Customs Reforms: Facts Or Fallacies

Customs Reforms: Facts Or Fallacies
Col. Hameed Ali, CG of Nigeria Customs Service

The economic challenges facing Nigeria are too numerous to mention, but one sector when properly harnessed, is expected to dissipate the fiscal woes facing the nation. The maritime sector, also known as the ‘blue economy’ is that critical sector and the Nigerian seaports wield enormous positive impact that the Nigerian maritime industry can make on the nation’s economy.

Nevertheless, the nation’s seaports are also faced  multiple challenges ranging from the low draft level of the seaports, deficient infrastructure, poor state of the port access roads, and most significantly, the high cost of using the ports occasioned by corruption, turnaround time, strenuous import/ export procedures, multiplicity of government agencies at the ports, among others.

As a result of these deficiencies, other neighbouring ports are patronized rather than Nigerian ports with the nation losing freight earnings, employment opportunities, and many other benefits but the Federal Government intervened by setting up the Presidential Enabling Business Environment Council (PEBEC) in order to make Nigerian ports have the competitive edge over other ports in West and Central Africa.

PEBEC is a committee constituted by President Muhammadu Buhari in July 2016 and chaired by the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, to ensure seamless entry and exit of goods from the country and enhance the ease of doing business in the nation.

PEBEC brought its reform agenda to the ports with a recent workshop on the “Ease of Doing Business Reforms” chaired by the Senior Special Adviser (SSA) to the President on Industry, Trade and Investment, Dr. (Mrs.) Jumoke Oduwole.

According to Dr. Jumoke Oduwole, who is also the Secretary of PEBEC, the decision to hold the workshop became pertinent following the outcome of the committee’s research which revealed that there were several bottlenecks in the nation’s port sector making it difficult to import and export goods.

One of the notable actions of the PEBEC was the reduction in the documentation procedures for Customs; with the documentationprocesses for export reduced from 10 to 7 while documentation for imports has been simplified from 14 to 8, to take effect immediately.

Dr. Jumoke also promised that PEBEC was working in collaboration with the government agencies at the ports to ensure that a National Single Window was fully established to enhance automation at the nation’s ports before the end of the last quarter of 2017.

Meanwhile, the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) revealed at the event that it would be setting up examination desk offices at all Commands. The exam desk offices would create examination notice to inform terminal operators and other agencies about the scheduled time for inspection.

Subsequently, DC Anthony Ayalogu explained that with the examination desk offices, all government agencies would have to submit their reports within an hour to the examination desk and in 2 hours the final report would be published.

Having attended several seminars and workshops promising to transform the sector, most participants at the workshop seemed to have little confidence in the new procedures.

Speaking on behalf of the freight forwarders and licensed Customs agents who recently threatened to withdraw their services from the port, the National President of the Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) Prince Olayiwola Shittu lamented that several lofty procedures and processes had been introduced in the past without the government taking necessary steps to make them work.

Shittu maintained that these developments weren’t enough to prevent the pending withdrawal of service by the agents and freight forwarders. He stressed that freight forwarders and agents should have been invited to participate in the formulation of these new procedures to enable them highlight some of the challenges and make provision to cover such areas.

“Some of us have seen several reforms proposed in the past and many of them failed. As stakeholders; the freight forwarders and agents should have been invited to participate in the formulation of these new procedures so that we could take a holistic look at the problems and proffer solutions. The introduction of the Customs’ Pre-Arrival Assessment Report (PAAR) was very successful because we were carried along at every level in the development of PAAR”

Shittu reacted to Dr. Jumoke’s statement on the new procedures that the ‘proof of the pudding is in the eating’, as he said that one could eat such ‘pudding’ and end up hospitalized; thus he maintained that the risks associated with the new system could have been avoided if other stakeholders had been involved in the formulation.

Reacting to these fears, Dr. Jumoke maintained the President Muhammadu Buhari led administration was passionate about transforming the nation’s port environment.

She said: “We are working with the Customs, Nigerian Ports Authority, Nigerian Shippers’ Council, terminal operators and other critical stakeholders to identify the key problems. We have released some directives through the Ministry of Finance and the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) on the number of documentation because we want to save cost and time for SMEs and people involved importing and exporting”

Dr. Jumoke also revealed that the reduction in documentation was part of the reforms envisaged in the nation’s 60-day Action Plan which ends on April 21st. She stressed that the reform initiatives had clear timelines, noting that they weren’t mere theoretical exercise or talk-shop as some of the participants labeled it.

The Comptroller-General of the NCS, Col. Hameed Ali (Rtd) who was represented by the Assistant Comptroller General, Trade and Tariff, ACG Robert Alu, said in his opening remarks that the forum was strategic to finding solutions to several bottlenecks in order to enhance the ease of doing business at the nation’s ports.

ACG Alu said that the stakeholders’ meeting was also aimed at creating more convenient environment for businesses and to ensure that Customs documentations are done effortlessly.

He stated that the conference became necessary following the low status report of Nigeria by World Bank which placed Nigeria very low on the ‘Ease of doing business in the port’.

Alu said, “The reform is a holistic one but we are focusing on the Customs aspect at the moment. It is also important that other stakeholders at the ports embrace these reforms because the ports cannot truly be transformed until all bodies embrace modern processes such as automation.”

“We are low in terms of the World rating in terms of the ease of doing business and we know that we need to improve on our systems. This is why we are involving all the stakeholders that relate with the Customs because the ease of doing business is part of the Customs mandate. This is what we refer to as ‘trade facilitation’.” He added.

In his reaction, the Founder of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), Dr. Boniface Aniebonam told MMS Plus that he also doubted the sustainability of the new Customs procedures.

As events unfold in the next few months, the reality of these new reforms would be put to test to see if the system has truly come to stay. It is good news that the Federal Government has also set a definite timeline for the establishment of a National Single Window which should thrive on automation and make Nigerian ports more business friendly. It wouldn’t hurt to be patient and optimistic, would it? Let the countdown for automation of our ports begin!

By Kenneth Jukpor

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