E-customs concession to China by Nigerian Government okay – former NAGAFF President

Eugene Nweke

Former President of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF) Dr. Eugene Nweke has stated that the concession of the electronic system of the Nigeria Customs Service to a Chinese firm, Huawei Technologies Limited, for 20 years by the Federal Government is good but the capacity verifications reports of the firm were not dutifully carried out.

Dr Nweke, a seasoned freight forwarder, made this known in a press statement issued in Lagos last week, noting that the only flaws in the customs system are human integrity questions – corruption and distortions – but admitted that such flaws can be improved upon by other considerate enhancement alternatives or further value-added tool, instead of concessions.

The statement by Nweke titled Still on the $3.2 billion E-Customs Project – Financed by Africa Finance Corporation and Managed by Huawei Technologies Limited Under a 20-year Concession – My Insistence for Further Clarification on the Concession Agreement, reads thus:

Let me recall your memories that my last reactions to the above industry issues prompted a quick response by the management of the Nigeria Customs Service through the office of the National Public Relations Officer.

The ideas behind the quick response were to douse what was regarded as tension over the project concession, which was professionally packaged by hyping positive claims of value additions and articulated projections which this now a seemingly controversial ( following a reported case of litigation against the contract) concession will bring to the Customs administration going forward.

Let me once again reiterate the reasons for my insistence for clarification on this concession agreement, especially on those aspects that I entertain many worries over. For the umpteenth time, let me state in bold times, that I WILL ALWAYS SUBSCRIBE TO ANY CONCEPT THAT WILL ADD VALUE in the Customs Port Operations, PROVIDED such process is not technically skewed against the National interest and devoid of procedural abuses as laid down in the parlance of governance administration.

It is based on noticeable untransparent moves and documented information in public knowledge, which are not too glaring nor reconcilable to me that prompts my insistence, if not an inquisitiveness for a better explanation.

At this juncture, let me posit here that, based on past experience and knowledge of the factors that are responsible for project failures cum project objective defeats as evidence abounds in the industry increasingly prompts my inquisitiveness and insistence for clarification.

Over time I have observed that, though projects are usually conceptualized, beautifully articulated, wonderfully projected and packaged and excellently presented to attract patronage, but eventually turn out to be a defeated goal in the reality of project executions or implementation. In fact, records of projects that portray perfect solutions but were dead on arrival abound.

Based on these, may I posit here that, my background checks as to the reasons for project goals defeats, show that:
● There are hidden and unwritten motives- mostly interior motives aka vested interests.
● Compromised Capacity verifications reports of the Contractor – A Background Check of the Consultants and Promoters were not dutifully carried out.
●. Relaxed Procurements Process – Advancing the investor quests by undermining a routine procedure.
● A later realization that the legal contract terms were SKEWED AGAINST NATIONAL INTERESTS.
● Project/Concept Evaluation Usually Propounded to attract patronage but are usually unpredictable due to wrong economic forecast and financial variables.
● Unstructured supervisory and sanctioning provisions.

To further buttress my fears and worries, let us do simple reasons as thus, in the year 2012 the Nigeria Customs Service published the following claims and hyped the DEVELOPMENT OF e-CUSTOMS THROUGH ASYCUDA:
● The development of the ASYCUDA project was intended to ensure a smoother, fast and transparent goods clearance process.
● To this end the service under the period developed the following electronic (e-) applications to boost the ASYCUDA operations:
■ e-manifest. ■ e-payment. ■ e-remittance. ■ e-notifications ■ e-Government platform for a single window to stakeholders in international trade. ■ e-release. ■ e- provision of NCS National Private Telecom Network.

This laudable concept which progressed to NICIS 1 &2 was applauded and received the endorsement of both the World Customs Organization, the Federal government, the trading public and stakeholders.

However, a deeper check confirms that there is nothing entirely wrong with the systems, excerpt for human integrity questions ( human corrupt practices and distortions). My strong reserve is that the noticeable challenges as enumerated by the NCS can actually be improved upon by other considerate enhancement alternatives or further value-added tools, instead of concessions.

Furthermore, 10 years after, the NCS posits that prevailing e-modernization can no longer withstand it administrative convenience, hence, the new claims with the $3.2 billion E-CUSTOMS PROJECT – FINANCED BY THE AFRICA FINANCE CORPORATION (AFC) AND MANAGED BY HUAWEI TECHNOLOGIES LIMITED UNDER A 20-year CONCESSION.
According to the NCS, its hype claims with the concessioned newer e-modernization application includes:

✓. This new system will check arbitrary decision-making at all levels and will also guide against unnecessary interventions by officers.
✓ This system examinations and release of import/exports will be subjected to live feeds across multiple platforms.
✓ This will check arbitrary decision-making at all levels and will guide interventions, e.g multiple alerts.
✓ The project will fast-track the requests for escort approval in the container delivery transit
✓ With an automated e-tracking system the delays will be things of the past.
✓ The project will fast-track border management and control.
✓ The project will fast-track the interface with other govt agencies.
✓ The new customs contract will see to the upscaling of all excise monitoring activities and bring them up to par with what happens on the import and export side.
✓ The project is structured to connect factories across the country and create a single monitoring system checking daily production.
✓ The project is added with the responsibility of monitoring taxes on newer, more sophisticated platforms like telecom operations.
✓ Only companies like Huawei can provide the technological backbone for this ambitious project.
✓ Trade Modernization Projects Limited, as an indigenous company is a major concessionaire in the project. Huawei is just a technical partner.
✓. The NCS would generate a whopping revenue of $176 billion over the next 20 years through the implementation of the e-customs project.
✓ e-Customs concession project would ease the cost of doing business.
✓ It would boost revenue and enhance productivity.
✓ It would stop every arbitrariness in the service.
✓ “It would quadruple Customs’ current N210 billion monthly revenue collection.

