Driving To Deliver Your Business

Separating Genuine Freight Forwarders from Touts

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Stakeholders in the ports, apparently worried over the influx of touts in the system, insist that biometric identity cards to be issued by professional associations should be made compulsory for every freight forwarder to check fraud and security challenges, reports Francis Ugwoke

A visit to international ports, such as that of Singapore, paints a picture of automation. What this means is that every process is online. Even the final clearing process, such as loading is also automated. In all the container terminals, one is surprised to find a serene environment where there is no person attending to you because the process has been so organised that everything is automated. It is only in the entrance gate that visitors will find security personnel watching the movement of vehicles. The whole terminal is without human heads, yet trucks are going in and out of the terminal to either pick cargos or drop empty containers.

It was so surprising that members of the Senate Committee on Marine Transport who visited the ports last year expressed surprise, and made it clear that this was not the best for Nigeria. To them, the automation policy must have denied thousands of citizens employment unlike what we have in our port system in the country known for being rowdy. Unlike Singapore port, a visit to any Nigerian port environment is like a visit to Alaba Market in Lagos. There is always a sea of heads made up of clearing agents, touts, hawkers, among others. What could be the painful side is that not many in the system are out there for genuine business. It is a place where many unsuspecting importers had lost their fortunes.Until the reform in the ports that brought in concessionaires, many who had access to the ports vandalised some cargos in what is known as wharf rats . But that could be a child s play compared to fake clearing agents who had duped importers of either their cargo or huge sums of money entrusted in their care. While this has reduced, the ports are still filled with many touts ready to dupe importers who fall prey. The unemployment situation in the country where graduates are roaming the streets of cities has also led to more crimes in the port system.

This explains why authorities have taken up some measures to check such incidents. The Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents, ANLCA, the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders, NAGAFF and the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria, CRFFN, including the Nigeria Customs Service, have all introduced measures to check the activities of touts who had ruined many importers. And with the current security challenge in the country, the need to check touts and separate them from genuine clearing agents cannot be over-emphasised.

Human Traffic at Terminals, Customs Processing UnitsAt the First and the Second Gates of the Tin Can Island ports, one cannot take a count of the number of people milling around the port environment. It is a huge crowd. Everyone is engrossed in one activity or the other, talking business. Apart from the hawkers, everyone there claims to be a clearing agent who have come there to do genuine business. Even the hawkers also claim to have the capacity to clear goods if given jobs. If given jobs, they can sublet such jobs.Tin Can Port is the home for imported vehicles of all types. So, the terminal has several importers and also so many clearing agents who specialise only in vehicle handling. The port is volatile, and is usually riddled with crisis, apparently because of the huge number of touts in the area. It is not the same for the premier port which has so many corporate clearing agents and big time importers. On a number of occasions in the past, clearing agents had clashed with customs officers of the command. The agents had about three years beaten up some officers, including a lady, accused of corruption and demanding too much money from them before releasing their cargo.On several occasions, the enforcement units of the Federal Operations (FOU) and the Police had raided the port arresting many agents, including innocent ones, accusing them of being touts. About three years ago, the Command had shut its doors to agents who had no business to do inside the Command. It was a lot of discomfort for portfolio agents who use the large compound belonging to the Customs as their base. It took time before the matter was settled, and it was business as usual. Customs Area Controller, Alhaji Jibrin Zakare, told THISDAY recently that the biggest challenge the Command had was coping with the crowd at the port. Zakare lamented that even those who had no business in the port find their way inside. He said that the Command had tightened security measures to ensure that only those who had business in the port were the ones allowed in. He however added that one thing the Command had considered was that there was a lot of unemployment in the country, which, according to him, may be the reason for the huge number of people in the port environment. But he added that the Command would not play with security measures in the Command. Following the security situation in the country, the Command has maintained 100 per cent goods examination on all containers. It is the same for all the ports. In Apapa port, even with many corporate agents, one can see another huge crowd of agents, milling around Nnewi building and the Customs Processing Unit (CPU), but certainly not like the Tin Can experience. In the two ports however, what is common is that there are many of the agents whose business is only to perfect fraud through printing of fake payment receipts from banks and even shipping companies that can be used to clear goods. It was common before the reforms, but has reduced in recent time. But sources said that some agents still engage in such fraud. This explains the frequent raid on them. In recent time, those who commit such fraud do so with the connivance of bank officials who confirm payments that were not made. Billions of naira are lost every year by the government and Customs Service. This explains why the Customs Service introduced some post clearing audit process during which it takes time to audit every clearing process.

Measures to Check Tout at PortsDetermined to ensure that touts are flushed out of the ports, executives of ANLCA and NAGAFF have had to introduce biometric identity cards which are presented to the Customs anytime any agent has any item to clear. With the biometric card, the agent is traced when there is any fraud discovered in the cargo he cleared. This has given the Customs Service assurance to deal with members of the associations. The leaders of the associations introduced other measures to check members from committing fraud while clearing goods at the port, including some sanctions imposed on the member. On the other hand, the Customs Service, in a bid to check fraud in the system sanctions clearing agents discovered to have been involved in any fraud. This is by suspension of licence until the agent clears his name. The agent also faces prosecution. But despite this measure, fraud against agents and their importers have not abated. Every year, many licences of agents are suspended because of allegations of fraud. Sometimes, the fraud is committed by their importers as they make dubious declarations. The CRFFN, as a regulator , registers genuine agents and gives them numbers for which they can be identified. The agent is to submit such numbers along with his documents put forward to clear any cargo. With this, he could be traced in the Council for apprehension or sanction.

Checking Unregistered AgentsHowever, the biggest challenge for the authorities is that there are some clearing agents that are not registered but free to clear goods at the ports. The Customs law allows self clearing, so that one must not be a customs agent to clear goods. But this has become a problem as such agents could use fake addresses to clear goods after conniving with unscrupulous customs and even bank officials. The CRFFN has been worried about this, and had planned to rid the ports of such people who are seen as quacks. But the challenge being suffered by the Council has also impacted negatively on most of its programmes, including such moves to ensure that only registered freight forwarders are allowed to clear goods in the ports. But a member of ANLCA, Chief Dennis Opara , told THISDAY that biometric cards introduced by the ANLCA President, Prince Olayiwora Shittu, and other associations, for members will go a long way in checking fraud perpetrated by any holder. Opara said with the card, the agent can be traced and apprehended. He urged the Customs Service and other security agencies to also insist that all genuine clearing agents who belong to associations must have such biometric cards to be able to separate them from touts in the system.Source: This Day Live

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