Jonathan Eze examines issues surrounding the suspension of the Standards Organisation of Nigeria and the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control from the country’s seaports some years back
In 2011, in an attempt to decongest the seaports and facilitate the clearance of goods, the Federal Government of Nigeria reduced the number of agencies at the seaports and sent away National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control(NAFDAC) and the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) among other agencies to carry out their statutory responsibilities outside the seaports.
The two agencies and others have since operated outside the seaports and only participate in examination of cargo on “invitation”.
In trying to fulfil their mandates, some of the agencies have since resorted to apprehending containers on the highways with its attendant dangers to the personnel involved, security agencies supporting them and other road users.
This is especially so, in cases where the suspected cargo/truck drivers are unwilling to submit to being checked or trying to escape.
The agencies operating outside the seaports also comb warehouses and markets with not much success as the substandard products syndicates are known to operate efficient distribution networks that spread their deadly consignments across various markets nationwide, once they exit the seaports and other entry points successfully. What has happened since then in terms of influx of substandard products into Nigeria is better not imagined.
The continuous influx of substandard products into Nigeria has made mess of the country’s industrialisation efforts, with the associated challenges of infrastructure faced by local manufacturers.
Successive governments in Nigeria have expressed concern about inflow of foreign direct investment, local investment and remarkable increase in utilisation of installed capacity by local manufacturers as a way of tackling provision of gainful employment.
They have also taken deliberate and elaborate steps to attract the much-needed investments into the country.
All such steps that have been taken are rubbished by the continuous and unfettered inflow of substandard and life endangering products into Nigeria.
The challenge of Nigeria’s porous land borders are well known to all and sundry, yet the bulk of imported products (albeit, substandard and life endangering products) come into the country through the seaports.
The seaports thus remain the most strategic points of arresting or apprehending the bulk of suspected imported substandard products into Nigeria.
The approved HS Codes for verification of imported products delineates responsibilities among the government agencies for quality verification and apprehension of contraband goods.
Therein lays the dilemma of the the country between efforts at facilitating trade and prevention of dumping of substandard and life endangering products on the country and its people.
Every agency of government has their responsibilities defined under the acts of parliament that set them up. The responsible authorities for trade facilitation and goods clearance should allow each perform their statutory functions without hindrances.
The recent publication by the Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA) on the agencies allowed to operate at the ports and the furore it has generated is needless and negative to efforts at attracting foreign investments.
Prospective investors will be most concerned about the security of the proposed investment which cannot be guaranteed by the unfettered inflow of substandard, counterfeited and life endangering products.
The Nigeria Customs Service and NAFDAC for example cannot perform the functions of SON in products verification and neither can SON and NAFDAC perform those of the Customs and vice versa.
The best interest of the country and its people should underline decisions on trade facilitation and the clearance of goods at the nation’s entry points.
A committed, effective and transparent deployment of ICT is the solution to the challenges of trade facilitation and goods clearance at the entry points.
In the meantime, responsible and lawfully designated agencies should be allowed to operate at the seaports and other entry points in accordance with their respective mandates.
Procedures for clearance of goods by all the agencies should be harmonised and synchronised using modern ICT infrastructure and facilities.
These are the only ways to show commitment to the government’s efforts at attracting foreign and local direct investment, improving capacity utilisation of Nigerian manufacturers, providing continuous job opportunities and preventing the country from dumping of substandard products and choking of the Nigerian economy out of steady growth.
Affirming this stance and conviction, the Senate Committee on Industry has also declared that the absence of SON at the nationâ€™s sea ports has not been in accordance with global best practices.
According to the law makers, the directive ordering SON out of the port was a complete violation of the Act establishing the standards body, stressing that the law specifies SON to be at the points of entry to monitor goods coming into the shores of the country.
The Chairman, Senate Committee on Industry, Senator. Sam Egwu, at an oversight function to SON offices and laboratories in Lagos last week said: “Their absence at the ports accounts for the influx of substandard goods into the country. The agency that has the duty to check against the influx of these goods is not allowed to operate at the ports. We feel this is an aberration. It is not right, it is also against the law and we are going to take it up. I am sure the appropriate authority of the highest level might not be aware of this. SON is vital to safeguard the country from these substandard goods. Take for example tyres today, we have so many fake tyres plying the Nigerian roads and this is one of the reasons why we have so many accidents on our roads because these products enter our markets without proper monitoring.â€
He, however, scored the agency high for the judicious use of its 2017 budgetary allocation, stating that the commendation was a call to duty for SON not to relent on its efforts in its quest to sanitise the Nigerian markets.
â€œWe have seen other laboratories in China, Kenya, Tanzania. I think what we are seeing here is something we are proud of. The laboratories we have seen being installed here are commendable. We are commending you, but you still have a lot to do and must not rest on your oars. So far we are satisfied with what we have seen. We are going to come again to see the progress from what you have achieved today.
Also, a member of the committee, Senator Jibrin Barau, said the Senate would do everything to encourage SON due to its vital role in safeguarding the lives and property of Nigerians, saying that the impact of SON would also be vital for the growth of the nationâ€™s local industries.
â€œUndue advantages give fake products edge over quality products and it is a very serious matter where only a body like SON can help to address. I think they are doing well. I am happy that they are getting facilities to make them operational and more effective in the country,â€ he said.
Barau added: â€œIt is really surprising to see that SON is absent at the ports in view of the functions they undertake in the laws establishing the agency. It is clear that their absence is against international best practices and no country allows it borders to be open to all sorts of goods without checking them. I think this is a big aberration. We will continue to put pressure so that you will not relent on your effort to keep Nigeria safe.â€
Earlier, the Director General, SON, Osita Aboloma, said SON had made steady progress over the years under the leadership of the Senate Committee.
“We have never had it so good under any committee in the history of SON, not only did you bequeath a befitting SON Act, we have also been able to discharge most of our core mandates. I am also proud to tell the world that the issue of possession and co-ownership of the building where our operational office in Lekki is situated has been resolved in favour of SON due to your able leadership, â€œhe said.
“We remain grateful for what you have done for us in terms of funding, we want to also seek your counsel to help us to discharge our core mandate of standardisation and quality assurance. I pray this will be the first of many more visits to SON,” he added.
The Senate Committee members taken to SON’s one-stop office in Apapa and its multi-billion laboratory complex in Ogba which is expected to have about 38 laboratories dedicated for testing life endangering items and food.
â€œWe are ready to take up the challenges that come with standardisation and quality assurance. We have capacity for infinite possibilities, our laboratories are state-of-the-art, our personnel are world class and competitive with other global standards bodies. We still need your continuous guidance and support for us to stand out among other regulatory agencies,â€ he assured.
â€œWe were ordered out of the ports because of some obvious reasons and it will also interest you to know that some of the reasons no longer exist and government in their wisdom has started returning some agencies to the ports. We are ready to go back at any time whenever we are called upon. We still have faith in the government, we are still committed to creating an enabling environment for businesses to thrive, but we will do better if we are better repositioned because we have capacity to take on any responsibility that has to do with safeguarding the Nigerian populace through quality assurance,â€ the SON helmsman maintained.