The Senate Committee on Customs, Excise and Tariff recently raised the alarm over 282 vessels missing from the nation’s seaports including losses of about seven trillion naira in revenue.
In this report, TOLA ADENUBI examines the intrigues and underhand dealings that milk the government of desired revenue at one of the country’s biggest goldmines – the ports.
THE Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) governs and regulates operations of all the ports in the country through varying degrees of private initiatives. It also controls six major ports, excluding oil terminals with cargo handling capacity of over 35million tonnes per annum.
With 93 solid cargo berths, 11 bulk liquid cargo berths, 63 buoy berths, in addition to a large number of privately owned jetties, Nigeria›s maritime domain, it would appear, has the capacity to overtake the oil and gas sector as the nation›s number one revenue earner. Unfortunately, however, organised revenue diversion by a cabal has continued to drain the nation of its projected earnings.
For many port officials, the seaport is a haven to either ‘get rich quick or die trying’. Even for most non-port persons, the belief is that there is enormous money, both legitimate and illegitimate, to be made doing one job or another at the ports. That many banned products still come in through the ports is a testament to this factor. Sometimes in the second quarter of 2017, the Maritime Guard Command of The Nigeria Police intercepted container loads of fairly used tyres which were taken out of the ports despite customs law prohibiting the importation of such products.
That interception was not the first, the Federal Operations Unit Zone A of the Nigerian Customs Service had on numerous occasions intercepted container loads of fairly used tyres and other contrabands on the streets of Lagos despite being banned as importations into the country. How the products come into the country is a pointer to the fact that some people thrive on such businesses as a means of livelihood.
According to a port official who declined to have his name in print due to fear of persecution, “There’s a pre-arrangement before the vessel carrying these goods arrive. Sometimes, this arrangement involves senior port officials.
“In most cases, the container carrying these cargoes are not stemmed down for examination like what happened during the 440 pump action guns that was intercepted somewhere in Mile 2. That container had already left the port without being examined by any Customs officials. It is always pre-arranged. Everybody involved knows themselves and once it’s the turn of such container for examination, it is skipped or overlooked.”
Also speaking on the issue, Mr. Kayode Farinto, National spokesman of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) confirmed that cabals operating in the port in the form of retired senior customs officers usually beat the system with the help of their former subordinates who they had either helped to get enlisted into the service or pardoned after getting involved in acts inimical to the codes of the service.
“Many young customs officers owe some retired senior officers the opportunity to have even been enlisted into the service in the first place. So many of these senior officers, when retired, obtain Customs license and use these young officers to evade outright payment on cargoes.
“It is very difficult for many of these young customs officers to say ‘No’ to their benefactors. These young officers owed their enlistment into the Customs Service to these retired senior officers. So when such containers belonging to them arrive at the ports manned by the young officers, such containers are skipped from examination, and allowed to leave the ports like the case of the 440 pump action rifles container.
“Since the onus to call for cargo examination rests majorly on the customs, many cargoes have exited the ports in this manner without anybody knowing. It was just by divine intervention that the 440 pump action guns container was nabbed at Mile 2 axis of the Apapa-Oshodi expressway. If not, who knows where those assorted weapons would have ended?
“In most cases, similar containers filled with banned or dangerous products have exited the ports in the past without trace. Until the scenario of the pump action rifles played out, I am sure many did not know that some containers, when they arrive the ports, are granted privileged status by not been stemmed down for examination. Subsequently they are allowed to exit the ports without any form of payment. That had been the norm prior to the arrival of this present Customs boss. Even under his nose, pockets of such are still happening,” Farinto told Sunday Tribune.
In reality cargoes are not totally exempted from examination. They are surface-checked and therefore assumed to be what they are not, thereby allowing the owner pay much lower for what he or she should have paid heavily for.
In the words of Chief Chukwu Osita Patrick, president, Save Nigeria Freight Forwarders Association, this amounts to under-declaration on the part of the owners of the cargoes.
“Imagine a container carrying series of maybe, 2016 Kia SUVs. On the Customs duty payment regulation, such vehicles ordinarily are expected to pay maybe N20million as duty. To beat the system, the owner of such containers approach the inspecting Customs officers and give such officers maybe N2m. To ensure there is no hiccup, the officers inform the owner about his colleagues who are also on the same inspection chain.
“The Customs officer who has pocketed N2million knows that if he fails to inform his colleagues in that unit, he is bound to be exposed along that inspection line. So the cargo owner just ends up spending around N5million to silence a chain of Customs cargo inspectors, thereby depriving the nation around N20m that could have accrued into the government coffers,” ChukwuOsita stated.
ANLCA spokesman, Farinto, while shedding more light on allegation by National Assembly lawmakers of vessels missing from the nation’s ports, said there is no way vessels could get missing at the ports without the NPA collecting its berthing fee.
“Maybe what the lawmakers were trying to insinuate is the practise of discharging vessels midstream, thereby not paying any money to the Federal Government of Nigeria.
“Some vessels are often discharged midstream. What this means is that the vessels will not berth at any Nigerian ports. But their contents will be offloaded into smaller vessels and brought into the country through many of our insecure jetties. In this regard, the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) has a huge role to play.
“Before the administration of the current Director General of NIMASA, most of our jetties were porous. Most of them lacked perimeter fencing or CCTV cameras. So what these ‘mafias’ do is to stop the vessel midstream of Nigerian waters.
“If the vessels do not berth at any Nigerian ports, then government loses millions in foreign currency because no berthing fee will be paid to the NPA. The contents of the vessel are discharged into smaller vessels and moved into the country through this unsecured jetties.
“In the process of doing that, no Customs duty is collected on such cargoes. This is a highly organised corrupt practise. But to say 282 vessels disappeared from Nigerian port is hilarious. How can 282 vessels just disappear from our ports? Do you know how big a vessel is? Do you know what it takes to tow a vessel out of the ports?,” Farinto queried.
However, even as the current NIMASA administration seeks to block the drainpipes of the nation’s badly needed revenue, the human factor and decades of entrenched corrupt practices may take time to root out even in the face of the present government’s war against corruption and the clamour for change.
– Nigerian Tribune