Strong indications emerged that a mega protest which may cripple activities at Nigeria’s major seaports in Lagos might be looming, over the persisting illegal arrest and detention of containers already examined and released by the Nigeria Customs Service, which is the statutory agency of the government charged with such responsibility, by some officers of the Maritime Police Command.
Recall that some freight forwarders had penultimate Monday, embarked on a peaceful march in Apapa and the seaports environs to protest what they described as criminal extortion by officers of the Maritime Police, who illegally arrest and detain containers already cleared from the port with a view to extorting huge sums of money from the owners of the containers.
Vice chairman of the Apapa Chapter of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders, NAGAFF, Emeka Obinali, who spoke in Lagos, decried the worrisome developments where officers of Maritime Police Command arrest and detain already cleared and released containers and even detain the customs agents with a view to extorting them.
This is coming despite repeated protest letters to the Nigerian Shippers Council, the Economic Regulator of the ports, the Inspector General of Policy, the Nigerian Ports Authority, NPA and many other regulatory agencies of the government, all to no avail, as the Maritime Police Command officers have continued in such illegal acts.
“What these Maritime Police officers do is to connive with shipping companies and we have identified LANSAL in this type of connivance. Through the shipping companies, they get access to the manifest and the container numbers. In some cases, they tell the shipping line that the affected container is on the security watch list and it should be blocked.
“When your container is blocked, you will naturally be under intense pressure to get it released because you are afraid of paying demurrage and so through this means, the officers extort money from the freight forwarders that runs in several millions of naira. Sometimes, they even detain the agent and ask him to bail himself with huge sums of money.
“You can agree with me that this does not make for the 48-hour clearance of cargo, nor does it promote trade facilitation, a situation where Customs in conjunction with relevant statutory government agencies would inspect cargo at the ports and release them only for Maritime Police officers to detain the same cargo for no justifiable reason.
“We are tired of these extortions in our own fatherland, we have petitioned the relevant government agencies and this has persisted. The only option left to us is to embark on a mega strike action that would cripple activities of the seaports so that Maritime Police would allow us to do our legitimate businesses. I have started discussions with other chapter EXCO members and we are ready to fight this battle to liberate our members from these shackles of the Maritime Police”, Obinali lamented.
Meanwhile, Special Adviser to the National Coordinator of the NAGAFF 100% Compliance Team, Comrade Sunday Sylvester, who also bemoaned this ugly trend, regretted that it was not in the best interest of the Nigerian economy.
According to him, the direct implication is that the additional cost that arises from Police extortion is naturally passed down to the final consumers of the goods by the importers, who cannot afford to absorb such unnecessary and avoidable additional cost because they must remain in business.
Comrade Sylvester said: “It has become necessary and urgent for relevant government agencies to step into this matter. There is no place in the world where Customs would examine and release a consignment from the seaports only for the Police to wait for the same consignment on the way to seize and detain it in order to extort money from the owner.
“The seaport industry cannot afford the effect from such a strike or service withdrawal because it will hurt the economy and to a high extent, Nigerians, especially the poor masses, who would bear the brunt of additional cost associated with Police extortion. This is why the authorities should urgently put a stop to this.”
It was further gathered that the freight forwarders are concluding plans to send one more protest letter to the Commissioner of Police, Ports Authority Police Command as a last warning, which would be followed by the mega protest if the situation persists.
It would be recalled that the Executive Secretary/CEO of the Nigerian Shippers Council, Hon. Emmanuel Jime had said recently that it is illegal for the Maritime Police to intercept or block cargoes already cleared and released by the Nigeria Customs Service.
Represented by the Director of Regulatory Services, Mrs. Ifeoma Ezedinma at a recent event at Apapa, Jime insisted that Police was overstepping its bounds.
“It will not be nice for the agencies to protect their territories, what we need is synergy. The problem we have right now is that Customs is on one side and Police on the other side, and both of them are checking cargoes, which causes impediments and this is not good for trade.
“If Customs clears cargo, Police do not have the right or authority to detain the cargo. If the Police have intelligence on any cargo, they can follow it to the final destination and check it there since Police have access to everywhere, but not for them to congest our seaports or the access roads. We see these problems on a daily basis. All the agencies have their responsibilities cut out for them, so we should always interface with one another in order to harmonize and facilitate trade. By blocking or detaining already cleared containers, Police are not facilitating trade”, Jime further warned.