Trade Modernisation Project as Tool to Combat Trade-related Corruption

By Martha Agas

Generally, one menace countries seeking to facilitate ease of doing business to generate revenue, especially through direct foreign investment, face, is corruption along the chain of service delivery.

Analysts have, thus, argue that the first step to boost international trade is to deal with corruption and other sharp practices that could hurt investors’ confidence.

They have always emphasised the need for transparency, accountability and the need to establish deep trust, particularly in global trade.

Analysts believe that a deep trust in the trade operations processes will encourage and attract investors to the country, with their activities boosting the country’s economic profile and facilitating implementation of more developmental projects.

Even though the World Bank’s Annual Ease of Doing Business Report states that Nigeria has greatly improved in the ease of doing business, ranking 131 out of 190 countries in 2020, stakeholders still observe that there are many factors impeding business operations in the country.

They say top on the list is corruption, with public officials often accused of often taking advantage of administrative bureaucracies to force trade operators to give bribes to expedite the lengthy chain of procedures.

The say that the labyrinthine bureaucracy, lack of transparency and inefficiency have continuously created fertile ground for corrupt practices.

Similarly, reports by LEAP and NOI polls indicate that 85 per cent of Nigerians believe that the prevalence of corruption in the country is responsible for the difficulty in the ease of doing business.

Stakeholders have noted that corruption is impeding trade operations at land borders and sea ports across the country, while business operators are reported to constantly complain on dealing with too many government agencies and illegal clearing agents, who make corrupt demands or arbitrary fees during port calls.

Even though the Trade Policy of Nigeria(TPN) 2023 to 2027, hinges on government’s commitment to an open and transparent trade policy, and is described as a significant effort to promote trade as a tool for economic growth and development, achieving this goal requires deliberate efforts to address constraints such as corruption.

To salvage the situation, trade modernisation offers a beacon of hope in the fight to address the menace.

By leveraging technology, streamlining processes, and enhancing transparency, Nigeria can significantly reduce the opportunities for corruption and create a more efficient and fair trade environment.

It is in line with this that the Public Private Patnership (PPP) of Trade Modernisation Project, which has three phases, was embarked upon in 2022.

The project is a 20-year concession, with the execution agreement signed on May 30, 2022, between the Federal Government of Nigeria, represented by the Nigeria Customs Service(NCS) Board, and the Trade Modernisation Project(TMP) Ltd.

The TMP is the automation of the business processes of the NCS. It seeks to simplify and enhance the experience of stakeholders in the trade value chain.

It is aimed at making it easy to obtain export and import clearances. It will also ease the payment of duties and the release of goods.

In summary, it is a long-term rescue plan aimed at ensuring predictable and transparent processes and procedures for imports, exports and transit trade.

The project will deploy a software described as the Unified Customs Management system(UCMS), allowing trade operators the advantage of monitoring all stages of their transactions.

According to the Head of Business Processes for the project, Mr Usman Abba, the system is an improvement over the current system, with enhanced features that use Artificial Intelligence(AI) to assist in the classification and validation of documents or data that is being uploaded.

He also mentioned that it includes third-party sources for verifying documents, which simplifies the work of customs officers in terms of registration and document processing.

In time past, stakeholders had sought such a rescue plan.

In 2020, for instance, Dr Muda Yusuf, the former Director General of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry, highlighted the need for Nigeria to transit to automated processes.

At a webinar on corruption in the cargo clearance at the Nigeria port, he said that delays and the cost of border trade operations could be reduced if manual processes were automated.

The General Manager of TMP Ltd, Ahmed Ogunshola, while throwing more light on the project, said recently that it creates a foundation for improving NCS’ services, which include improving revenue generation, facilitating trade development and minimizing corruption in trade facilitation.

Experts have noted that such digital systems help to reduce human interaction, thereby by minimizing opportunities for corrupt practices, and increasing transparency in customs operations.

A tech expert, Ibrahim Yahaya, has said that if properly implemented, TMP would unify custom activities and management, and effectively combat corrupt practices within the system.

He added that it would also help ensure transparency and efficiency in the discharge of NCS’ activities, especially in verifying the issuance of fake customs duties documents.

“Mostly, we see a lot of fake customs duties documents, while the mode of production and issuance is obsolete.

“ Traditionally, it makes it easy for people to manipulate, but automation will help in addressing that; it will improve efficiency.

“I belive that there is AI in the system. It will help to predict an estimated target for government revenue, and if there is any deficiency. it would address it,” he said.

Stakeholders say that the TMP is a beacon to combat corruption in trade operations, and they are excited that the UCMS is to be inaugurated so that they start reaping the benefits.

The President of the Nigerian Association of Master Mariners, Capt.Tajudeen Alao, believes that TMP will facilitate quicker cargo clearance at the nation’s ports, boost Internally Generated Revenue and enhance the country’s global visibility.

With the backlog of clearances being a concern for operators due to extended clearing times, resulting in increased cost, TMP managers say that 200 containers can be scanned within an hour using the gantry scanner, which the project will deploy.

This is in addition to helping traders comprehensively monitor all processes and avoid falling prey to agents extorting them even after customs clearance.

An ex-ray of the process indicates that it is transparent as it gives traders full visibility in the system to know the specific documents being worked upon, who is handling them, the amount required for customs charges, the causes of any other delays in the transaction, and how to follow up to address them.

With its clear features, analysts believe that TMP will address the agitation by stakeholders for the reduction of desks that importers pass through – for several weeks – to clear their goods, which has become a window to indulge in corrupt practices.

Simply put, the time allotted to assess documents uploaded to the system could be shortened by half with the deployment of the new system.

“It is a complex coming together of different aspects in terms of being efficient, which includes human efficiency, system efficiency in terms of hardware and software,” a key player at the Lagos port recently observed, while craving anonymity.

“We have made significant progress with respect to the deliverables of the project,” he added.

To curb leakages in revenue collection and drive trade reforms, transparency in creating a trustworthy trade environment is crucial, analysts say.

They also point out that corruption at various stages of the trade process can significantly increase costs and deter both domestic and foreign businesses from engaging in trade activities.

While stakeholders are receptive to the gains of the TMP, even though it is still at its first phase, observers hope that the implementation will be smooth and not follow the typical scenario of many initiatives that were full of errors, hitches, and not sustained.

It is hoped that the PPP would increase revenue accruals as the project is expected to generate in excess of 250 billion dollars for Nigeria with the concessionaire investing 3.2 billion dollars to deliver the project over the 20-year period.

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Trade Modernisation Project as Tool to Combat Trade-related Corruption

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About The Author
- Friday Bako is Certified National Accountant (CNA), Blogger, Social Media Influencer/Strategist, Youth Activist and Advocate for good governance.