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Investigation: Stinking Rots in Nigerian Ports

Following Nigerian government’s recent car import restriction order, Motoring World’s investigation unravels massive wall of corruption still surrounding import and clearing via the sea ports, which, unless crushed, might defeat all measures being put in place to sanitize the system, FEMI OWOEYE reports

[dropcap]G[/dropcap]enuine car importers are worried over Nigerian government’s recent import restriction order, because of the age-long corrupt process built in to the sea ports clearing process over the years.

Most significant of the in-built process is compulsory clearing of cars and other goods via clearing agents.

Motoring World investigation has revealed  how clearing agents  assist corrupt officials of the Nigeria Custom Service (NCS) and other relevant agencies, including National drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLA), The Nigerian Police, The Quarantine Agency, Standard Organization of Nigeria (SON) among others daily extort millions of Naira from importers.

This action, we gathered, is what shoots up cost of clearing goods far above official rate. The same factor, it is widely believed, makes many car importers resort to importing through neighboring countries, especially Benin Republic, where custom duties are cheaper and bureaucratic bottleneck is far less.

As a result of corruption in the Nigerian maritime sector, contraband goods freely find their ways into the country. Vehicles that are not supposed to enter the country, for instance sub-standard vehicles and accident vehicles, which are death traps, find their ways into the country.Federal government is also short-changed in the process, as smugglers cut cost by allegedly bribing container inspection officials as well  as those, who approve papers in offices.  They pay less. In connivance with corrupt officials, clearing agents make huge gains. Nigerian government loses.

Recently, Motoring World correspondent got into the premises, where containers are inspected (Don’t ask how) and witnessed a chapter of the rots that take place in the nation’s ports.

It was a typical inspection day at Apapa Port, Lagos. Man with lock cutter went from one container to another, cutting off security locks/seal of containers that had been approved for inspection.

Close to where this correspondent stood was a 40-feet container already opened for inspection. Mostly visible were junks of electronics, most of which were so out-of-date that one wondered who is going to buy them, thinking such container might have been a decoy to import contraband goods or even weapons.

Motoring World observed that only about 1% of the goods inside the 40-feet container were taken down. Inspections were brief.

All that most of the inspectors did was to simply peep through the container and, in not more than three minutes, concluded. Only NDLA crew used a touch light. Even at that, there was no way they could have seen through one tenth of the content of the container.  In essence, one-third of such container might have been stocked with dangerous weapons and still got cleared, as no scanning machine was used.

The same went for all containers opened and supposedly inspected in the presence of Motoring World correspondent. Every inspection was brief. And there was no way of getting to where contraband and illegal items were kept, as professional packers from abroad are known to pack illegal items at the extreme ends of containers, shielding them with goods that are not valuable and attract less duties. In the process, contraband goods are cleared. Items that should have attracted duties do not, as they are hidden away.

Albeit inspecting officials from NCS, NDLA, the Police, SON and Quarantine are allegedly aware of these lapses, they do not seem to border. Although they are ill-equipped to carry out proper inspection, they seem to be more concern about monetary gain from every inspection, usually handed to them by clearing agents. As every inspector climbs a container and gets down, he receives payment, ranging from N2000 to N25,000, depending on the status and value of the goods being cleared.

In case of a container declared as personal effects, payment could be higher, as most of such containers are believed to get stuffed with contraband goods. An importer of personal effect (name withheld), who ignorantly imported certain personal items, which a relevant inspector claimed should not have been imported, was made to cough out a sum of N25,000 as bribe to the inspectors. And the container was cleared with the supposed contraband goods.

Motoring World Correspondent overheard the inspector, telling the clearing agent that if the importer was taken to court, he or she would have had to pay a fine of up to N100,000 and the container seized. Therefore, the inspector asked for a bribe of N50,000, which was negotiated down to N25,000.

The foregoing have become a tradition within clearing procedure of the Nigerian Ports. When a clearing agent charges his or her fee, therefore, in addition to his agency fee, inspection charges and custom duties, he adds bribery allowance ranging from N200,000 to N500,000. A regular smuggler pays more bribery allowance. For instance, during the course of this investigation, a custom insider source revealed to Motoring World that what certain vehicle importer does is this: If duties he ought to pay on imported cars amount to N100 million, he pays N50 million to government, N10 million as bribery and pocket N40 million.

Implications of the foregoing is that, despite all efforts made so far by past and present regime to fill up the porous import routes into the country, unless rots in the Nigerian Maritime industry is dealt with effectively, all attempts to sanitize the system would be frustrated.

As revealed recently, the federal government plans to introduce Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN) from March 2017, which means all vehicles not properly cleared with adequate import duties would not be issued VIN. In that case, buyers of such vehicles would be unable to register them.

An NPA official, who spoke to Motoring World Correspondent in anonymity, expressed doubt over the work-ability of the proposed policy.

“Look at this way,” he explained, “Vehicle importation is being restricted to sea ports. Many importers prefer importing through land border to avoid long bureaucracy via sea port and high cost of clearing, which could sometimes double official cost, thereby making the imported vehicle difficult to sell. Unless the bureaucratic bottleneck regarding inspection is resolved, the policy is bound to fail.”

Given the foregoing findings, therefore, maritime analysts believe that unless the government adopts a stern control and monitoring measure, the issue of VIN may not work.

So long as corruption at sea ports remain alive, all a corrupt importer needs do bribe corrupt officials via clearing agents. And VIN certificates would be issued. Vehicles would be cleared. Lawless importers would pay their aides within the system, short-change the government as usual, pocket what is left and sell vehicles to the public at prices that would send genuine auto dealers out of business.

That means, after all reforms, the government might be back on square one, simply for failing to cleanse the age-long rots in the nation’s ports.

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