RESTORING SANITY TO THE PORTS

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There is need to provide one-stop-shop for all relevant agencies in the ports

At the height of reforms by the last administration, some 28 regulatory agencies were banned from the nation’s seaports, leaving only six for efficiency and ease of business.

Some of those banned agencies which had no business being at the ports included the Nigeria Police Force (NPF), the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON), the National Drug Law and Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), State Security Service (SSS), Animal Quarantine, and Plant Quarantine and the National Agency for Foods and Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC).

Unfortunately, some of those agencies are already back while others are itching to return.
We recall that Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former Minister of Finance, had announced the federal government directive to reduce the number of agencies operating in the nation’s seaports.

The order had led to the cancellation of Cargo Tracking Note (CTN) and the disbandment of several task forces operating in the port, especially those set up by the management of the Nigeria Customs Service. Even at that, those who had cleared their goods still had to contend with other security operatives outside the terminals, for what they called “routine checks”.

But these extortionist checks and bureaucratic bottlenecks are not to the health of our economy. According to a World Bank report, the long and cumbersome processes involved in cargo clearance have made Nigeria one of the most expensive places to do business in the world. Thus the move by the immediate past administration was meant to streamline and enhance efficiency as well as reduce the cost of doing business in the nation’s seaports.

Even so, we did support the ban of some of the important agencies with a proviso: why the directive was good for the economy, something needed to be done so as not to open the ports to indiscriminate importation of harmful products. Last week, NAFDAC said its ban opened the country to the importation of harmful goods and substances. “We see false declaration daily,” said Mrs. Maureen Ebigbeyi, the agency head of operations at the ports. “Recently we intercepted 13 containers of drugs with wrong dosage and strength in Port Harcourt that was wrongly declared as clothing material.”

As a way around the problem, we had endorsed one of the solutions proffered by the relevant stakeholders – the establishment of a one-stop-shop in the ports as it is obtainable even in some of Nigeria’s neighbouring countries. This initiative, if adopted, will help in eliminating the bottlenecks associated with dealing with several government agencies in the cargo clearance process.

A single automated information transaction system based on the Automated System for Customs Data (ASYCUDA) and the Nigeria Integrated Customs Information System (NICIS) would allow all government agencies to electronically interface without physically being present at the port. As it were, this cost-effective measure at the nation’s seaports, airports and international borders is yet to be adopted.

For an economy that is in dire need of revitalisation, we can ill-afford many of these needless agencies endorsing documents before imported goods are released. We believe the tortuous process is a deliberate creation of the port officials not only to complicate an otherwise simple procedure, but also to seek personal gains. Stretched over days and weeks, frustrated importers could become desperate by taking untoward means to “fast track” the clearance process of their goods, for some under-the-counter payments.

That is why we need to provide this trouble-free one-stop-shop for all the government agencies that have any role at the ports to easily collaborate and interface so that they would no longer continue to operate to the detriment of the nation’s image and economy.