BY GBENRO ADEOYE
The process of importing goods seems simple on paper but it is almost normal for goods or parts of imported goods to get missing from the ports in Lagos.
At the country‚Äôs busiest seaport in Tin Can Island Port, cases of pilfering and vandalism of goods are regularly reported.
But most pilfering cases are carried out by ‚Äòwharf rats‚Äô, a term used to describe people who hang around ports to steal. These wharf rats used to be majorly unemployed youths or skilled artisans providing auxiliary services at seaports, but with enough access to the ports to pilfer goods.
They were a scourge in the 1990s and gave government much cause for worry. However, efforts were made to clear them away from the ports only for them to begin to resurface in recent times.
A victim of such pilfering is Mr. Femi Olumuyiwa, a civil servant. He was excited about the arrival of his first car, a Toyota brand. Olumuyiwa had boasted about it to his friends and colleagues at work, but sadly, his excitement was cut short when he saw that, upon the delivery of the car, its bumper was damaged and its stereo was missing. Olumuyiwa said the celebration over his acquired car was delayed till he could fix the damaged part and replace the stolen stereo.
He said, ‚ÄúIt would have been embarrassing to take the car to church like that for thanksgiving, so I had to spend some money to fix it and even do some painting work on the car to make it look good before showing my church members and colleagues.‚Äù
Also about four months ago, Mr. John Anthony, a licensed Custom clearing agent, found the spare tyre of a Ford SUV, belonging to a client missing after he had found it intact during an earlier examination of the vehicle.
Anthony said he almost went crazy searching for the tyre in awkward places before realising that it had gone for good.
He said, ‚ÄúTill now, I don‚Äôt know how it happened because as an agent, I‚Äôve had some experience on the job and I‚Äôm supposed to be wise to all the tricks. I always check and double check to be sure nothing of the sort happens to any container I‚Äôm clearing on behalf of my clients. I saw the tyre there when I went to examine the vehicle inside before all the paper work was done. By the time I went back to drive it out, I noticed that the spare tyre was gone.‚Äù
Anthony said the incident was embarrassing for him as he had to inform his client, the owner of the vehicle, that the spare tyre he had earlier confirmed to be there was now missing.
He said, ‚ÄúI had already told my client that his vehicle was intact after I examined it earlier, but since I like to be honest with my clients, I had to call him again to say that the spare tyre was no longer there. He was not happy and thought maybe I was the one who removed it.‚Äù
However, Anthony would consider himself lucky compared to another licensed agent, Phillip Donatus, whose client‚Äôs car battery and brain box were removed in similar circumstances.
He said, ‚ÄúI did not feel happy at all because such things will give you extra stress to get the car out of the port. So I had to get a towing vehicle to tow it and it cost me about N10,000.‚Äù
Investigation by¬†Saturday PUNCH¬†shows that such cases of pilfering of vehicle parts occur when imported vehicles cannot be driven out of the ports.
When vehicles brought in containers fail to start for any reason, including as a result of pilferage, customs and shipping companies employ the use of fork lifts or other manual processes to move them out for inspection or examination. These sometimes leave such vehicles damaged and scratched.
There are also reports of pirate attacks on crew members and dock workers, as thieves loot and vandalise goods, particularly at night.
However, the recent cleanup exercise by the port managements seems to have reduced the activities of ‚Äòwharf rats‚Äô. With the cleanup, only customs officers, licensed agents, ship workers, employees of terminal operators and a few others are cleared to have access to the main areas of the seaports.
Even consignees have to employ the use of licensed agents to clear their goods, although semi-skilled artisans like battery chargers, auto-mechanics, towing vehicle operators, drivers, panel beaters and other technicians daily hang around the port for business opportunities.
On Tuesday, following a raid of by some armed mobile police officers by the entrance of Tin Can Island Ports, an eyewitness, who identified himself as Michael, said such random arrests were regularly made by the police. Michael added that innocent persons are sometimes victims of such raids.
He said, ‚ÄúI normally come here to see what I can get for the day since I don‚Äôt have a regular job. If somebody needs to get something done, I do it if it‚Äôs something I can handle.‚Äù
Moreover, investigation shows that most of the pilfering that goes on at seaports lately is carried out by crooked agents and employees of shipping companies and terminal operators, who could be permanent or temporary staff.
