Customs Comptroller General, Inde Dikko Abdullahi
Operatives of the Federal Operations Unit (FOU) of the Customs Service and the Police last week invaded the Tin Can Island seaport where about 100 agents described as touts were arrested. While the Customs Service claims that this was done to enthrone sanity in the port, the two major customs agents associations in the ports are divided over the clampdown, reports Francis Ugwoke
The much awaited policy to rid the ports of touts has begun. But contrary to expectations, the move to ensure that only registered customs agents use the ports is being spearheaded by the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) and the Nigeria Police as against the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN), as the regulatory agency responsible for the professional conduct of agents at the ports. Already, the raid last week which led to the arrest of many suspected touts at the ports has brought sharp division between members of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) and National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF). While the leadership of ANLCA welcomes the clampdown on suspected touts at the ports, NAGAFF is bitter about the exercise on the grounds that the measure affected many innocent freight forwarders.
The Federal Operations Unit(FOU), Zone A, of the Customs had on Wednesday, February 6, invaded the Tin Can Island Port arresting as many as 88 people suspected to be touts. Incidentally, those arrested included genuine agents who on presenting their identity cards were released. The raid was targeted at the general premises of the Tin Can Customs that had served as meeting points of most agents and proxies of customs officers operating in the area. Those milling around the various joints at the Tin Can Port, including the popular Any Man Canteen and Second Gate of the Port were arrested. The Controller of the Federal Operations Unit, Mr Dan Ugo, in a statement after the raid explained that the exercise was based on intelligence report at the disposal of the Comptroller-General of the Customs, Mr Inde Dikko Abdullahi. He said that some misguided elements were disrupting operations at the ports, adding that the move was to ensure “total annihiliation of these miscreants’. The onslaught against the agents included a team of Police Officers. Ugo said that the agents who pretended to be genuine agents were actually involved in ’unwholseome’ acts which most times affect the capacity of the service to ensure maximum revenue collection of the federal government. He said that the action was to ensure the enthronement of sanity in areas considered to be of very strategic relevance to the federal government in terms of revenue generation. “We had on good authority that some of them are involved in falsification of clearing documents and other heinous crimes’, the statement said. In a swift reaction, the Customs has charged 12 of the suspects to court, while those who tendered genuine documents of identifications were released.
Notorious Tin Can…
Although, there are other ports in Lagos, the customs raid was only targeted at Tin Can Island port, apparently for its notoriety in trade crime. It was not the first time the Customs was raiding the port. Last year, it had carried out a similar raid . Then, an agent had assaulted a customs woman which led to a fight. So many agents were arrested, and it took the intervention of the leadership of ANLCA for them to be released. ANLCA had engaged the services of Mr Festus Keyamo to free the agents. Tin Can Island port is one port in Nigeria that many people say anything goes. This may not be unconnected with the nature of the seaport. It has a special Roll-on-Roll-off (RORO) operations for vehicles of all types. Most of the vehicles, including both new and Tokunbo vehicles pass through the seaport. Although there is a ban placed on importation of vehicles above the manufacture age of cars above 15 years, but these vehicles find their way through the seaport and cleared by the Customs. It is a seaport that is friendly to customs agents that are new into the profession. Many describe the seaport as a training ground for agents. Even with efforts by the management of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) to rid the port of touts over the years, this has not been possible.
The seaport has provision for agents and sub-agents. Many agents who don’t have strength to pursue their documents simply contract it to other agents. That is why many agents stay around waiting for jobs to come. The port is also a market place for those who want to buy goods stuffed inside vehicles that have been cleared. So, some traders go to the port to buy fairly used items, including electronics and second hand clothes. But the crime in the port is not limited to customs agents, it also involves some customs officers. Many customs officers from the seaport have been punished for various trade malpractices. Some of the boys around Tin Can also work for officers of the Customs. A source said that these people are not arrested because they get prior information before any raid is effected.
ANLCA, NAGAFF Differ
The raid on the touts last week brought to the fore the differences between ANLCA and NAGAFF. The two have always been opposed to each other, except when they all teamed up against CRFFN to oppose the sharing formula in the proposed customs agents practising fee to be collected from all containers being cleared at the ports.
This has been the case since NAGAFF was founded by Dr Boniface Aniebonam about 13 years ago. NAGAFF was founded in opposition to ANLCA when Aniebonam was at loggerhead with the former President, Alhaji Sani Kamba. While the current President of ANLCA, Shittu welcomes the raid by the Customs, NAGAFF from all indications is opposed to it. Shittu told THISDAY, “the port is under siege. It is not customs siege. Some people who don’t have business are there to create nuisance value. It is not so even in Cotonou.”, he said. He said that those who don’t have business at the ports should remain in the office. Condemning loitering at the ports, he said that the Customs should make efforts to raid the ports of those who have no business being there. He recalled that his association had last year engaged Lagos lawyer, Festus Keyamo to secure the release of those arrested by the customs and police. He called on those arrested to call on the companies they represent to bail them instead of looking on to ANLCA. Besides, he said that all genuine ANLCA members are supposed to have biometric ID cards, adding that those arrested are supposed to present them to be released.
However, Deputy President of NAGAFF, Barr Fred Akokhia spoke against the raid. He condemned the manner of the raid, arguing that some innocent agents were arrested. He said, “As a lawyer, I was almost arrested. Are we in a Banana Republic? Even when people showed identity cards, they were arrested. Customs should rethink.. who are the touts? They are the camp boys working as proxies for some customs officers”. He added that the matter is being taken up at the appropriate quarters to stop the harassment on agents at the ports.
CRFFN Supports Raid
As the regulator for the freight forwarders, the CRFFN said that it is in support of the raid on the touts at the ports. Registrar of the Council, Sir Mike Jukwe, told THISDAY on phone that the agency having extended the registration rights to all practising agents supports every effort to ensure that touts are not allowed to operate at the ports. He said that the Council stands for sanity at the ports. Noting that the Customs has done what it planned to do as a way of sanitising the ports, he said his Council will work with the security agents to ensure that only genuine and registered agents operate at the ports.