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Undoubtedly, about six months since Coronavirus also known as Covid 19 hit the world and Nigeria and their economies like a scourge in a very grievous and negative way, the stark reality is that the virus and its negative effects are most likely to continue to live with us for some time. It is for this reason that Inside Watch Africa (IWA) decided to visit the market to find out how industry players intend to ply their trade in the ‘new normal’, occasioned by the Coronavirus. IWA paid a courtesy visit to the Customs Area Controller of Apapa Area Command, Comptroller Abba-Kura to inquire from him how he intends to steer the ship of the command in the ‘new normal’. Below are the extracts from the interview:

IWA: Sir, how do you intend to steer the ship of this area command to be able to cope with the negative effects of the Coronavirus?
Abba-Kura: Right from inception, when a lot of people did not take the Coronavirus seriously, the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) was probably one of the first government agencies in Nigeria that started to put structures and measures in place. First of all, the management of the Service led by the Comptroller General, Col. Hameed Ali (retired) sent a medical team from the headquarters to all zonal headquarters and area commands. They lectured us on how to stay safe, we were taught on when and how best to wash our hands, use hand sanitizers, and the proper use of face masks. As you must have seen as you came into the area command, there are buckets of water with soaps and sanitizers stationed at the gate and these have been strategically placed all around the command right from the beginning. The front desk officers always take the temperature of everyone that comes into the area command and if it is discovered that anyone’s temperature is higher than the expected mark, such a person will not be allowed into the area command. Apart from the fact that people without face masks are not allowed into this command and even when somebody is allowed in, he or she will still be required to use the sanitizers by the door before entering the offices.

IWA: Are there things that you were already doing in your area command before now that are likely to come in handy in the “new normal’’?
Abba-Kura: As you know the services we rendered in the ports are categorized as essential service by the Federal Government of Nigeria. When the first full lockdown was declared by President Muhammadu Buhari in March, he directed that all the sea ports should remain open and we have been coming to our offices since then except on public holidays. My point simply is that, human and vehicular movements in and out of the ports are usually high, therefore, it is expedient to put a robust strategy in place to effectively and efficiently manage these movements. To directly answer your question one of the things we have been doing in this area command that I believe will come in handy in this ‘new normal’ is ‘capacity building’ of our officers and men as well as all our major stakeholders. We were able to train more than 403 senior officers last year and the main purpose of this training is to ensure that our officers and men as well as all stakeholders in this port are on the same page. We believe that this to a great extent will help minimize unnecessary disruptions in the clearing process. Although, the training has suffered some set back because of the coronavirus, we will soon resume Last week the committee on capacity building of this area command met and they are now working on the modalities to resume the training.

IWA: What other things do you consider essential to successfully cope with the Covid 19?
Abba-Kura: Two things that come straight to my mind are Infrastructure and non-intrusive examination of containers. I am sure that as you were coming down to the port you faced heavy traffic caused by the gridlock on the access road to Apapa. Once the issue of infrastructure is addressed the inflow and outflow of the port will improve and this will directly positively impact the turnaround time of vessels coming into and leaving our ports. The other thing we need to get right is our scanners, we must ensure they are in good condition or purchase new ones. This I believe will make it a lot easier to observe social distancing because when containers are scanned there will be fewer people hanging around at examination bays to conduct a physical examination and since this will make the process faster, it means more revenue will be generated for the government. Talking about revenue generation, let me quickly mention that not minding all the constraints induced by the coronavirus, we were still able to make great strides as far as revenue generation is concerned in this area command as we generated N227.3 billion in the first half of the year which is 10.59 percent higher than what was generated in 2019.

IWA: What are the likely challenges you think you are likely to face in trying to build a new normal survival mechanism and how best do you intend to get around them?
Abba-Kura: Apart from what I mentioned above, the other challenge I foresee is how to get major stakeholders especially the representatives of the importers who are the clearing agents to buy into plying their trade strictly by the extant laws as laid down by the World Customs Organizations (WCO). They need to understand that we can only facilitate legitimate trade. It is also expedient to mention that we will find it easier to observe social distancing in our ports if those who do not have any business doing in the ports stay away from the ports.

IWA: What are the low hanging fruits to harvest in the new way we have started to do things because of the impact of the coronavirus or is everything all bad?
Abba-Kura: The very obvious thing to harvest is that we should be self-reliant and look inwards, we should devise other means of doing everything we do as a people. What I mean is that the way we do businesses should change because of this pandemic. Before now importers will most often travel to different countries to physically place orders for consignments, but with the recent restrictions on international travels, globally everybody has had to embrace the internet to ply their trade. Those who were skeptical about internet banking have braced up to deal with whatever phobia they had for internet banking.
It has become almost impossible to physically enter banks in Nigeria to transact any meaningful business because of the need to observe the social distance. More people have now realized that certain social events can actually be conducted online.
I know a lot of schools that have been teaching their students online and some had even done exams. In fact, we have even conducted a meeting with a unit of headquarters by making use of the zoom app and even on Saturday. I belong to the Chartered Institute of Loans and Risk Management of Nigeria and I am also a member of the governing council. The governing council held a meeting through zoom on Saturday where we deliberated on a lot of issues.
Going forward I will advise that all stakeholders who ply their trade in our port whether it is the sea, air, or land borders particularly the importers or exporters as well as their clearing agents to get themselves acquainted with the use of the internet as this has become the norm and the inescapable way for them to remain in business.