Recently, the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) called for urgent reform of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) cargo clearing processes and procedures.
The issues of concerns, according to the Chamber, include undue delays, weak application of technology, arbitrariness in valuation, impunity, uncertainty of international trade transactions, cost escalation, negative investment climate perception, ineffective mode of seeking redress, pervasive human interface, amongst others.
The Director General of the Chamber, Mr. Muda Yusuf had in a statement lamented multiple units of Customs and other government agencies in the port obstructing easy cargo clearance.
The LCCI said it became necessary because the organisation was disturbed by the challenges being faced by Nigerian business concerns during cargo clearance at the nation’s ports.
The chamber pointed out the issue is badly hurting investors and adversely affecting economic recovery initiatives.
According to LCCI; “The situation calls for urgent intervention and reforms of the NCS. There are issues of undue delays, weak application of technology, arbitrariness in valuation, impunity, uncertainty of international trade transactions, cost escalation, negative investment climate perception, ineffective mode of seeking redress, pervasive human interface, amongst others”.
The Director-General, LCCI, Mr. Muda Yusuf, in a signed statement noted that the business community is faced with too many units of Customs and other government agencies, which making ease of doing business extremely difficult, frustrating.
He added that it also predisposes the system to brazen extortionist practices.
Yusuf further listed that the units of extortion are; the Pre-Arrival Assessment Report (PAAR) office, Valuation units, examination, releasing, unblocking, DC Report, Stamping Unit, Exit Gate, and Enforcement.
Others, he buttressed are the government agencies at the ports like the National Agency for Food Drugs Administration Control (NAFDAC), the Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON), Plant Quarantine, State Security Services (SSS), Police Anti Bomb Squad, and the Port Police.
He added that encounters by the private sector with these numerous agencies impose unbearable burden on importers and investors in terms of costs, time, and bureaucracy.
With all the aforementioned, it shows what importers are also confronted with in the hands of Federal Operations Unit (FOU), Customs Strike Force, and the Customs Police outside the ports.
Meanwhile the Director-General, Sea Empowerment Initiative, Dr. Francis Uchechukwu Aniezechukwu in a chat, said that the underlining factor is that the system as regards trade facilitation in Nigeria generally is grossly deficient.
“The system in Nigeria Customs operations is revenue oriented. Juxtaposed with World Trade Organisation (WTO) standards for trade facilitation, you can understand that they will not be at par.
“The effect of this none compliance with stipulated international best practices in trade facilitation gave rise to the multiple collection desks inside Nigerian ports, not only on the side of NCS, but at the various shipping companies, terminal operators , government agencies and lately on roads exiting from the ports,” he said.
Aniezechukwu, who’s also a legal consultant,said that Sea Empowerment Reseach Center did a study on the issues of guidelines, implementation and enforcement.
“We have done a study on this and report forwarded to various regulating bodies and I sincerely do hope that proper enforcement of right guidelines are implemented,” Aniezechukwu said.
A chieftain of Association of Nigerian Licenced Customs Agents (ANLCA), Mr. Joe Sanni in a chat confirmed that there are numerous clearing desks in the ports, stating that some people and some government agencies just decided to make the Ports their father’s farmland, where they continue to extort gullible agents/importers.
He listed that what’s obtainable in the ports system includes; data capture is done in the offices of customs brokers, having been licensed by NCS and allocated a username and password, which is changed by the license owner at will.
According to him; “the agent prints out the SGD/SAD and the assessment notice / customs duty, which is paid by importer.
“Customs broker raises Shipping and Terminal Charges from his office and paid.
Sanni also explained it is after these payments are made outside the Customs area that the examination of the container /cargo is booked at the shipping company.
On physical examination, he noted that when the container is dropped for examination, it’s only when the customs officials and other government agencies are invited by the agents to conduct examination.
“This is the point at which corruption-unlimited manifests. This is the point that non-compliance cargoes are subjected to negotiations.
“This is the stage that takes much of the clearing time. This is the stage, in my humble view, that needs to be automated. That is to replace the physical examination with scanners,” Sanni said.
Furthermore, he pointed out that with compliant cargoes, releases are effected immediately after examination within three hours of examination.
As for cargoes having valuation, Q&A, audit alerts, he said agents are referred to the appropriate Customs units for resolution before it is officially released by the releasing officer, adding that it does not take time to resolve, depending on the nature of the infractions.
Sanni,on gate officers interruption, stressed that officers at the gate exhibit corruptive tendencies in querying properly released cargoes by their colleagues inside the terminals due to lack of trust.
He, however, maintained that interceptions outside the terminals, the FOU, Special Forces and compliance teams contravention of released cargoes without sanctioning the releasing officer is unjustifiable.
“Once the releasing officer is sanctionable, they will desist from giving false information to units on the highway,” he said.
He stated that the clearing system in Nigeria is almost at the verge of getting easier and better, especially when scanners are installed and the ports are opened 24/7 with security lights all over.
Sanni used the opportunity to encourage media practitioners to go inside the ports to investigate what’s going on instead of hearing from armchair critics.
“I bet you, you will learn much more than the pedestrian views being bandied all over the place,” Sanni said.
Another ANLCA chieftain, Mr. Anthony Anakebe, confirmed the different units created in the NCS commands, stating it’s a setback to ease of doing business.
“Yes, it’s true and instead of been a success, it’s drawing business back. The CGC is currently running the Customs with more than 13 task forces, including the Residents custom officers.
“The most unfortunate thing is that all these units create one problem or the other not only inside the ports but also along the roads in order to extort money from people.
“Inside the ports, alerts are used by most units to draw agent to there different offices for extortion, thereby accumulating demmurrages for both shipping and terminal operators,” Anakebe said.
Efforts to get NCS operatives to speak on the matter proved abortive as they neither picked nor returned calls or responded to SMS sent across but a Comptroller of Customs who wants to remain anonymous said though he now works at the Command headquarters, he isn’t in a position to comment or talk on behalf of the federal government agency.
However, it remains to be seen if the government at all levels, men and officers of the NCS will one day yield to the yearnings of the masses and corporate businesses, who one way or the other face extortion in the hands of the security agents.