Soji Apampa is a co-founder of the Convention of Business Integrity, which represents Maritime Anti-Corruption Network (MACN) in Nigeria. In this interview with CHUKA UROKO and AMAKA ANAGOR-EWUZIE, he gives an insight into the reform that MACN is carrying out in Nigerian seaports in partnership with the Federal Government steering committees to reduce the propensity for port corruption and instil professional ethics among service providers and port users. Excerpt.
Since 2011/2012, the Federal Government has been involved with reforms at the ports. They have selected five ports and they are Tin-Can Island, Apapa, Onne, Calabar and Port Harcourt ports to look at. The government has been looking at how to reduce the propensity for corruption in those ports together with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC), Technical Unit on Government Anti-Corruption Reforms (TUGAR), Shippers’ Council and other agencies at the port like Customs and Immigration.
These agencies have formed a steering committee that is looking at how to improve services by coming out with Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) that spells out what people should expect from Customs officials. How the official would respond when dealing with port users and make provision for unsatisfied customers to make complaint. Not only have they identified those things, but they have been able to document the standard operating procedure, which is now online at a site called www.pssp.ng, which is www.portservicesupportportal. ng
At this site, port users can report, and find the SOP for all the agencies at the ports including the terminal operators. On top of all of these, the most important thing is that the actors have to behave with professional ethics. The Maritime Anti-Corruption Network, which is the network of some of the biggest shipping companies that represents about 25 percent of global tonnage, have come together to form the Network, which has been financing a process of training about 1,000 port officials on professional ethics.
So, they are sensitised on what it is they are supposed to be doing in terms of their SOP but also what their colleagues around the world are doing. This is what we have been doing since 2012 and that training has reached 1,000 trainees.
Proliferation of government agencies at the ports
The steering committee is a committee of government and all the committee members are government agencies. The Maritime Anti-Corruption Network is supporting the works of the steering committee which is made up of about nine government agencies or so government agencies that are at the port apart from the terminal operators. The committee members have tried to streamline the responsibilities of each of those agencies and that was why they came up with the SOPs, so when you see Immigration or Customs you will know what they are expected to do.
But the tragedy is neither the ship captains, who are calling our ports, nor the operators at the ports seem to be adequately aware of these things. We have cause to test this procedure. For example, there was a report by one of the members of MSC shipping line, late last year that their vessel was arrested at Forcados, and was given an illegal charge of about $8,000 to pay, which they decided to complain through the Shippers Council. The Council took it up and within 48 hours, that vessel was released and investigation commenced immediately.
So, that is the kind of agility that we are finding from the government but sadly most business people do not know that they can report if they are not getting service and the portal enables all the agencies to know that a report has been made as well as the nature of the report. They have a service level agreement that once a report comes in within 24 hours, they must acknowledge the report and within two to five working days, they must resolve it, and if it requires to be redressed or something that needs a bit more time, it must be resolved within 21 working days.
But people are not using it yet because they do not know, which is why the training took place few weeks ago. So, people can know because the more people use the portal, the more you test the report and the more you test the ability of Nigeria to self-correct some of the issues that have been going on.
Compliance level by both service providers and port users
The compliance level is not anywhere near where we would have liked it. As I mentioned, both the port users and operators are not aware of the details of the SOP and the portal. It is imperative to make sure that everybody knows.
However, the ship captains are reporting that safety related incidents have reduced. They are also mentioning that pre-berth delays have also reduced in our ports, that the threats to crew have also reduced. So, something seems to be shifting but how much more the progress we can make if many more people are aware, use it and test the political will to push through these changes that are taking place in our ports.
Suggestions on how to ensure timely delivery of cargo
I wish you had been at the training, you would have felt the pulse of these operators as they were complaining of the broken scanners, the fact that they are supposed to examine a 40 foot container. The question is what can Customs do to move all that material and give a 100 percent inspection? Yet, they do not have the tools. This was one of the key messages that they want us to make sure that the vice president hears as an outcome of this project.
Sometimes, the forklift to position the container becomes an issue. The complaint was that it is not just the case of Customs but all the operators understanding their roles and the SOPs have documented all these but they are not all aware of what their top echelon already agreed as the minimum standards.
So, we want to test it as the convention of business integrity and in collaboration with this steering committee, we want to do a rating of the ports. We are going to rate the ports both on the clearance side and on the marine side to know how well they have been able to implement this SOPs. This is something we will continue to track to make sure that improvements are known by Nigerians and that it is not just an improvement on paper alone. However, all the port workers tell us very pathetic stories about their condition of service.
We have the case of a gentleman shot in the eye, permanently disabled but he has to pay for his own medical bills and he is now asking the question, is he supposed to die for his own country when he is being offered money? So, we will like to encourage the government to look at it that if we are pushing for reforms around corruption, we should be improving workers’ welfare, working condition, providing the tools and equipment, and removing rotten eggs from the system and allow those with integrity to come to the surface. Imagine a situation where people are buying ranks because the feeling is once you reached a certain rank, you will start to make money. It just perpetuates the wrongdoing and entrenches it as a norm that is what we want to break.
Impact of poor port infrastructure
The situation is damaging the aim of port concession in my view but I think we need to put a spotlight on the activities of terminal operators, private jetties and other facilities that we do not look at when talking about ports. Internationally, the biggest challenge for Nigeria from the perspective of the members of Maritime Anti-Corruption Network is Bonny Port. Even though, the ships call on 15,000 other ports around the world, Bonny is still their biggest headache. So, we need the spotlight shown on it.
And if you publish ratings on how all of these ports are performing, then, it will encourage a policy discussion with the government based on fact. For instance, you can establish that this port is performing better while another one is less efficient. And this is where the issue of equipment and the contracts of the operators will come in, and then we will start to advocate that the government should enforce the contract of terminal operators or change them. Unless you can gather such information, in policy research, it will be difficult to encourage that policy change.
The fact that in a room of 90 shipping companies, who run about 8,000 vessels, the only port that they wanted to have a breakout session on was Bonny, already tells you something and these are global players. This is in the area of cost that is suspected to be corruptly levied on their vessels. So, the problem of Bonny Port is in the area of corruption.
Ease of Doing Business Policy
The little reform we have done has improved Nigeria’s rank in the World Bank ease of doing business ranking. How much more if we then pay attention to these other areas? I think that Nigeria would be great again. All the feedback gathered would be sent to the Vice President including what the port users are saying about infrastructure so that a plan would be put in place to ameliorate the problem because to draw attention to them, somebody has to put forward the raw data in front of the decision makers.
We know that the infrastructure is completely dilapidated and that Apapa-Oshodi Expressway from Isolo to Tin-Can is impassable. We know that we have more number of trucks coming to the port than we have the space to receive the trucks. We know that a truck might go through the entire process, reach the gate and the shipping company says there is one more charges to pay and the truck turned back. We know that there are some kinds of games possible because there is no sufficient oversight over the processes that we are promising to improve if we must improve the ease of doing business. These are the things that we are trying to highlight to make sure that the changes that we intend to achieve become sustainable.