·Customs, agents differ over reasons for long stay, ·NPA wants direct auctioning at port
By Godfrey Bivbere
Controversy is currently trailing the abandonment of overtime consignments presently littering the nation’s seaports at a time when there is lack of space for effective port operations.
Sources at the Nigerian Customs Service, NCS, the custodians of the problem consignments, told Vanguard Maritime Report that the NCS wants these consignments moved to the government warehouse at Ikorodu to free up space for them at the ports.
But customs clearing agents are alleging that these cargoes are being re-allocated to the owners at a much cheaper rate.
This is even as the Nigerian Ports Authority, NPA, whose territories and operating spaces are being clogged up by the consignments, is pushing for the cargoes to be auctioned at the various terminals to free the much-needed spaces.
Vanguard Maritime Report investigation revealed that some importers in connivance with some Customs officials, deliberately allow their containers to go into overtime only to work their way through the system to get their consignments back at a far cheaper rate.
Consignments that are not cleared from the ports after 90 days of discharge from the vessel are declared over time and could be auctioned after Customs gets court order.
But after getting such orders the government warehouse at Ikorodu as well as the various terminals in the nation’s seaports are still flooded with overtime cargoes.
Speaking on the volume of overtime cargo and its effect on port operations, Acting Managing Director of the NPA, Mohammed Bello-Koko, said there are about 6,000 containers littered across the ports in Lagos and Onne.
He stated: ”We currently have over 6,000 containers across the ports, including Ikorodu and then I believe we have over 1800 vehicles in Ikorodu and other locations, and some of them have been there for 10 years, a few have been there for probably 15 years, and it is not just one location; Onne is beginning to have that problem. All of a sudden Onne port now has a large number of overtime containers also, but the ports here in Lagos have most of them.
“The problem has been there before the current Comptroller General of Customs came in. In fact, I was made to understand that there were some containers that were seized since 1977 FESTAC and as of last year, those containers were there. I do not know if they have been cleared now.
“We have written to the Nigerian Customs Service to speed up the process of auctioning these containers. Imagine 6000 containers; they are really occupying large space. Ikorodu terminal was designated as a location for evacuation of overtime Cargo but the terminal is now filled up.
“So, there is actually no space to move in more containers and we have written to the Customs about this situation. I believe they must have started the process of auctioning some of these containers.
“It will also reduce congestion and free up space for other containers to come in there. The terminal operators are also complaining about these overtime cargoes,” he said. Meanwhile, the National President of the National Council of Managing Director of Licensed Customs Service, NCMDLCA, Lucky Amiwero, has accused both the NCS and terminal operators of embarking on illegal trade with such containers.
Amiwero, therefore, called on the government to sanction both NCS and the management of the terminal operators, noting their practice has resulted in some overtime containers staying in the port for between four and six years.
According to him, “Customs should not leave all these men who are causing problems in the port to continue unchecked. You do not keep containers that have stayed in the port for four to six years there for people to come and clear.
“Ikorodu terminal is a government warehouse, they pay rent. Custom collects the rent; it is not the Nigerian Ports Authority, NPA that collects the rent.
“It is the Customs that carries the containers there, they have the right, and they call it Government warehouse, they must penalised them.
“The presidency should penalise them because the letter comes from the presidency. Yes, they should penalise them because the position of the law is very clear.
“Under section 31 of the Customs enabling law, such consignments have to be moved out because they are not the owners; the owners of such consignment are the government. And the government should collect cargo permits and is now moved to Customs warehouse. They call it government warehouse, under section 79, the Customs collect rent. “Many of the consignments have been there for 4, 5, 6 years, and directives have come from the government that these things should be moved to Ikorodu, a letter has been issued to that effect,” he noted.
Speaking on the issue in Lagos recently, the General Manager of Ports and Terminal Multi-Services Limited, PTML, Tunde Keshiro, said one of the problems faced by the terminal is the 30 per cent space occupied by overtime cargo.
Keshiro noted that as a result of the space constraint they are forced to squeeze operations within the available space for the volume of consignments passing through the terminal. He said that there were about 2,000 containers of overtime cargo littering in their facility then.
