Mr Lucky Oboh is the Chairman Association of Registered Freight Forwarders of Nigeria (AREFFN), Ports and Terminal Multi-services Limited (PTML)in this Exclusive interview with MMS Plus, he highlights the effects of the tension created by the appointment of a change mantra government in the Nigeria Customs Service(NCS), and the scamper for extras in anticipation of the eventual clamp down on corruption activities within the Service.
How efficient is the current clearing process by Customs?
The Valuation department of the Ports and Terminal Multi-services Limited (PTML) of the Nigeria Customs Service NCS) has become a major problem to clearing agents, they do not want to make the value of the duty of every consignment open for agents and importers to know, so whenever any agent goes to valuation to collect his value they will give you a value that is outside the official tariff at a much higher rate, until you settle them with a huge amount of money before they give you the right value quite unlike before.
After giving an agent the actual value he is supposed to pay and he has paid, they still go ahead and place the job on alert and by the time the agent comes back the Technical Supervisor, the Valuation Officer and the APM, all on the ranks of Deputy Controller, will insist that it is valuation alert, when agents settle valuation alert, at the point of release the APM alert comes up on the same job, he goes back again to settle APM and after he pays some money to them they now remove the alert and confirm that the value he paid is accurate.
We have been on this issue for years now, asking them to give us a list of the actual value for clearing used cars at the terminal and make it known to all agent and importers so that we know what to tell the importers as the value of his consignment when he contracts us to clear his goods.
Has this always been the case?
No, when you want to do a job, up to the year 2006, when you want to clear a consignment there is always a manual, an outline of duty values, that agents used; they check the year of the vehicle, go straight to valuation and pay the exact value, they are supposed to pay without any disturbance from anybody as long as the real value is paid. But now there no single agent that knows the real value that he is supposed to pay for any particular year of vehicle.
But the tariff system under the auto policy specifies that for all imported vehicle, the importer should pay 35% levy and 35% duty of the value of the vehicle?
Yes, at the beginning of every year, customs used to release a specific chart listing the price value of used vehicles and it will be calculated freely in the ports and everybody is aware about it, even the importers. All agents need to do is to go to Customs based on the value on the list, fill their valuation paper, the Valuation Officer adds tax, it is when the agent has paid anything less than the stipulated value that he will be accosted and made to pay the real value, but now there is nothing of such anymore, no agent knows the exact value to pay for imported used cars because the Customs want to keep making money off the agents and importers.
So, when agents want to clear goods for an importer they are at a loss as to how much they are to charge the importer that will be sufficient for clearing his goods because at that point even the agent does not know how much it will cost. To avoid running the risk of undercharging they just let the importer know how much the step by step procedure is costing him, thereby making the system very inefficient and because the customs officers are benefiting from the chaos they are not making any move to improve the system.
But reports has it that the office of the Cuctom Area Controller is always opened to agents to make their complaints known whenever there is need for it?
They are no longer making it open because of this corruption in their system; they are no longer making their offices open to interaction with agents, even the office of the Deputy Controller, they place an officer with a gun at the gate when they come in and when they see an agent approaching and they do not want him to come in, they sends the agent back and if the agent insists that he has an unfinished job to attend to, before you know it , they will call an enforcement officer to come and arrest the agent.
But agents and customs are known to have a good relationship?
This is part of the relationship with them, as long as you are parting with cash you are a friend, otherwise, forget it. Now the ethics of Customs is no longer there, they do things without consideration to laid down ethics of transparency, honesty, accountability and efficiency. Before now at the begin of every year the Customs releases a chart, the chart is a guide to agents and importers and when an importer asks an agent how much it will cost to clear a certain cargo, the agent refers to this chart and calculates the cost based on this chart. But now, when they give out this chart they will tell you that this is not the original one they are using, they will bring out a different one with different value but most often when you part with some money you realize that it is the same chart you have that will be used.
What about the Pre-Arrival Assessment Report (PAAR), can it be used to determine real value?
Even the PAAR which is generated by Customs, one will have expected that whatever the high authority has generated will be final, but when you bring it here at PTML, you will be told that , the PAAR given to you is not what it is supposed to be . They will tell you that it depends on the information you supplied to the authorities as regards the invoice and the parking list and this information cannot be falsified because it is sent to you from the port of origin.
For instance, an importer brings in a vehicle of about 2010 model, the value will not be found in the unofficial chart Customs has given us because why it is unofficial is that the chart which is given by Customs cannot be used to calculate value because when an agent relies his calculation on it, Customs will say that it is not the same with the list they have. They are not transparent to agents and importers as well.
Why are you protesting now when for almost 10years you have gotten used to this method of operating clearance of cargo?
