News Column

Nigeria Customs Service and ICT Adoption

July 18, 2014

The information communication technology centre set up by the Nigeria Customs Service may be the panacea to the inefficiency in cargo clearance in Apapa port writes John Iwori.

One of the issues that have bedevilled the cargo clearance regime in the nation's seaports is system inefficiency, which has caused endemic delays and economic challenges to port users.

Most often, this leads to a high cargo dwell time (CDT) with the attendant ills. These ills have made Nigerian ports to be unattractive to port users, especially importers, freight forwarders, shipping lines, ship owners and shipping firms.

This unattractiveness has given Nigeria a bad image as the World Bank had rated Nigerian ports as one of the most expensive places to do business in the world. As if this is not bad enough, insurance firms also demand high premium to insure goods meant for any seaport located in Nigeria.

This is also applicable to vessels calling at Nigerian ports. This is not for nothing. These individuals and organizations doing business in Nigeria do not want to go bankrupt. They want to make profits in spite of the ills in the system. Since profit is the sole motive of business, the additional cost is pass to the prices of goods.

Vessels coming into Nigerian ports bear additional expenses which are not applicable in ports located in other developed maritime nations such as Singapore, United States of America, Netherlands, Norway and Belgium, and Britain.

This is understandable. No one goes into business incur debts. Everyone goes into business to make profit. Therefore, the astronomical cost of doing business in Nigerian ports is eventually passed to the final consumers through padded prices of goods and services.

Numberless ills The ills in the nation's seaports are numberless. The numerous ills add to the rot in the system which often impedes the efficient clearance of goods in Nigerian ports. From the point of arrival of the vessel to the discharge of the consignment from the vessels, clearance and delivery to the consignees, there are many hurdles to cross.

The situation is not helped by the dearth of efficient infrastructural facilities, modern cargo handling equipment, skilled manpower and bureaucratic bottlenecks.

Others are frequent system break down, poor knowledge of the maritime industry, failure of critical stakeholders such as importers and freight forwarders to embrace attitudinal change in the way and manner they carry out their business, absence of transparency, poor attitude to work, concealment and under declaration.

It was in a bid to address some of these ills and ensure it meets its statutory roles and responsibilities that the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) has formally unveiled its ultra modern Information Communication Technology (ICT) Training Centre.

The centre which will enable the service to enhance its operations and achieve set goals is located in its premier command, Apapa, Lagos which is also home to Africa's largest and busiest container port, Apapa Container Terminal (ACT).

The formal inauguration of the ICT Training Centre is coming on the heels of the formal unveiling of a 16-meter communication tower meant to ease communication in the command. It is on record that a thunderstorm had two months ago destroyed the communication tower.

Until the communication tower was replace, not a few port users, especially importers and licensed customs agents had a tough time communicating with NCS.

They did not only find it difficult to log into NCS server for the submission of their documents for the issuance of the pre-arrival assessment report (PAAR) but also find it cumbersome to reach the Customs High Command Headquarters, Abuja from Apapa.

Against the backdrop that Apapa is home to Africa's largest container terminal and Nigeria's premier port, what the command lost during the period when the communication centre was under construction cannot be quantified in naira and kobo.

To say the least, what NCS lost to the destroyed communication tower was monumental. It was also a huge loss to the service since it has a target to meet.

Tackling the challenge NCS Zonal Coordinator, Zone 'A', Assistant Comptroller General (ACG) Victor Gbemudu who unveiled the centre on behalf of the Comptroller General of Customs (CGC), Alhaji Inde Dikko Abdullahi said the service has embraces full automation of its procedures to enhance productivity and maximize revenue generation.

He explained that the communication tower will also help reduce the challenges of network failure at the command, even as he pointed out that although the ICT centre is domiciled in Apapa, it will serve the entire zone. He noted that the formal inauguration of the centre will also enhance collection of revenue by men and officers of the service.

His words: "Apapa is the flagship of the service. It is the command which has Nigeria's premier port under its watch. That is why we have the ICT Training Centre here. However, it is not restricted to officers of the command. Officers from different commands can also come and train here."

Not a few stakeholders, especially those who patronise Apapa port have hailed the management of NCS for tackling one of the key challenges confronting them in logging into NCS portal for their business, especially in the submission of documents for the issuance of PAAR.

They were unanimous in their verdict that the facility will go a long way to addressing their communication needs in the cargo clearance procedures. In an exclusive chat with THISDAY, the Customs Area Controller (CAC), Apapa Area Command, Comptroller Eporwei Charles Edike expressed appreciation to the CGC for making it possible for the command to acquire a new communication tower.

He expressed delight that since the installation of the tower, the command no longer experiences network problems that hitherto hindered its operations.

His words: "Two months ago, there was a storm in Lagos and the mast gave way and the CGC made it possible immediately for us to have a brand new communication tower, The new communication tower was built to international standard and can withstand any tsunami. Our communication network will never be tampered with anymore.

