By Frank Odinukaeze and Chioma Akabuogu
The issues of life often do not follow rational order, particularly when it comes to legal jurisprudence. Often times, one suffers unjustly for an act that one knows nothing about. It beats one’s imagination why an offence that was collectively done, a single individual or group would be made the sacrificial lamb of a collective sin. This in the eyes of equity and justice is unfair to say the least. He who seeks equity must do equity. But in the rift between the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) and the Association of Maritime Truck Operators (AMATO), equity seems to have taken flight,as AMATO is crying blue murder over the continued detention and seizure of over 100 trucks belonging to the members of the Association. This is the argument of Chief Remi Ogungbemi, president of AMATO.Why has the association been singled out for punishment for an offence that was committed by others? In this interview with MMS Plus,Ogungbemi discloses measures the association has taken to obtain justice. Why has the Nigerian ports Authority (NPA) and the Nigerian Shippers’Council ( NSC) intervened in this critical matter? Find out why and many more. Enjoy it.
We understand that about hundred trucks belonging to your members were seized by the Nigeria Customs. Can you tell us why the trucks were seized in the first place by Customs?
The trucks that were seized are over hundred trucks, littered all over the commands of Customs. Not only here in Lagos, even in Western ports; we have them there also.
The trucks were seized; according to the Customs, for carrying what they said are offensive items (contraband), which is not our making. We are not the owners of the goods, we are just a carrier of the goods ,and these containers are the containers that were brought by ships. The containers were brought to the Nigerian Ports. And the goods inside the containers were opened, examined and released by government agencies including Customs. So, I don’t know why they are now holding our trucks? I said it in one forum, that maybe what their physical eyes can’t dictate during the examination, it is when these containers get on top of our trucks, they will now dictate it. They said it is because the law said if the goods are seized, the goods should be seized together with the means of conveying the goods. I asked them, why not seize the ship that brought the container in the first place? The Ship that brought the container to the port, why can’t it be seized also? Why seize only the trucks? What about the Terminal that received the container or the shipping company that brought the container into the country? Call them, hold them responsible. So this has been our concerns.
The drivers of these containers, are they privy to the content of the containers? Did they know anything that is inside the container order than that they were hired by the owners of the containers and positioned their trucks for conveyance of the container?
Drivers, truck owners are not privy to the documents. Not even the documents used to pass the goods at the gate, talk less of the goods itself. If you ask them what is inside the container, they will tell you what is your business? They will remind you that your business is just to carry a container; whatever that’s inside the container is none of your business. And as a matter of fact, containers “are said to contain” as it is in the release documents. So, we don’t know what it contains until it is opened. We are not privy to the documents, we are not part of the people that examined the container, we were not even there when they are examining the container, we don’t even know which Cargo is contraband and which one is not contraband.
We also understand that your association would have gone on strike ,but for the intervention of Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA )and Nigerian Shippers’ Council( NSC). So sir, what has been the outcome of the intervention?
Yes, we still believe in their ability to make the management of the Nigeria Customs see reasons. They are the regulators of the Ports. NPA is the technical regulator of the Ports while the Shippers’ Council is the economic regulator of the Port. And not just that, they are the leading agencies in maritime industry. We are still giving them the benefit of the doubt. As they intervene in the matter even as at few days ago, I received information from the Executive Secretary of the Shippers’ Council, that they are very much on it. They are even planning to go a step further. Let me not divulge that information because, it was just given to me. Let me just say that they are on it, and I believe in their competency that they will make management of Customs see reasons why they should release all our trucks to us. We are not talking about trucks that are going to carry goods across the border, no, these are the goods that are already in Nigerian ports. So, there’s no justification in arresting the trucks that are carrying container at all. It’s a way of using truckers as scapegoat or as a sacrificial lamb for the offence committed either by importers that imported the goods or with their collaborator agents that refused to declare honestly what is inside the container. We are not part of the people that are clearing the containers, we are not involved in examination, we are not privy to the documents. Why hold our trucks? Even last week another incident happened in which,NAFDAC arrested a truck and it was a truck that carried containers from the port. And NAFDAC is also part of the people that are examining containers in the ports. What Customs is doing, NAFDAC is emulating them. I went to their yard in Mobil Road,Ajegunle,Apapa and met the officer there and asked, why did you arrest our truck and even locked up the driver? Can you imagine this! Your men that is part of the people that examine the containers in the port, are also culpable. If you know you discovered something, why not arrest the people that positioned the container for examination in the first place? You arrested a truck, you kept the truck in your yard, and you locked up the driver. As I speak, we wrote a letter, I think the driver will be released today or so. Is that not injustice? And after all these dialogue , if they refuse to listen, we will have no option than to call for total withdrawal of services. However, we still believe in dialogue.
