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S-M-U-G-G-L-I-N-G : The unholy alliance between officials, foreign shipping companies and importers

End of first quarter this year produced a mixed grill of developments at some of the Lagos seaport commands. High profile seizures at the Apapa and Tin Can Island commands, also witnessed equally high heeled questionable import documentations.

One of the highpoints in these documentation manipulations resulting in mind boggling customs revenue losses and fiscal policies abuses was the ruling of the Federal High Court Lagos Division which denied the management of CMA CGM DELMAS NIGERIA LIMITED, a foreign shipping company with operational office at Apapa Lagos, judicial cover to thwart investigation of its alleged import crimes by the Nigerian Police.

At the middle of the gigantic fireball revealing the outlines of an intricate import racketeering and organized smuggling is the Tin Can Island Command of the Nigeria Customs Service. The period presented spectra of silhouette images of otherwise gentlemen officers and frontline operators and clearing agents, bond by a common thread of an unholy alliance that has compromised customs duty and robbed the system beyond words. The judgment document presents the facts and damning evidence of the serial unholy alliance between customs, foreign shipping companies, importers and clearing agents.

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The importation in question comprised of two consignments in respect of Sea Way Bill Number lD20271634 evidencing 5×20 Containers and Sea Way Bill Number lD20271677 also evidencing 5×20 Containers. The suspected contraband goods landed at the Tin Can Island Command in April 2015 and were believed to have been cleared under shoddy circumstances the following month.

Honourable Justice O.O Ogutoyinbo who delivered the judgment on March 27, 2019, stated that the police have a constitutional right to probe the illicit transactions and make arrest in the course of investigation. Justice Oguntoyinbo also held that such cannot be termed harassment if the police have reasonable grounds to suspect foul play in government official business procedures, or suspect official fraud and forgery.

While the officials of the customs command and other accredited security agents allegedly buckled under mouth watering settlement to pass the contraband items, the Nigerian Police Zone 11 and the IGP Monitoring Unit Lagos, took exception and stood their grounds to investigate the import, rejecting all entreaties to be bought over, for which the foreign shipping company sued the IGP, Nigerian Police Zone 11, the IGP Monitoring Unit Lagos, together with NYA Integrity Action Group, a whistle blower and private anti-corruption firm.

Just before the damning verdict, the Tin Can Island Command alongside a number of other commands received the World Customs Organisation 2018 Letter of Commendation for exemplary performance. The WCO award turned out a season of proud celebration where garlands and wreaths of honour were bestowed on some of certain officials and customs stations accused of aiding and abetting import scams and losses of government revenues.

Between 2017 and 2018, the Tin Can Island Command intercepted two containers of assault rifles and ammunition shipped from the Islamic Republic of Turkey, which had caused quite some stir. With this rather heartwarming milestone, one would regard the command as an epitome of operational excellence, unsparing in ethical standing and best practices.

But beneath this façade of official commitment to duty and of its supposed air of innocence and high professional goals, the command’s activities reek of unbridled corruption and acts of economic sabotage, detrimental to the nation’s fiscal policy system and economy.

The Tin Can Island Command is certainly not new to issues of high profile corruption perfected under a convoluted network of conspiracy. Perhaps what is new is the command’s notoriety for its growing dexterity and sophistication, especially in the face of the disturbing fact that its entire command structure is almost always involved in the high net worth scams.

In 2017, the Comptroller General of Customs, Col. Hameed Ali, retired, reinforced above position when he accused shipping companies of doctoring manifests of cargo destined for Nigeria to thwart and shortchange customs extant laws and government fiscal policies.

Ali who was speaking at a stakeholders meeting organized by the Nigerian Shippers’ Council in Lagos, in response to the then ongoing investigation of what was popularly known as the Turkey guns import, already aforementioned, said the outcome of government investigation indicated that the manifests of shipments were doctored and faked on transit before arriving Nigeria, maintaining that the documents reflected guns in the shipping manifests before leaving Turkey Nigeria.

Political analysts posit that Ali’s explanations were diplomatic finesse to douse concerns in certain quarters about the culpability of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Turkey in the shipment of three consecutive consignments of guns.

Ali explained that the country said it did not know that gun merchandise shipment was not allowed in Nigeria; and the matter died. It was a new twist to import prohibition offences, which does not admit ignorance as excuse.

Apparently getting wiser, Ali last year reportedly blasted customs commands leadership for allegedly aiding and abetting various cases of sabotage in customs trade, policing and administration. It is most unlikely that the Customs boss will ever get to fully comprehend the massive racketeering that is regularly going on at the command, because of the high stake politicking in appointment of principal officers and its leadership; any less the smokescreen laced with political and psychological emphasis to bamboozle headquarters.

The deals are however mostly facilitated through manipulation of shipping manifests and customs documentations such as bill of lading and delivery orders, and the twisting of the tariff system which thrives on willful downward review of customs duty; in addition to customs officers discretionary powers, which is another helpful tool, with the same effect icing have on cakes, almost always, perfectly hiding any ugly after bake disorder.

