Stories By Udeme Clement
As controversy continues to trail the container seized with 661 rifles, new facts emerged from Sunday Vanguard’s visit to the Apapa port, Lagos to have first hand information on how goods coming into the country are cleared and released.
Speaking under anonymity, a port user, who has been doing business in the port for over 15 years, warned that Nigeria may experience more influx of arms and ammunition if urgent steps are not taken to provide functional scanners in all the ports. He explained that in international trade, even if you import a small handbag, the Customs must inspect it, and the agency has the right to seize any container coming into the country if offensive items are found in it.
He said, “In the case of the seized arms laden cargo, the container originated from China from where it went to Turkey and eventually landed in Nigeria. The container was loaded and taken to the port in Turkey and the Customs there cleared it. No shipping company anywhere in the world can carry a container that Customs has not cleared.
“A shipping firm is like truck people hired to carry goods, but the only difference is that a ship goes on water, while truck goes on the road. It is only when Customs inspects and clears any cargo that the owner fills a form with the shipping company, and the owner of the goods will be the one to give details to the shipping firm, with clearance from Customs. So, whatever information the owner gives, is what the shipping firm takes.
“Therefore, after Customs inspects a container from the country of origin, they lock it, and a seal is placed on it. That seal must not be broken because the Customs in the country where the cargo is going must see the seal, and it must not be tampered with. Meaning that the shipping firm cannot know what items are inside the container, but relies only on information on the bill of lading, which states what the container carries based only on information given at the origin.
“The container will be shipped to its destination and, on arrival at the port, that is where the work of the shipping firm stops. Once the ship berths at the port, four agencies namely, Customs, Immigration, Port health and NIMASA, will enter the ship. Port health professionals will be the first to enter and check to ensure there is no deadly disease like Ebola that can spread in the country, after which Customs will check to ensure contraband items are not in it, immigration will check to ascertain that the right people are on board, and NIMASA will carry out what is called ‘Port State Control’ to ensure that the vessel is in good shape. So, the four agencies must check it first before a terminal operator begins its work with three functions. The first is to discharge the ship, the second is to keep the cargo and the third is to deliver it to the owner. Even after discharging the ship, Customs must authorise the container to leave the port, before it can be delivered to the owner. Before delivery, if the container leaves the port without authorisation by Customs, it is called container flying and it is criminal.
“Meaning that Customs conditions must be fulfilled, the importer must pay duty to government and they must ensure that prohibited items are not in it. Also, Customs must check to ensure that what is inside the container tallies with information on the bill of lading.
“Customs does this in three lanes: fast track, scanning and physical examination. Fast track means Customs will not check the container at all, because it is released on trust to people with integrity who do not declare falsely, then an officer will follow and inspect it at the warehouse. The second lane is scanning, which is faster, but the scanners are bad now. The third lane which is physical examination is, where the container is opened and all the items are physically checked one by one. Physical examination is very slow, it takes about three hours to physically examine a container, in a port where minimum of 300 containers must go out daily. The questions are, which of the lanes did the arms laden container pass? Is it on fast track lane that is meant only for trusted investors? Is it on the physical examination lane, where goods are thoroughly checked? If it is physical examination lane, does it mean they saw the arms and closed their eyes? If, it is on fast track lane, why will arms laden container be released through such lane?
On how terminal operators work, he said. “Customs is the agency that directs terminal operators where to position a container for examination, whether on the fast lane, scanning or through physical examination lane. During examination, Customs must again check the container to ensure that the seal put on it from port of origin remains the same; at this point, the Customs will instruct terminal operator to break the seal for another inspection. After this round of inspection, Customs, if satisfied, will place another seal, issue a release document for it to pass through the gate and authorise terminal operator to deliver it to the owner. It is after these processes are carried out that any container can leave the port.
In all of these, the arms container had no business leaving the port. Who cleared it? Who examined it? Who released it? Which lane did it pass through? Who issued the release document?
“Today, the scanners are not working. Why are they not? These are questions people must ask, instead of blaming a shipping company that has no business in clearing or releasing containers from the ports. Journalists who report maritime should take time to learn how goods are cleared and the processes of clearing them from the ports, so that they can give the public credible information. These same scanners were working under COTECNA. It is clear that our government lacks proper maintenance culture, not only at the ports, but also in many public entities cross the country.
“Shifting blame on something that everyone sees clearly makes mockery of the whole thing, and will not help us. The only solution to prevent influx of arms, ammunition and other offensive items coming into the country is for government to provide modern and effective scanners at the ports and border stations. They must also ensure adequate maintenance for the machines to function well, no equipment can work without maintenance”.
Also, speaking during the visit, the spokesman, Seaport Terminal Operators Association of Nigeria (STOAN), Mr. Bolaji Akinola, said, “I commend FOU for prompt interception of the container after it was cleared from the port. Only God knows what would have happened if such arms had got into wrong hands. Security agencies at the ports must maintain a high level of vigilance, especially at this critical time for the security of Nigerians. Ultimately, government should, as a matter of urgency, give approval for Customs to acquire good scanners at the ports, so as to ensure faster and effective cargo clearance”.
On how the rifles cargo escaped security checks at the port, Akinola said, “I really don’t know but since the case is still under investigation, I do not want to draw conclusion now”.
On the directive by government four years ago that some agencies should leave the ports, he said, “Some agencies were told to leave the ports and come only when they are needed, on instruction from Customs, but today, such agencies are still operating in the ports.”
About corruption going in the ports, the STOAN spokesperson said, “We are fully automated in our processes as terminal operators. Automation checks corruption and we believe that, soon, all other processes will be fully automated, especially the national single window that is being proposed.”