Why SON will continue intercepting containers on the highway –Obayi

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Engr. Bede Obayi is the Director, Inspectorate and Compliance of the Standards Organization of Nigeria (SON). In this interview with our correspondent, he denies the alleged return to the ports by SON against the Federal Government’s directive in 2011, the newly launched Standard Operating Procedures by the Federal Government, interception of already released consignment on the highways by enforcement unit of SON among others. Excerpt;

Some stakeholders have raised alarm alleging that your organization has returned to the port against the directive of the Federal Government. Tell me; is SON back to the seaports?

Thank you very much. First, SON has not returned to the port officially as against the directive of the Federal Government in 2011. You will recall that in October 2011, some agencies of the government were directed to be operating from outside the port and to be invited to the port when their services are needed. That is the statusquo and that is what it is today.

SON got this office where we are operating, are we inside the port now? We are at No. 3 Burma Road, Apapa which is about three minutes away from the ports and so, when somebody comes here and says that our expertise advice is needed, we get in there, do the job and come out. You cannot get inside any port and see where we have our containers or boots or offices and they say, go to that office that that is SON’s office. Nobody will show you that in any of maritime offices.

Sir, if what you say is the truth, why this hue and cry that SON has returned to the port thereby adding to the delay and to the cost of doing business at the ports?

First, SON has never constituted any cog in the wheel of progress of clearing at the ports because when you get there now, you will see that SON is not there and so, all the problems they have been having all along, SON has not been there. SON comes in to do its job and gets away and that is what we have been doing since then till today.

Government did not say that SON has been scrapped; government says that SON among other agencies should operate from outside because of the security implications or the effects of substandard products and that is why SON should be involved. Instead of SON crying that it was not allowed to do its job because you know that over 90% of containers that come into this country come to the port and so, where is the procedure for inviting SON? Because that is the problem, if there is a procedure that before any container leaves the port, these agencies must sign that they have been invited, that will be monitored.

So, today, a lot of people are taking their containers out of the ports without SON being part of it. So, it is only those that come around to say this is what I am having that we now see. Those who want to carry it out through fraudulent means, we would not know and so, the bulk of the containers are leaving the ports.

During the last month’s stakeholders’ meeting at the Customs command at Apapa here, the Customs Area Controller lamented that some government agencies including SON don’t come for joint examination on time when invited only for them to come when the other agencies must have concluded examination threatening not to allow containers already examined by the agencies present during examination and returned to be brought back for examination again. Could say that your organization when invited for examination never misses to be there and on time too?

Of course, you were there at the meeting? Did you raise any issue as to show you any evidence of what times they provided for joint examinations that these agencies did not come? Because it is not an issue of saying that this happened, there should be evidence that when you get to this platform, this is our examination time, from 9 o’clock to 2 o’clock every day, if there is any agency that is not there, then you know that it doesn’t want to be there. But is it to come to a forum and say that you are giving a warning. It depends on the procedure. Where there is a procedure, you know that those agencies based on that even before coming to the meeting, people would have known that yesterday they didn’t come, today didn’t come, last two days they didn’t come, so, what are you going to say, then you have evidence that these agencies are not honouring invitations. But where are the invitations?

So, such complain should follow evidence based invitations but if there are no invitations, on what basis am I reacting to that? So, it is not an issue that is before me to react because it is where there is platform for the agencies to be there. But where we have monitored through the NICIS that a container we are interested in and we are not invited and we say we want to inspect it and they invited us he second day, is that our fault? Is it the fault of SON?

So, if on daily basis you say this is the list of 100 containers that will be examined for today, any agency that didn’t participate would be held responsible. But if I on my own get an information about a container that we are interested in and not that it was monitored on your list and we say let us do the inspection and you say you have already done inspection, on what basis are you carrying out your action? There should be that openness in operation to allow everybody know what somebody is saying because that was why I was asking you if you have for an evidence of invitation extended to SON, is there a platform where they can come and see the list of containers that are earmark for examination for today? So, you now know that from today, when you get to that platform, including you as a journalist will know that 17 containers were examined today. Is there any platform like that? Have you seen that?

So, where are the invitations extended to those agencies?

