At 70, former ANLCA President, Shittu, reflects on challenges crippling cargo clearance in Nigerian ports

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Prince Olayiwola Shittu

A seasoned freight forwarder and former President of the Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), Prince Olayiwola Shittu, who clocked 70 years yesterday, Thursday, October 15, has stated that most of the challenges stifling trade facilitation and compounding the cargo clearing process in Nigerian ports stem from the absence of a National Single Window platform.

Prince Olayiwola Shittu noted that the cargo dwell time exceeds 20 days on average for most ports in Africa, particularly in Nigeria, which makes our ports some of the most time-inefficient ports in the world.

Shittu stated this in a message titled ‘’My Goodwill Message to Nigerians on My 70th Birthday’’ in Lagos. He used the birthday to examine a myriad of problems the nation’s port industry is contending with.

The Shittu’s message reads thus:

Let me begin by quoting Abraham Lincoln who said “And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count; it’s the life in your years.”

It is not every day that a man wakes up to turn 70 years old and for that reason I am joyful. It is also a moment for reflection, but most importantly, it is a time I choose to give all glory to Allah, for His mercies in my life.

Truth be told, it has been a rollercoaster with several highs and lows so far and I must say that I am proud of my experiences and the people I have met on this journey.

Like I said earlier, today is a day for reflection and in this regard, I have a couple of thoughts that I would like to share with you concerning critical issues affecting trade facilitation in Nigeria.

The imperative of a National Single Window portal

I stand to be corrected when I say that most of the challenges stifling trade facilitation and compounding the cargo clearing process in Nigeria stem from the absence of a National Single Window platform to streamline processes and enhance efficiency. It is also appalling that among our neighbours in the West and Central Africa region, Nigeria is one of the few countries that do not operate the platform.

When Single Window was established at the Cotonou Port, it reduced cargo delivery time from 40 days to less than 10 days. It increased government revenue by more than 39 percent. In terms of truck transit down to the port, they gained 23 percent of the time.

Therefore, the implementation of a National Single Window will significantly improve cargo turnaround time at our ports, promote efficiency and transparency, and enhance Nigerian ports’ competitiveness in the West African region. In addition, the continuous delay by the Nigeria Customs Service to procure and install scanners at the ports also has negative implications for the Presidential Ease of Doing Business initiative and efforts aimed at improving efficiency at port operations.

In this wise, I urge the Nigerian government and appropriate agencies in the maritime sector to follow the footsteps of other countries that have implemented the system successfully to enable swift movement of goods and services.

24-hours Cargo Clearance

According to a 2018 report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the cargo dwell time exceeds 20 days in average for most ports in Africa, particularly in Nigeria, which makes our ports some of the most time-inefficient ports in the world. This brings an added burden on business when compared to other regions in the world, as businesses relying on timely shipments are less likely to develop in such an environment, and local importers need to integrate higher storage and inventory costs.

Global best practices ensure that any port that fails to achieve 24-hour operations would lose its international competitiveness and Nigerian ports have already lost a significant portion of the cargo destined for the region to other our neighbours’ more efficient ports.

Reform measures that will promote 24-hour port operations must be formulated and implemented by all government agencies involved in the cargo evacuation process.

For this to happen, cargo examination which is presently being conducted 100 percent manually due to non-functional scanners must be automated. I am a strong advocate of allowing the terminal operators to procure and install scanners as they are better suited to ensure the efficient management of the facilities.

I have said this before and I will repeat it, the government should engage the terminal operators and work out a contract for them to provide and maintain scanners and pass on the result into a secure server accessible to Customs and other agencies.

Infrastructure: Port Access Roads – Traffic

I wish I could avoid this topic but what is a discussion about Nigerian ports without a mention of the state of port access roads. Without exception, all port access roads leading to Nigeria’s busiest ports around the country are in a sorry state. It is as simple as that.

Instances, where container trucks have tipped over as a result of the bad roads, have become commonplace, while the human, economic and social implications of the failed roads are best left unimagined. 

I can also state arguably that the Presidential Task Team on Decongestion of Apapa port roads has not been very successful in achieving its mandate. The access roads to Nigerian ports have been overwhelmed by population growth and stagnancy in upgrading port systems, structures, and infrastructure built over two decades ago.

I will lend my voice to the clamour for the establishment of an automated Truck Call-Up System and urge the Federal Government to adopt a pragmatic approach to the total implementation of the proposed intermodal transportation system to ease evacuation of cargo from the ports, and also to pay special attention to water cargo transportation by barges.

I also support efforts by the Nigerian Shippers’ Council to develop a partnership with the World Bank aimed at finding a sustainable solution to the persistent traffic caused by bad roads and congestion in Lagos, by introducing a modern traffic management system.

Deep Seaport projects in Nigeria

While I must commend the proponents of deep seaport projects in Nigeria for their commitment to provide vital infrastructure and promote trade, I am of the opinion that we need to proceed with cautious optimism. I believe that laying too much emphasis on the establishment of deep seaports across Nigeria has the potential to impede the capacity growth of the nation’s export.

Instead, the government should prioritize the development of Nigeria’s export base, and ensure that only economically viable deep seaports are allowed to proceed to completion. At a time in our history when resources are scarce, we will be shooting ourselves in the foot if the establishment of superstructures such as deep seaports is determined by political affiliations or compensation. That era has gone forever. 

Instilling Professionalism in the Customs Service

In view of the proposed African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) for trade liberalization on the continent, there is no better time to nudge the Nigeria Customs Service to adopt professionalism and to re-strategize its mode of operations.

The news is replete with reports of unprofessional and arbitrary demand notices issued on imported cargoes by the Customs Service resulting in several bottlenecks in the clearance of goods and a negation of the Ease of Doing business policy of the Federal Government.

Despite the 100 percent physical examination of cargoes, we are all aware of the multiple Customs intervention units, including the Customs CG Taskforce that intercepts consignments already cleared from the ports. We now have too many interventions from Customs even on consignments that have gone through examination. Is this what we are going to subject nationals of other countries to when the AfCFTA commences? I will leave you to ruminate on that thought.

Border Closure – Going forward

Many Nigerians have expressed their displeasure at the border closure exercise that has lasted for over a year now. However, while I acknowledge the difficulties it brings, I think it is a necessity due to the large scale economic sabotage that we have been exposed to as a country. Our neighbours have flagrantly violated the principles of the ECOWAS Trade Liberalization Scheme (ETLS) and in the process exposed Nigerians to the influx of dangerous substandard goods, small weapons and ammunition, drugs and human trafficking.

In the last one year, the border closure has restored some sanity but it is also important that the government provides a pragmatic framework for their reopening in view of trade and multilateral agreements entered into with other countries. We must also lay emphasis on security and interagency synergy to ensure that the gains recorded in the last year are not immediately eroded.

Conclusion

On that note, I would like to say a big thank you to have allowed me to bore you with plenty of issues of Nigeria’s maritime sector. If we do not talk about it and try to find solutions, who will? It is my firm resolves that if we continue to draw attention to challenges in the industry, it brings us one step closer to resolving them for good.

We are all partners in this effort and I must commend my friends in the media for their resilience and moral obligation to do the right thing and document the history of the maritime industry in Nigeria for posterity.

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