19 Missing Containers At Tin Can: Stakeholders Tell Different Tales
One week after freight forwarders shutdown Clarion Bonded Terminal over an alleged 19 missing containers, the bonded terminal, Customs and the freight agents have left more controversies with their varying tales about the incident.
While the bonded terminal has blamed Customs for their inefficiencies having been slammed over N100million charges for unpaid assessment of freight agents, Customs have described the fracas and protests as mischievous while the freight agent claims his license was utilized fraudulently by the bonded terminal and her cronies.
Speaking with MMS Plus during an exclusive chat last week, the Legal Adviser, Clarion Shipping (WA) Limited, Barr. Emmanuel Chekwube Osonwa said: “There was unpaid assessment which is generated with the importers code via the licensed Customs agency. So many unpaid assessment generated with Clarion as the destination. Customs compiled these assessments and summoned Clarion to pay for the unpaid duties.”
“We had to go to the Customs headquarters where we engaged the DCG Tarrif and Trade, Isa Talatu and we argued that these unpaid fees had the names of defaulting agents and their importers. Clarion shouldn’t be summoned to pay when those who generated them go scot-free. This matter lasted for months having started in July last year. We even wrote a petition against Customs, engaged the Comptroller-General and had other meetings that were futile. Subsequently, the Customs management directed their Commands not to approve any transire to Clarion. At a time there was over 100 containers loaded in Port Harcourt but they didn’t allow it exit the terminal. Our operations in Lagos and Port Harcourt were paralysed.”
“The way freight forwarding business runs in Nigeria is that if you make a declaration, you make payment on behalf of the importers. The bonded terminal is just the custodian of the cargoes; Customs officers hold keys to the gate and decide when the cargoes can leave. I explained all these things to DCG Talatu but she wasn’t interested as she demanded that we must pay the duties to the last kobo. It’s part of Customs efforts to generate revenue by hook or crook.”
“So, the protesters can shout as much as they want, if they don’t pay to the last kobo they wouldn’t move any of those vehicles from the terminal. N445million was what Customs initially asked us to pay. Customs raised DN for lagbus (Lagos State bus) that was cleared under Governor Ambode. They later removed over N115million; but APMT, TICT and Ports and Cargo have similar deals. Did Customs shut them down and stop vessels from discharging at the terminals? Most of the goods transferred from Five Star have the same issues that agents later reconcile. Clarion’s case with Customs was like punishment before investigation and it isn’t right.”
“After dragging this issue with Customs for months, we realized that it was greatly affecting our business. So, we owned up in December to pay over N100million with a caveat before they removed the sanctions on the terminal. Consequently, we decided that we wouldn’t allow those agents whose unpaid assessment caused the problem. We seized the goods of such agents when they got to the terminal and asked them to pay charges to recoup the unpaid duties forcefully collected by Customs. Some of the agents have complied but Ajaji Continental and Tanko have resorted to protests. They have to bring the importers of those goods with unpaid assessments to resolve it or pay the DN.”
Osonwa argued that there are no missing 19 containers, stating that the issue is just a cheap blackmail to force Police and Customs into searching for evidence that doesn’t exist.
“It is just a mirage because no importer’s consignment will go missing and keep quiet and Customs wouldn’t allow such a thing happen. The issue at hand is that these agents have unpaid assessments that they didn’t pay and that’s why their agencies should be liable. They have written petitions to Police and Customs but as they investigate they discover it is a mirage. If DCG Isa Talatu had stopped their licenses to call them to order instead of holding the bonded terminals, would Clarion have paid over N100million for them? Why should Customs inflict the liabilities of freight agencies they licensed on a bonded terminal?” He queried.
When contacted, the Public Relations Officer of Tin Can Customs Command, Mr. Uche Ejesieme, told MMS Plus that the six months suspension of Clarion Bonded Terminal and subsequent sanctions last year resulted from sharp practices at the terminal.
Although he stated that the Customs Command is reviewing the findings and resolutions on the matter as directed by the Command’s Area Controller, Comptroller Olakunle Oloyede, he expressed shock that 19 containers could possibly go missing at the Command.
