Nigeria Customs Service Runs a Very Transparent and Open Process – Comptroller Abdullahi Tela Babani, Customs Area Controller Port Harcourt Area Ii Command, Onne.
Comptroller Babani is a certified accountant and member of the Nigerian Institute of management. He holds a bachelor and master’s degree in Accountancy from the university of Maiduguri and university of Lagos respectively. He is an astute Customs officer with vast experience in Customs Modernization garnered from having worked in all the three largest port complexes in Nigeria as the ASYCUDA project Manager and headed the Pre-Arrival Assessment Report (PAAR) unit in the headquarters, Abuja. Below, he shares with us the importance of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to smooth running of the operations and processes within the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS).
IWA: Information and Communication Technology (ICT), is said to have significantly affected the processes of government and business in today’s world, and this has in turn changed as well as positively impacted the lives of people across the world. Sir, in what ways has the introduction of ICT positively impacted on the processes and operations of the Nigeria Customs Service?
Babani: Customs Service, the world over, are expected to facilitate the business of importing, exporting and transiting of goods in all the societies they operate in. We are to work in harmony with other agencies of government and the trading community, who essentially are importers, exporters, their agents, shippers, shipping lines, the port authorises or other stakeholders in the import, export or transit business. Basically, when Customs Administration carries out its duties efficiently and effectively, it ends up creating an enabling environment for these stakeholders to do their legitimate businesses smoothly, with ease and within the shortest possible time without incurring unnecessary costs. Having said this, the Nigeria Customs Service cannot be said to be able to efficiently and effectively carry out its duties if it cannot ensure the security and integrity of its primary data, such as the correctness of the manifest which carries the description of the goods that is being imported, exported or in transit. This assurance of primary data can be said to have been made easy with the introduction of ICT into the processes and operations of the Customs Service.
IWA: It is interesting to know that you can ascertain the authenticity of documents like the manifest that originates from other stakeholders from your end, please explain how exactly you can do this?
Babani: Before the introduction of ICT into our operations, we had to wait for hard copies of documents to be submitted to us before we can carry out our duties, but that is not the case now. A platform called the Nigeria Integrated Customs Information System (NICIS), which directly speaks to your question is the main reason we don’t have to wait for hard copies of documents again before proceeding with our job.
On the NCIIS, the Nigeria Customs Service can interface with other stakeholders and various government agencies. At regular intervals, necessary documents and certificates are uploaded on to the platform for all stakeholders to view, verify and act on, when and where necessary. The whole process of clearing goods at our ports can now be viewed by all stakeholders from the time that the Form M is opened and submitted to the banks, to the time of processing of bills of lading, invoices and other certificates. All these documents are expected to have been uploaded on the NICIS platform. What we now essentially do at the PAAR ruling centre, is concentrating on our core functions which are: valuation, classification, confirmation of rules of origin, and at the end of the day, we process and issue the PAAR to the Importer.
The truth is, one does not need to worry much about the data one is assessing, as the system would have carried out consistency and validity check on the data. So, taking decisions at the PAAR ruling centre does not take much time.
As I sit here in Port Harcourt, with the benefit of ICT, I can view what is going on in Tin-can Island port Lagos, Apapa port or any other port in Nigeria for that matter. In the same vain, they also can see whatever we are doing here, so there is no more secrecy in our processes and operations, ICT has thrown everything open. The transparency is not limited to within Customs, it includes other government agencies such as; CBN, NAFDAC, SON, Nigerian Navy, Military, SSS, EFCC…this transparent information exchange is open to all relevant government agencies and stakeholders.
IWA: Going by what you have just explained, it seems that the deployment of ICT in the operations of the Nigeria Customs Service has made your operations transparent and open?