In the case where the outcome of the intervention of NPA and Shippers’ Council is not favourable to you paradventure , NAFDAC and Nigeria Customs refuse to release the trucks, what next step will you take?
Well, we will introduce the language which I believe every Nigerian understands. That is what I mean by saying withdrawal of our service and there is no going back on that because, we cannot continue to be suffering for the offense we didn’t commit.
These trucks that were seized, were they seized right inside the port or outside the port?
It was outside the port.They will wait until when the truck comes out, they will now stop the truck . The question is when you discovered that the container is not clean in the port, why not hold the agent or the importer? Because, before a container can be examined, either the importer or the agent has to be present. So if you discover something, why not hold them? They do it deliberately to be using truckers as escape goat for their own negligence. That is a miscarriage of justice. What is the justification for arresting the drivers, locking the driver up? Our drivers used to be under detention so we discussed it with Customs sometimes ago. They were also arresting and putting the drivers in detention but later, they changed, by saying that they will no longer be putting the driver in detention, but they will ban the truck. In the previous administration of Customs, we discussed it with them, when Dikko ,and others were there. They gave us a circular that allowed us to be collecting our trucks, but this new management said no, that the circular contravenes the CEMA law. That what the CEMA states is that the means of conveyance should be seized together with the goods.
Even when the means of conveyance has no knowledge of what is inside the content of the container?
That’s it. If that should even be applied, why not apply the same to the Ship that brought the container? What of the equipment that carried the container and put it on the truck? What about the terminal operators? What about every other persons involved in the clearing and examination of all these containers? Call them to question. Why must they be using our trucks as a sacrificial lamb for their negligence or incompetence?
So how much revenue have you lost as a result of these seizures?
Well, you can imagine, the means of livelihood of our members are in custody of Customs. I can’t quantify the loss. Some people borrow (loan) money to buy these trucks, some people have even died prematurely for the shock they received and the trucks have been there over a year or almost two years.
If we take an average amount perhaps a truck makes maybe a hundred thousand naira in a day and then you look at the length of time the containers have been there maybe one year or two years , how much would you may have lost?
When I say I can’t quantify, it means a lot. Will I talk of the families that are depending on the truck, will I talk of the children that are supposed to be in school which their parents were unable to pay their school fees as a result of the seizure, will I talk of so many things. It’s enormous, it is running into billions. And that is one of the reasons you see some trucks in dilapidated conditions because the money they supposed to use is longer there. Even some of us have to be assisting some members that are having problems. But for how long should we continue like this? I so much appreciate what the authorities are doing because what I’m saying ,no matter how I increase my voice, they can’t hear me here in Lagos talk less of hearing me in Abuja. Thank you for what you have been doing. Do you know we have even written to the Minister of Finance because, we believe that Customs are under Ministry of Finance up till now, there is nothing. We wrote to National Assembly, nothing happened. What else do you think we can do? I have copies of the letter we wrote to the National Assembly and Minister of Finance. We also wrote even to the chairman committee of Customs in National Assembly, nothing. We wrote to CG, nothing. I went to Abuja myself, I met with the Deputy Comptroller General in charge of the enforcement, he said it’s a management decision that he will not invalidate the circular that the circular they gave us before has been invalidated and they will not validate it again. Which means, they want us to continue to suffer for something we don’t know about.