By Godwin Oritse
There is a growing agitation among freight forwarders plying their trade at the Lagos ports over what they described as the proliferation of Customs units which they alleged are being used for extortions and to encumber the clearance procedures at the ports.
The concerned agents, who warned that their patience was running out over what they claimed was the mindless extortions they are being subjected to, alleged these multiple Customs units not only complicate and elongate the clearing process, they are said to have added to the cost of doing business at the port.
Ventilating the agitation and anger of the freight forwarders, Alhaji Tanko Ibrahim, the Vice-President , Western Zone of National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders(NAGAFF) lamented that apart from the residents Customs officers and Federal Operations Unit (FOU), the Customs Authority has created what it called Strike Force team and Customs Police.
“We have never witnessed what is happening now in customs clearing process. Apart from the traditional resident Customs officers and FOU which are involved in cargo clearing process, there are other units newly created by Customs hierarchy to muddle up cargo clearance procedures.
“They are CG strike force and Customs Police.
“All these units are doing the same thing. They all want to be part of cargo clearing process.
“When your goods have been cleared by the resident Customs officers at the ports, these other units, which are alien to the cargo clearance procedures, will delay your goods through issuance of indescrimate alerts and inordinate engagement in arrest of containers.
“This frustrates quick clearance of goods, make nonsense of ease of doing business initiative of the Federal Government and add to the cost of transactions” Alhaji Tanko alleged.
But the Customs authority said that any freight forwarder who does not have anything to hide should not be agitated over the new structure.
Joseph Attah, the National Public Relations Officer of the Customs said it is not within the jurisdiction of any freight forwarder to question the structure in the Customs or how Customs should do its duty.
He explained that the strike force team is not involved in cargo clearing process but act on information to impound containers that are enmeshed in infractions in clearance procedures.
Attah further disclosed that the Customs Police is a new creation meant to instil discipline in the service.
“The Customs Police is just like military police. It was created to restore discipline within the service. They can invite, arrest and detain Customs officers based on any disciplinary breach.
“They do not interfere in clearance procedures but unless there is a reported case and need for their intervention in a case that involves agents and customs officers. Their primary duty is to restore discipline in the service “ the Customs image maker insisted.
He said the strike force is known to Customs operations and whoever states otherwise is being mischievous.
“The authority created three layers of security to check abuses of clearing process and plug revenue leakages.
“The first layer is the resident Customs, the second layer is the FOU while the strike force is the third layer.
“If you beat one, you can’t beat the others .There is no way you can beat all the three layers” Attah declared.
He said rather than condemn the structure and engage in generic accusation of all the units, the agitating agents should identify any officer in any of these units who is involved in any form of malpractices for apporpriate sanction.
However, Tanko insisted that these units do not confine themselves to their so called primary duties, but rather want to be involved in examination of cargo.
“Whether your container is involved in any infraction or not, the strike force will arrest your container and knowing what you will face if the container is taken to the Customs training school where they are based, agents quickly part with money to avoid delay” , he alleged.
According to him, if a container is taken to their office, the officers will subject the owner to inhuman treatment before they ask him to pay for unloading the contents for physical examination and loading, even when nothing incriminating is found.
He alleged that the same abuse is being perpetrated by the Customs police whose officers he claimed harass and intimidate agents under the guise of investigations.
“This is what agents want to afford that makes them part with money. We have never had it so bad in our years of practising this profession”Tanko lamented.
The Customs brokers alleged that the whole process is now monitised in the desperate bid of customs to meet what they described as highly unrealistic revenue target in a recessing economy while complaining that some officers now catch in on the development to extort the hapless agents.
“This of course has negative impart on trade facilitation” the Customs brokers lamented, a claim which Attah vehemently disagreed with.
They further claimed that the problem of freight forwarders is further compounded by the Police, Soldiers, Navy, NPA officials and LASMA officers stationed on Ijora bridge to ensure free movement of traffic into the ports.
“The level of extortion going on there daily is horrendous and higher than the one witnessed few months ago that triggered the strike action by truck drivers” The agitating agents chorused.
It was learnt that the activities of these ad-hoc traffic officers have pushed up the prices of evacuation of goods from the ports.
“Because of the unhindered and unabated extortions going on the port access road, truck drivers now hold us to ransome.
“We have to beg them before they agree to load our containers even at astronomical hike in prices” declared Tanko.
According to him, evacuation of container from Apapa Port to Marine Beach which hitherto cost N40, 000 is now N400,000 while the one from the port to Ikeja now cost between N500, 000- N600,000 from initial price of N60, 000.
He said the prices are graduated depending on the distance.
The NAGAFF cheiftain also took a swipe at NAFDAC whose return to the port he claimed has further complicated clearing process through what he called the excesses of their officials.
He however commended the Standard Organisation of Nigeria(SON) whose operations he claimed are now more simplified and transparent.
“I commend one Mr Burka, an Assistant -Director in charge of Apapa for his efforts towards this regards.
“He now makes us to understand that the samples they take , which we hitherto didn’t know their whereabouts, are taken for laboratory tests upon which they make their recommendations.
“Whoever his products pass the laboratory test would be given letter of commendation while those whose products fail the test will have their warehouses locked.
“The process of sample testing is now transparently done” the freight forwarder claimed