Babani: Yes! I can tell you that there is no government organisation in Nigeria that I know of today that is as open and transparent as the Nigeria Customs Service going by the way and manner we now run our activities. Anybody can view the Customs system; it’s there. The truth is, we are the ones encouraging other stakeholders in the Marine Industry in Nigeria to come on to the platform. If only we could get the enabling support and the political backing to completely activate the single window project. The Clearance of cargoes at Nigerian ports and borders would have been made so simple and easy for all. We have almost reached halfway into the process, a lot of money have been invested in developing the process; the business process analysis had been conducted, not only in Customs, but also with other key stakeholders and all other government agencies. We have done a lot of feasibility studies and we are almost halfway there. What is needed is the political backing and necessary financial support, as well as the need to make Nigerian Custom Service the lead agency for the single window project.
Making Customs the lead agency of the single window, does not make them better than other agencies, it’s just the way all IT platforms work; there must always be a strategic lead person or agency. Just as the creator of a ‘WhatsApp’ platform becomes the admin officer of the group. The admin officer does not tell the other members of the group what to write, what to read, who you should chat with in the group. So, the Nigeria Customs Service being the pivotal partner in the Maritime industry would play the role of the administrator of the single window process as the lead agency.
IWA: What is it like, managing the Federal Lighter Terminal (FLT), Federal Ocean Terminal (FOT), Onne Oil and Gas Free Trade Zone (OOGFZ), and the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG), all of which are under your command?
Babani: ICT makes everything easy. If you remember when we started this discussion, I made mention of three areas: import, export and transit. From whatever angle, you look at it, whether you are talking about ocean terminal, bonded terminal, oil and gas, LNG, you are essentially looking at import, export or transit, and we have the application running on the system seamlessly and online. Import clearance procedures are clearly defined and are the same everywhere. This is likewise with export clearance and transit procedures.
IWA: Onne port, which you oversee is regarded to be a hub in West Africa. How well has the port fared in this regard?
Babani: Well, this is a very difficult question for me to answer. First, international trade is very sensitive, and if we want to be realistic about the way Port Harcourt is perceived internationally regarding the level of insecurity, sea piracy, militancy and other such very sensitive issues, then you will agree with me that it will be difficult for the port to truly become the West African hub that it ought to be. Sometimes, when I travel to my village and I hear the comments of people who have never been to this port regarding what they think is going here, I marvel at the level of misconception out there regarding the state of Affairs here. Unfortunately, the truth is that people across the world perceive the Niger Delta area of Nigeria as a very un-safe place to be. How do you convince an international investor to come here to invest? Even when some of them come here, and people here try to make them feel safe by providing police escorts for them, they wonder why they should go around with police escort, and this action in some ways confirm their apprehension about the area. So honestly, the issue of insecurity is seriously affecting the level of business activities in this area. Ordinarily, if not for that, Onne Port is the biggest and most modern port in Nigeria, it is bigger than Tin-can Island and even Apapa when you combine the ocean port, oil and gas as well as the free trade zone. Look at the massive investment in infrastructure, but virtually everywhere is empty; there are no cargoes. Private concerns have invested a lot of money in providing infrastructure, but where are the cargoes now.
IWA: Sir, as the Area Controller of one of the biggest ports in Nigeria, what is the focal message that you want people to know about the Nigeria Customs Service of today and that they don’t seem to know?
Babani: Yes, my message is very clear and simple. Nigeria Customs of today is a reformed and IT compliant organisation. When you look at our trade hub, this is an IT platform where you can get all the information you need to carry out a legitimate business at your fingertips. If you also look at the import, export and transit procedures, they are all automated and they have been simplified. There are only issues when there is non-compliance, and this is so in all Customs organisations worldwide, as no Customs organisation will facilitate illegitimate business. My last comments will be that legitimate cargoes should not be delayed at the port for any reason. I will be very worried and will do everything within my power to ensure that anyone trying to take delivery of legitimate cargo is not delayed, even for a minute in this port. On the other hand, I don’t care how long or how much effort it takes; anyone who is trying to take delivery of illegitimate cargo from this port.

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