‘Container flying’, otherwise referred to as the illicit movement of containers out of the ports without payment of duties, is back in full force at the ports. The crime was believed to have ended with the handover of terminal operations to the concessionaires. But Nigeria Customs Controller, Tin Can Command, Mohammed Issa Nuhu, revealed recently that the scam has not abated. Francis Ugwoke reports
One fraudulent practice of container delivery, otherwise known in industry parlance as ‘container flying’ which was believed to have abated in 2006 following the reform at the nation’s ports is yet to end. The revelation came from the Controller of Customs, Tin Can Island Port Command, Mr. Mohammed Issa Nuhu, who suspects the involvement of his own officers in the scam.
Sources confirmed that the headquarters of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), concerned about the revelation, has ordered a full investigation into the matter because of the security risk it poses as well as revenue loss.
Incidents of container flying are as old as the ports industry itself, according to some operators. It involves the movement of containers out of the ports when the duties have not been paid and necessary checks have not been carried out. It involves a syndicate that is paid to execute the crime. It is considered one of the last options for an importer which stands the risk of losing its goods to the government for a number of reasons. These include contraband goods or the duty, which is deemed very high such that paying may wipe out the profits.
Dubious importers and agents confronted with this problem then resort to a syndicate specialising in container flying. More often than not, a ‘flying container’ is usually not accompanied by genuine documentation. Also, importers of such containers usually do not disclose their true identifies and addresses. Container flying is sometimes carried out in the night when there are fewer officials on duty and surveillance is lax.
In the past, importers of such goods also used the window of transferring such containers to bonded terminals to smuggle such goods. The syndicate would ensure that the safety of such container is guaranteed by inducing the relevant officials and agencies that might raise questions, particularly those at the gates of the ports, made up of multiple security agents and customs officials. This phenomenon was very common at the eastern ports, including Port Harcourt and Onne Ports up till 2005.
However, container flying eased following the reforms at the ports. With the reform, each terminal was now under concessionaires which beefed up security for the goods in their care, thus making container flying unattractive. The automated system introduced by the terminal operators and the Customs Service also reduced the incidence of the crime. This was because it became difficult to fly a container that had already been captured in the automated system.
Yet, Controller Nuhu, who is about five months in Tin Can Island Port, at a recent meeting with the leadership of Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) and National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF) surprised many when he let the cat out of the bag.
At the meeting, he complained about the increasing cases of containers exiting the port surreptitiously.
Nuhu was said to have give indication that some officers of his command could be involved in the scam. He was also said to have disclosed during the meeting that the Tin Can Island Port had become a problem for his administration. Expressing surprise that container flying still persists, he had told the agents to ensure full compliance with the procedures for goods clearance if they did not want the Federal Operations Unit (FOU) of the Customs Service to come after them.
Sources said the Area Controller, who has already notified his headquarters of the malpractice, was directed to take all necessary measures to fish out the perpetrators. The Customs Investigation Unit (CIU) was also directed to investigate the scam and unveil those behind it.
For observers, the implication of container flying cannot be over-stressed. Goods moved out of the ports without duties paid on them translate to a loss of revenue to the government. Beyond this, is the fact that such goods could pose a security risk to the nation. For instance, a container of dangerous weapons and hard drugs will definitely be potential risks to the society.
Notoriety of Tin Can Island
The Tin Can Island Port has been notorious for trade crimes over the years. The port is patronised by all types of customs agents, big and small. It is also a popular port for small agents who specialise in the clearance of just vehicles. What is worse it that it is impossible to ascertain the number of times containers containing illicit hard drugs have been intercepted at the port by either the Customs Service or the NDLEA.
As a result, in the freight forwarding industry, Tin Can is regarded as a safe haven for the clearance of containers likely to contain contraband and under-declared, concealed and under-valued goods. Customs agents believe that it is surer bet to pass illicit consignments through Tin Can Island Port than other ports. Sometimes, however, the lawless importers run into trouble.
For instance, there have been cases of interception of containers containing hard drugs. In fact, on three occasions between 2006 and 2010, containers with concealed illicit drugs valued at over N4.5 billion in each consignment, were intercepted at the port by the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA). Incidentally, the containers were discovered based on intelligence information trailing the consignments from the country of export. In one instance, the Customs Service had erroneously allowed the agent to take delivery of a consignment as the hard drugs were carefully buried in a furniture set. Even the NDLEA officials at the port were beaten to it until their head office intervened and recovered the goods at a warehouse. Two Chinese businessmen subsequently were convicted by a Lagos court last year over the incident.
Sometime last year, there was an incident that led to the questioning of customs officials after some containers had been released from the port by some people who had gained access to the officials’ passwords. The Customs Service had moved to suspend the officers, but later recalled them after investigations revealed that their passwords had been obtained illegally.
Also, last year, it was gathered that a top official of the command was transferred out of the port over allegations that he was shielding some unscrupulous officers who had release containers on which duties had not been paid.
In the same vein, the relationship between customs officials and agents at Tin Can has been anything but smooth. On more than two occasions, the two sides had scores to settle. In 2010, the agents embarked on industrial action that paralysed activities at the port, alleging that the amount being demanded by the some officials as bribe was too high. They had engaged in a physical altercation with officials and damaged some offices of the customs command. Some of them were however arrested and detained. On another occasion, late last year, the customs command had arrested some agents for assaulting a female official of the NCS.
In a recent interview with THISDAY, the Comptroller General of Customs, Alhaji Inde Dikko Abdullahi, complained of the malpractices perpetuated at the ports. He had said the Customs Service was doing everything possible to address the problem. According to him, “On a daily basis, we meet as a management team to review the persistent trade malpractices and unwholesome operational practices, vis-a-vis under-declarations, concealments, low valuation of imports, excess quantities, wrong declaration, wrong classification, forgery, computer fraud, etc, based on our experience.
“So we have to continue implementing counteractive mechanisms to checkmate these excesses, while in the long run, a single window network designed after the WCO model, but meeting our national peculiarities, would be a veritable concept that will improve the system further.”
Dikko further disclosed that some importers, customs agents and officers have been disciplined for their involvement in trade crimes. “We are prosecuting so many cases in different courts. Again, fraudulent licences are being revoked or suspended, just as many officers are losing their jobs,” he stated.