Could you say that customs regularly invite your agency when goods that fall under your purview arrives the port for inspection?

But I have just told you now, where are the invitations? If there are invitations, I will give you and from there you assess whether the number is equivalent to. So, that is the procedure am telling you. When there is a procedure put in place as a result of this government’s pronouncement, then everybody will be complying with that, that before any agency enters the port to do anything, that this list of containers that will be prepared for everybody to come in, whether it is customs or any other agency that has access to it or a shipping company or a terminal operator, everybody knows that one person has been given that responsibility to provide the number of containers that will be examined in a day and so, every day, it will be monitored based on preparation. But when you don’t have that, what would you monitor? You don’t monitor what you don’t have. That is the point.

Talking about procedure now, can you tell us that the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) launched by the Federal Government to provide for seamless procedures in port operation could be of any help in this regard?

Of course yes! Standard Operating Procedure, that is what we have been saying. Standards Organization of Nigeria is about standard, it is about doing the first thing first. If you must achieve any result, you must first of all put up plan, follow the plan and then you monitor how you are progressing with the plan.

So, SOP is the ingredient of work in SON because SOP is about procedures. So, if we say for clearing, there is a standard procedure for inspection of containers, that standard procedure will be how do we start? Is it everybody will just jump into the terminal or is there a platform where all the containers for the day must be positioned? So that I don’t come and start junketing around rather when you get to the port, there is a designated area for all the containers that will be examined today.

So, every agency knows that these 20 containers must be examined today but if it is a situation that when you get to the end of the place, you see one container, you go to the other end, you see one container, you see another one hanging there and they will say that they don’t have crane to even bring the container down for inspection then that one will not be examined that day, you go to another one they will say this is…. That is not standard operating procedure. Standard Operating Procedure is transparent, it is accessible, it is open to everybody, everybody can account for what he has done or what he has not done there. That is the essence of SOP.

SOP is not in the head, SOP is written down, that is why it is the Standard Operating Procedure because it tells you which time to start the inspection, so, if there is any agency that doesn’t come on time, it is recorded for it there and you as a journalist can get there and monitor it. If there is to be 50 containers on ground today, then you go there you see the list like when you go to the airport, you see that manifest of flights going so you know how many flights that have gone and those that are on ground. That is the kind of thing that should be there so that everybody without asking any organization you know what they are doing.

With this SOP what happens when an agency fails to carry out its duty as it should?

That is the issue of accountability. Is the organization there on its own? It is on behalf of government and so, if any organization is defaulting in its performance, it shows the deficiency of the leadership of the organization and so, it has to be monitored, people have to be accountable for what they are doing at the port that is the essence. There must be a platform for measurement; you don’t measure what you don’t have. So, if there is no standard operating procedure how do you say this agency was not available and there is nowhere to come, is it at the CAC’s office that everybody should assemble?

So, these are the things, even to enter the terminal, you start processing yourself as if you are a visitor in a national operation because SON is not there only for its staff alone, it is there for the Federal Republic of Nigeria and for Nigerians.

Some stakeholders have alleged that SON has abandoned its original mandate for revenue generation. How true is this Sir?

Please the primary responsibility of SON still remains intact and that is our mandate to ensure that we have industrial standard on ground for practitioners to use in their operations, for companies, for importers to access the quality of products they want to produce or those they want to import. SON has been doing that and we have records that we are doing it.

There is no agency that does not need a little money to replenish because we carry out tests. We don’t just come to the port to say we want to inspect. Inspection is the beginning of a process and that process is the determination of the quality of that product and so, it starts from picking the product, there is a procedure for picking product. We don’t just see a product and start sampling all, there is a standard procedure for sampling and when you sample correctly, it now becomes a representative sample and when you take samples for test, somebody again will have the representative sample to do the test and then when it is subjected to the right test, when the result is out it will be credible and it will be reliable and that is when we now use that to determine whether the product is fit or not, whether it is standard or not standard.

Mind you, it is the responsibility of SON to declare a product standard or substandard, anyone who is using any product and is saying oh this one is standard and this one is not standard, the person does not have that authority, the authority lies with the Standards Organization of Nigeria because we have the mandate to declare it standard or substandard.

