Lagos: Stakeholders in the maritime sector of the economy have continued to count the gains in the reduction of government agencies doing business in the nation’s seaports. Prior to the Federal Government clampdown which was announced by the Minister of Finance and Co-ordinating Minister of the Economy, Mrs. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, several government agencies were part of the cargo clearance process in the nation’s airports, seaports and international borders.
THISDAY checks revealed that the recent port reforms which resulted in significant reduction in the number of government agencies authorised to reside and examine cargo in the ports, may have begun to yield observable results in certain key places. Stakeholders, who spoke to THISDAY, said they noticed a significant reduction as well as a remarkable improvement in the number of days it used to take, for imported cargo to leave the port, after clearing in recent times.
Okonjo-Iweala’s order, which made public when she made her maiden on-the-spot assessment to Nigeria’s premier port, Apapa Quay, led to the eviction of no fewer than 10 government agencies in the ports.
These include the Standard Organization of Nigeria (SON) and National Agency for Food and Drug Administration Control (NAFDAC), Directorate of Naval Intelligence (DNI), and the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA). Others were the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (FEPA), Plant Quarantine with Veterinary Quarantine, National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency, Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC) and Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC).
However, they are still relevant to continue to inspect cargo, on the basis of invitation, every time there were containers with items that required their specific attention or clearance. This eviction order, which was made public on October 10, 2011, significantly vitiates the earlier position of the government agencies which took permanent residence in the nation’s seaports in the name of their supposed involvement in the cargo clearance processes and procedures.
The stakeholders commended President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan on the decision to keep some of the agencies off the examination except when necessary.
A Lagos based importer, Mr. Bernard Okafor, said the move as part of the administration’s transformation agenda, and had also streamlined the cargo clearing process in line with global best practices thereby ensuring a more prompt service delivery. “Port service delivery has continued to positively improve. This has also reduced the number of agencies where your documents must go through. The same goes for the degree of human contacts, before cargo was legitimately removed from the port. This is a situation which in the past frequently opened the importers mostly to extortions”, he said.
He gave the authorities pass marks in the area of clearing of goods, noting that even the ongoing Customs reforms had also begun to improve its trade facilitation, as a result of the new policy thrust which aimed at enduring port clearance procedure improvement; and pointed out that what Government targeted was already being achieved. Okonjo-Iweala had said then that the move was part of the ports reforms to make the nation’s gateways more business friendly, especially in the area of efficient service delivery.
She had stressed that henceforth, agencies to retain permanent residence at the ports would be the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Port Health, State Security Service (SSS) and Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS).
The Minister posited that the maritime industry was a key sector, and stressed the need for it to be more vibrant, especially in terms of efficiency, reduction in cost of doing port business and curbing corruption. A Lagos based licensed customs agent, Mr. Yinka Gbadebo, said the reduction in the number of government agencies involved in the cargo clearance process has boosted port operations in the country.
“The step taken by government was one of the greatest revolutions to have happened at the nation’s seaports. The decision has impacted as desired. It is already enhancing confidence and succour in business transactions in the ports. There is now sanity at the port, as a gateway because some of those agencies now eased off were actually acting as bottleneck to trade facilitation”, he said.
Another stakeholder in the maritime sector of the economy, Mazi Emeordi, noted that government’s intervention at the seaports was imminent because it was probably the only way to save the industry from what he called “systemic degeneration”, which consistent past neglect had brought the ports to.
National President of Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agent (ANLCA), Prince Olayiwola Shittu, while expressing support for the gesture, indicated that the policy might however not be unconnected with his association’s unrelenting pressure on government to improve on infrastructure and cargo handling.
Stressing that government must be commended on the initiative, Shittu, who is also the Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of Skelas Group, explained that the impact has actually been tremendous, because it has also made port users to have fewer agencies to deal with, when it comes to cargo clearance. His words: “The port is now a safer haven for the freight forwarders” he opined, maintaining that until the government’s intervention, it was more tedious for their members to clear goods as there were higher number of different chains of bureaucratic bottlenecks to undertake before you get your containers out of the ports.
“For me, the impact of the reduction in government agencies has improved port service delivery. This is because people now undertake their jobs with a relief frame of the mind when clearing their goods. The bottlenecks have been removed by government at our ports. So, I commend this administration for taking this bold step to reform our ports,” he added.
