By Oyeniyi Iwakun
All seem not to be smooth at the ports quarterly stakeholders meeting held in Lagos last week as a tough argument ensued between the Executive Director, Marine and Operations, Nigeria Ports Authority, Dr Sokonte Davies and the Assistant Comptroller of Customs, Apapa Area Command, Yahaya Idris, on the legality or otherwise of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) officers’ presence at the port gates after conducting examinations inside the ports.
The intellectual fray which took some level of diplomacy to manage arose as a result of the Mr. Yahaya’s reaction termed as clarification to the position of the NPA boss on the need of customs officers to abdicate the port gates to ease the movement of cargoes in and out of the ports in tandem with the executive order on the ease of doing business.
The ports quarterly stakeholders meeting is NPA’s initiative premised on the quest for possible ameliorations to the bottlenecks at the ports that have created unquantifiable physical and psychological effects on the residents, commuters and businesses in area.
Various salient issues affecting the maritime industry vis a vis the economic growth of the nation are always discussed in anticipation of expedient implementation and necessary action by NPA and other concerned agencies in consonance with the concordat at the meeting.
However, the last meeting took a new turn as the Customs representative, Yahaya Idris who in a bid to defend the legality of the service’s activities at the gate invoked the wrath of other stakeholders at the meeting possibly not only because of his choice of words but the general perception of others on the issue.
The ED who was presiding over the meeting on behalf of the Managing Director, Ms. Hadiza Bala Usman who was unavoidably absent, said in his response to some security concerns raised by some stakeholders that customs’ presence at the port gate “is against the security policy”.
“This is against the executive order. The executive order is clear.” He said
The customs boss who stood up from his seat amongst the audience had in a swift response said “on the ease of doing business. I want to know from the ED sir, are you talking about gate or other key areas?
“Gate! Fine, in the executive order, there is nowhere it is stated that customs should move out of the gate. I have it and I am implementing it. The only thing that the executive order says in article 23 and 24 was that all examination agencies should fuse together in a place called joint examination centre.
“All examination agencies to be spearheaded by Customs, that is: Customs, SON, NAFDAC, NAQS and others. And they are divided into two: those that are at the ports and those that are not supposed to be resident at the ports.
“So, as far as I am concerned, there is nowhere in the executive order where it is stated that customs cannot be at the gate.”
As the conversation progressed, Dr. Davies quickly asked him “What is the purpose of being at the gate? Excuse me sir, let us leave this kind of discussion. The fact is that you are examining containers at the gate.”
Mr. Yahaya however responded “No! You brought up a matter. Nobody examines container at the gate.
“What do you do there?” Dr. Davies queried.
“What we are doing at the gate is to crosscheck the job that has been done.” Mr. Yahaya answered
“What is examination and what is crosschecking?” Dr. Davies questioned.
Mr. Yahaya replied smartly replied “We have to understand that Apapa port is not meant for examination alone. We have some containers that are going to the hinterland, like Inland Container Depots (ICDs) in Kaduna, Kano and others that cannot be examined in the port. So, listen to me please. Listen and listen well. When you don’t know certain things you are supposed to ask questions.”
“but, I just asked questions” Dr. Davies answered
Mr. Yahaya went further “Listen, If there is no infraction there is no way customs would obstruct. Let me give you an example please, if you are supposed to pay 20% on this telephone, and you paid your 20%, who will obstruct you? On what ground? It is when there is infraction that we will stop it.”
However, at the peak of the argument, some stakeholders at the meeting faulted customs duplicity of checkpoints and questioned what they termed customs’ deliberate act of frustrating the system.
In his contribution, Mr. Paul Alamah of Pika Nigeria, representing Corporate Fleet Association (CFA) said “I want to ask the customs man, after examination and you have confirmed, released, loaded and moved cargoes, what are you still doing at the gate, please tell us?”
Corroborating Mr. Paul’s statement, the Head, Special Duties, National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), Rev. Emma. Agubanze faulted customs defense on the issues. He pointed out that the executive order simplified ports clearance and asked for the collapse of the multiple checkpoints by the Nigerian customs but reverse has been the case because when containers come out of the gate, they are still subjected to multiple checks which do not support ease of doing business.
He therefore urged all stakeholders to come together as patriot in order to find lasting solutions to the myriad of problems confronting the port.
“You spoke about the fast tracks but fast tracks leave the ports with seal. They are not opened at the gate. Even the containers on transit to the northern hinterland go with their seals. The containers we are talking about are containers that are properly examined by proper customs officers at examination bay, released by proper customs officers at the ports and are later stopped at the gate and issues are raised, when the releasing officer who is properly mandated to look into it had finished his job and said that this cargo is free to go.
“The problem we have discovered in this country is that those in charge of the systems are not compliant to the norms of the nation and we cannot continue this way. People look at themselves as witches versus devil; Customs Vs Freight Forwarders.
“Please, when we come to a place like this, let us tell ourselves the truth that we are not doing well so that Nigeria can move forward.” He said
In his final reaction to all contribution on the issue, Mr. Yahaya insisted that the customs must remain at the port gate in order to crosscheck other exercises that must have been carried out at the port in order to checkmate infractions and fused products through fast track.
The ED nonetheless noted that customs only needed to put competent and trusted officers to conduct examinations instead of the repetition of such process at ports gates even as he promised that the NPA management would look into complaints received on the introduction of Access card by APMT terminal and give technical response in no distant time.
“Thank you very much. I think what you have established for us here is that your staff that are doing the examination do not earn your confidence. They are not doing their work well. Moving forward please, I will suggest to you that you send credible people to the terminals where these examinations are done. There is no point staying at the gates to disturb freight forwarders and importers.” He concluded
Meanwhile, one may begin to question the rationale behind the multiple checks and preferences for physical examinations by customs when there are technologically advanced equipments like scanners and methods for examining goods. Earlier in the year, the Customs Area Controller (CAC) of the Apapa Area Command,Compt. Musa Jubril had told journalist during a press briefing that all the Scanners in the Apapa command are function. It becomes astonishing to now realize that over 95% of consignments from the same port are done physically. Is it that the scanners have refused to scan these goods? Are they not as effective as physical examination? Above all, why do customs prefer physical examination to the use scanners? These are the questions observers ask daily.