.Indicts Custom officials
BY CALEB AYANSINA
The port sector is crucial to the country in view of the role it plays as the gateway to the world.
There have been steps to reform the sector to increase its competitiveness.
These steps include the successful transition to Landlord Port Management Model and general improvement in the port services and in the integrity situation in the past few years, but little or nothing was achieved.
Recently, the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, ICPC, in collaboration with some agencies, embarked on the review of the port activities with a view to identifying corruption prone-processes and provide approaches to address them.
The Commission, in a report on the Corruption Risk Assessment in the Port Sector in Nigeria, identified lack of codes of conduct, weak enforcement and underdeveloped system for investigating complaints as major problems militating against effectiveness of the port system.
The report, which covered Lagos, Calabar, Warri, Port-Harcourt and Onne ports, is the result of a six-month project, supported by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Maritime Anti-Corruption Network (MACN) and carried out by ICPC Technical Unit on Governance and Anti-Corruption Reforms (TUGAR) and the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP).
The report indicted Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) officials for manipulating clearance processes at the port to short-change government for personal gain, saying this explains the reason for the apathy displayed by the Service towards the exercise.
At the launching of the report in Abuja, the Chairman of ICPC, Mr Ekpo Nta, described it as a “corruption prevention tool which is applied in collaboration with organizations’ management to identify vulnerable areas that are prone to corruption and develop integrity plans would strengthen accountability and transparency.”
Nta maintained that although the Corruption Risk Assessment was a tool to prevent corruption, it was not a substitute to investigation and prosecution function of the anti-graft body, as the Commission would not hesitate to bring anybody found wanting to book.
“Corruption Risk Assessment is a preventive tool but it goes hand in hand with the enforcement of sanctions against unacceptable behaviour. The study conducted was an assessment to prevent corruption and not an investigation. While all is being done to prevent corruption the commission will not hesitate to prosecute corrupt persons,” he said.
Speaking on the findings of the report, the representative of TUGAR, Mrs Lilian Ekeangannu, noted poor facilities as well as lack of operational procedure which, she said, give “port officials discretionary powers and sometimes inordinately delay the processing of document, often without consequence.”
She explained that the NCS used ASYCUDA ++ (UNCTAD’s Automated Customs Data Management System) to handle Customs clearance related processes to ensure transparency.
However, TUGAR alleged that Customs officers often conspire with clearing agents to influence the process which is electronic in nature to involve human contact for selfish interest, noting that officials deceive the public by saying that they had reduced clearing process to 40 percent manual.
She said; “The system allows for the electronic processing of declarations, risk management, transit operations and clearance of goods, in addition to being able to collect statistical data for fiscal and trade policy objectives.
“Though ASYCUDA has been implemented for about ten years, the assessors found that the system still triggers over eighty percent of cargo to the yellow and red lines. Once triggered to this classification all processes after are manual and involve extensive human contact.
“Ten years after ASYCUDA, whilst all clearing of goods are initiated online, other subsequent clearing processes following completion of the form ‘M’ for more than eighty percent of the cargo passing through the ports is still manual.
“There were claims that clearing agents sometimes deliberately enter wrong information in the ASYCUDA system to get their cargo triggered to the yellow or red line, where they can negotiate clearance and by so doing avoid paying appropriate charges. This poses significant corruption risks.
“Though profiling information on clearing agents that may have abused the system in the past exists and is said to be used by the SYCUDA system, there was no evidence found that sanctions currently provided in the laws are being applied against erring agents. Several clearing and forwarding agents involved in previous malpractices continue to participate in the system despite available powers to revoke their licenses.”
Ekeangannu said the report provides integrity plans to address the deficiencies identified in the sea ports.
In her reaction, the Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Transport, Mr Nebolisa Emodi said the agencies under the ministry had put in place some mechanisms like monitoring and evaluating the activities of terminal operators on a quarterly basis in line with the terms and conditions as stipulated in the concession agreement.
Emodi said, “These identified problems are not new to the ministry. In a bid to address the challenges, the ministry had engaged stake holders in several meetings to fashion out solutions.
“This issue of 48hours Cargo clearance had particularly engaged the attention of stake holders and clear responsibilities had been assigned to agencies connected with cargo clearance in order to eliminate delays, bottleneck and other problems associated with port operations.
“A number of measures have been put in place aimed at stamping out unethical practices in the ports operations. Consequently, all agencies involved in port matters are assigned new mandates aimed at addressing challenges associated with cargo clearance.
“The first step taken by the federal government was the reduction in the number of agencies operating at the ports from 14 to seven to eliminate cumbersome clearance processes and ensure speed of operation. Further steps have been taken among which is the assignment of specific responsibilities to stakeholders with measures to place sanctions on any culpable party.
“In this regard, Terminal Operators have been mandated to position their cargoes for examination within 24 hours. In the same vain, the Nigeria Customs Service has been requested to reduce the number of desks/units involved in clearance of goods and establish Centralized Payment Systems with codes to facilitate financial procedure for payment of dues and charges.”
Represented by a Director, David Kumuyi, Emodi pointed out that “dealing with the challenges at the ports is a joint responsibility of all stakeholders”, adding that the report and other inputs to ensure transparency in the sector were welcome and would be sustained.
The UNDP Country Director, Mr Pa Lamin Beyai, commended all stakeholders who participated in the finding, but stressed the need for proper implementation of the report for the desire result.
“We are aware of the herculean nature of this task, but with the commitment of all, including those who indulge in the practice, it is achievable.
“We hope that beyond the celebrations of the launch of this assessment report, we will go further to fully implement its recommendations,” he said.