How importers struggle to navigate Customs bottlenecks

Manual inspection of containers and the failure of the Nigeria Customs Service to streamline the number of its units that take part in cargo clearance delay cargo release from ports, importers have said.

According to them, the development leads to inefficient service delivery and increases the cost of doing business as importers are forced to pay demurrage to shipping companies and storage charges to terminal operators.

BusinessDay findings show that as Customs delay in clearing of goods, cargoes dwell longer at the port such that in some instances, containers that should take seven days to be cleared take a minimum of 21 days to leave the port.

Emma Nwabunwanne, a Lagos-based importer, told our correspondent that Customs has a number of units in the ports that importers and their agents must deal with before cargo can be authorised to leave the ports.

He said the agent must pass clearing documents through the units for approval before such goods would be released.

“Passing cargo clearance documents through these Customs units causes a delay that results in payment of demurrage and storage charges to shipping companies and terminal operators,” Nwabunwanne said.

Citing an example, he said his company paid over N600,000 as demurrage to one of the international shipping companies in April 2022, after it took his agent over one month to clear four containers.

“It took my company about 28 days to clear a container from the Tin-Can Island Container Terminal due to the bureaucratic bottleneck in the system and we paid over N250,000 in demurrage on one container,” Sandra Omo, a Customs licensed agent in Lagos, told BusinessDay.

According to Omo, the container was cleared in two weeks, only for another unit of Customs to query the release of the container and it took another two weeks to resolve the query.

According to her, the units that clearing documents must pass through include valuation, enforcement, Customs police, Customs Intelligent Units (CIU), PAAR, Examination/report, DC report, Releasing, DC stamping, Gate exiting, Customs Processing Centre, Query, Amendment, APM, DC Admin, DC Compliance, CAC monitoring, Officer in charge of the gate, gate officers, and Post-Clearance Audit.

Gilbert Chinwendu, an importer who deals in electronics in Alaba International Market in Lagos, said the use of 100 percent physical examination delays container inspection and reduces the number that can be cleared in a day as it takes about five hours to clear one container.

He said: “Some terminal operators can position about 200 containers per day for examination but the Customs, in most cases, usually do not examine all due to time. We recently cleared a 40-foot container from one of the terminals in Tin-Can, and it took about five days for the container to be examined physically.

“During that time, the truck conveying the container to the importer’s warehouse had an accident on the way and, shipping companies compelled such consignee to pay demurrage on the number of days spent before returning the container, which is not supposed.

According to Chinwendu, it takes an average of one month to clear containers with genuine documents, and within that one month, the owner would pay as much as N100,000 to N200,000 as demurrage.

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Tony Anakebe, managing director of Gold Link Investment Ltd, said the activities of Customs have a direct impact on the prices of goods in the country.

“When importers pay dearly to get their goods out of the port, he or she would pass on the cost to the consumer because the importer must recoup the invested capital,” he said.

Anakebe said Customs should strengthen its post-audit system, reduce the number of desks that importers have to go through to two or three, and make effective use of scanners for cargo inspection.

Listing the approved units of Customs, Uche Ejesieme, public relations officer of Tin-Can Island Port command, said only eight statutory Customs units are involved in cargo clearance.

He said the CIU is involved in physical examination and is in the right position to alert the Valuation Unit and to demand a reappraisal of the value if any infraction was discovered on the cargo in question.

Ejesieme said the Post Clearance Audit does a follow-up for fast-track beneficiaries while the monitoring and compliance unit is a statutory requirement of the World Customs Organization. He added that the DC Terminals and Officer in Charge gates are for the final documentary checks.

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