By Tony Ibekwe
THE recently signed ease of doing business executive order by Acting President, Yemi Osinbajo, expected to boost business activities in the country is without doubt refreshing in the attempt to grow the country out of recession, stimulate economic activities and generally improve the business environment in Nigeria through Promotion of Transparency and Efficiency.
Federal Ministries, departments and Agencies have since gone into frenzied activities in the bid to carry out the Executive Orders and exhibit compliance with a view to achieving the objectives of the orders.
One of the fall outs of the Executive Orders is on Port operations and this brings to mind the challenge of ensuring ease of doing business at the entry points vis a vis the subsisting issue of influx of sub-standard and harmful products of very low quality into Nigeria.
Governments at all levels, the organised private sector, patriots and consumer advocates have always wondered if the efforts of the regulatory agencies charged with quality checks at the entry points are enough to tackle the menace of influx of sub-standard products and drugs (including hard drugs), dumping and the attendant dangers to the lives, properties and economic well-being of Nigerians.
This brings under scrutiny, the highlights of the Executive Orders as relates to operations at the Nation’s seaports in particular. No doubt that the greater percentage of imports into Nigeria comes through the seaports. Conversely, the greater percentage of sub-standard products into the country also come in through these points of entry.
We can recall the attempt by past governments to achieve the same objective particularly the pronouncement in 2011 by Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, then Minister for Finance and Coordinating Minister for the economy that agencies like NAFDAC, Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON), Agricultural Quarantine Services etc. exit the Seaports.
Prior to the pronouncement, all of the regulatory and security agencies have offices located within the seaports complexes. The executive pronouncement then clearly directed that they all relocate their offices outside the ports and participate in cargo examinations on the invitation of the Nigerian Customs Service.
The trickle effect of that order on the flooding of the Nigerian markets with sub-standard and harmful products including drugs since 2011 left a lot to be desired. A syndicate of unpatriotic Nigerians with the connivance of foreign partners have since taken undue advantage of the policy to perpetrate illicit trade in low quality and sub-standard products including drugs.
The country has since turned into a dumping ground for all types of low quality, sub-standard and cheap products posing grave danger to the lives of Nigerians and the economy of the Nation. They have over the years stifled out genuine manufacturers and importers who have invested huge sums to promote commerce and industry in Nigeria.
Their activities have also led to avoidable loss of lives and properties through building collapses, fire incidents etc. not to mention other economic losses from purchase of products that do not give value for money, loss of jobs occasioned by shut downs and low capacity utilization, all of which contributed in no small measure to the economic recession which the nation now expereinces.
As a keen observer of the issues, one notes that some of the agencies established offices outside but close to the seaports and resort to the use of ICT to monitor importation into Nigeria by integrating with the Nigerian Customs Integrated System, NICIS.
Through these steps, agencies like NAFDAC and SON, are struggling to cope with regulating the importation of sub-standard and life endangering products through the ports. This way, the agencies are able to view all imports and flag suspected sub-standard products for further scrutiny.
If not allowed to participate in the examination of such suspected imports as was erroneously reported, whose interest is being protected?
Are we encouraging them to hold the consignments once outside the ports? How would this impact on the objective of ease of doing business? Once suspected containers are examined by all concerned, arrangements can then be made to escort them out of the Ports to designated places for further regulatory activity.
Thus, the recent signing and publication of the Executive Orders by the Acting President came as a big relief to discerning observers, particularly the aspect relating to transparency and efficiency at the seaports.
How transparent can we be if agencies authorised by acts of parliament are prevented from carrying out their legitimate duties?
SON operations for example is governed by an act of parliament dated 2015 which stipulates that “the agency shall have a right of access at reasonable times under Part VII, section 30 (b) to any premises, including all Nigerian seaports, airports and land borders where an industrial or commercial undertaking is being carried on, and may use reasonable force, if need be to gain entry”
NAFDAC, under Part II, Section 5 (d) of its enabling act Cap 1 of 2004 has as part of its functions “to undertake inspection of imported food, drugs, cosmetics, medical devices, bottled water, and chemicals and establish relevant quality assurance systems including certification of the production sites and of the regulated products” Where best can these agencies curtail the influx of substandard products including drugs if not at the largest point of entry.
In view of the above, the recent pronouncement by the Managing Director of the Nigerian Ports Authority on the executive orders and its reportage by a section of the Nigerian Media “as purported expulsion of agencies of government from the seaports from carrying out their legitimate duties under the law” leaves much to be desired.
Following on the resolution of stakeholders at the meeting where the pronouncement was said to have been made, keen followers of developments are aware that procedures of all regulatory and security agencies are to be harmonized for implementation in cargo examination under the ease of doing business directive.
While the Nigerian Ports Authority reserves the right of ownership of the seaports premises and who to allow permanent accommodation within the premises, I do not think as a social commentator that the agency has the powers to determine and make pronouncements on the functions of sister government agencies except clearly authorized to do so. Me, think this was not the case with the signing of the executive orders. We cannot cut our nose to spite our face as a country.
Ease of doing “genuine” business, of course, rather than promote the influx low quality, substandard, life endangering and cheap products to the detriment of our people’s welfare and the economy of our Nation.
NAFDAC, SON and the other agencies understand are carrying out their statutory duties at other entry points like the cargo sections of the international airports and the land borders in close collaboration with Nigerian Customs and other security agencies.
The objective of Government in issuing the executive orders cannot certainly be to promote the influx of unwholesome products into Nigeria. The results of collaboration between the Nigerian Customs Service, SON and the Security agencies that led to the discovery and seizure of over N5billion worth of tyres stuffed five into one need to be commended by all.
Imagine the effect of such collaboration at the seaports where the bulk of imports into the country enter from? Also imagine the negative impact those damaged tyres would have had on our roads if allowed into the markets. The subsequent prosecution of the suspects and the involvement of the Attorney General’s office are gains that should be sustained.
I learnt from reliable sources that collaborators in the importation and clearing of the stuffed tyres are also to be prosecuted.
I also read about the robust collaboration between NAFDAC, SON and the Police to apprehend a syndicate that stocks expired products, change the best before dates to prolong the shelf life and sell to unsuspecting consumers.
Further more, recent seizures by NAFDAC of imported expired health drinks and examination gloves at Tincan Island Port: containers and cartons of fake and controlled pharmaceutical products and medical devices at Apapa Ports and unregistered injection at NAHCO Shed 4, Murtala Muhammed International Airport are pointers to activities of get rich at all cost and unpatriotic Nigerians and their foreign collaborators.
These are achievements that the Nation needs to sustain and improve upon. Any measure under the implementation of the executive order that would work against such achievements would not be in the Nation’s interest. The Managing Director of the NPA, therefore needs to clarify her pronouncement lest unpatriotic elements take undue advantage of it to the detriment of all of us.
All agencies of Government authorized by law should be involved in cargo examination under the ease of doing business directive, albeit using a harmonized procedure of all. I stand to be corrected.
*Mr .Ibekwe, a social commentator based in Lagos.