The severity of the negative impact of the global pandemic called Corona Virus and otherwise known as Covid-19 on all facets of the world cannot be overemphasized. Unfortunately, and very worrisome too, the virus has continued to spread across the world with more than 12.7million confirmed cases in 188 Countries and more than 560,000 deaths as at Sunday 12 July, 2020. Since a potent cure has not been found for the virusyet, and it seems that we might be living with the virus for a while, we at IWA decided to go into the market to find out from market leaders how they plan to cope with the new normal occasioned by the pandemic. IWA, paid a visit to the Customs Area Controller of Tincan Island Port Area Command, Comptroller Musa MBA, below is an extract of the interview we had with him:
IWA: Sir, how do you intend to steer the ship of this area command to successfully cope with the negative impact of the Corona Virus?
MUSA: It is obvious that with the advent of this ravaging Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, what we knew and had accepted as normal are fast giving way to a new yet very fluid normal that for the moment changes on a daily basis. We are clearly in a transitory state, coping with the COVID-19 crisis, which has continued to adversely disrupt all the facets of our lives – health, economy, education, government, businesses, social order, religion, etc. It is an unusual situation and as a frontline government regulatory agency vested with the responsibility of facilitating trade and collecting revenue among other statutory functions operating in the midst of these uncertain times, having first-hand clear knowledge and understanding of the pandemic from health experts is imperative to safeguard lives and livelihoods. It is for this reason, that apart from the efforts we have continued to make at the area command level and zonal office, the management of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), led by Colonel Hammed Ali (RTD), had right from the start ensured that all officers and men of the service have first-hand knowledge and understanding of the pandemic. Like in most other countries, the first major response of the Nigerian government to the pandemic was to lockdown the nation, for the people to stay at home and maintain safe distance to prevent the spread of this infectious disease. As you know officers working in the ports, were exempted from the lockdown because we provide what the Government categorized as essential services.
Luckily, some aspects of cargo clearance procedures were already being done remotely. For example, with the aid of NICIS II software recently approved by the Comptroller General of Customs, submission of e-manifest, submission of e-declaration, generation of assessment, online/e-payments (banks). E-release for transactions that are selected green, e-terminal release and e-exit of cargo are being done seamlessly. In addition, other procedures like fast track, transit and free trade consignments were moved to owner’s premises, terminals and zones respectively for other inspection protocols to be done there and so it has been easy to minimize human contacts without unnecessarily upsetting our operations in this area command. Essential imports are given expeditious treatment and release as officers of certain categories alternated duties, while the use of face masks, sanitizers, physical distancing are enforced in providing and maintaining a safe and conducive work environment.
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?
MUSA: The Nigeria Customs Service is a member of the World Customs Organisation (WCO) which is the umbrella body of all Customs Administrations around the world. As I have enumerated in my answer to your first question, most of WCO’s conventions, for example, the Revised Kyoto Conference, or the ‘Arusha Declaration’ of the WCO are meant to achieve best practices, transparency, harmonization, integrity, speedy clearance of goods, fast track, risk management-based operations etc. Specifically, most of the trade facilitation innovations like transmission of e-manifest, e-declaration and e-payments are in line with the new normal, as they make for reduction in human to human contact, thus making keeping of safe distance, easy.
IWA: What are the strategies you consider necessary for you to deploy to successfully cope with the new normal?
MUSA: Essentially, we are aware that we need to be more innovative and creative in our operations. Like the saying goes, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. So, the necessity to live with the new normal requires us to take a complete assessment of our processes and procedures with a view of identifying existing gaps and fixing them. One critical area that we want to quickly fix, is to reduce or completely eliminate bureaucratic delays and focus on facilitating speedy clearance of cargoes from this area command. It is very apparent that we need to find a way of working more remotely, the era of crowding or staying long hours in the office is over. The focus now is to speed up operations in the ports and swiftly solve problems, which is why I think government and terminal operators need to urgently invest in the provision of scanners at all entry points for scanning of cargos, I believe this will be a worthwhile investment in the short and long run. It is also necessary to automate some aspects of vehicle clearance like the issuance of ex-factory values for used vehicles such that the declarant can submit declarations online and officers will only need to login and do the verification accordingly, create flexible and shorter supply chains with more and prompt value additions, use of trade free zone for production of essential products like pharmaceutical drugs and related items to reduce contact and work with businesses as partners to create value.
IWA: What are the likely challenges you think you may face in trying to build a new normal survival mechanism and how best do you intend to cope with them, get round them or overcome them?
MUSA: At a time like this, which is full of uncertainties and eventualities, it is important to generally develop the capacity to take on challenges and forge ahead. Therefore, I am essentially building confidence in my officers and men to stabilize the workplace and ensure that our primary responsibilities which are essentially facilitation of trade, revenue collection and suppression of smuggling are successfully carried out. We have also developed a robust infrastructure for the deployment of appropriate risk management tools/system capable of handling the transactions, guarding against cyber-attacks, manage the work force effectively by bringing them back to workplace and creating a sense of belonging, common purpose, shared responsibilities and some sort of re-assurance of safety and livelihood to officers and stakeholders.
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 Corona Virus or everything is all bad?
MUSA: ironically, the ‘new normal’, has helped us to believe more in and deploy Information and communication technology (ICT), than we used to in our operations. I must say that we have had to continue to fine-tune our operations along the way as we now more than ever constantly and carefully examine our operations. As an area command, the ‘new normal’, has made us improve substantially on the safety protocols of our officers and men. It has also helped us to have a cleaner working environment. Other “fruits” are the deployment of efficient software for quality operations, increased transparency and harmonization, and faster turnaround in the long run.