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By Andrew Airahuobhor, Correspondent
As delays in clearing containers from the Apapa Container Terminal in the Lagos Ports Complex (LPC) bites harder, blame game has begun between the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) and the APM Terminals Limited, operators of the Apapa container terminal.
Apapa area one command of the NCS fired the first salvo when it alleged that APM Terminals was responsible for the delays importers and their agents experience when clearing goods from the port.
Customs Area Controller (CAC) of the command, Mohammed Umar pointed out that Customs can guarantee clearance within 48 hours but lamented that the inability of the terminal operator to position container for examination causes huge setback in achieving this feat.
Umar said at a press conference in Lagos that the activities of APM Terminals has been brought to the attention of the customs as the terminal usually delay in dropping of containers for examination. This shortfall, he said, was one of the issues placed on the front burners when the minister of transport, Idris Umar visited Apapa recently.
He noted that lack of coordination and discipline among terminal operators is the main reason why the much desired 48 hours cargo clearance procedure has failed at the port.
“The activities of APMT is seriously being looked into, even when the minister came he was not so happy, from his address, I can hear from his tone that he is not happy. Achieving 48 hours clearance is not the responsibility of customs alone, on our part we are always on our toes; agents can actually make their declaration and get their release the same day. Getting release from customs is not the end of the matter, you have the terminal operators to deal with and you have the shipping companies to deal with,” Umar stated.
According to Umar, customs headquarters has sent a high powered delegation that had two assistant comptrollers general on a physical inspection of how activities are being carried out at APM Terminals. “I took them to APMT and the issue was discussed. I have written series of letters and I think headquarters is very serious about it,” he said.
He confirmed that some agents have come forward with verifiable documents to prove that incidences of delay in dropping of containers for examination actually do happen at the terminal and that APMT had no answer to the allegations after which the minister gave the terminal operators a marching order.
In a prompt and fierce reaction to the allegation from someone of the caliber of a CAC, APM Terminals Apapa Limited has faulted claims that it is responsible for whatever delays in cargo clearance in its area of operation.
Media Adviser of APM Terminals, Bolaji Akinola roundly condemned such claims, saying the allegations are malicious, baseless and lack logic and merit.
“How can the same firm which has invested over $200 million and has planned a further investment of $135 million to develop and modernise the terminal for efficiency and prompt cargo delivery be accused of causing delay in the cargo clearing process? It is illogical and unfair,” Akinola said.
The APM Terminals spokesman faulted insinuations that the terminal operator lacks sufficient cargo handling equipment and examination bay.
He said that cargo release does not rest with APM Terminals, but with Customs and other government agencies operating at the port. “We can’t release cargo until Customs orders it. Our operation is to discharge containers from the vessels, keep them until the owners come to take delivery and position for customs examination. We release the containers only on the orders of the Nigeria Customs Service,” he stated.
He said that delay in cargo clearance is caused by inefficient processes being implemented by government agencies and the high rate of inspection especially physical examination of containers. “The high rate of physical examination is enough to cause delays in cargo clearance at the port. There is nowhere in the world where such is done. Apart from this, the process of nominating containers for scanning is also faulty. Many a times, we don’t get advance information and this does not augur well at all,” he said.
Meanwhile, importers and agents continue to suffer the brunt of inefficiencies in the clearing processes, which neither Customs nor APM Terminals is ready to take responsibility for.
But the customs agents who interface with both customs and terminal operators in the course of clearing cargoes blamed APM Terminals for the crises rocking the process.
“These people (terminal operators) have really been exploiting us and treat us as nonentity because they are connected to government”, said Wasiu Lawal, a clearing agent who said that he booked for examination on January 9th and was given January 16th to come for scanning and for another week, he could not even see the container yet they have started charging demurrage.
APM Terminals is owned by Danish family and won the concession bid for Apapa container terminal, controlling up to 70 percent of container traffic in Nigeria. Former chairman of Interim National Government, Ernest Shonekan has been the chairman of the company since inception in Nigeria.