It is against this background of old and newer claims that prompts my pertinent requests for Clarifications on the following unambiguous questions and remarks, from the Ministry Of Finance & the NCS with regards to the e-modernization concession, hence, my rights to know as a citizen and stakeholder:

A. Can the FMOF give a details explanation of the contentious claims that the Procurements processes and procedures as contained in the Public Procurements Act were compromised?. It will suffice if the reference can be made with regards to the concession advertorial publications on the national dailies, the lists of bidders, the screening process of the bidders and the winner of the bid process. The import here is that the NCS is a public agency of the Federal Republic, if an aspect of its functions as enacted in the federal law is considered for concession or privatization, then the public should be in the know.

B. The NASS legislators only got wind of the concession plot, as was raised by Hon Jerry Alagbaso on the floor of the house. At what point did a public hearing held to this effect, hence, a 20 years concession contract agreement and not a formal engagement of consultants to execute a technical contract within a year or three?

C. Inview of the modernization concession of the NCS ICT infrastructure – Nigerians desire a detailed explanation with regards to the present state of the WebFontain Contract with the Government through the FMOF dated 3rd July 1997, before signing on to this modernization concession or are there two modernization contracts in existence?

The idea behind this question stems from the fact that it is the same FMOF that is at the center of contract supervision on behalf of the government, and noticeably, it is also on record that, the Optic Server hosted in the orbit for the NCS satellite supports was a very narrow tunnel, which had impeded the operational outputs, hence, the challenges raised by the NCS and the incessant server breakdown experienced at the operational zone.

D. Since it has been noted, that the meaning of the modernization concession implies “the outsourcing” of the NCS ITC infrastructure for 20 years and not 3 or ten years. Is the outsourcing contract component based on BOOTS ( Build, Own, Operate, Transfer And Service)?.

E. Also, does the outsourcing contract component includes the training of the NCS officers within the contract duration, for the purpose of transfer of technology and expertise at the expiration of the Contract?

This question is informed, based on the established practices in the service, for instance, before the canceled Cotecna contract, it included the training of 50 officers per year and for 10 years a total of 500 officers were duly trained in the act of computer image analysis, risk management, and x-ray scanners operations. Subsequently, under the Destination Inspection- PAAR Regime, over 1000 officers were trained in ICT Application and deployed in the PAAR Ruling Center, NCS HQ.

F. Could it be right to say that, the NCS ICT department still lacks the capacity to develop further its home-tailored ICT infrastructure even if doing so by engaging foreign experts (consultants) to handle the project locally for three years of training and subsequent transfer of expertise?.

G. Under the prevailing circumstances, Is the ICT infrastructure modernization concessioning the least administrative option available to the FMOF /NCS?

This question becomes necessary because it is evident that, the same consultant that the NCS engaged to evolve the PAAR system was later borrowed and engaged by the Ghanaian government, shortly after handing over the PAAR platform in less than 3 years.

Today, not only that the Ghanaian Customs PASS has been migrated or evolved to Ghana National Single Window (GH-NSW), it achieve the feat without the concession of its ICT infrastructure. Remember, like in Nigeria, it was the same Cotecna that held sway before then.

H. Can the FMOF or the NCS management reassure Nigerians, that by and by, it would not be discovered that, the modernization concession contract was actually skewed against the national interests?

This question is prompted by the previous experiences, since, this particular modernization concession agreement appears shielded in secrecy ( please never mind my choice of words), and this has been my fear.

I. Based on the NCS’s latest publication on this subject, is it appropriate to formally state that the present ICT infrastructure has not been adequately funded and viable enough to mitigate technical challenges and meet the revenue generation expectations of the government?

J. From the NCS reaction, Is it also right to conclude that, the NCS all along knew that the previous modernization efforts of the FMOF were not the typical modernization solutions required for our import and export trade needs, but failed to advise accordingly?.

K. It was noted by NCS, that, only companies like Huawei have the technological backbone, to mitigate the foresaid challenges?.

L. Could the FMOF or NCS tell Nigeria at least two countries in the world, where Huawei has undertaken or is undertaking such magnitude of tasks, for reference purposes?

M. Equally, apart from the claims that Huawei is one of the world’s best providers of ICT applications and services, the NCSq should state further, the Huawei operational pedigree in their chosen area of specialization in relation to the concession agreement. Hence, this is a technical-related contract and not just a purchase and supply contract ( or acquisition).?.

N. Talking about Technical Backbone, it is on record in the NCS publication that Messrs West Blue Consult provided a technical backbone to the PAAR RULING CENTER, yet it was not on a concession agreement basis. Just as noted in the NCS publications, this project provides “sophisticated platforms like telecom operations” the present e-modernization platform also provides for the “e- provision of NCS National Private Telecom Network”. Is this assertion TRUE OR FALSE?.

O. In the spirit of patriotism, would the FMOF justify its reasons for awarding an agency ICT infrastructure modernization concession for 20 years, as doing so for the best interest of the nation?

Finally, The above request for clarifications is without prejudice but born out of curiosity for a prompt public knowledge of the whole essence of the NCS ICT Infrastructure modernization concession in the light of truth and realism.

I join to pray for the genuineness and success of the e-custom modernization concession, and for the overall well-being of the NCS and the Citizens. This is the end of my minority position on this matter. I will still appreciate it if answers shall be provided for the clarification is sincerely posited above.

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