Chairman of ANLCA, Apapa Chapter, Chief John Oforbike, also toed the line of Shittu in his remarks on the development. He described the reduction in the number of government agencies in the ports, as “one of the best things that has happened to the industry in recent time”. Oforbike, who felt that heightened bureaucratic bottlenecks had also fuelled corruption as hitherto obtained at the ports, lauded government for implementing the decision to the letter, adding that the move has indeed positively impacted on the industry.
He recalled that similar pronouncements in the past were not effective, and noted that the only way this government was being taken seriously by maritime stakeholders was because of its decision to enforce the eviction to the letter. He added that in the past, such decisions were reversed when the affected agencies went to the Presidency and the National Security Adviser and lobbied to remain at the ports.
“The sack was overdue. Some of the agencies were selfish, corrupt and were real impediment to movement of cargoes. The so-called arms and ammunition they intercepted were based on information passed to them by international agencies abroad. And what the agencies were intercepting were short guns found in personal effects. And they make noise on this in order to prolong their stay at the ports,” he said. He explained that Nigeria by now should actually be working towards a fully automated system, which would totally eliminate all human contacts, in the course of cargo clearing.
“It is only way to completely eliminate the usual frustrations which freight forwarders often suffer” he noted further, stressing that Government should still do more, to boost infrastructure at the ports, to fully complement the growing benefits which the eviction of several agencies from the ports has engendered.
President of the Save Nigeria Freight Forwarders Importers and Exporters Coalition, Chief Chukwu Osita, said that since the Government began the implementation of the policy, the ports have witnessed what he called “transformational change”. His words: “The move has brought about efficiency in cargo handling at the ports. The 24-hour compliance declared by the Presidential Taskforce at the ports is now being heeded to by port officials. The compliance directive has taken place fully at our ports. It is working very well in Apapa here.
“For other ports like Tin Can Island Port, Apapa it is also taking place there. We want government to extend it to all other ports in the country because 24 hours port service has commenced in Togo, Cotonou and other neighbouring ports.
“If they can actualise the streamlining, investors will come to our country’s ports for business. Probably what may now be left after the drastic reduction in agencies operating in the ports, if the country was to attract optimal benefits is to improve trade facilitation”, he added. He argued that although the nation’s ports had over time been suffering from infrastructural decay, the present intervention by President Jonathan has shown there was now genuine cause for revival of hope at the Nigerian ports.
He advised on the need for the authorities to consider compelling terminal operators to develop more terminal bays outside the port environs, so that the country may, in addition to improving cargo clearing, also effectively tackle the problems of periodic congestions in the nation’s ports.
Reacting to the development, the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) General Manager Public Affairs, Chief Michael Ajayi, said the management was already working on a strategy of harnessing and consolidating the gains of the policy. This, he said, was to ensure a significant improvement in revenue which would accrue to both the Federal Government, as well as to the importers, in a bid to positively tinker with what the average Nigerians would pay in terms of the market cost of goods.
"These gains must result in revenue boost, not only for the Government, but also for the investors, especially the importers”, he said. According to him, this was the most viable way it could directly impact on the purchasing powers of every Nigerian. Senior Special Assistant to the President on Maritime Services, Mr. Olugbenga Oyewole, explained that the ongoing ports reform was in line with President Jonathan’s transformation agenda.
He noted that “Mr. President, during his campaigns, had assured the citizens that he would effect a revolution in the maritime industry so as to make it more business-friendly for genuine investors, locally and internationally. “Shipping plays a key role in the economy of any nation. A ship can carry goods meant for 50 aircrafts or more. The transformation agenda of President Jonathan has focused on maritime reforms. So, I will say this is a fulfilment of one of his promises at Asaba, Delta State, during the campaigns when he said ‘there will be revolution in the maritime sector” he said.
He explained that it was also a direct way of alerting the foreign investors that the Government was serious in its vision to encourage investors into the sector, particularly now that Nigerian maritime industry is safer and more stable for business. “It is by far cheaper to move goods by sea. Government will continue to encourage investors in this sector and I also call on financial institutions to assist Nigerians in their aspiration to participate in the emerging opportunities.
“We took the drastic action to show that our gateways could be more competitive than others. This is because we are the hubs of trade for Central and West African states. Nigeria, if you do not know, controls over 70 per cent of the continent’s trade because we are so blessed with large coastal waters, where most of the maritime activities take place”, Oyewole added.