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To fight corruption, digitalize port operations

Despite global movement to automation and digital economy, our port processes are still largely manual, analogue, archaic and not in sync with modern realities. Accessing the ports and physical examination instead of using scanners have been lucrative areas of corruption and inefficiencies in our port system.

For a country that is fighting corruption, operating a system that aids same corruption is both counter-productive and an economic sabotage. The way to go is to automate the system and eliminate waste. We can only imagine our losses as a country from this high degree of complacence considering that concealments could escape detection by physical modes during examination and time spent to physically examine 5 containers could be used to examine 100 containers when you apply the right machines and human capital expertise.

For instance, a report by Integrity Organisation Limited, GTE and Convention on Business Integrity (CBi), has revealed that corruption and exercise of discretionary powers by the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) and other port officials has had huge implications for ease of doing business in Nigerian seaports and terminals, leading to revenue loss of about N2.5 trillion annually. The report, which was jointly funded by ActionAid and UK Aid, revealed that negative operational elements had pushed many customers to use ports and terminals of neighbouring countries, thereby leading to loss of foreign exchange earnings for Nigeria.

The disjointed approach to common technology based interface like single trade window platforms and Nigeria Integrated Customs Information System (NICIS II) makes government agencies work at cross-purposes. From access control to cargo examination and submission of manifests by shipmasters, Nigeria has remained complacent with a system on slow mode by default.

The problem is not about relevant policies, frameworks or government order and pronouncement but enforcement and compliance. Port officials appear too strategically and creatively powerful that they manipulate the system and port operations with unwavering exercise of discretions against the rules even when this makes doing business at the ports difficult.

It is only recently that the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) stepped up efforts for electronic call up system of trucks into the ports and Nigeria Customs Service commenced move to procure modern scanners. Part of the problem with our port system is competition for supremacy and flexing of powers by sister agencies. There is also the reality of some government agencies laying ambush to seize released containers from the ports after such agency had participated in joint examination before the containers exited the ports.
Bottom line outcomes of these disjointed approach to port processes was that money found their way into private pockets and prohibited goods entered the country against government regulations. Implementing the Nigerian Port Process Manual (NPPM) is one sure way of cubing the effects of corruption in the maritime sector. Since the manual is not backed by law, except by executive fiat, it is important that its provisions are not in conflict with any extant law governing our maritime activities.

Aside system automation, individual and corporate attitudinal changes are also very crucial in this regard. More than ever before, there is the need for a more robust inter ministerial interface in making the maritime sector work better, faster and seamlessly. In view of the fact that most of the agencies of government operating in our ports are under different ministries with various chains of command, the transport ministry should seek and sustain support of other ministries such as health, trade, internal affairs, agriculture, police affairs, justice and finance in the fight against corruption and criminality in the maritime industry.

Furthermore, we should critically pursue solutions to the problems of security on our waters, strengthen the use of technology for faster and more secured system as well as resolve to pursue national interest beyond personal gains. Suffice it to say that if people are not punished for bad behaviour, tendencies are that they would return to commit same offence. Therefore, every act of criminality must be punished in line with the law.

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