The Growing Call for Single Window, Trade Facilitation in W’African Sub-Region

Customs officials inspecting some impounded goods

With bureaucratic bottlenecks and opposition to the implementation of single-window clearing concept, which has already taken off in Ghana and other developed countries, trade experts are urging Nigerian authorities to exercise the political will to introduce the scheme in the country, writes Francis Ugwoke

Reform is one big threat to trade crime all over the world with special emphasis on West Africa and in particular Nigeria. This assertion has been proved to be so with a number of reforms that came with technology which tried to check human contact in the ports and border environment through which corruption thrives. In Nigeria, for instance, the scanning equipment introduced some years ago in the nation’s ports and border stations are no longer working. The scanners were introduced under the Destination Inspection regime handled by private operators, who later handed over to the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS). Under the scheme, scanners were used to examine containerised goods, including some other goods. With scanning machines, examination of cargoes becomes faster and saves the shipper the time wasted when the exercise is performed manually.

But the truth about scanning machines is that many customs officers and even shippers never wanted it. Only few shippers and those, who had the contract wanted it. Fraudulent importers never wanted it, as the scanners would simply expose any form of concealment or under-declaration. Such findings are usually documented, a situation that the importer does not want. It will cost him so much to ‘kill’ the report and he will still have to bribe customs officials not to overbill him in the Debit Note (DN) that will eventually be raised. If it was only physical examination, he would have to settle only the customs officials and other officials carrying out the exercise.

Now, many customs officials and indeed importers are no doubt happy that the scanners have all collapsed. It means more business for some customs officials in the ports and border stations. It means that the shipper can manipulate the results of every examination, perhaps even in the case of dangerous imports or prohibited goods. Again, it was because of personal interest that some trade groups moved against the introduction of Cargo Tracking Note (CTN) in November last year. Some members of Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) and shipping companies had claimed that CTN would increase cost of doing business even when it was clear that the shipper would not suffer any additional cost.

It took a lot of efforts for the Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC), which was saddled with the implementation to explain to Nigerians that CTN would not attract additional cost to importers and exporters to stop the unscrupulous groups from having their way. CTN, apart from the security benefits, exposes a lot of fraudulent activities involving both the shippers and the multinational shipping companies bringing goods to the country with their vessels. It checks concealment, under-declaration, among others by the shippers. But the worse of all trade crime is the under-declaration of gross registered tonnage (GRT) of ships bringing goods into Nigeria. What they pay as charges is determined by the GRT, and it means that if they under-declare it, they will have to pay less, making Nigeria to lose. Now, what happened to both reform instruments of scanning and CTN is exactly what Single Window concept in Nigeria and some other African sub-region has been suffering.

Single Window Concept

As the name implies, single window is a trade facilitation concept being promoted by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to make commerce easier in countries. The concept is also being promoted by the World Customs Organisation (WCO). Experts described single window as simply a one-stop shop scheme to make trade easier. The aim is to have a single procedure for the importer and exporter in his transactions. Wikipedia explains that under the single window concept, international traders can “ submit regulatory documents at a single location and/or single entity” . Such documents, Wikipedia explains include customs declarations, applications for import/export permits, and other supporting documents such as certificates of origin and trading invoices”. Experts add that single window enables importers to make single clearance application that connects all agencies of government doing business at the ports. When such application is made, it involves for instance, the customs, SON, NAFDAC and other agencies that are connected with clearing processes at the ports or border stations.

Countries Operating Single Window

As a concept being championed by the WTO and WCO, including the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business (UN/CEFACT), the United Nations Network of Experts for Paperless Trade and Transport in Asia and the Pacific (UNNExT), single window is currently in operation in many countries. Many advanced countries and African countries as members of WTO and WCO are implementing the scheme. The countries include the United States of America, Singapore, Malaysia,Switzerland, Senegal and Ghana. Nigeria in an attempt to introduce single window set up a nine-man Presidential Committee in 2010, which report has remained in the cooler.

The report had advised government to implement the single window concept because of its benefits to the country. The President of National Council of Managing Director of Customs Agents (NCMDCA), Mr. Lucky Amiwero, who was a member of the committee, had accused the former leadership of the Customs of killing the concept. Amiwero alleged that the reason single window was not introduced as recommended by the committee was because of the selfish interest of some former leaders of the customs service. Amiwero, who said single window had so many benefits was of the view that the federal government should make efforts to introduce it in Nigeria as done by other countries.

Benefits of Single Window, by Stakeholders

The benefits of single window are enormous. It promotes greater transparency, consistency, faster and cheaper clearance of goods, lower import/export costs, reduction in illegal or unprecedented payments, among others. An international trade expert and Chief Executive Officer, West Blue Consulting, Ms. Valentinah Mintah, while identifying the benefits of single window for the West African region at a workshop for stakeholders stressed the need for the countries to introduce the scheme. Mintah whose company is involved in the Ghana Single Window Concept said there was the need for the countries in West and Central African sub-region, including Nigeria and Ghana to collaborate to achieve efficient trade facilitation through the concept. Mintah, who spoke on the Ghana National Single Window (GNSW) explained that synergy between Nigeria and Ghana on single window will bring about multiplier effect in the quest for increased intra African trade with the realisation of efficient processes and movement of goods within the sub-region. She identified excessive bureaucracy as one of the most severe constraints to trade processing in Africa, saying this was the reason for uncompetitiveness among importers and exporters in the region.

According to her, “It is common knowledge that excessive bureaucracy is the most severe constraint to trade processing in Africa. That African importers and exporters remain uncompetitive in the global business arena is largely attributable in part to the number of days it takes to complete import and export processing and their attendant costs. The collaboration of sister countries – Ghana and Nigeria – on trade facilitation activities will bring about further gains in our quest for increased intra African trade, with the realisation of efficient processes and movement of goods.” Noting that single window concept is a global concept with WTO and WCO support, she strongly canvassed for joint efforts between Nigeria and Ghana for the effective implementation of the concept.

She said: “No matter how much is done as individual institutions and countries in addressing these bottlenecks, it cannot be compared with the positive and timely impact that can be achieved with the joined up efforts of all stakeholders. When we join forces and pursue the goals of the National Single Window Concept, it would be relatively easy to create a solid foundation, which will enable us achieve the 50 percent Better, Faster and Cheaper Trade across Border Indicators and beyond”. Mintah also said political will was needed to ensure that single window is introduced fully in sister countries among West African sub-region

“The political will and having governance structure so that whatever is being built leaves beyond one person or regime is very fundamental. So there is need for the right government structure to maintain, monitor and optimise the single window so that there is a sustainable programme to make sure that the right resources are always maintained on the system”.

Amiwero, who described single window as very good concept in trade facilitation as it reduces cost and time of doing business was of the view that the federal government should introduce it in Nigeria. For it to be successful in Nigeria, Amiwero said all the agencies of government involved in trade in Nigeria must be part of it by signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to collapse their processes into one. He said this means that the Customs, SON, NAFDAC and other relevant agencies involved in trade facilitation at the ports must harmonise their processes into one. This, he added, will involve the emergence of a lead agency and an authority. He explained that under this, the lead agency would be in charge of procedures while the authority agency as he put it would be in charge of providing necessary facilities. For it to succeed, Amiwero and others said, government should look for trade experts who would draw from the success stories of other countries to make it work in Nigeria.

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