So, when we are buying these equipment to do tests, there are also consumables that we need to do, there are also operational things that we need to do to make sure that the mandate is achieved. When we attach little service charges to our operations, it is all to make sure that we keep on rendering these services without crashing because if we don’t do it tomorrow, it becomes that SON has abandoned its responsibility and so you know quite well that everybody is at how best you can manage and remain relevant in your operations. So, such fees are not even commensurate to the quality of services that we are rendering but we are doing it as service organization to remain in operation for those equipment to continue to serve us.

It you are using equipment consecutively and it is not maintained, it is going to be out of service and if it is run out of service, will the life stop? So, life is a continuum, so those equipment need to operate with the cycle. That is why we need to buy those things and people are not just told to pay anything, we have approved service charges and we have a website where these services can be accessed; www.son.gov.ng, there, everything about our operation is accessed and you can see those charges and you can get any information that you want about our operations there.

About July 25 this year, you agency shut down the EPCC platform and introduced SONCAP Default Certificate where you issued out penalty fees for defaulters to the tune of the CIF value of the product so imported which in turn contributed to the hue and cry of practitioners in the industry. Tell me, how did you come about this?

SON does not do anything outside its mandate. You know that the Act establishing SON was reviewed and amended in 2015 by Act No. 14 of 2015 of the Federal Government. SON on the 10th of September, 2015, rolled out its e-clearance platform where everybody is expected to process his or her documentation issue with respect to SON online even with your laptop, palmtop, computers and access everything from their convenient, then come to SON, you can make the payment at the bank and bring the teller for clearance to collect his whatever.

That was re-launched on the 10th of September, 2015 but the stakeholders said that there were still some backlogs of containers on the ground and it is just because SON decided to be operationally friendly because that SONCAP Certificate issue started in 2006 and so, by 2015, it is already 9 years old in operation, so, nobody should say in ignorance that he did not know that before you bring in these goods here it needs to be certified but SON still felt that in line with World Trade Organization requirements that SON should be a little liberal for people who have brought in this things at the ports to clear them so that everybody will upgrade to the online platform. That we started on 10th of September, 2015.

Then because of that handicap, SON opened a window, that window is what you call the EPCC, Electronic Provisional Clearing Certificate so that those that didn’t have this requirements can come out of the port under SON’s supervision. But you find out that all they did was just paying, clear them and take their containers and run away and that is why you are talking of the level of substandard products still in the market because those goods that did not have SONCAP Certificate were not tested.

So, it is like buying goods that were not tested like some people used to go and buy at warehouses and they say these are non-tested products, so you just carry, anything you see you take, that is what they deliver to us.

Now, after three months, that was 10th of December, 2015, we still found out that the registration has not improved; they still begged that SON should extend it. It was extended for another set of three months up till March 2016. Then March came again, in April, we met with them to review it, they said no please, it is still problem and that was when the Acting DG said it would be re-opened for three months but no more.

And after the three months which was in July, SON closed the EPCC platform and followed the requirements of the Act of SON. So, what is on ground is contained in the Act establishing SON; Act No 14 2015, if you look at that Act, it says, that for you not to comply with that SONCAP requirement as prescribed by SON, you are to pay this percentage of the cost of the goods. And that is how it was calculated. It is not an arbitrary assessment. It is not that somebody doesn’t like your face, he gives you a different fee to pay, no! But you know that others are not the same, this man may have about 1 container, that one may have about 20 containers and the other one may have 3 containers, so that is to tell you that assessments are never uniform.

Are your men still ‘arresting’ containers on the highway?

Please we are discharging our primary responsibility of ensuring the safety Nigerians, protecting them from consuming substandard products. There is no container that you have intercepted there that does not have one thing or the other. We are not just putting road blocks where nobody passes, we know those containers that we have information on them and they are the ones we go for. If you have seen SON putting a barricade on the road saying that this one will not go, it is those that we have suspected that have issues and we have a list of them and we will have every detail of what we have seen in each of them.

It is not that SON is arresting containers; SON is carrying out its lawful duty. SON is intercepting containers to find out whether they have the relevant documents when we have information on them, that is what we do. SON is only trying to be sure that Nigerians do not take things that will clear them.

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