Nigeria: Babalola - Our Commitment to Improve Trade in Nigeria Unshaken

25 September 2020
interview

The Managing Director of Webb Fontaine Nigeria, Opeolu Babalola, in this interview with newsmen in Lagos, talked about how his company has been supporting government agencies with information communication technology solutions on ease of doing business and trade facilitation. Excerpts

We will like to start by asking you to give us an overview of Webb Fontaine' s operation in Nigeria?

Webb Fontaine was appointed by Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) to implement a Customs centric Single Window Portal and the provision of information technology (IT) & Telecom infrastructure for Nigeria.This encompasses the delivery of Webb Fontaine's customs Webb, Customs Management System nationwide as the Nigerian Customs Integrated System (NICIS II).NICIS II has been adopted as a home grown information communication technology (ICT) innovation for Nigeria Customs electronic platform. We have impacted in capacity building through training and retraining of customs officers, some port users and other government employees.

So far, we have trained over 10,000 Nigerians on a total of 13,479 sessions on various aspects of ICT aided trade procedures. Many of them are customs officers. Specifically on ASYCUDA ++ we trained 2,804 persons; on NICIS I& II we trained 10,260; on Database (Oracle) 36 and System Administration 30. Other training sessions undertaken by us for more Nigerians include SO Class for 6; Java 84; Help Desk 213; Support 26 and Networking 20. Our E-government software products, information and telecommunications technology and infrastructure services, peripherals and consumables, business process reengineering and standardisation has been applied successfully across various government agencies. Our services synchronises well with the Federal Government of Nigeria Ease of Doing Business and Trade Facilitation policies. We have always demonstrated commitment in helping government succeed in the drive to promote efficiency, time saving and transparency in the conduct of it's businesses.

A lot of private sector operators have also found our support invaluable because of our culture of international best practices and promotion of legitimate way of doing things. It is pertinent,I state that we are a company with international reach that has impeccable track records of providing trade solutions in several countries we have demonstrated adequate capacity. I have been responsible for managing the implementation of the company's technology solutions in Nigeria.

The Covid-19 pandemic had a very adverse effect on trade and logistics generally. How best do you think it should be managed in your areas of operations?

Navigating the complex world of logistics, international Customs and global supply chains in the post-Covid-19 era will require government agencies and the private sector to embrace new methods that prioritise digitalisation. We strongly recommend knowledge sharing and to streamline complicated and outdated processes for the benefit of all. Knowledge sharing will come with multiple benefits like increase in government revenue, support for trade and strengthening security in many ramifications.

As a way of good corporate citizen, we also supported the federal government battle to prevent and manage Covid-19 with donations of equipment. This is a gesture we did in many other countries like. Countries like Nepal, Guinea, Ethiopia, DR Congo, Benin, Maldives and other areas in Asia and Africa also benefitted from our Covid19 relief package. We commend the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), the Presidential Task Force on Covid-19 and the Federal Government of Nigeria (FGN) for rising to the occasion by being proactive in the face of the crisis. On our own part we also strengthened our purpose of knowledge sharing during this pandemic. We brought a group of experts. From Nigeria to talk in a webinar aimed at ensuring seamless trade transactions across our ports during the lockdown.

Customs experts like Stephen Adekunle Oloyede, Comptroller Risk Management at the Nigeria Customs Service and Apeh Fateh Assistant Comptroller for ICT and Head of the Implementation Team for the Nigeria Customs Service, who took a 'deep dive' into the major issues facing global cross border trade, debated the disruptions caused by the implementation of health and safety protocols in the webinar. They explored new concepts to improve the industry by introducing greater efficiency through technology and the simplification of processes and checks. Following on from the discussions we have created a report to continue the knowledge and ideas sharing. Soft copy of the report is Available to download at www.webbfontaine.com/2020/09/08/covid-19-customs-report/The White Paper examines how international best practices can be incorporated into all aspects of the sector, particularly in emergency situations, and recommends possible routes of action in critical moments. It draws conclusions from lessons learnt globally and how these can be integrated into a detailed package of procedures to enable a smooth transition towards recovery and the resumption of normal business functions.

Among the important topics addressed during the webinar and examined in detail in the White Paper are: physical distancing and reducing physical presence to a minimum; digitalisation and paperless approaches. Other areas we touched in our readiness for post Covid-19 era are revenue collection; risk management inspections; passenge screening; Client segmentation; movement of goods; regional and international connectivity; border management; readiness for crisis and digitalisation. We had emphasis on the importance of digitalisation as the world begins its journey to recovery and continues to adapt to the health safety rules now required for post COVID-19.

The white paper outlines a number of important recommendations and findings. NCS are already doing so much in the digital space including application of e-form M, their revenue has experienced appreciable increase. The NICIS II has been recognised as a credible digital trade platform by the World Trade Organisation and the World Customs Organisation. This led to them being able to adapt and be prepared for optimal operations even in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. Throughout COVID-19, the Nigerian Customs Service has maintained revenue performance, which may not always have been the case for other Government agencies.

While the Nigerian Customs Service revenue target changes from year to year, it was initially slashed in 2020 because of the expected revenue shortfall due to Covid-19.However, the total collections up to May this year are greater than last year's total at the same time, and the Nigerian Customs Service achieved well over 60 percent of the target. The NCS generated N976.6 billion from January to August 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the shutdown of the country in March. Also and notably, the Customs IT platform operated robustly throughout the period of reduced movement. The Nigerian Customs Service have really shone a light on just how important a digital led Customs approach is, and in many ways is leading the way. With plans to get more automated as recently approved by the federal government

There were some reports in the media that tend to criticise the recent $3.1 billion NCS automation deal. What is Webb Fontaine's view about it?

We don't know where those reports are coming from and have no part in them. I have read them and was surprised to see Webb Fontaine's name prominently featured. We are investigating the source of the media reports. We won't, in anyway, support a narrative that shows tendencies to discourage modernisation progress or against the work of the FGN to enhance revenue collection and border security. From what I have seen, the huge amount mentioned is even to be brought in by the private sector.

Our company have no issues with Bionica or their plans, and we have neither initiated nor asked to be joined in lawsuit against them. Let me say here that Webb Fontaine is fully supportive of all the federal government's move to continue and improve upon the modernisation and full automation of Nigeria Customs Service and it's processes. This will help to facilitate trade, increase revenue and enhance national security, and will improve Nigeria's standing in the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business indices. This has been our focus and we have remained consistent with this over the years.

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