He stated: “Space is the constraint we are having as terminal operators; we now wait until there is space before we discharge, then we wait again until there is space for other operations. About 30 per cent of the space at the terminal is occupied by overtime cargo and it is disturbing.
“Most of the things impacting on our terminal are activities at the other terminals spilling into our operations due to the same space problem. Trucks are not able to get access into their terminals, thus blocking our gates and preventing our trucks from getting access.
“That is what affects us. If you take that out of our operations, we are good because we are at the edge of the road. So from our terminal, our customers are able to quickly enter the express road to go out and equally when they are coming in.’’
When connected, the National Public Relations Officer of the NCS, Joseph Attah, said he does not have the exact number of overtime cargoes at the ports presently but noted that the Service has been placing advertisements in some national newspapers on the volume of overtime cargo in the seaports across the country.
He said there is a Comptroller in charge of overtime cargo at the headquarters, promising to make inquiries and get back to Vanguard Maritime Report but never did.
Responding, the Public Relations Officer of Tin-can port Command, Uche Ejesieme told Vanguard Maritime Report that it’s not the responsibility of Customs to transfer overtime containers to the government warehouse.
Ejesieme said the duty of the Service ends at raising a list of “Unclaimed Container Lists,” UCL, after such goods have stayed at the port for more than 90 days.
The Tin-can Customs image maker explained that Customs is always ready for such containers to be transferred as this will clear all forms of congestion and create room for new consignments to come into the port.
He stressed that with the required space, more examination can be done by the Service resulting in more revenue for the federal government. He added that over-time cargoes littering the port are of no benefit for any of the stakeholders.
He further noted that most times, other stakeholders always try to robe in Customs in every issue to give credibility to their claims.
In his words, “That we declare what they call UCL, unclaimed cargo list from all the terminals and as soon as that is declared, it now behooves on the authority concerned to transfer them to where such containers are supposed to be, but clearly they could not.
“Certainly, it is not the responsibility of Customs. The law did not say we should transfer containers to Ikorodu; what the law says is that we should generate the UCL for transfer so when you generate the UCL and it is not transferred; what do you do?
“If you want to think of any organization that really needs the space it is the Customs because the space constrain has posed a lot of challenges for us. We need these consignments to be cleared off so that new consignments can come in so that we can collect revenue for the government.
“The lack of space poses a lot of challenges for Customs, especially during examination; we are not able to do our examinations very well. You see that most of the spaces in the terminals are very tight.’’
The Public Relations Officer of Apapa Customs Command, Abubakar Usman, said “The officers at the overtime beats and I were made to understand that overtime cargoes at Ikorodu are not only from Apapa, so I can speak only for the ones under Apapa Area command at Ikorodu.
“Even as at that, one cannot ascertain the volume correctly because daily, there are some overtime cargoes being delisted from the overtime cargo list. But roughly we can say between 400 to 500 overtime cargoes under Apapa Area command that are domiciled at Ikorodu terminal.
“We do not keep them here. Any overtime cargo, we move them to Ikorodu terminal. You know Ikorodu is now converted to a Government warehouse, so that is where we move all overtime cargoes.
“There is what we call “Auction and Overtime Seat” at the headquarters, under the office of the Comptroller, Headquarters; they handle issues on overtime cargo.
“If you have a genuine case, it will be looked into and if it is confirmed that your case is genuine, a letter will be sent from the headquarters to the Area Command concerned that Mr. ABC has cleared his case.
“Such person will be allowed to pay duty and whatever cost that is supposed to go to the federation account on the consignment and that person will go to the Customs Area Controller, CAC, to present his case, give us the soft copy of the circular from the headquarters; you will come and pay and you will show evidence of payment before your cargo will be released to you.’’
The Public Relations Officers of Port and Terminal Multi-Service Limited, PTML and Onne port Commands, Mohammed Yakubu and Ifeoma Onuegbo could not tell the exact number of overtime consignments in their Command.
Yakubu told Vanguard Maritime Report that he would revert back and never did, he however collaborated claims by Usman that overtime consignments are handled at the headquarters. Onuegbo on the other, asked Vanguard Maritime Report to send a text message which she did not responded to after the enquiry was sent.