That is why I am telling you of this issue specifically, it is the alert that is killing agents and importers so the fundamental question is , this alerts that is placed on cargo, is it not the same Customs that generates the value, that will make agents pay extra amount of money; after I have paid duty and levy, at the valuation department of Customs that generate value for cargo, now when I get to the release department, at the point of releasing this cargo, somebody in the release department will come out with another tariff that contradicts with the one valuation department issued, that is much higher and insist that the valuation department tariff is not correct , they use a language which they call ‘value check’. The document generated from an authority is being questioned by that same authority in the name of value check, to confirm if the document actually emanated from them.
They are making life terrible for agents and importers and the public because anything that affects here affects the whole Nigeria, it affects the end users who are at the receiving end, a vehicle that was sold for N200, 000 some 6years ago is now about N450, 000 or more, because importers will not want to lose as business men.
Have you written any petition about this to the Controller General of Customs before, because it is not something you should keep quiet about, if not it will continue?
Yes, there have been several verbal complaints to the controller, that agents are not happy about these, but for now we are protesting verbally and if nothing is done, we will rise up and lock the ports and this will not be good for the economy of Nigeria.
How much is usually added after you have paid value?
It depends on the bargaining power of the agent and what he paid initially, for instance may be an agent has been asked to pay N150, 000 by valuation department and after payment he goes for release and he is told that what he is supposed to pay is N250, 000, so there is a shortfall of 100, 000. The agent becomes confused as he cannot go back to the importer to collect more money, so the agent is now forced to beg and bargain and at the end of the day, depending on his bargaining power, he is made to part with extra N40,000 to N100,000.
We live at the mercy of Customs and they make it look like they are doing us a big favor. Things were not like this 20 to 25 years ago when we started this business, the practice was that at the beginning of every year Custom circulates their tarrif chart, either they reduce or they add.
And when you pay this money how is payment made?
The Customs Officers collect it, not that we take it to the bank, no, we pay it directly in cash to the them and that was what led to the uproar on last week at the ports, that led to a meeting between the four freight agent associations operating at PTML; Association of Registered Freight Forwarders of Nigeria (AREFFN), National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents(ANCLA) and National Council of Managing Directors of Customs Licensed Agents (NCMDLCA).
As we decided to commence the meeting ANCLA members disrupted the meeting and asks everybody to go out . The CAC, PTML Isa Ishaya, called for that meeting to find out the grievances of agents when we got there as stakeholders, as we were about to start discussing issues affecting agents, ANLCA high jacked it and walked everybody out with their boys, that the meeting should not hold and the CAC was there. Personally, I met with the Public Relations Officer of PTML Steve Okomah, and told him that I will go and talk to my group so that we can come back because the Controller was watching , she was perplexed, I pleaded with Okomah that I will go and talk to them so that we will come back and meet with the Controller that moment while she is still on seat but when I talked to them they refused , in fact, ANLCA refused to listen to me at all.
So what is their position, is it that they have a different interest or they are happy with the situation?
No, they are not , nobody likes what is happening at the ports but we have to discuss issues at the table and that opportunity was truncated by ANLCA. It was very unfair to walk out on the CAC the Chief Officer of the terminal. According to them they walked everybody out because previous meetings have not generating any lasting solutions to the problems, so they had to force everybody to walk out on the Controller. Why we kept quite is because ANLCA and PTML have very chose working relations when compared to other associations and we did not want to come in between them. So as learned people, we allowed things to play out.
What do you think is the reason from their strong refusal to allow the meeting to hold do you think they have a hidden agenda?
Whatever their intentions we view it as a humiliation on the CAC and the purpose for the meeting was not achieved, also they might have a hidden agenda which they do not want other associations to know and they fear that the issue might come up in the course of the meeting which warranted them to act the way they did, if that meeting had commenced their secret might come out, so to avoid that, they had to forestall the meeting, to prove that indeed they have a hidden agenda the National President of ANLCA Prince Olayinwola Shittu and the Chairman of the chapter with members of their National Executive council went to beg the Controller the next day , which means that they really have a secret agenda which they do not want other associations to know but what we know is that a house that is divided agent itself cannot stand.
On this issue freight agents are not supposed to be divided for any reason because the shoe is pinching us all and by the time we start our own it will not be easy. This Controller has been carrying everybody along, making sure that things are under control at the terminal but the people under her have not been helping matters, in fact they have been sabotaging the efforts of the Controller.
The DC terminal, the DC valuation and the APM they have not been helping the woman, they are wicked officers serving under the woman sabotaging her efforts. Even this issue we are talking about the Controller does not know about it and most of the time when we make efforts to see her they will block us from seeing her .
We will want her to create a suggestion box, if anybody has any suggestion or issue that he wants to bring to her attention, let him write it down and put it in the suggestion box. Because without this solution it will continue to be difficult for her to know what exactly is happening in the terminal. Let her create a suggestion box for all port users.