| Code: 61635 |

TIN news:        Four years after the federal government reduced the number of agencies at the ports from 14 to six, some of those affected have quietly found their way back, accusing the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) of not inviting them for their own statutory functions as demanded by the government, a development that has drawn the anger of freight forwarders, writes Francis Ugwoke.
 
About four years after the federal government sacked its own agencies from the ports, indications are that some of the affected agencies have either returned fully or are currently making frantic moves to do so. While the action is in disobedience to the order given to them four years ago, among the reasons being bandied is that the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) had not been very cooperative in terms of assisting the agencies to carry out their statutory functions at the ports. After their sack from the ports, the Customs Service was directed to invite any of the agencies in cases that affect their statutory obligations. But some of the affected agencies, it was gathered, have not been having it easy with the Customs. Their personnel accuse the various Customs Commands of not inviting them as at when due, adding that they have had to go extra-mile to carry out their own assignments on the goods leaving the ports. Many of them have had to intercept containers on the highway on getting information on certain cargoes. They have had to employ the services of some informants, otherwise known as ‘kelebe’ to spy and give them information on such goods . Apparently aware of this, some of the importers voluntarily invite the agencies during customs examination to avoid any problem after leaving the ports. But many don’t, either ignorantly or trying to play smart. So, some of the agencies instead of waiting for invitation, come into the ports to carry out examination of some containers. Yet, customs officials at the Lagos ports maintain that the claim by some agencies that they are not invited when necessary is not true. Worried about the move to be resident at the ports, freight forwarders have vowed to withdraw their services in protest.
 
Why FG Reduced Govt Agencies at Ports
 
The federal government had in October 2011 reduced the number of agencies at the nation’s ports from 14 to six. This was simply to make the nation’s ports user friendly. Before then, there were many complaints about how most of the agencies made clearing processes cumbersome. Besides, some of the agencies were accused of simply out to extort importers and their freight forwarders. Among the agencies that were affected by the order include the National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), National Drug Law Enforcement Agency(NDLEA), Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) and National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA). Others were the Directorate of Naval Intelligence, Nigerian Plant Quarantine Services, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission, and the Federal Environmental Protection Agency. Also affected were some units of the Customs who were involved in duplicating duties at the ports. Officials of the agencies were accused of only being interested in what could be extorted from importers. The belief was that the activities of the agencies led to increased cost of doing business at the ports.
 
The former Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, during a visit to the Lagos port after the policy measure, was quoted as saying, “ I am with a simple message from Mr. President and that message is that it is time for our seaports to start working and they must start working for honest and hardworking Nigerians not for those who are working to make things more complicated, make money out of our ports and make things more difficult for honest business person, man or woman in this country.
 
“We must make our ports work for Nigerians who want to create jobs, that is really what Mr. President wants us to do and our being here today is a demonstration that we need to act and that this is no longer time for talking. We know that without an efficient port system, there would be high cost in the economy and so what we are doing now is to reduce those costs so that our business people would have the wherewithal to create more jobs”.
 
The minister announced that the agencies that should be allowed to be at the ports include the Nigerian Ports Authority, Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, Nigeria Customs Service, State Security Service, Police and Port Health. Other agencies affected in the policy measure were advised to come into the ports through the invitation of the Customs Service. Okonjo Iweala had explained that the policy measure was aimed at checking increasing cases of extortion and corruption involving many of the agencies and not limited to those who were asked to leave the ports. The measure was applauded by industry stakeholders` as important to sanitise the ports sector.
 
Moves to Return to Ports
 
Investigation showed that apart from the SON, EFCC and ICPC, many of the agencies have directly or indirectly returned to the ports. Customs agents who spoke to this writer said that some operatives affected by the federal government order have been involved in goods examination being carried out by the Customs on a daily basis. The agencies accused include NAFDAC, NDLEA and Plant Quarantine. But an official of one of the agencies accused the Customs of not cooperating with the agencies. The official explained that this was the reason why no agency wants to wait for invitation. The official accused some customs officers of corruption, adding that they don’t care whether other agencies carry out their functions or not “once they have been settled.” He said that to be effective, the agencies have to be at the ports to be able to check some of the excesses of importers. A senior official of the SON who said the agency can do better if allowed to be in the ports disclosed that most of the interceptions have shown that many importers evade meeting necessary requirements of the various agencies for selfish reasons. He said that relying on the informants has a lot of disadvantages as some of them also hoard vital information for settlement. He said that with such scenario, the agencies could be in a dilemma and only have to devise means of carrying out their assignment. He said this explains why some agencies come to the ports without waiting for invitation.
 
Threat by Freight Forwarders
 
Worried about the activities of some agencies who have returned to the ports against the order of the federal government, the Publicity Secretary, Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), Mr Kayode Farinto, said the association plans to embark on strike in protest. Farinto had told newsmen that it was wrong for the affected agencies to return to the ports, adding that they have become a stumbling block to fast clearance of goods at the ports. He said, “We noticed also by virtue of last minute move that former Minister of Finance, Okonjo-Iweala, directed that some agencies should leave the ports, same agencies are now sneaking back to the ports. Now, they are even becoming a stumbling block to cargo clearance in the ports. We want to say that ANLCA will not be too happy about that. We want to maintain that all the agencies that are spelt out in that directive are still expected to be in the ports. These are the Nigeria Customs, NDLEA, (National Drug Law Enforcement Agency), Nigerian Police and SSS (State Security Service). Any other agency that wants to go to the port needs to go and follow the due process.
 
There is a caveat that if any controlled product is to be cleared, Nigeria Customs Service will invite the relevant agency. So, a situation where a security agency will now come back to the port to feather their nests, we would not tolerate it. We may even withdraw our services for that, if this thing is not addressed on time because we have received a lot of complaints from our members”.
 
When asked to mention the names of the agencies that have come back to the ports, Farinto mentioned NAFDAC, Plant Quarantine, NESREA and SON. But an official of SON who did not want to be quoted denied the allegation, saying its operatives were not in the ports. He said that rather, the agency relies on information received from intelligence gathering to operate. Farinto told this writer that the chairmen of the various branches of ANLCA throughout the ports have been asked to watch out for the affected agencies.

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