Deacon Pius Ogudo is every inch, a knowledgeable freight forwarder who talks in the traditional NAGAFF way. His outburst against operatives of the Zone ‘A’ Federal Operations Unit of the Nigeria Customs Service is probably the first time a freight forwarder will openly accuse the special unit of Customs of untoward practices. They remain allegations, though.
What is the extent of the problem?
Between Ijora Bridge and Lagos toll gate to Ibadan, the kind of things they do is nothing to write home about. We know that the Federal Operations Unit is to checkmate whatever is coming out of the ports, we are not quarreling with that, they are to find out whether the goods coming out of the ports are properly entered or not, we are not quarreling over that but if they discover any goods that is not properly entered, they should make arrest and take it to FOU head quarters at Ikeja. But whereby they stop our boys on the way and start to collect as much as N100, 000 and N800, 000 as settlement to allow the goods to go; that is where I have problems with them, I told the Customs PRO in Abuja that if he does not do anything about it that I am going to the press and up till this moment that I am talking to you nothing has been done. There is a plan that freight forwarders are going to fight them physically and that was why I alerted the PRO, that I don’t want this kind of thing to happen that they will say freight forwarders have gone to fight FOU and they are destroying properties that is why I alerted him and up till this moment as am talking to you nothing has happened. They still remain there along the road collecting between N50,000 and N1 Million as the case may be, Last week Friday they collected N200,000 from my boy, three weeks ago they collected N80,000 from another boy and they all came to me and complained that see what FOU is doing.
Does it mean that the goods are not properly cleared?
If the goods are not properly entered, get those people arrested, take them to FOU and surcharge them, that is, for the ones that are not properly entered. But for you to stop a truck and say that the goods are not properly entered and on the long run, you start to demand for money to release them on the spot, that is what I am against. I am not happy; it will not be good if tomorrow they hear that clearing agents are burning their vehicles and fighting them, it will not speak well and that is why I called the PRO in Abuja and even went on the internet and tried their e-mail address, but the thing was not going, I told him that I sent a message to your e-mail go and look at it and he told me that he would, but up till now he did not tell me anything. The only thing he told me was that they only have one check point in the whole of Lagos and that is at Mile 2. How can a whole Area Controller release a job and FOU will go and hold it on the way, what is your purpose there? Are you now saying that the Area Controller is not competent to release goods from the ports? And then you start to extort money from agents to say that I will take your goods to FOU headquarters and on the long run, before you move from your base where you arrested them to maybe the next bus stop, you will collect money and let the vehicle go, it’s not fair.
How many are these check points within Lagos metropolis?
They are so many, they are at the Ijora Bridge in front of Area B police station just before you climb the bridge, they are at two points at Liverpool road, they also have two checkpoints before and after Coconut Bridge especially when they see containers being offloaded along the road, they will come and meet them. They have one at Trinity, Mile 2, Toyota, Oshodi Oke that is, when you are descending the bridge, then when you turn at Anthony, there is another one there, there is one at toll gate, if you are coming out from Ikorodu, they have two points, the junction going to Ikorodu Lighter Terminal and also at Mile 12, they are all over the place. So, they all do the same thing and say that FOU is an area, so they must make money for the federal government. Is that the way to make it by collecting physical cash and not giving receipts?
What is the position of your association on this issue?
I told my president that this is what FOU is doing and that I want to go on air but before I go on air that I want to call their public relations officer, he said go ahead and do it. I called the public relations officer four times and he said he was going to contact the controller of that unit and up till now, I did not hear anything from him and I assume that he did not call anybody. If I take the pain to call him, he should have even taken the pain to call me back; that they have taken action.
Don’t you think that these things happen because the containers may have been ‘flown’ out of the ports?
There is no container that is flown out of the ports, but if you say that there is short payment I will agree, there is no how containers will come out of the ports without documentations, it is impossible, but if you say that instead of an agent to pay N10, 000, he is paying N8, 000, I will agree with you. But again, it takes two to tangle, if you are blaming the agents, you must also blame the Customs that allows it to pass, if Customs says N10 and the agent came with N8, you ask him to pay the difference, but whereby he is supposed to pay N10 and an officer agreed, a senior officer for that matter, (let us say, an assistant controller) and allows the goods to go out for N8, then there is compromise because it takes two to tangle. So in such cases, you don’t blame the agents because the agent is not to collect money for federal government, it is the Customs that is mandated by law to collect revenue. The agent or importer might decide to defraud, but it is the responsibility of the customs to checkmate those anomalies, so if the customs that is supposed to checkmate allows it, then who is to be blamed?
Don’t you think that if you had paid the correct duty, they will not have any right to extort money from you?
That is why I said that the faults are from all sides. I have never said that the agents or importers are saints, the whole thing lies between the agents, importers and the Customs, they are the three people that meet together in the clearance of goods, they marry themselves and agree together, so if there is any anomalies on either part, it is an agreement. What I am quarrelling about is that when an Area Controller decides to release goods on which an agent is supposed to pay N10 and he pays only N8 and the FOU now goes to hold the consignment, who is to blame? You go straight to the area controller and say why did you release these goods to this man rather that asking the agent to pay as much as N1Million to find his way out, you now leave the area controller blameless, that is my argument.
As a freight forwarder, do you prefer ‘settlement’ to seizure?
In as much as government says pay N100 and you decided to pay N60, what I will suggest is payment of the difference with a penalty. This a what Customs has been doing right from the onset; that any job that is supposed to pay N1Million and the agent is paying N700,000, the officer there will raise a DN that the agent should pay the extra N300,000 with a penalty and whereby the Customs fail to do that, the FOU has no right to hold on to the agents, but to hold the Customs, I recall that former CG, Customs Gyang Buba said that you can allow the goods to go, come back to the round table and pay the difference, that is what he said as the head of customs then.
As at the time that Buba said that, he was calling the shots; do you think the incumbent CG is bound by what a former CG said?
Okay, let’s remove what Buba said, I just said that as a point of reference, let us come to reality. You and I sitting on the same table, you are a security agent and you are supposed to collect money and I am not a security agent, I am ignorant of what the government said you should do
Are you sure that you are ignorant of the tariffs to be paid at the ports?
I am talking as a lay man now; I am talking as somebody who is coming to take his goods because my ultimate goal is to make profits. I may not want to pay what the government wants me to pay. But you as a security man, a government official who is trained to do the job, you must hold me to pay the actual amount, so if I can beat other people and I decided not beat you or beat some certain things, you that is going to release the job to append your signature that yes this duty is correct; that you should pay, I see no reason why those already released goods should now be stopped by somebody on the way and that it should not go.
There was a problem at Ikorodu, what is it about?
The problem we have at Ikorodu now is that the goods at Ikorodu lighter terminal are overtime cargoes, that is at government warehouse, but government still gave us the privilege that even while they are overtime cargoes, you can still clear them if there is evidence that you have paid duty, you will only get clearance from Harvey road as the case was before and you go there to carry your goods. In the time past, when we had task force to decongest the ports, we all went through the task force, task force went and examined and made sure that we paid the correct duty. The problem there is that between the payment of correct duty and the time of the expiration of duty. The duty has already expired, so I asked the man who is in charge of the task force that what happens to those entries that have not been released by you because of the delay in payment, he said the whole document would be sent to the area controller and that the area controller has power to release on behalf of the task force. They now packed the documents into two (Ghana must go) bags to the area controller so we went there to sort them out by our self, two of my containers are there and the reports that the task force gave shows that I should go and pay duty. I have paid the duties, but only to get to that place and find out that the goods have been allocated to somebody else, I got my containers released last week Thursday and I now dispatched the released SGD to Ikorodu for delivery which is the normal thing, I went to confirm if the SGD has gone and they said yes, received by so and so person and immediately I asked my personal assistant to go there and locate the SGD, he got there yesterday and saw the SGD, I said, okay go ahead and start processing so that we can take delivery either today or tomorrow. But to my greatest surprise the officer in charge of the terminal said that there is an allocation right there with him for that same container, I had to alert the importer immediately. He is there now fighting seriously and the officer in charge is confused, he doesn’t know who to release the goods to.
Have there been other cases of this type?
The very day that FOU started to examine containers at Ikorodu, the officer in charge of the task force that is delegated to go and examine the containers and his men; all went to Ikorodu to go and examine containers. By the time they opened the container there was nothing inside, immediately on the spot they called the CG that the container which they were supposed to examine with all documents in their hand there is nothing inside. There are two of my containers there, one has vehicles and one has general goods. The one that I am talking about now contains general goods, the other one I don’t know now, that is why I am going there to find out if it is still there because if it has been taken, I don’t know what to do.
What has NAGAFF (as a body) done about this issue because you are also a member?
I think my Board of Trustees chairman in person of Dr Boniface Aniebonam has written a lot of things to the CG directly over these issues, maybe he has not made it public the way I am doing now.
Was there any response from the CG?
I think it was because of his write up that changed everybody in Ikorodu from the top to the bottom, they changed all of them. Before this time, there was something like a clique in Ikorodu and the head of that clique is one officer called…….., the OC, there are four of them that they think they can not be removed, but they have been removed now, but its like the bad blood in the body of those people have flowed into these new ones. That is why I am making all these noise