In this interview published in the latest edition of our Marine&Economy Magazine , the President Emeritus of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents(ANLCA) ,Prince Olayiwola Shittu who is also a seasoned and well respected Customs Broker speaks about the genesis of corruption in the maritime sector, the solutions, as well as dwelt on other issues in the maritime sector, and how to make the industry contribute more to economic development. Excerpts:-
On the issue of perennial congestion on the Lagos ports access roads, which is also causing cargo build up at the ports , until the road construction and repairs of the Apapa-Oshodi – Mile 2 Expressway are completed and the rail lines are fully rehabilitated at the seaports and linked with the inland container depot(ICDs) that are located in the Northern parts of the country, the congestion on the roads would still be there.
So , if the rail is working , it will be able to evacuate greater volume of goods from the ports or even bring empty containers to the ports other than having many trailers that will cause congestion on the ports access roads to do that.
It all depend on planning.A mistake has been made in such a way that you have the Apapa Port being surrounded by residential houses and commercial ventures .Then how can the Port expand?.This is why people are crying for the establishment of deep seaports .But the issue will be whether Nigeria is going to be an import nation for life, or do we want the deep seaport to continue to lie fallow and how many deep seaports do we need to be a transit hub?
Concession of Ports Terminals
I remembered when the Late Chief Ojo Maduekwe was the Transportation Minister , and government had resolved to concession the seaport terminals, the leadership of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), which I was the National President told the Minister back then in Calabar, during a maritime forum ,that it was wrong for government to have balkanized the whole ports terminals in the name of concession.
We let them know that what they would have done was to allow only one company to be the concessionaire of all the terminals in Lagos , so that the empty container holding bay and the trucks parks and export bays will still be in place, and the place would have been well planned , instead of just selling them all off with the concession ,thus creating the basis for the congestion which the Ports are now facing.
Though the customs brokers had their say then , but government eventually had its way .So , this is the approach government would have given its proposal on customs modernization , at least to demonstrate the fact that , we are under a democratic dispensation.
Training of Customs Agents
As it concerns whether or not the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria(CRFFN) can take up the training that customs should do for the agents, the truth of the matter is CRFFN Act does not give it room to do training for agents, but it is only empowered to do accreditation of training institutions just like COREN accredits faculties of engineering in tertiary institutions.
Really, it is so easy for the customs to train their agents whenever they are conducting training for their officers because they already have training institutions all over the places that can handle this training responsibility.
Somebody who has an illness, that requires surgery , the dead cells must be evacuated , before the doctors can get to the area of intervention.
Panacea to Maritime Issues
So, having stakeholders on a roundtable will be a panacea to most of the problems that we have in the maritime sector. Now, the haulers are lamenting on how much it costs them to go and lift containers from the ports.Even when it is an issue , those who are benefitting from that anomaly will really not want anything to be done to remedy the situation
Imagining the liners dictating the tune of cargo movement, which should be predicated on the shipper who brings in the goods.As the saying goes , no shipper , no cargo, no vessel , no port, no government agencies at all.So, it is the shipper that has the ace , but The liners are dictating the direction they want to go so that they can charge more because Nigeria does not have its own vessels .
But extortion in the maritime sector goes beyond extortion of truckers who have no business in the port until the cargo is ready for him to carry.However , extortion in the maritime sector is a reflection of what goes on in the society. Can you ever get anything done in any establishment , government or private even those meant for charity , without coughing out money.
It is unfortunate that it is already ingrained in us that you have to give in other to get , even when it is your right.
For issue of extortion, the excuse has always been that if there is no giver , there can be no taker, but this is not enough.The issue is that when you report a government official at the port for demanding bribe from you, what his boss does is to first defend him and blame you for bribing him, forgetting that the operative is also being paid to refuse and pave way for the giver to be punished.
But the government operative will not do such , because he prefers that the man who is giving him continues to give and that is why you will not see any other person being tried for corruption in all the magistrate courts in and around Apapa ,but only miscreants .This is why I said that corruption at the Port is a reflection of what happens in the society.All of us are involved .
We are talking of Single window, but people because of their orientation would rather result to garbage in garbage out so that they can cut corners and have their way .This is also why , there is the craze for wealth accumulation.
So, the nature of the society we are, really makes it difficult to want to heap the whole blame of corruption at the Ports on importers.For instance , a shipper gives you the document of a cargo he wants you to clear for him and when you study it and from what you have seen there you explain to him, that he would need to pay the correct duty of say N20 million or otherwise he can still pay N10 million to have the goods cleared.
The first statement from the owner of the goods is why must he pay so much , and even ask you to hand over the document , if you cannot do the job , simply because he prefers to cut corners and pay less than what he should and if possible not to even pay at all , because in Nigeria people do not want to pay tax.The bigger they are in the society , the more they don’t want to pay .