Usually, there is already a demand for the goods that are stolen at the port. So when such pilferers snatch the goods, they find a way to sneak them out and deliver to their contacts outside, who pay immediately.
Some of the changes that have cleaned up Tin Can Island Port came as a result of the concessioning of its terminals to private operators namely, Grimaldi‚Äôs Ports and Terminal Multiservices Ltd; Five Star Logistics; Port and Cargo Handling Company and Tin Can Island Container Terminal.
The operators have agreements with the Federal Government to operate and transfer the terminals to the government upon the expiration of their contracts. While Grimaldi‚Äôs 25-year contract included building a completely new terminal, which was the first new facility of its kind since the completion of the Tin Can Port Complex in 1977, other operators‚Äô contracts required them to use the facilities on the ground till the expiration of their contracts or the renewal of such contracts.
But according to licensed agents, the bulk of the security challenges falls on terminal operators, who are now responsible for their individual terminals.
Anthony said, ‚ÄúFor instance at one of the terminals, once you have examined your goods to see that they are intact, they have drivers, who bring them out to you. This is unlike others, where agents are allowed inside the park to bring out their cars. In such cases, if they see anything they like on another car, they can snatch it.‚Äù
Investigation also shows that most of the pilfering at Tin Can Island Ports happens while goods are being offloaded from ships or being brought out of containers for examination by a team of about four persons.
‚ÄúThe licensed clearing agent will be there, the customs service will send an agent and the shipping company will send their representative as well when the clearing agent wants to examine the goods. Most times, the people from shipping companies wear overcoats that can easily be used to conceal small things they can take like a car radio or brain box.
‚ÄúIf you‚Äôre importing through one of the terminals, if there are issues, they replace it. But with other terminal operators, there is nothing like that.‚Äô
A car dealer, Azubuike Ogu, who has been using one of the operators, also said some control knobs were missing on the dashboards of some of his imported vehicles recently.
‚ÄúBut it‚Äôs difficult to take that up with the company, just because of some knobs,‚Äù he said.
Another car dealer, Matthew Anele, suggested the fencing of the entire Tin Can Island Ports premises to ward off unwelcome guests.
At Five Star Logistics, our correspondent was directed to the Chief Accountant, simply identified as Mr. Adesina, at its sister company, Comet Shipping Agencies Nig Ltd on 4, Balogun Bisi Omidiora Road, Apapa.
Adesina told Saturday PUNCH that he was only in charge of the company‚Äôs accounts and that our correspondent should see Col. Miridashe, who is in charge of security at the company‚Äôs terminal, but ‚Äòunfortunately out of the country at the moment.‚Äù
However, an employee of the company who spoke to Saturday PUNCH under the condition of anonymity, said, ‚ÄúWe are not saying that these things (security challenges) are not there. They are there but the problem is with the Nigerian Ports Authority. They are the landowners; we are just tenants here. The miscreants are all over the place but nobody is doing anything to check them.‚Äù
But an official of the Public Affairs Department, NPA Tin Can Island Ports Complex, who identified himself as Kingsley, declined comments.
He said, ‚ÄúGo to our Marina office and talk to Capt. Iheancho Ebubeogu; he‚Äôs the one who can speak to journalists.‚Äù
The Public Relations Officer, Nigeria Customs Service, Tin Can Island Command, Mr. Chris Osunkwo, however, said that the police were in charge of security at the ports.
He said, ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs true that we are paramilitary and a leading agency here. Matters that relate to security lie with the police. Our mandate is to make sure that the imported goods are not prohibited and that appropriate duties have been paid on them. Also, that they do not violate government fiscal policy or pose security challenge to the society.‚Äù
Mr. Mike Njoku, Police Public Relations Officer, Ports Authority Police Command, told¬†Saturday PUNCH¬†in a phone conversation that he was outside Lagos and needed time to reach his superiors for approval to comment on the issue. In a subsequent conversation, Njoku declined to comment on the issue, directing our correspondent to reach the Commissioner of the Ports Authority Command, Mrs. Sherifat Disu-Olajoku, on the phone.