This reporter gathered on good authority that such deals usually enjoy accelerated and coordinated documentation, clearance and exit from the port. Foolproof, the conspiracy is believed to enjoy extensive collaboration across the rank and file, beginning with the customs area controller to the exit gate officers, right through the command’s intermediate gatekeepers such as the Officers-in-Charge of Terminals, CIU, Enforcement, Examination and Releasing seats.

Further findings also indicate that the racket involves the management of terminals and bonded warehouses, believed to have provided critical support to cases of smuggling, where some of the questionable consignments are endorsed and routed as TRASIRE or BONDS; and are believed to be involved in the inexplicable disappearances of such consignments.

Take the example of the 10x20ft containers of Environ Health Drinks which landed at Tin Can Island Container Terminal, TICT on December 20, 2018. When the importer, Clarion Medicals Limited commenced clearance on January 2, 2019, the quantity, value and duty was believed to have been heavily manipulated to read 16000 cartons per container and 1600 packets per carton.

Curiously the questionable figures were readily authenticated and passed by the various customs seats, including the examination and valuation seats, and exited by the releasing officer. Those whose business it is to know say the conspiracy provided cover for what they termed falsified examination and wrong customs duty, calculated at N8, 655, 767. 00.

Luck however ran out on the owners when the containers were intercepted by official of the Importers Association of Nigeria, IMAN, Special Monitoring Task Force in Lagos. According to IMAN insider sources, upon careful physical examination, each container was discovered to be carrying 2900 cartons of Environ Health Drink as against 1600 cartons declared by the importer and endorsed by customs.

Above translates to under declaration of 1300 cartons per container, giving a grand total of 29000 under declared containers. At 20percent customs duty, the importer, his agent and officers of the command defrauded the federal government of approximately N10million, in just a single transaction.

While the command officials are believed to have pocketed N6million, the importer and his agent walked away with N4million. Worse still, a clear case of forgery, fraud, concealment and economic sabotage was effectively compromised by men of the command.

Just recently, on 14th May 2019 to be precise, about 10x40ft containers laden with trucks and car tyres left the same Tin Can Island Customs Command, through the same TICT for Dest International Limited warehouse, Agboju Lagos. It is believed that some of the containers with registration numbers TCNU4343826, TCNU2299442, TGHU8752531 and ZCSU7028355 carrying truck tyres were assessed for 10percent duty against 30percent, while it is also believed that the car tyres were not officially captured for duty payment.

To achieve dodging payment of duty, the car tyres were stuffed in four and five pieces inside the truck tyres. There are also concerns in some quarters that many of the imported tyres are substandard, and are selling under loose regulatory atmosphere.

Pinnacle Time was reliably informed that whenever these deals are made public, the customs officials in panicky state, quickly contact affected importers to evacuate all suspicious imports from their warehouses, while in a state of pretentious innocence and concern invite whoever is probing such matters, to come with them to the warehouse, ostensibly for a goose chase check.

It is not surprising that it is the Tin Can Island Customs Command that facilitated the release of the contentious 10x20ft containers for which CMA CGM DELMAS NIGERIA LIMITED ran into trouble with the Nigeria Police. Available documents show that the consignments consist of soap and organic surface-activ. The Customs Prohibition Law list SOAP as CONTRABAND and liable to outright seizure, while parties linked to importation of contraband are liable to prosecution.

The consignment arrive the Lagos port on April 2, 2015. However, during customs formalities, the bill of lading was doctored to read Manicure and Pedicure. Curiously, the Delivery Order reverted to SOAP and organic surface-activ, in unremitting and impregnable circumstances.

The intrigues were far from over as the consignment which was officially believed to have been moved on TRANSFER to Donclimax Bonded Terminal in Lagos, remained at the TICT premises, from where the containers reportedly developed wings and flew away; beating men of the Police Zone 11 Monitoring Unit who were believed to have laid siege for the items based on intelligence, and had already shifted their attention from Tin Can port to the location of the ‘receiving’ bonded terminal.

It is interesting to note the corporate relationship that exists between consignee and others in the clearing chain as expressed in the consignee’s address: FADOBRA VENTURES LTD, C/O DONCLIMAX BONDED TERMINAL.

Those whose business it is to know say the Tin Can Island Command is the most notorious in ‘machine outside’, a local industry parlance for shipping document falsification. It is believed that for every N100million the command generates into the coffers of government, about N120million goes into the private pockets of individual officers, outside of what logically is also lost to their counterparts, the importers and agents.

Efforts to get the customs are controller; Comptroller MBA Musa to react to the matter hit the brick wall as he failed to respond to letter of inquiry sent to him by our reporter. The Command PRO, Uche Ejesieme also excused his boss on the ground that the command had last year entertained similar media inquiry and therefore cannot revisit the matter.

Speculation is rife that officers have found relief in the fact that neither the presidency nor the Customs leadership really cares about news report that exposes official ills in the system.

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