Constraint of Customs Broker
So it becomes a big challenge for the freight forwarder, who needs jobs to do so that he can take care of his family not to accept such jobs , because the alternative for him is to continue to lose his source of livelihood as he refuses such jobs.
If he fails to do the jobs , there are willing hands who are praying for such and who are ready to grab the opportunity as it arises.In fact some importers now go as far as giving jobs to customs officers in the areas where the goods are to be cleared.In fact some NPA officers now do clearing.Is it then in such circumstance , when most freight forwarders hardly get jobs to do that a lucky one will miss any opportunity?.
Customs Broker in America
Though , while one is not justifying corruption in the Nigerian ports, the issue is that the customs broker in America will not want to accept to clear goods that will make him to compromise , because by their law and training , he is the one who will go to jail when he is caught .
Thus for customs broker in America, the penalty for shortchanging government of its revenue is seven years without an option of fine.since they enforce their laws over there, no customs broker will venture to do an illegal job because when he is caught , he knows that his credit rate is totally gone .
But in Nigeria , it is the other way .Apart from the fact that the laws are hardly enforced , even when they are, the culprit can always find his way out in the ladder of justice.
Imagine that an officer sees a document and having perused it , he discovers that it has an anomaly. .Instead of working on it and may be sending it to valuation , he keeps it in abeyance , waiting for the customs broker or the importer to come forward and bribe him before he can pass it on.Even when such document is sent to valuation , the officer there also keeps it instead of passing it on .
On the other side , the customs broker himself does not even want to hear it that his importer’s document is to be sent to valuation, because he knows that the stake as it concerns what he will give as bribe is far higher there. So , it is such opportunity that has been created by the officer ,through his keeping the document that creates an interface for corruption between himself and the officer.
Apart from this, the valuation may insist that the importer pays the correct duty on the goods , a development that would make him to hate the agent for life because his competitor has succeeded to pay less for such goods.This is why revenue compliance level has been dropping at the customs on a daily basis.
It is unfortunate that nobody in the port system is supporting compliance in the payment of revenue through acceleration in the processing of document of an importer who has paid the requisite import duty on his goods as a way of encouraging him.The belief is that they can only get extra money when the importer is not doing the right thing.
So, it is almost impossible to stop extortion at the port system . This is why it would not be fair to blame the freight forwarder , because of the atmosphere that has been created in the system to make the process of extortion insurmountable .The issue now is even that, when the importer decides to pay the right duty on his goods , say N20 million, the officer makes it difficult for him by exercising ‘discretion’ to the effect that he should even pay more for not giving bribe.
In fact there is a lot of corruption going on in the maritime sector , where you now have modernization of payment of ‘egunje’.It is not as if somebody loads money in his pocket to go and bribe an official of government. The issue is that everybody working in the port wants something and that is why they don’t want to stay at home even on weekends and public holidays.
And as for the customs broker, in the circumstance , the lack of the enabling environment has made it impossible for him to play his role adequately.
Factors Responsible for Corruption
As to what has made corruption to fester in the Nigerian society , the factors surely include removal of the teaching of civics as a subject which teaches morals and places emphasis on integrity instead of money and wealth in the society .Another is the neglect of agriculture for oil which has made many to drift to the cities .
The abandonment of the positive impact of environment has also been a factor that has fuelled corruption in the society.I remember in the primary school in those days, when we have to wield grass and pick pieces of papers , we have dropped on the floor the other day before we can resume classes , thus placing emphasis on the care for the environment.
If all this good philosophy was sustained in schools , the product of the primary schools who have inculcated this idea would have been the one assisting Nigeria to resolve the challenge of the environment that we now have.
The fact that subsequent governments have also refused to plan for the citizenry, which is the first priority before taking care of their welfare has also been a factor.We need to address all these anomaly.The military regime of Buhari – Idiagbon regime started well towards instilling discipline in the fabric of the society ,though the steps were painful, but if sustained , it would have assisted the Nigerian society to tow the right way.
Any change , we are going to have now is going to be for the future.Is it possible for the Police to ever stop extortion or are we saying that the Police hierarchy don’t go on the roads to know that their officers are extorting motorists and others. Is endemic corruption in the rank and file of the Police not the plank of brutality of the personnel which the ENDSARS PROTEST abhorred. It is because of the need to have opportunity to extort that makes security agencies operatives to always want to be transferred to the Ports.
This is because once an officer has the authority to check your documents, there is no way , he would not create room for extortion and even at the end of the day when your cargo has accumulated demurrage , the only thing you here is that , go and pay and not even sorry for your time that has been wasted. But if there are punitive sanctions against such attitude, no officer will do that.
Recently, the Customs decided to transfer officers, but the issue is that when you transfer an officer from Tin Can Command to Seme or still within the Zone ‘A ‘ have you really transferred him.? Or those officers of the CIU , Valuation etc who will tell you they were reporting directly to the headquarters , so they can move from one Unit to the other , every two years.That is why we have officers who have been around in the same command for 15 years just to have the opportunity to continue to extort.