"The formal inauguration of this ICT Training Centre was in line with the CGC's six-point-agenda, stakeholders' engagement, human capacity development, training of maritime journalists so that they can be on the same page on discharge of NCS statutory roles and responsibilities such as anti-smuggling, trade facilitation and revenue generation into the coffers of government."

It is instructive to note that the first set of persons to be train at the ICT Training Centre were journalists. They were taken through the whole gamut of cargo clearance from the port of origin to the port of arrival, discharge and delivery to the consignees. These aside, the training was meant to acquaint them with customs procedures in order to make their reportage better than it is.

Giving an insight on why maritime journalists were the first set of people to be trained at the ultra modern ICT Training Centre, Edike said: "NCS believes that the media, especially those who report port operations and activities need to be properly enlighten on the modus operandi in the ports, PAAR, Customs operations, import and export, among other issues so that they would be in a vantage position to properly educate the public in their reports."

He argued that when journalists covering the maritime industry are properly educated in the nitty-gritty of PAAR, cargo clearance procedures, import and export, they would not only report properly but also be in a position to redress the rot in the system. He said the training is borne out of the need to enable journalists understand customs procedures in order to properly inform the public the way it ought to be.

Said he: "As a government agency, Nigeria Customs Service knows that it is important that maritime journalists know what we are doing. They must know how we operate. They must know cargo clearance procedures. When they know the rudiments of the trade, then they will be able to inform and educate the public properly, accurately and correctly.

For instance, if a journalist knows about the provisions of CEMA, modern customs operations, he can report better and properly to the public than the one who knows little or nothing about it."

Many stakeholders, particularly importers and freight forwarders have averred that with the establishment of the ICT Training Centre in Apapa,Lagos, men and officers of NCS in Apapa Area Command, other Customs formations elsewhere now have an opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills at their door steps.

They opined that taking advantage of the training opportunities in the ICT Training Centre will place them in better position to discharge their statutory roles and responsibilities better than they are presently doing.

Those who spoke to THISDAY during the week also said men and officers in other zones such as Port Harcourt and the Eastern part of the country can utilise it to refresh their knowledge on modern Customs operations rather going to the Command and Staff College, Gwagwalada, Abuja. They will not only save a lot of time but also huge resources that would have been used to travel to Abuja for training.

Training to the rescue The ICT Training Centre is the first of its kind in NCS. THISDAY checks revealed that besides the PAAR Ruling Centre and the Command and Staff College, Abuja, the The ICT Training Centre remains another milestone in the Customs High Command quest to ensure a robust manpower development and the engagement of critical stakeholders in the delivery of its mandate.

This is vital to the sustainable development of the economy since NCS remains one of the key instruments for the implementation of the Federal Government fiscal policies as enunciated in the 2014 budget.

With the conclusion of training for journalists, there is need for other stakeholders such as importers, exporters, freight forwarders to also take full advantage of the ICT Training Centre, Apapa, Lagos. It will not only serve as a veritable avenue to acquire knowledge but also enable them refresh their minds on modern procedures in NCS. This is vital for the growth of the maritime industry.

This is because some of the challenges facing the industry are borne out of ignorance. In many instances, importers and their agents are confronted with issues that task their intellect and knowledge. They are often at cross road. They do not know what to do and how it should be done in line with the laws of the land, particularly the provisions of CEMA.

There are some cases, they know what to do but do not know the right person to present the issue to in the NCS hierarchy. There is no doubt that a better knowledge of the shipping sector of the economy will help them to tackle such issues better than they are presently doing. This is where training and re-training is very important.

Stakeholders should continuously upgrade themselves in the way and manner they do their business and relate with other players in the sector with a view to avoid unnecessary hiccups in the system.

A case in point is under-declaration and concealment. Most of the suspects arrested for under-declaration often claim they did not know about it. While the security agencies continue with their investigations to determine whether these claims are true or not, one may say that a little training of what is expected of an importer and his licensed customs agents will go a long way to make a difference in the cargo clearance process.

Therefore, NCS should continue to hammer on the benefits of having the centre and encourage more stakeholders to take full advantage of it. Against the backdrop that maintenance culture is a far cry in this part of the world, every thing should be done to ensure that the ICT Training Centre, Apapa, Lagos is well maintained.

As the euphoria of the formal unveiling ebbs, the promoters of the project should ensure this is done quickly no matter what it takes. For this legacy to endure and stand the test of time, this should be carried out as a matter of urgency.

This is the only way to avoid the facility becoming a shadow of itself in a few years time. Will NCS do it? Will those managing the facility safeguard it from abuse? Will it allow those who do not wish the service well rubbish the benefits derive from centre? The answers to these and many more questions lie in the bowel of time.

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Source: AllAfrica

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