry of NPA, jointly wrote to the Federal Executive Council, seeking to establish what they called National Trade Platform (NTP) that will comprise of single window, Port community system and scanning services.
This project seeks to replace the current electronic portal and customs automation.
Hadiza Bala-Usman, the Managing Director of NPA, only last week mentioned the so-called collaboration with the Customs to drive the project.
What this tells us and any discerning mind is that there is no synergy between the Customs and the NPA on the implementation of the project, notwithstanding the much-vaunted collaboration.
We condemn in the strongest terms the circus show which both the government agencies have reduced a monumental project that is capable of reforming our slow, laborious and corruption -infested cargo clearance and delivery system.
We are more pained that while other African Countries like Ghana, Morocco with less maritime potentials have all embraced the project which have enhanced their status on the Ease of doing business index of the World Bank, Nigeria is still playing the ostrich game with the project.
We appeal to the two leading agencies in the sector to come down from their high horses and come together to drive the implementation of this all important project.
Such project of national importance should not be reduced to contest for supremacy largely driven by ego.
We also admonish the present management of Customs to embrace this single command system and stop the delay tactics meant to put the project in abeyance.
National interest should be allowed to supersede selfish and pecuniary interests, in whatever guise.
Nigeriamaritime360.com wishes to acknowledge the passion of the present government in its desire to enhance ease of doing business at the ports.
But we dare say that this desire will largely remain an illusion if the national single window project, which to our mind, is the only tool that can unbundle the knotty cargo clearance and delivery system at the ports, is not implemented as soon as possible.
We therefore urge the government to demonstrate strong commitment and will power towards the final implementation of the project.
Nigeriamaritime360.com appeals to government to take a tough and uncompromising stand on this issue by giving the duo of NPA and Customs the matching order to rise above their primordial interests and collaborate for the quick implementation of the project.
In the alternative, we recommend a broad -based committee, comprising the relevant government agencies and stakeholders to midwife the implementation of the project.
As it stands today with the coronavirus which thrives more in an environment where people shun social distancing, any further delay in the implementation of this project will not only further endanger the lives of our port operators but depress Nigeria’s standing on the World Bank’s ease of doing business index, it will also make our port uncompetitive, unfriendly and unattractive to do business, a development we believe may likely make the ports of our neighbouring countries preferred destination for cargo among the trading publics.
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