Is the Federal Operations Unit (FOU), Zone ‘A’, Ikeja right in intercepting trucks cleared at the Tin Can Port by other Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) officers?
Importers and truck drivers are accusing the FOU officials of “extortion” and “second clearing”; but the FOU insists that it is doing its job.
“If we get information that there was manipulation in the document presented for the release of the cargo from the port, our officers will go there and intercept the item and the affected officer will be asked to report to FOU and subsequently to the Customs
Headquarters in Abuja,” FOU Public Relation Officer (PRO) Uche Ejesieme said.
The drivers alleged that the FOU officers story on the bridge about two metres from the port and stop them for another clearance.
Some of the officers, they claimed, demand between N50,000 and N100,000 and, at times, more before allowing them to go.
Last Friday, about 20 officers of the FOU were on the bridge, stopping container-laden trucks just released from the port.
The importers and drivers appealed to the Minister of Transport, Mr Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi; his Finance counterpart, Mrs Kemi Adeosun and the Customs Comptroller-General (CCG) Col Ahmeed Ali to call the FOU officers to order.
In 2011, The Nation learnt that Alhaji Dikko Abdullahi ordered FOU operatives, who mount roadblocks and impound cleared containers, off the road.
A senior manager of a terminal at the port, who pleaded not to be named, said the FOU officers have no right to seize containers on the bridge.
Ha said:“What are they doing on the Coconut Bus Stop bridge? The bridge leads to the port and it is about two metres away from the port. If the FOU officers are interested in the cargo clearance procedure, I think they should be allowed to come inside the port instead of killing the trade facilitation programme of the Federal Government and causing unnecessary gridlock on the road.
“It is a pity that these are officers the nation expects to go into the bush and creeks to combat smuggling, harassing innocent and law-abiding importers and truck drivers on the road. This is happening in the day time and the Customs leadership is yet to call them to order. If there is a problem with what the truck drivers took from the port to the main road, who do we blame? Who is responsible for the release of cargo from the port? Is it not Customs? Is it because of their own negligence and inefficiency that the rest of us would not be allowed to carry on with our businesses?
He added: “Customs said the Pre-Arrival Assessment Report (PAAR) was introduced to make cargo clearance easy from the port, but what we are seeing on this road daily is not what we expected from the scheme. We had hoped that since Customs has taken over all aspects of cargo clearance, the issues of falsified documents, under declaration, over invoicing and other import related problems, would be resolved when the goods are still inside the ports. This is an aspect of trade facilitation the Customs boss must address.”
A Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) security officer, who was at the scene, said they had in the past advised the Customs officers to map out strategies to ensure that only certified goods are allowed to leave the ports. He wondered why a Customs officer would release a cargo from the port only for another to intercept it in front of the same port.
“Who released the goods? Why must a Customs officer release the cargo from the port in broad day light and another officer would say the owner of the goods or the truck driver has questions to answer? Why? It shows that the level of trust and synergy among the Customs officers have degenerated and there is nobody in control. Therefore, there is need for President Buhari, the Ministers of Transport and Finance to address the problem,” the security officer said.
A clearing agent, Mr Kola Adepegba, accused the officers of violating the ban on hinterland patrol because of what they intend to gain from it.
He said if an importer disobeys any law, he should be checked by the superior mechanism put in place by the Customs from taking the goods out of the port.
Adepegba said: “Those responsible for the release of the intercepted goods must also be punished because it shows that some people somewhere are not doing what they are supposed to do, and that is why we have this problem on the road.
Describing the allegations as untrue Ejesieme said the unit’s operation was more of intelligence-driven, adding that its operatives could only impound containers that were wrongly released from the ports.
FOU officers, Ejesieme said, have the power to intercept any container that flouts the government’s fiscal policy.
He said: “FOU is an enforcement unit of the Nigeria Customs Service and our job is to complement the efforts of every Customs command in the zone.”
The motive, he said, was to ensure that no importer or clearing agent succeeded in shortchanging the government.
He appealed to Nigerians to give the unit information that could lead to the arrest of fraudulent importers.