The past two weeks at the cargo shed of the Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos has been anything but okay till Federal Government reopened the warehouses after initial shutdown over a forthnight ago.
The usual bustling and hustling warehouse sheds were locked down following a shameful and unwarranted clash between custom men and clearing agents.
Already in the wake of the hullabaloo generated a heated debate in the aviation subsector and has in no way solved the problem on ground leading to claims and counter claims while the goods come in and continue to pile up at the ramps.
However, bare 24 hours after the Minister berated the clearing agents for their dastardly role in the whole affair the Nigeria Customs Service re-opened the cargo terminals at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport as if in response to the Minister’s charge.
The order to re-open the warehouses was given by the Comptroller – General of the Service, Alhaji Dikko Inde Abdullahi, CFR, after undertaking a tour of nahco aviance ultra-modern warehouse and the tarmac where tonnes of cargoes are piled.
Regretting the action of those he described as touts who caused the warehouses to be closed in the first instance, the Customs C – G said, the statutory responsibility of Customs is well spelt out, which is revenue collection and remittance of such to federation account. He therefore warned that anybody or group of persons that would want to hinder the Service from the lawful performance of its duties would be dealt with.In his exact words, “We have to invoke the section of our laws that empowers us to take action against anybody who feels we should not do our duties as stipulated by the books and the constitution.”
Confusion started November 19 when the Customs Area Comptroller (CAC), Mr Tajudeen Olarenwaju, walked into the Nigerian Aviation Handling Company’s (NAHCO) warehouse where the agents operate.
Reports have it that the CAC was stoned, man-handled and pushed out of the warehouse by the agents “because he came into the warehouse during break time’’.
Immediately after the affront, four Armoured Personnel Carriers and eight customs patrol pickup vans were immediately deployed to the scene of the incident and after initial fracas including sporadic shooting the warehouse was locked due to violation of the standing rule at the warehouse.
According to a source customs had given a directive that agents should not come to the bulk area and noted that the cargo agents, however, rebuffed the directive, resulting to the fracas.
Customs Area Comptroller, in charge of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport Command, Mr Taju Olarenwaju said however that government has directed officials to identify and allow passage for perishable goods, medical goods and diplomatic goods, which have remained trapped due to the crisis.
Minister of Aviation, Osita Chidoka, 48 hours before the reopening of the cargo warehouses slammed all parties calling for customs to reopen the warehouse stating that government cannot be bullied by a few people no matter who their backers are.
He also said that inasmuch as he seeks also the speedy resolution of the closure as he has been in contact with the Comptroller of Customs, that he fully supported government’s actions.
He said,” I have been very silent on the issue of the cargo terminal, but I want to say it publicly today that it was in the line of authority of customs to order that closure. It was not ordered by me, but I fully support it. I want everyone to know that nobody can hold the Nigerian government to ransom. “
“So, no group of people, no matter how powerful they are, no matter how much they gather can harass government agencies and force us into submission with the belief that the government will not want to close down a certain area of the airport. We have done it with the cargo terminal and we will do it with any part of our airport.”
“No group of Nigerians, no matter how highly placed will be allowed to be unruly, to cause problem in any of our national life because this is how we started everywhere. The tankers drivers refuse to leave the road, they will threaten to close to do this or that, but now, I can assure you that the customs agents now know that if it takes us three weeks, one month to resolve the problem, we will take that time to resolve it.”
“They must come under the control and regulations of the government agencies at the airport and we are going to come out even with stiffer rules about registering them. They cannot give us condition on how to operate an airport they didn’t build. So, let it be clear to everybody that Nigerian government would not blink by blackmail. The terminal would be reopened, but on the conditions set out by the government.”
“I have been in touch with the Customs Comptroller-General and I would ensure that we strictly stay with the rules. Let it be known that we will not succumb. As a minister, I will not submit that anything to disrespect our basic rules.”
“There are systems of resolving issues. If you have issues with the customs, go to the court. You cannot take laws into your hands and believe that you are in a sensitive area and it cannot be shut down. Well, it has been shut down and the sky has not fallen.”
“The blackmail will not work. Everybody working in the airport should know that we are all stakeholders and we must spell the me this of engagements.
“If the terminals are not opened, we are going to send a notice to the airlines to stop coming pending when we will resolve it. They must come under the rule of government.”
Following the closure, it now became a standing order by the government that all warehouses of clearing agents remain closed this elicited the freight and forwarding agents at the MMIA, to appealed for the re-opening the closed warehouses for safety and security reasons.
The clearing agents initially warned that the inability of the government to re-open the warehouses on or before Friday November the 19th would bring about more problems in the airport sector.
The President, National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders, NAGAFF, Airport Chapter, Mr. Olusegun Musa told journalists at the airport that the association regretted the action that led to the closure of the warehouses, saying that several billions of naira had been lost to the crisis on the side of the agents, ground handlers and even government agencies.
However, Musa noted that since the crisis ensued, the clearing agents had met with the officials of the Nigeria Customs Service, NCS, the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria, FAAN, ground handlers and other necessary stakeholders to forestall recurrence.
He emphasised that NAGAFF would use the current development to correct some abnormalities noticed in the system like the delay in cargo clearance mainly caused by inadequate manpower at the warehouses.
He added that the leadership of NAGAFF would also ensure that the airport was more user-friendly to users in terms of crowd control, identification of its members and properly protect the interest of its members.
He explained that there are large volumes of perishable goods, which are either going for export or import, but were held up in the warehouses due to the closure.
He added that at present, the apron side of the airport is congested due to the closure and feared that this may lead to a major incident at the apron, adding that pilfering and stealing of the cargoes could not also be ruled out as people gain entrance into the tarmac through several openings within the airport.
He noted that the only way the sector could move forward was for all players especially in the cargo clearing and forwarding business to work together as a team, and assured that the cargo business would be professionalised by its association.
He said, “We cannot actually quantify what we have lost in terms of naira and kobo. Let’s look at it from two phases, we are looking at the invasion of customs at that particular day, they damaged some cars of our members, offices bungled and they lost huge sum of money. In operations, we have lost multi-millions on our own side, FAAN has lost multi-millions and the Customs too have lost multi-millions.
“It is unfortunate that you can’t actually identify who is who in the sub-sector. We have a palace gate that allows every dick and harry to walk in without checks. This is so because the management and airport landlord has not taken charge of the control measures within the palace gate. Severally, we established a joint taskforce with the police and FAAN officials to checkmate the activities of those who are moving into the area, which cost lots of money on our part.”
He explained that the association has data bank and biometric identification to all its members, which he said made identification easier and appealed to other associations to follow cue to prevent influx of people into the restricted areas of the airport.
He also called for acquisition of modern equipment on the part of the ground handlers to prevent manual operations of goods and cargoes, maintaining that with this, there won’t be any need for its members to carry out manual operations inside the warehouses.
The question on the lips of importers and other Nigerians directly or indirectly affected is who now pays demurrage and damages that will accrue to some of the goods that this senseless struggle for show of who controls the cargo sheds have wrought