His words: “The freight forwarders who protested at Clarion Bonded Terminal were wrong because they didn’t notify Tin Can Island Customs of their decision to protest. The issue didn’t just happen, it has been ongoing for several years. However, don’t forget that Clarion has been in the eye of the storm in recent times. Some of the issues were reviewed and severe sanctions were slammed. “
“All the bonded terminal’s facilities were closed on instructions from headquarters. Customs were able to extract some commitment from Clarion to the extent of paying some of the charges into the government coffers before being allowed to commence operations. Few days ago, the National President of NAGAFF, Mr. Tony Esizi, the Founder of NAGAFF, Dr. Boniface Aniebonam and Alhaji Tanko visited the Customs Area Controller who directed that Customs rejigs the file. He also directed the Enforcement Unit of the Command to make findings on the issue to know whether the Customs headquarters comprehensively dealt with the matter or whether there are some unresolved areas.”
“However, we believe that the stoppage of Clarion bonded terminal operations for some months showed that due diligence was done on the operations of the bonded terminal. I suspect that this particular issue might have been part of what was investigated before the previous ban on Clarion.”
Uche, however, assured that Customs at the headquarters and the Command level wouldn’t leave anything to chance if the problem hasn’t been summarily dealt with.
Meanwhile, he couldn’t speak on the details of the alleged missing containers, stressing that there aren’t documents to support the claims of missing containers.
On his part, the Chairman of the 100% Compliance Team of National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), Alhaji Ibrahim Tanko said there are 14 vehicles at Clarion Bonded Terminal that have paid terminal and shipping charges as well as Customs duty but Clarion says that they can’t release the vehicles because the freight forwarder, Ajaji Continental is owing Customs for previous deals.
“Ajaji says he isn’t owing because if the company was owing Customs would have blocked the license. That’s how the problem started and we gave them the C number of nineteen containers. According to the examiner, the 19 containers were examined and they raised DN that wasn’t paid and the declaration was on query. This means the 19 containers were never released. How did Clarion release these containers when Customs didn’t release them?”
“We started our investigation and found out that from Tin Can the transire was done but there was no escort from FoU to lead the containers to Clarion. The containers didn’t get to enter Clarion before it was probably diverted to the owner. They came back to do documentation and discovered that there was an alert on the job. If the importer had paid the correct assessment no one would have heard about this illegal operation. The reason we are aware is because they didn’t pay the correct duties. Instead of Clarion to shoulder responsibility for this problem that it started, the terminal wants Ajaji to pay. Ajaji Continental had no knowledge of this business eventhough his agency was used. The importer is First Degree Multinational Limited. When I googled First Degree I discovered that the Director is my friend. I interrogated him and he asked me how Customs released the container?”
“He couldn’t provide any tangible explanation so I wrote a petition to Customs against Clarion. We copied the Police to these letters and our emphasis was on the 19 containers because Customs never released these containers. We are convinced that these containers were arms and ammunition. If it isn’t, let us see the Customs examination. I asked the Terminal Manager when Police invited him to provide the TDO for the 19 containers for Ajaji. There is no TDO because you can’t have TDO when a consignment hasn’t been released by Customs.”
“Police has been investigating this matter for over nine months. We also sent letters to the Customs headquarters and the Area Controller who minuted to the Enforcement Unit. Nothing has come out of the supposed investigation because everyone seems to be hiding something but Clarion refused to allow the 14 vehicles to be evacuated. Since Clarion is unwilling to allow Ajaji Continental collect the 14 vehicles while the investigations are ongoing, we had to protest and block the terminal gates until they tell us about the containers.”
Addressing newsmen last week, the Managing Director of Ajaji Continental Limited, a licensed Customs company allegedly used to process the 19 missing containers, Mr. Godswill Ojogwu stated that Clarion terminal operators demanded over N8million demand notice (DN) on the missing containers.
His words: “Clarion used my license fraudulently in 2018. When I discovered it, I noticed that the bonded terminal used my license to steal 19 containers from Tin Can Island Port. These containers were moved as bonded transfer goods. They were supposed to move from Tin Can to Clarion but documents show that these containers were not released. Subsequently, my license was blocked and I approached Customs who directed me to Clarion who released the containers.”
“When I approached Clarion to show me who used my agency, they almost mobbed me when they seized about fourteen vehicles duly released by Customs. I approached Clarion with documents showing proper clearance from Customs and the shipping company, urging them to release the vehicles while we continue the investigation on the mystery 19 containers. Clarion bluntly refused as they demanded that I pay over N8million Demand Notice on the missing containers.”
“They are linking the 14 vehicles seized to the 19 containers they used my license to clear via a company known as First Degree Multinational Limited. MSC was the shipping company used for that transaction. There is no way goods would leave the port without due process but this was done in a shady manner. I wrote to the Area Controller of Tin Can Customs but my documents allegedly got missing on three occasions at Customs. All efforts to find out how this problem emanated have been futile.”