Why Nigeria Customs should embrace Cargo Scanners

In 2013, three Scanning Service Providers, Cotecna, SGS and Global Scan, transferred the Destination Inspection Scheme (DI) to the Nigeria Customs Service.

This was after eight years they managed the scheme under a contract signed with the Federal Government in 2005.

Prior to that period, the country was practising Pre-Shipment Inspection Scheme.

However, under the Destination Inspection Scheme which the service providers bequeathed to the Customs, scanning services are the nucleus of the contract terms which include provision of scanners at all the customs’ ports in the country.

For eight years, the destination inspection service providers deployed and maintained the multi-billion naira scanners which they procured to boost quick clearance of goods under Build, Own, Operate and Transfer (BOOT) basis.

During this period, more than 80 percent of containers were routed through to scanning while less than 20 percent were on the red lane and subjected to 100 percent examination.

This enhanced quick clearance procedures and faster turnaround of vessels.

But curiously, despite the intrinsic values of scanning machines in the areas of security and trade facilitation, the Nigeria Customs has chosen to abandon these essential machines, seven years after it took over from the scanning service providers.

Despite the unanimous acknowledgement of all the stakeholders, including the customs service, that scanners are sine quine non for seamless cargo clearance procedures at the ports,  the Nigeria Customs curiously still holds on to the 100 percent examination of cargoes with its inherent disadvantages of slow and laborious process.

This is despite the testimony of the current Comptroller-General of Customs, Hameed Ali, who at assumption of office, said there was no alternative to scanners.

Yet, not even under the tenure of immediate CGC, Abdullahi Dikko, that the use of physical examination of cargo was overrated and elevated over scanners as it is currently the case under the stewardship of the incumbent Customs High Chief.

The Customs Authority has given various reasons ranging from being sublime and ridiculous to justify its current obsession with physical examination of cargo.

Ali’s Customs has tried to argue, albeit unsuccessfully, that the non-compliance of Nigerian importers to the extant guidelines on importation has necessitated the irrevocable commitment of the service to the use of physical examination.

Ali underpinned his argument with some isolated high profile interceptions and seizures made in the course of physical examination of goods.

We consider this argument as pedestrian which flies away in the face of the incontrovertible fact that deployment of scanners would not only have discovered more of such contraband goods but equally fast track the clearance procedures.

Also, the use of cargo scanners had become more imperative during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The challenges posed by the Covid-19 lockdown has further exposed the inadequacies of the 100 percent physical examination as fancied by the Customs.

The fact that most of these high profile seizures, such as the 661 pump rifles, were made outside the confines of the ports, having escaped the so-called “eagle-eyed” Customs officers who carried out the preferred physical examination, further denigrates any argument for wholly physical examination.

Physical examination of cargoes, which is a manual unstuffing of containers,   tasks the mental and physical strength of Customs examination officers who, during the time of this mental and physical fatigue, mostly lose concentration and allow offensive cargo escape their scrutiny.

In addition, no manual efforts on physical examination could cover several thousands of containers that leave the ports every day.

They are picked at random for examination, thus giving ample chances for contraband goods to slip outside.

But scanners will have over 95 percent accuracy with negligible amount that appear suspicious subjected to physical examination.

Despite the obvious lapses and inadequacies of physical examination, Nigeria Customs still clinches to its use like a leech.

Why is Customs scared of using cargo scanners despite their obvious advantages and the fact that they enhance efficiency of the cargo delivery system?

It is not far-fetched to know that the use of physical examination enhances greater chances for pecuniary advantages.

The method breeds and encourages corruption.

But beyond that, the use of these sophisticated scanning machines may have proved too much for the abilities and capabilities of the Customs.

They lack the expertise to manage sophisticated facilities.

This position is reinforced by three scenarios.

At Seme border, the European Union donated N8.1million brand new Scanner to the Nigeria Customs Service and its Beninois counterparts at the ECOWAS joint border post.

Curiously, this new machine has been abandoned for physical examination of cargo.

Secondly, as a result of the excuse made by the Customs that they inherited obsolete and damaged scanners from the three service providers which resulted to complete abandonment of scanners for physical examination, the Federal government in 2018, on the recommendations of the service, approved the sum of N8.1billion to purchase Rapiscan Eagle M60 scanners which the Customs Authority said are a suitable option.

The contract involves training of 120 customs officers to operate and maintain the facilities.

Since then, no word is heard of the matter as the customs probably doesn’t want to be weaned yet from physical examination.

Also, the terminal operators, apparently concerned about the amount of space being taken over by the long, winding and laborious process of physical examination of containers, have reportedly offered to take over the scanning services under new terms or reviewed concession agreement.

But we learned that the Customs authority is not favourably disposed towards this proposal under the guise that the take-over will expose the country to security risks if the scanners are handled by the operators, most of whom are foreigners.

We consider this as another laughable excuse given the fact that the three former operators of these scanners, two of whom are foreigners, managed the facilities for eight years without any security breach.

We are as much worried as other industry stakeholders about the obsession of the customs for 100 per cent examination which has apparently slowed down cargo clearance and delivery system at the ports.

This obsession has also exposed the country to security risks since there is little physical examination could do in detecting offensive cargos given the inadequacies and limitations of the manual system.

We call on government to expedite action on the procurement of the Rapiscan scanners it placed orders for last year so they could be delivered on schedule.

Also, the scanners, worth about $120 million (over N40billion), that were inherited and abandoned by Customs, should be looked into with the aim of putting the ones that are still serviceable to use.

We understood that some customs officers were trained by the former service operators before they handed over the scanners in 2013.

For those of them who are still in the Service together with the 120 officers meant to be trained for the use and maintenance of the Rapiscan scanners should be groomed to take over the scanning services.

We don’t subscribe to the idea of the terminal operators taking over the scanning service as that will connote returning the country to the era of Foreign Service providers.

The terminal operators are most likely to take undue advantage of handling the facilities to further subject Nigerian importers to more economic bondage.

Government, through the supervisory Ministry of Finance, should maintain close supervision and tighter control of the project to stave off possible sabotage.

We are aware of the herculean task it would be to wean the Customs officers from physical examination which they are obviously accustomed to, but we believe that with the right mental attitude and government unwavering support, the task would be surmounted.

The Nigeria Customs no longer  has any credible excuse not to  embrace cargo scanners now that the automation of Port processes has become imperative due to the gaps exposed by the COVID-19 lockdown in the overtly manual procedures in cargo examination at the Ports

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