From the moment I alighted from the bike, I started getting business gestures from hawkers of documents. A particular woman that pestered longer told me she could do an affidavit and “any other thing concerning documents.”
Still minding how soaked I was and how I wanted to quickly leave the rain that rejected all pleas to be merciful, I inquired if she could help forge a document. The woman, who looks a little bit religious, assured me that it was a minor case. She swiftly replied, “Na small thing, my brother.” Well, I didn’t come to the port for her or her ilks. I told her to hang around for me to confirm the sorts of documents I need to forge from the port authority.
As I proceeded to the gigantic and extremely busy gate of the Apapa port, I was humming the Nigerian National Anthem, an attempt to draw attention to myself. I think I failed to do so as none of the two security officers that manned the gate I entered through noticed me entering. They were in a very deep discussion with a young guy that had so much to explain. At the initial stage, I was confused about which route to follow; I had to pick the one where people trouped the most.
The mercilessness of the rain made me quickly rush under a tent where people were seated in an orderly manner. I would later discover it is the Customs office where completed documents are submitted. I saw several empty seats but I chose the one that was very close to someone I thought was the youngest, judging from looks.
It didn’t take long to figure that he was who I needed at the moment. My unfamiliarity with the environment was deliberately unhidden. I needed that personality to be able to ask all questions, all except the ones that could expose my intentions. Like a fly to a carcass, we soon became inseparable.
Opeyemi was moderately popular in the port, the reason I got his name without an official introduction between us. He was either greeting someone or answering someone every minute. The rain that watered the earth gave me easy access to speak with my new guide who I told I was interested in becoming a clearing agent. Funnily, that was his job in the port. Knowing this made it easy to infiltrate. I explained to him that I was blank and needed to be fed with the knowledge of how the port works.
The tall and fair Opeyemi explained to me that I must compel the person sending the goods to at least, declare all the goods in the container to me. He said not having proper declaration could be costly for me considering the challenges I would face by the time it is discovered by Customs officers and other security operatives charged with the duty of examining a container. At that point, I unleashed deepest my curiosity. I asked my guide what sort of danger I could put myself in if a good that was not declared at the initial stage was found in my container. Without raising his head to look at me, Opeyemi said, “Everything is settlement. If this kind of thing befalls you, you must immediately use your discretion and realise that money can do all things.” Still pretending I didn’t hear the last part of his statement, I asked in a voice rich in confusion, “What exactly am I expected to do?” He clarified further,
“You have to use your understanding and the understanding is money.” It was now safe to ask Opeyemi how much every error on my part could cost.
Opeyemi, who sounded like a regular customer, told me it would depend on the relationship I have with the officers deployed to examine the cargo. When I asked if that wasn’t corruption, with a mild smile he asked me if I was really ready to be a clearing agent.
Opeyemi, who talked in a whispering tone throughout the conversation dashed out of the tent even while it was still raining. He was back in a jiffy. I told him a fabricated story of how my uncle wanted me to come there to familiarise myself with the processes because I was about to start my own clearing and forwarding business.
When the rain subsided a bit, my new friend advised me to follow the crowd heading a particular way. He said he would have followed me but he had a very important engagement at that place.
“Nothing is really happening here. If you follow these people, you will see other things but they won’t allow you enter any major place without documents,” he said, while saluting a Customs officer fully dressed in her uniform. I knew there was no way I was going back to the woman hawking documents outside the gate so I told him I will just follow the people going that direction to sightsee.
On the way, I saw a very long queue of trucks that trying to go out of the port. I approached one of the drivers who told me he had been on the queue since early in the morning. It was already a few minutes to 1p.m. He blamed the rain for the long queue and delay in exiting the port. He appeared stressed so it was easy to realise he was not interested in any conversation.
Another truck driver on the queue, told me he was heading to Ibadan. He said a driver could “pay the NPA officials to take one-way” from a certain point to beat the long queue. I asked why he didn’t opt for that option. “Oga, nor be me get the container o,” he screamed.
The rain started again and I had to run as fast as possible for shelter. I got to the examination bay. Of course, I couldn’t gain entrance because I had no clearance paper to present so I didn’t even bother trying. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself at this point so I only sat calmly on a pavement under one of the trees around, waiting for a friend indeed. A man defied the rain for a smoke. This much older man came to the particular spot I was sitting. He brought out a piece of gambling ticket and was talking to it. I immediately joined the conversation and consoled him for the game he lost.
At the park, I had bought a bottle of alcohol and dropped in my bag. Guessing that he most likely drinks, I brought out the gin and told him to share with me. That was the magic. We became friends just as it happened with Opeyemi. Again, and in a more suspicious way, he whispered throughout the conversation. I put up a fake call and spoke about some imaginary millions in a bid to look serious since I was there without a car, unlike others that I saw. It later turned out most of the cars parked there are not for clearing agents. He deliberately didn’t tell me what his job was at the port, but he wore a lemon jacket like so many others.
I explained to him that I was starting the business of clearing of goods and I wanted to learn the tricks of the business. After a while, he became a bit relaxed talking to me though he didn’t stop checking round to see if anyone was watching or eavesdropping.
The older man told me bluntly in pidgin English that I have to “settle them with money.” I asked who the “them” were and he told me the people that will clear me.
He explained that the number of days or months I want my container to spend depends on how smart I could be.
“Bros, explain this thing give me wella,” I demanded. Still looking around, he told me most of the parked cars were there to help people facilitate the clearance of their containers.
“If you want it cheaper, you have to go through the boys. Whatever make you go to a senior officer, you’ll be charged heavily for what these boys can do and do quickly.”
He assured me that I could get my container out in a day if I “settle the right individuals”.
He, however, repeated his warning that I shouldn’t meet a senior Customs officer because they demand more money as settlement than the younger officers.
My experience at Apapa opened my eyes to understand the urgent need for the elimination of human contacts at the port. The level of decay in the cargo clearing system is indeed unfathomable.