On Monday, the B&FT published a story that showed that the second-largest sea port in the country, Takoradi Port, since April 1 has been struggling to electronically clear goods coming through due to technical challenges facing the UNIPASS/Integrated Customs Management Systems (ICUMS).
Sources at the port say that valuation is currently being done manually, resulting in delays when clearing goods. The supposedly superior UNIPASS/ICUM system – vehemently defended by senior government officials – is unable to deliver the end to end package as envisaged, since freight forwarders have been asked to go back to manual means of clearing goods.
As freight forwarders are left frustrated in their inability to get goods cleared, what this means is that government is losing revenue and businesses which need to goods to be either exported or imported are also losing revenue.
What is happening at Takoradi Port?
The freight forwarders at Takoradi have said that unlike the GCNet/West Blue system wherein documents are electronically available for direct access anytime, any day in the end to end chain, it is not so with the new UNIPASS/ICUMS systems.
While importers are not able to access the Tax Identification Numbers of their companies and other registration details in the new system, the system-handlers themselves are having challenges with manifest declarations, handling and processing. Meanwhile, some of the imports in the containers, currently docked at the port are perishables and the delay in clearing them has created some discomfort and unease among importers and freight forwarders.
Some importers said they have been asked to print out previously scanned documents from the GCNet/West Blue system (to serve as a guide for valuation which ICUMS is unable to do) and manually attach them to current documents for submission.
They said the situation is further compounded by the fact that UCR and IDF details are captured from the GCNet/West Blue system to use in the ICUMS – adding that unlike in the GCNet/West Blue Systems wherein there is access to Container Movement Reports (CMR) and Delivery Orders (DO) in electronic format, the new UNIPASS/ICUMS does not demonstrate such functionality…raising questions about the preparedness and supposed superiority and robustness of the ICUMS.
This means that other agencies which rely on electronic data for reporting purposes are left deficient, and this totally defeats the vice president’s efforts to achieve a completely paperless port.
It also means that in this challenging COVID-19 time when agents are expected to work from home, they must necessarily move to site in-person to ensure their consignments are cleared. The danger is that the manual process is going to cause revenue loss to the state, as agents can connive with corrupt Custom officers to clear goods with any arbitrary value.
Many importers therefore believe the nation has returned to past practices, whereby manual valuation allowed Customs officials to influence payments and enrich themselves at the nation’s expense.
Making a mockery of paperless system
To say the system is making a mockery of Vice President Dr. Mahamudu Bawumia and government’s much vaunted paperless port system is an understatement. After preaching for years about making our ports go paperless, for Takoradi Port to now rely on paper and manual processes to clear goods – which delays the whole process – doesn’t look good on government’s e-agenda.
A year ago, Vice President Dr. Bawumia was touting achievements of the paperless port system – which is aimed at ensuring that human error or contact is removed from all trade transactions at the ports while strengthening Ghana’s economic competitiveness.
According to Dr. Bawumia, implementation of the Paperless Port policy phase two, among other things, has reduced the cost of doing business by 75 percent. For instance, the cost of doing business that used to cost importers GH¢1,280 has now be reduced to GH¢320.
The paperless system also led to a reduction in the number of regulatory agencies needed for physical examination at the ports from 16 to 3. There is now a 50 percent discount on duty payment for importers. The integrated risk management system has reduced physical inspections of goods at the ports by 50 percent, with an end target of 10 percent.
In times like these, therefore, with COVID-19 wreaking ever-more economic havoc on economies across the globe and with Ghana not left out, government needs its ports that are still open to operate at full capacity and efficiency; therefore, any glitch or challenge should not be accepted.
It is therefore surprising that government has allowed this to continue for so long. Many logistics and port management experts have opined that the UNIPASS/Integrated Customs Management Systems (ICUMS) brings nothing new to the table, and so there is a need to discontinue its services. But government, to the dismay of port users, is still hell-bent on allowing it to operate the Takoradi Port.
Objections raised against UNIPASS
Many Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), including IMANI Africa, have written to government and other stakeholders to discontinue the use of UNIPASS…but nothing has changed.
IMANI Africa queried why a company owned by Ghana Link – the same company mandated by government to take over the country’s National Single Window operations – failed to implement an end-to-end Customs management system for over seven years in Sierra Leone, but that same company is now being mandated to operate Ghana’s single window system.
“It is important to note that Ghana’s trade and finance ministers and their deputies continue to make the case for Ghana Link to replace existing systems that are working perfectly fine – on the basis of Ghana Link’s superiority in implementing the two functions mentioned and promised in Sierra Leone, but which evidently has failed for six years; eventually leading to termination of its agreement.
“They were meant to develop a single window and this is yet to be implemented after six years. This can only mean one thing – Ghana Link did not have the capacity to simultaneously implement the components they signed up to,” said the petition signed by Franklin Cudjoe, Founding President & CEO of IMANI Africa. IMANI questions why it is unclear who directs, implements, reviews and owns crucial policies such as UNIPASS.
The minority in Parliament, after careful analysis of the facts presented, has strongly opined that continuing to use the challenged services of UNIPASS is causing significant financial losses to the state, with one MP stating that the deal is fraught with fraud and “has no value for money”.
According to Yusif Sulemana, Deputy Ranking Member on the Trade, Industry and Tourism Committee, GCNet and West Blue provided or are providing end to end processing platforms which enabled the country to roll out the paperless regime government as sought to do.
“As we speak, until they [UNIPASS] were brought on board in 2017 and later on suspended for eight good months, the system has been running; so it’s not as if there is something urgent for which we have to bring them on board. And if that is even the case, why are you using sole-sourcing?” he asked, maintaining that in terms of procurement practices government has flouted the protocols.
They also contend that there is no justification for government seeking to replace competent, internationally recognised, indigenous home-grown companies and systems with foreign systems, particularly in this proclaimed era of self-sufficiency and Ghana Beyond Aid.
Revenues to gov’t before UNIPASS
Since introduction of the paperless system operated by GCNet and West Blue Consulting, government revenues have consistently risen – except in 2019, when government reduced benchmark values at the ports. The accumulated growth in Customs revenues between 2015 and 2018 was about 76 percent; rising from some GH¢7.5billion in 2015 to about GH¢13.2billion in 2018.
For this stellar performance, GCNET and West Blue which are currently contracted till the end of 2023 and 2020 respectively are paid a combined fee of 0.54 percent of Free on Board (FOB) – i.e. taking into consideration government’s 35 percent shares in GCNET. It is thus mind-blogging that government seeks to throw out all these gains for an unproven and experimental system that has failed elsewhere.
>>>the writer is a concerned citizen, not a spectator