By Kenneth Jukpor
The excitement from the recent notices that Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) has taken delivery of scanners at the nation’s foremost ports in Apapa, Tin Can Island and Onne ports is yet to damp down, but port operators are already expressing concerns about possible mismanagement.
Nigeria’s bid to attain fully-automated seaports that would be operated in an efficient and effective manner wouldn’t be attainable without the utilization of scanners and the assets also has other advantages such as reduction in human efforts expended by Customs officials, expeditious cargo clearance, transparency, among others.
The new assets are believed to be part of the N3.255 million approved by the Federal Executive Council (FEC) in 2019 for the acquisition of three (3) Rapiscan Cargo Mobile Scanners awarded to Messrs Airwave Limited.
Following the delivery of the scanners at the Area ll Command, Onne Port, Rivers State, the Area Comptroller, Auwal Mohammed insisted it will facilitate trade in the command.
Comptroller Auwal Mohammed is quoted as describing the arrival of the Nuctech scanner, brought by Maersk Karun from Shanghai China with model number MT1213DE, as a positive milestone in the service efforts to modernize Customs operations, achieve ease of doing business, facilitate trade and enhance security with easier detection of prohibited imports
He stressed that the tortuous processes involved in physical examination was time consuming and may not be as perfect as when done with the scanner, noting that it was difficult to examine more than a hundred containers daily but with the new scanner, it will be able to carry out examinations on two hundred containers on a daily basis.
According to the Customs boss, the operation of the recently deployed scanners is something that is delicate, hence the need for already trained Customs officers on scanning operations to undergo refresher training to update them on the latest technology. He, however, noted that any consignment found during image analysis to be containing suspected prohibition or concealments would be quickly referred for physical examination.
Meanwhile, speaking with our correspondent, the Chairperson of Seaport Terminal Operators Association of Nigeria (STOAN), Princess Vicky Haastrup expressed fears that the newly deployed scanners could see history repeat itself with Customs mismanaging the assets.
Her words: “Customs officers need to be re-oriented. The procurement of these scanners is a welcomed development and I’m particularly very happy about this. However, looking at the history of scanners in the country, there is a cause for worry. There were scanners at Nigerian ports in the past, but nobody took responsibility for regular maintenance of those scanners.”
She equally noted that there is also the challenge of Customs officers insisting on physical examination after utilizing the scanners.
“There have been several cases where the scanning will be concluded and they would still insist on doing a physical examination. I really hope this insistence on physical examination wouldn’t continue after scanning with the new assets. Physical examination causes a lot of delay in the process of cargo clearance at the ports. This isn’t good for port business and it negates the ease of doing business mandate of the government,” Haastrup said
According to her, terminal operators have always been willing to help with scanners and they have openly stated that they were ready to invest in scanners and recoup their monies via a proper arrangement.
“We could have struck an agreement with the government to provide these scanners and developed a strategy to get returns on our investments,” she told MMS Plus.
Meanwhile, a former President of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), Alhaji Olayiwola Shittu posited that the current revenue drive of Customs would see them prefer physical examination to scanners.
Shittu also explained that the peculiarity of Nigerian cargoes at seaports also makes scanning difficult with scanners as most containers have multiple items packed in groupage and would reveal multiple signals when scanned electronically.
“What will scanners do? With the availability of scanners, aren’t Customs insisting on doing physical examinations? The truth is that Customs will not let go of 100% physical examinations and this is because it has been an avenue for them to get more money for themselves and other operators in the industry and I will tell you how.”
“When you are slated for examination, during the course of the examination, the exam officer will form an opinion that you may have met the requirements and whether your declaration is okay. What if your declaration is okay and then the examiner says it isn’t? How long does it take to resolve those issues? It’s what we have not talked about, so it remains irresolvable for a number of weeks. I’m not saying scanners are not necessary but the way it is operated is the issue of concern here,” the veteran freight forwarder said.
As the Customs Service awaits the commencement of the modernization project expected to come with over 70 scanners to fully automate Customs operations, there is a dire need to ensure that the existing scanners are managed optimally.
While port stakeholders remain oblivious of the arrangement for the $3.1 billion for Customs Modernization under Public-Private Partnership (PPP) concession to Messers E. Customs HC Project Limited, the concession for a 20-year period to deliver the customs modernization project is said to be targeting full automation of Customs operations and it has been applauded as a potential game-changer in cargo clearance at the nation’s ports.
During a recent tour of Customs commands under Zone A, the Zonal Coordinator, Assistant Comptroller-General (ACG), Modupe Aremu encouraged the Area Controllers and Deputy Controllers to prepare to support the innovation as it would usher in enormous benefits and enhance Customs operations.
The Zonal Customs boss noted that the first set of scanners will be deployed in Apapa, Tin Can Island and Onne ports to help strengthen the activities there and curb smuggling.
Her words: “With e-Customs we are also going to have about seventy scanners that will be deployed to all the Customs commands at the seaports and airports. E-Customs is about end-to-end automation to eliminate human contact at the ports. The scanner is a pictorial of everything that is in the container and that is very important and the government is making efforts to achieve this.”
In the next few months, it would be apt to measure the success and speed at the respective ports with regards to cargo clearance following the delivery of these scanners.
Port users are also appealing to Customs officials to prioritize the use and maintenance of these assets as Nigeria hopes to get on par with seaports in neighbouring countries which utilize scanners effectively, especially now that competition is ripe under the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA).