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Anxiety as wharf rats return to ports

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13 YEARS after Nigerian seaports were concessioned to private terminal operators, unauthorised persons, fondly called ‘Wharf rats’, whose activities range from container poaching, pilfering to vandalisation of imported items are back in the ports.

The development, which has assumed a new dimension with perceived conspiracy of insiders, which stakeholders tag, “Executive Wharf Rats” had been worrisomely endured by cargo importers for a long time until July 17, 2019, when the Apapa Command of Nigeria Customs Service reportedly foiled an attempt by an ambulance bus smuggling 10 cartons of Tramadol out of AP Moller Terminal in  Apapa port. Before this interception, 211 cartons of the drugs with a duty paid value of N59bn had been stolen out of the terminal.

Since then, incidents of container poaching, pilfering and vandalisation of imported vehicles have been reported across the terminals, with the latest being at the Ports and Cargo Terminal.

The ambulance is owned by Medbury Medicals Services, contracted by the management of APM Terminals Limited to provide healthcare services for its staff.

During an interrogation, the suspects – the driver and escort – stated that they were engaged by some people whose names they did not mention to use the ambulance to ferry the drugs out of the port to an undisclosed destination.

An importer, James Iwore, who spoke to National Light said that incidents of container poaching had rather increased, saying that prior to port concession, wharf rats were invading the ports through the sea side, but today, they are aided by dockworkers, the staff of terminal operators, customs officers, freight agents and their importers who have the Bill of Lading of the cargo.

On why importers did not raise alarm until recently, Iwore said the importer’s hand was tied in such circumstance because if he raises a petition in view of his stolen items, he can only be indemnified by the terminal company’s insurance according to the content of the manifest, disclosing that most importers don’t make correct declaration. He explained that if the importer is to be paid for the stolen goods, he may even be the loser at the end because what is in the manifest is by far less than what he has declared. “I give an example. When staffers of Maerskline were bringing down my container and it fell down and damaged the electronics, they asked me to come forward with my claims, but I did not go but preferred auctioning my goods because I would have lost more if I accepted to be paid according to the manifest.

Reacting to reports of pilfering of containers inside the port, the Chairman of Tin Can Island Chapter of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), Prince Segun Oduntan, said that some terminal operators in Nigeria lacked the required standards for owning and operating a port terminal.

The group condemned the return of ‘wharf rats to the ports, adding that damaging of general cargoes at Apapa Port and vandalising of vehicles at the Tin Can Island Port is an indication that the terminal operators are not prepared to run terminals.

Oduntan said the return of ‘wharf rats’ to the port was disturbing, saying that whenever incidents of vandalisation occur, the agent is usually at loss because the terminal operators don’t pay compensations.

Oduntan said he had also been a victim of pilfering of vehicles at Tin Can Port when his four containers of Land Cruiser Jeeps and Hilux Jeeps were vandalized. He narrated that it almost soiled his relationship with his client.

He said the agents never got to know the level of damage to the vehicles or the cargoes until it had gotten to where the containers would be offloaded.

To this end, the ANLCA Chairman advised clearing agents to always go for examination of cargoes with a recording camera in addition to their android phones, as well as  new padlocks, which they would be able to identify if their containers were broken.

“There is a standard requirement for you to own a terminal, just as there is a standard for licensed customs agent to practice. If all the required standards have been met by the terminal operators, we would not be experiencing all these cases of pilfering”.

“It has happened to me before, it happened to me some years back at Ports and Cargo Terminal. They almost soiled my relationship with my client, if not for integrity sake and he knows that we have come a long way.

“You can imagine somebody importing Land cruiser vehicles and Hilux of four containers, and upon getting out of the port, they got to where they would discharge and my boys called me to say that the brainbox, the side mirror and and other parts of the vehicles have been removed. I took pictures of everything.

“The problem is that we never get to know the level of damage to these vehicles until when we get to where the containers would be offloaded. This is the only area that Ports and Cargo has used against us. The vandals break the container and put another similar lock”

“My advice is this; when you are coming for your cargo examination, bring your own padlock from outside. Don’t buy the general padlock that they sell around the port, so that when you are taking delivery of your container, once you notice anything strange about the padlock before it exits the terminal, you must open that container and look at the cargo.

“But what happens is that most of these agents, due to some exigencies, it is one person that goes for the examination, and when the container is being released, it is another person that goes for it. And once that container exits the terminal, the terminal operators would not be held liable.

“So, my advice to agents, which I also practice is that if you get to my operational office, I bought a camera which everyone of my staff going for examination of cargoes has to use, apart from their phones. Immediately after the close of every examination, we transfer the recording of that examination into our system. So if there is a case of pilfering on any container, there is evidence to show,” he said.

Oduntan however, argued that terminal operators should be held liable because they are supposed to provide adequate security for cargoes kept inside their terminals.

He stressed that if the terminal owners are made to pay compensations, they would have known how to protect their terminal against pilfering and vandalisation. He lamented that the port environment and terminals are always dark at night due to poor lighting.

According to him, even though the Nigerian Ports is subscribed and operates in line with the International Ships and Ports Facility (ISPS) Code, the ports are not well illuminated.

“Part of the requirements of ISPS Code is that the port terminals should be lightened up and security put in place. If you come to the port area at night, you will see the whole area dark”, he said.

The Maritime Workers’ Union of Nigeria (MWUN) had also called on terminal operators to improve their lighting equipment and overhaul security personnel in a bid to stop further vandalisation of cargoes at the terminal.

The Union has also cautioned unit and district officers at the terminal to desist from any form of connivance with officials to pilfer or vandalise consignment at the terminals.

The President General of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) affiliate union, Comrade Adewale Adeyanju, had threatened to expel members of the union found wanting of any act of stealing at the ports, and charged management of the terminal to illuminate the facility, saying that it is not useful to have a Camera Circuit Television (CCTV) to be strategically positioned in the terminal without proper lighting.

Adeyanju also warned his officers to henceforth desist from participating in examination of cargoes at the terminal, even as he stressed the need for the dockworkers to conduct themselves while at work at the facility.

He also called on management of the Ports and Cargo Terminal to fix the security lapses at the terminal, which he alleged, could have resulted to criminals invading the terminal to vandalise containers belonging to importers.

“When I heard that the things that have been buried in the past have started surfacing again, I was quite worried about where such practice is coming from.”

Asked about the outcome of the meeting with the terminal operators, the union boss stressed that: “We made it known to the management of the terminal that they should go and put their security in place. If they have CCTV, they should be able to identify who and who is responsible for the pilfering. If you go to APMT now, before you enter their gate, they know somebody is coming, if ordinary pin drops at night, they will see it. That is the CCTV we are talking about not the one you have and there is no light in the terminal. How do you expect the equipment to work effectively? These are the things that I think the management should put in place in addressing the situation before them.

“I don’t want anyone to put the name of the union in bad light. That is why I called the branch officers of dock workers and part of my meeting with them is to read my own riot act. Any of my workers, any labour or any unit or district officer that gets himself involved in stealing or conniving with anyone to steal will be expelled from the union,” he warned.

Comrade Adeyanju, who gave the warning against the backdrop of recent reports of pilfering of containers at the Ports and Cargo Terminal, called on the management of the terminal to resolve the issue of security lapses in the port that gave rise to criminals’ invasion of the terminal, to vandalise containers.

“When I heard that the things that have been buried in the past have started surfacing again, I was a little bit worried about where is it coming from. I had to go underground and found out that these problems are coming from Ports and Cargo. Not only Ports and Cargo, others still cover their own.

“What I did today was to call all the union officers; the local units and I said, ‘if you don’t have a thief in your house, an outside one will not come in”.

Industry players are also of the view that importers and their freight forwarders or customs brokers, who have the bill of lading of the imported items should also be cautioned to stay clear from any conspiracy that may lead to vandalising, poaching or pilfering containerised items in any terminal.

In his view, a freight forwarder, Prince Bakare Adeyinka, accused Customs of shielding erring officers involved in container examination infractions.

Prince Adeyinka said that open and transparent disciplinary measures on its officers and men who are found culpable in releasing containers intercepted by its operatives on the highways would help to curb the menace.

Adeyinka, who is the President General of NAFFAC stated that it was not enough for the Customs management to always shield its officers arrested in connection with these consignments.

Adeyinka observed that to stem the tide of smuggling and infractions in cargo clearance, the importer, his agent, as well as the Customs officers found culpable should be named and shamed, much as they are punished for the crime.

He further challenged the service to carry the public along in any disciplinary measure purportedly adopted to punish its erring officers just as the Nigeria Police do in order to restore public confidence in the entire process.

In his words, “ we are doing 100% examination of cargo at the seaport for instance, not using scanners, some agencies’ officers will inspect the containers and somebody will lift the box before it is loaded and driven out of the port. After arresting the container, what happens to those that released the container?

“They should give us the internal mechanism that is not known to us. Let us see the internal mechanism that they are using. The police will tell you we dismissed this officer because of this, we arrested this officer because of this, this officer was taken to court because of this. That is the internal mechanism that we are talking about. “Why giving us number of people that we do not know? Who are they? Currently, they are doing destruction of Tramadol. Who are the people behind it? It is not enough to say they are destroying Tramadol. Who are the agencies behind it? Who are the freight forwarders behind it? Who are the shippers? What is the country of origin? What diplomatic steps has government taken against them for allowing those shipments?

Customs should do more in letting the public be part of the internal mechanism it uses to discipline its erring officers so as to restore public confidence in the entire process”.

National Public Relations Officer (PRO) of Nigeria Customs Service, DC Joseph Attah, when contacted, said the service was still investigating Customs officers’ complicity in the Tramadol deal.

 

 

 

 

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