By Stephen Ubanna
The battle-line appears to have been drawn between Customs personnel who want to the right thing to enhance government’s revenue collection at the Onne seaport and the agents under the umbrella of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents, ANLCA, PorthARCOURT Area II, Chapter, Onne. Signs of imminent trouble at the port started last January, when Tony Nwabunike, National President, ANLCA, succeeded in conducting the Chapter election of the Executives of the south east ports of Onne, Rivers Port, Port Harcourt, and Onne Oil and Gas free Zone, Chapter Executives among others.
The election of Michael Ebeatu, as the Chairman of ANLCA, Onne port Chapter, had may have confirmed people’s fear that it was matter of time before the port would be engulfed in crisis because of agents protest that would be masterminded by him.
True to people’s fear, on Tuesday, May 4, 2021, barely three months in office, he bowed to pressure from the aggrieved members who may have supported his election and who have a score to settle with Customs personnel because of the consistent interception and seizure of their Containers over alleged problems of false declaration, wrong Classification, Concealment and underpayment to allegedly organise a Protest AT THE Onne port.
Ebeatu may have toed the line of his followers to avoid losing his popularity because he was said to have assured them that if he wins as the Chairman, of the Onne port Chapter of ANLCA, described as the biggest agents Association , he will stop the frequent seizure of their clients goods by Onne Customs Authorities.
There is no gainsaying the fact that over the years, the Port Harcourt Area II port, Onne, had been known as a haven for fraudulent agents who are used to flying Containers with the aid of their Customs Collaborators. Being a Chip of the old block, Ebeatu, may have wanted the old system to continue under his leadership but Auwal Mohammed, the Onne Command , Area Comptroller would not take it. With the matching order given to the officers to sit up to ensure that the right thing is done, supported with the blockage of all areas of revenue leakages at the port, the Customs Inelligence Unit, CIU, and the exit gate officers were forced to work closely in sharing information after the examination of cargoes.
The Value News was informed that Ebeatu knew the agents are in trouble when he found the Deputy Comptrollers overseeing the CIU and the exit gate becoming too close. Aware that most of the agents at the Onne port are not ready to do the right thing may have forced the exit gate officers, particular, to tighten up security to ensure that that fraudulent importers with their agents do not pass with their goods.
This may have landed some of the agents into trouble as some of the released Containers laden into trucks for delivery to their importers were said to have moved from the exit gate to the Government Warehouse over alleged infraction.
Between January and March, 2021, despite the Asian country of China emerged coronavirus, popular, COVID 19, a total of 12 Containers, mostly belonging to ANLCA, members’ Clients were intercepted, detained and subsequently seized over alleged infraction. Given the blockage of all the areas of revenue Leakage at the port , the Command was said tohave generated N13 billion in one month, believed to be the highest ever since the Command was established some 38 eight years ago. It was an indication that the Command had been losing billions of naira to agents taking delivery of their Clients cargoes at the port over the years.
Not many people were surprised that Ebeatu had masterminded the Tuesday, May 4, 2021, protest at the Onne port, which they had blamed on the CIU, Officers alleged extortion and frustration of their jobs. The Onne port, ANLCA Chairman and his Co- blackmailers may not have been happy with Mohhammed, the Command Area Comptroller, because of the loses members were alleged to be making to take delivery of their clients’ cargoes on a daily basis.
He may have , who had worked at the Onne Command expected Comptroller Mohammed, to bend the rules like some former Area Comptrollers of the Command but got it wrong. This is because the Onne Customs boss who had worked at the Port in the past know much about the activities of the agents and he has the mandate of Hameed Ali, a retired Army Colonel and the Customs Comptroller General to ensure that it collects the maximum N7 billion monthly revenue target for the Command.
Ebeatu, according to informed sources may have mobilised his members and grounded the operations by withdrawing their services on Tuesday, May 4, described as a black day at the Onne port because of the disruption of port operations by the protesting agents to force Comptroller Mohammed and his officers to soft pedal in their action.
. Although, it may look as if only the ANLCA members had embarked on the protest, but The Magazine findings shows shows that it cut across all the other Associations, National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders, NAGAFF, The National Council of Managing Directors of Licensed Customs Agents,NCMDLCA, and the non –aligned who have an axe to ground with Comptroller Mohammed and his officers.
Inndeed, the ANLCA officials may have expected the Onne Customs Management to invite them for Negotiation on how to resolve the crisis . Recall that they had accused the Onne Customs personnel of ‘’high handedness , which maritime analysts had descried as ‘’ cheap blackmail’’. They were said to be particularly unhappy with the CIU personnel, insisting that they have no business to be involved in the Examination and Release of cargoes which delays the clearing process at the port.
A retired senior customs Officer who spoke to the Magazine on condition of anonymity disclosed that the ANLCA Leadership could easily mobilise his members for the Tuesday protest because’’ they are not ready to do right thing but to shortchange the government’’.
They may have presented a pitiable case of what they are going through in the hands of Comptroller Mohammed and his officers at the Onne port in a bid to win public sympathy and force Ali, the Customs Comptroller General to redeploy the senior officers, including the Onne Command Area Comptroller in order to restore sanity at the port but that was how far, they could go. They could not dictate to the Customs boss which officer to remove or not, an officer remarked.
The aggrieved ANLCA agents had said that the Onne Command, officers could not be predicted as they may just wake up and tell the agents that they are collecting this particular amount for such and such services even on normal shipment. They that this has put many of them in a state of confusion of what to charge their importers to take delivery of their cargoes out of the port without playing into hands of the Deputy Comptroller Ibrahim’ and his officers at the exit gate who are very vigilant monitoring the movement of cargoes and out of the port.
A similar incident had played out at the Federal Operations Unit, Zone A recently, where traders who dal, mostly, on smuggled foreign rice at the Bodija market, Ibadan, Capital of Oyo state in the south west Nigeria had taken the case of seized foreign rice to the Senate Committee on Ethics, Privileges and Public petition to get Justice, alleging forceful entering into their shops and carting away their alleged local rice and other items by Customs Patrol Team.
The foreign cum local rice dealers had blackmailed Usman Yahaya, the Command acting Comptroller and Jack Okpabi, an Assistant Comptroller who was said to have laid the operation, using Kola Balogun, Representing Oyo south in the upper Chamber to achieve their aim.
The Customs Authorities may have defended the oprations of the officials of the FOU, Zone A, insisting that the Customs and Excise Management Act, Cap 2004, empowers Customs personnel to break into any suspected premises and cart away away Contraband but that was how far they could go.
Senator Balogun, may have succeeded in getting the Senate Committee to ask the Customs Comptroller General, who was said to have been represented at the hearing of the case at the Committee siiting by Muhammed Uba Garba , an Assistant Comptroller General, Enforcement, Inspection and Investigation, E.I&I, to return the alleged four trucks load of rice and money which the traders had claimed was taken from their shops.
But close sources disclosed that only about 2000 bags of rice of 50Kg each , were removed from the Bodija market by the Customs Tam, to their Ikeja premises. This in addition to about N500,000.00 which was said to have been handed over to the station officer for documentation.
The Committee , which is Chaired by Ayo Akinyelure, were said to have given the Customs helmsman, to unlock the traders shops and also return the money from their shops to their respective owners. The question of the lips of most people was how did the traders knew that that money was missing in their shops when it is under Seal, which could only be opened on the orders of the FOU, Zone A, acting Comptroller, if not to Blackmail Acting Comptroller Yahaya and his officers.
This is where President Muhammadu Buhari, popular, PMB, a retired Army General may have to intervene to tell the Senate Committee members, through lawan Ahmad , the Senate Pressident, as Ali and his officers are carry ing out Executive orders that prohibits foreign rice and vehicles since January 1, 2017, from coming into the country through the Land border , which was late extended to the seaports to protect Local rie farmers. And encourage patronage of Nigerian ports by vehicle importers.