Will scanners change Nigeria’s cargo clearance regime?

For years, Nigeria’s cargo clearance at the ports has been subjected to 100 per cent physical examination of cargoes, thereby slowing down the clearance processes and increasing the spate of corruption during cargo examinations. With the purchase of three new scanners, TOLA ADENUBI examines if this will change the nation’s cargo clearance routine.

A major drawback to seamless cargo evacuation at the nation’s ports is the 100 per cent examination of all cargoes by men of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) due to lack of scanners. Since the scanners left behind by the Destination Inspection companies malfunctioned in 2013, every cargo that comes into the country has been subjected to physical examination by the Customs, thereby slowing down the cargo clearance process. Due to the slow cargo evacuation process, stakeholders have over the years called for the deployment of scanners at the ports in order to eradicate or reduce the manual examination of cargoes at the ports.

Another factor why the need for scanners is overdue at the ports is the corrupt tendencies that play out during physical examination of cargoes inside the port. For many cargo owners, physical examination of cargoes breeds corruption. During examination of cargoes, cargo owners who have ulterior motives or have falsely declared the content of their cargoes, tend to lure Customs officers with financial rewards just to ensure the containers are either exempted from examination or the examining officers turn a blind eye to the content of such containers.

With the three scanners purchased by the Federal Ministry of Finance expected to be deployed at the nation’s busiest entry points, stakeholders have continued to express divergent views on the utilization of the scanners, and if they are what the ports truly need at this period.

 

Are scanners still relevant

For the National President of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), Mr. Increase Uche, leading ports have gone beyond scanners and are now using more advanced technology to verify contents of cargoes. According to Increase Uche, “This is not the first time that the Customs have acquired scanners at our ports. In 2005/2006, scanners were acquired through the Destination Inspection service providers, and were deployed at the various entry points of the country.

“Those scanners were purchased then under a Build Operate and Transfer (BOT) arrangement between the Customs and the Destination Inspection firms. The Customs were expected to understudy the way and manner those scanners were being operated, and then take over their operation after the expiry of the service providers’ contract. But what happened at the end of the day? When the Destination Inspection contract ended in December 2013, Customs took over those scanners, and within some months, all of the scanners malfunctioned and they were all completely abandoned.

“Now, three new scanners have been purchased by the Federal Ministry of Finance, and another four is being expected from the CBN. This is a welcome development because the relevance of scanners at the ports is to reduce the number of containers that will go for 100 per cent examination. Right now, every cargo coming in is being inspected manually, and this does not bring out efficiency at our ports. Aside from the fact that manual examination of cargoes slows down cargo evacuation processes, it also breeds avenue for corrupt tendencies.

“When deployed, Customs will need to harmonise the Pre Arrival Assessment Report (PAAR) and the NICIS 2 systems with the scanners, so that its deployment can add value to the cargo clearance process.

“However, the whole world is already departing from the deployment of scanners at their ports. If you go to leading ports in Rotterdam and Singapore, scanners have been replaced by Radio Frequency Identification Device (RFID). This technology is more advanced in trying to cross check the integrity of any declaration. This technology involves the placement of chips on an import container. Once the chip has been placed on the container, all the content of that container is relayed on a screen to port officials in the port. That is how RFID works.

“Unlike the old scanners that were deployed under the Destination Inspection regime, where we had issues with blurred images that forced containers to be stemmed down for physical examination after unsatisfactory scanning processes; the RFID is an advanced technology that shows content of a container without any hitch or hindrances. Unfortunately, we are still trying to perfect the scanner technology when the whole world has moved to the RFID technology.”

In a separate chat with the Vice President of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), Kayode Farinto, the deployment of scanners at the ports is long overdue. In the words of the ANLCA Vice President, “Scanners deployment at the ports will hasten the cargo clearance processes.

“Right now, the ports are congested because of so many reasons, including the slow cargo examination processes. With scanners, the containers on trucks just drive in through the scanning system, and the contents are immediately captured as images on the scanners. In less than five minutes, the container is cleared and ready to leave the ports.

“What the government needs to do now is to get more scanners, particularly for export cargoes, not just import cargoes alone. This will reduce manual examination of our exports and imports, and hasten the cargo clearance processes.

“At times, during manual examination of export cargoes, which are mostly perishable items, delay and bottlenecks occasioned in the value chain lead to some of these export cargoes getting spoilt and damaged. If we can have scanners for export processes, it will save time and ensure our exports meet international standards when they get out there.”

 

Scanners management

On the management and maintenance of the scanners, the NAGAFF President advocated that they should be handed over to experts to manage, stating that the Customs cannot manage them judging by past record of what happened to the scanners left behind by the Destination Inspection firms.

“The scanners are a welcome development. The scanners will surely add value to the cargo clearance process, and eliminate to some extent, corrupt tendencies at our ports. However, the Customs should not be allowed to manage them. The Customs cannot maintain the scanners. We were all living witnesses to what happened to the scanners brought in under the Destination Inspection service providers. The service providers were to train Customs to take over the management of those scanners, but the Customs officials were simply not interested in the training, and the moment the service providers left in 2013, all the scanners became faulty and were abandoned.

“Again, another pertinent issue is whether the scanners are new ones? The scanners brought in under the Destination Inspection regime were refurbished scanners, and that was why we always had issues with what is being scanned. Sometimes, the images displayed by the scanners were blurred and not clear enough, thus forcing many containers to be stepped down for manual examination. We hope the expected scanners will be new ones, and that they will add value to the clearance processes at the ports,” Increase Uche told the Nigerian Tribune exclusively.

 

Mix of both

With the kind of signals emanating from the Customs headquarters, it seems the cargo clearance processes will henceforth be a mixture of scanning and physical examination. Speaking to the Nigerian Tribune exclusively on the matter, Spokesman of the NCS, Joseph Attah likened the deployment of scanners at the ports amid manual examination of cargoes to establishment of hospitals and claim that every patient admitted in the hospital won’t die.

“When deployed, if scanners identify contents in a container that the Customs officials are not sure of, the next thing is to bring down the container for manual examination. It is just like saying a hospital has been equipped with the latest equipment, so every patient taking there, none of them will die.

“I am not an expert in scanners operation, but we have officers who have been trained on how scanners operate. When the scanners have been deployed, and during scanning processes, if there are images that are in doubt, the Customs officers on duty have no other choice than to bring down the container for physical examination to confirm those images that are in doubt. How many containers will go through such processes, I cannot say. The scanners, when deployed, will tell.”

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