Saturday, September 1, 2012

Nigeria: 'Nation Losing Billions of Naira to Corruption at Seaports'

Lagos — Billions of naira accruing from arbitrary shipping charges at the nation's seaports find their way to private pockets instead of government coffers, say maritime stakeholders at recent conference in Lagos.
Stakeholders in the maritime industry alleged at a conference in Lagos that billions of naira accruing from arbitrary shipping charges due to absence of a commercial regulator. They also alleged that the money end in the pockets of concessionaires handling most of the concessioned terminals. The experts and some human right lawyers that attended the Lagos conference said top government officials benefitting from the arbitrary charges at the port that is allegedly diverted to private accounts are responsible for the delay in the passage of relevant laws meant to establish among others, the National Transport Commission (NTC) expected to serve as the commercial regulator of port terminals and shipping business in the country.
The maritime stakeholders' conference tagged, a free legal clinic on arbitrary shipping charges: Rules, Rights and Remedies was conducted by Akabogu and Associates, in collaboration with Shippers Council on Tuesday, August 14 provided a platform where experts interacted under the chairmanship of foremost maritime expert Otunba Kunle Folarin.
Some of the issues that dominated discussion at the conference were questions bordering on what really constitute the numerous charges slammed on importers and shippers of goods to Nigeria-like terminal handling charges (THC), containers demurrages who should be charging and how much is the international standard of it?
Other issues that dominated discussion at the conference were why VAT should be paid on CIF when it is also charged on customs duty? Why VAT on container deposit? The absolute need for a commercial or economic regulator in the industry cannot be overemphasized. A critical analysis of the roles of NPA and Nigeria Shippers Council (NSC) was undertaken by participants where the single window or one-stop shop clearing house for all payments is desirable.
The jam-packed conference hall of Nigeria Shippers council, Lagos, venue of the conference had in attendance very many experts in the industry who proffered solutions to the multifarious problem plaguing the maritime industry with a general consensus that the present administration has the administrative will to address the problems except for the fact that top government officials and politicians benefitting from the present shoddy arrangement may not want the presidency to understand the rote in the system and effect necessary corrections.
Barrister Emeka Akabogu said statistical data from Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) indicate that the issue of arbitrary shipping charges is a major source of overcharging people doing business at the nation's ports, denying government its due share of revenue accruing from the arbitrary charges and diverting same to private accounts.
"In view of the monumental corruption going on in the maritime sector, going to court right now is absolutely necessary, while the persuasion of the authorities to see reasons why the empowering of shippers council or setting up of a commercial regulator, is being package, as a medium to a long term solution to the arbitrary, some say, criminal charges by the shipping companies and terminal operators.
"From the statistics obtained from NPA, imports in a year show 817,216 TEUs plus 231,423vehicles are recorded. Therefore, damage, delay or loss incidents affecting at least 40 percent of these numbers. Also, assumption of average value of one Total Equivalent Unit (TEU) equals $75,000.00 and that of one vehicle is $12,000.
"When these amounts are used to multiply the quantity of imports in a year, it means thus: 817,246 times $75,000 times 0.4 equals to $24.5 billion. Container deposit fees equal 817,246 times N80, 000 and that is the minimum considered, and that equals N65.4 billion. Now 30 percent, which is N19.6 billion is retained for various reasons, while a balance of N45.8 billion is expected to be paid, after a minimum of 2 months delay with 10 percent interest accrual," he said.
Stakeholders and professionals in the maritime sector at the conference in a frantic effort to find solution to the seemingly interactive problem came up with various suggestions. Chief Martins Egbafe said the best solution is the total shutting down the ports, adding, "Because, after several years of trying to draw the attention of the Federal Government to these arbitrary shipping charges, shutting down the Ports appears to be the only language that will be understood by the authorities," he said.
But the National President of Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), Prince Olayiwola Shittu thought otherwise, saying, "In spite of the fact that highly placed persons, at the Federal Ministry of Transport, are colluding with some industry operators to scuttle the actualization of a Commercial Regulator for the maritime industry, I am of the firm belief that if freight forwarders synergize, and collaborate to institute a class action against the shipping companies and terminal operators, a big relief will be achieved, which will be sustainable and long lasting."
On the issue of the long overdue economic regulator for the maritime industry, Nigeria Shippers council informed participants at the conference that a benchmark of shipping charges has been submitted to the office of the Minister of Finance for consideration.
A participant, Mr Olaitan Jamil said, "I am of the opinion that stakeholders should form a collaborative action alliance to serve as a lobby group in the industry to take-up some of these challenges and ensure a decisive action is achieved. I have also noted that it is the considered opinion of most participants that just like the ministers of finance and transport stormed Lagos some months back to seek solutions from stakeholders, and immediately directed the implementation of such decisions with official pronouncements and circulars, those ministers should once more be invited to hear out the stakeholders on this issue of arbitrary shipping and terminal charges, take decisions and direct immediate implementation.
"This way, there will be no room for backdoor negotiations and thereby truncating of the collective will or decision of the people. On the single window proposal, every participant feels it is long overdue. Everything must be done to support its actualization," he said.
Effort to reach the Minister of Transport, Senator Idris Umar could not be successful as officials of the ministry insist that a formal letter to interview him must be initiated. Months after a letter requesting for interview with the minister could neither be acknowledged nor the interview granted.
Similarly, an online enquiry on maritime and transport related matters sent to the Assistant Director Press and publicity of the ministry, Mr. Abiodun Oladunjoye could not be replied to several months after delivery.
However, a reliable source at the office of the transport minister told this reporter that a meeting of Legal officers and relevant officials from some agencies of the ministry is ongoing with a view to considering a way forward. The source added, "They are only wasting time. The fact of the matter is there is no way the maritime industry can move ahead unless and until all the pending bills now before the National Assembly are passed to law.
"To mobilize the legislators to work on these bills and pass them into law, you need money. The ministry does not have such money but the relevant agencies, NPA and NIMASA in particular have the needed money but they will never release it because passing a bill establishing the NTC as a commercial regulator means depriving the NPA of some of its powers. In the absence of the NTC, the NPA is now doing the job of NPC. Nobody will give you money to strip him of his powers.
"Again, the posting of non-professionals or people that are not conversant with transportation is another stumbling block. When you transfer a Director that worked all through his life in Sports, Agric and Health ministries or areas not related to transport, you will not expect him to know what to do in the transport sector. The transport sector requires professionals and people that are conversant with the industry," the source said

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