With the port reforms and concession of its operations to private terminal operators, one had expected that the age-long illegal exit of containers from the ports would be a thing of the past.
The practice known in industry parlance as ‘container flying’ is still very much around at the ports even when most of the ills that plagued the nation’s ports in the past are gradually giving way.
‘Container flying’ is one of the major revenue leakages in the port because a particular consignment is unlawfully evacuated from the port without due clearance processes. Apart from causing loss of revenue to government or other agencies, it also results in loss of cargoes for consignees if they or their agents are not privy to it.
The Customs Area Controller (CAC) in charge of the Tin Can Island Port, Comptroller Isah Nuhu, recently confirmed that ‘container flying’ still exists in his command. He said the criminal practice has refused to die in the area command despite the various measures that have been put in place by the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) to combat the menace.
Mr. Nuhu told the executives of the three freight forwarding associations operating at the ports in a meeting last month that his command is currently investigating a case of ‘container flying’ by a syndicate that involves ‘some unscrupulous’ customs officers.
Even though he expressed surprise that the practice is still prevalent at the Tin Can Island Port, he also admitted that the customs was yet to put their house in order.
The CAC’s confirmation is the first from the chief customs operating officer in the command in recent time. Almost all the CAC’s before him had always denied the existence of the container theft syndicate which specialises in flying containers out of the port through the procurement of fake documents or what they call ‘machine outside’.
Illegal removal or smuggling of containers out of the nation’s ports, especially the ones located in Lagos, is perpetrated by a syndicate working within and outside the ports. The syndicate comprises unscrupulous importers, licensed customs agents, shipping companies and some officers of the Nigeria Customs Service.
Working in close collaboration, these unscrupulous elements in the goods clearance process remove containers from the ports without the payment of appropriate duties and fees as stipulated by law.
The practice, which has been on for long, naturally leads to loss of cargo and huge revenue that would have accrued to the coffers of the federal government.
Though the practice is not restricted to any particular port, it is believed that the ports situated in Lagos, are more notorious for the nefarious practice, with the Tin Can Island Port (TCIP), as the flagship.
Holding operators accountable
Worried by the illegal activity which has refused to die in the system, the Comptroller General of Customs, Alhaji Inde Dikko Abdullahi, has vowed to hold accountable any Direct Traders Input (DTI) operator through whose cafe (electronic processing of goods) containers are illegally removed from the port.
Speaking in Abuja recently, the Comptroller General of Customs vowed to checkmate the activities of those who have taken ‘container flying’ in the nation’s seaports as a way of life. Abdullahi vowed that he would put some measures in place to address the spate of mysterious disappearances of containers from some terminals in the ports.
One of such measures, he said, is the closure of cafe centres through which such fraudulent acts are perpetrated and the arrest of the operators who would be made to face the full wrath of the law for their economic sabotage. He explained that DTI cafes are licensed facilities used by licensed customs agents for imputing declarations into NCS system, as well as processing electronic release of goods for which all statutory charges have been paid.
Stressing that café operators should be responsible for what happens at their cafes, the Customs boss warned that he would no longer accept any bogus explanations from anyone that an illegal removal of a container was due to the activities of a syndicate that specializes in password identity theft to hack into the systems of DTI operators to perpetuate their acts.
Abdullahi disclosed that he had communicated his position to the stakeholders at the end of a crucial meeting he had with Customs Area Controllers, Terminal and Customs Unit Heads as well as operators of DTI cafes. He emphasised that the responsibility of building integrity into café operations lies squarely on the shoulders of the operators. “Henceforth, they will now be held liable for whatever illegality is traceable to their facilities,” he stressed.
According to the Comptroller General of Customs, any DTI involved in password or identity theft would be closed down, and would not be re-opened –a key decision he noted enjoyed the total agreement of all concerned. He stated that most of the operators at the meeting agreed on the necessity for NCS to wield the big stick to ensure compliance.
To enforce the new stand of NCS, the management of the service has started considering the option of making café operators enter into appropriate bonds to cover their activities, alongside other measures said to include the opening of a register to keep track of all transactions undertaken by each DTI.
But Ogbuji Sunday, a clearing agent and truck owner, disagreed that ‘container flying’ still exists in the ports. “That may have happened in the past, not now. It is almost impossible now. The ports are very tight. Since the issue of the 13 containers of ammunition at Apapa port, security has been very tight. You can talk of concealment and under-declaration of goods, but to remove a whole container with fake documents or without due process is not possible again,” Mr. Sunday told FinIntell.
He, however, said the only way such act can happen is if the customs headquarters is involved. “Even at that, any of them that tries it knows the consequences involved, apart from just losing his or her job,” he stressed.
The present leadership of the Customs have, in deviation from what obtained in the past been arresting and prosecuting smugglers and perpetrators of fraud in the goods clearance process.
Checks revealed that the recent face-off between some licensed customs agents and officers of the NCS, Federal Operations Unit (FOU), Zone A, Ikeja, Lagos, which led to the arrest and prosecution of some freight-forwarders was not unconnected with the attempt by NCS to rid the ports of undesirable elements and sanitise the system.
Last year, there was also massive arrest of some clearing agents at the Tin Can Island Port by customs leading to a brief period of unrest at the port.
The Nigeria Customs Service had also in October 2010, arraigned three clearing agents, Chuks Opara, Sydney Dunu and Louis Anokuru and their three companies before a court for fraudulent evasion of customs duty worth N275 million. The three accused persons between May 2006 and December 2008 were alleged to have fraudulently used a falsified bank security pay-in form, to perpetrate the scam.