Mr. Chris Ezeoguine

You can’t blame agents for false declarations and underpayments – Ezeoguine

Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer, Santo Cristo Limited, Mr. Chris Ezeoguine in this interview takes a look at operations at the ports as well as the challenges facing agents in the clearance of cargoes.
Ezeoguine, who spoke with SHIPS & PORTS DAILY, Uju Ozoeze, equally takes a look at the effect of the numbers of customs units at the ports.

For how long have you been practicing as a clearing agent? 
I’ve been in the clearing business for over twenty years but actually got my license in 2007 and that was when Santo Cristo Limited started operating as a licensed clearing agent with base in Lagos.

What challenges do you face as a clearing agent operating in the Lagos ports? 
When we say challenges facing clearing in the ports, everybody focuses attention on Customs. The challenges experienced are not just customs related. Before now, it is more challenging dealing with non-customs agencies in the ports. These agencies always show superiority, each of them posing that its work is more important than the other! I would say that its customs alone that limits itself to their scope of work. These non-customs agencies tend to be overzealous, encroaching on the terrain of customs and all of a sudden doing the job of customs. They ask agents for their valuation documents and other customs related documents thereby delaying your work! But you can never find a customs officer ask an agent for SON documents because he knows SON is there to do their own work. Talking about customs though, we feel there are so many customs duplicated units, these units’ ends up doing the same work. Anyway, Customs in its wisdom knows why it created different departments only for them to participate in doing the same work in the process of cargo delivery. Maybe checks and balances, I wouldn’t answer for them. Agents, however, feel that when a particular custom officer has seen your consignment and endorse it for release, we believe the consignment should be left to go without been interrupted again by another customs officer at the gate! Our clients, the importers, find it difficult to understand when we tell them that their consignment has been released but is being held up at the gate. They fail to understand that there are various departments that we must scale through before delivering their containers to them. That is why they see us agents as story tellers. It is not that we like telling stories; it’s just that the processes are so cumbersome for us. Importers are not just patient! They hear the ports now operate a 48 hour cargo clearance and expect us to deliver their containers as such unmindful of the rigorous processes we go through!

Most agents have this notoriety of making false declarations and under paying duties, do you concur to this? 
No! Agents are victims of interplay in this business. We are not importers and thus are unaware of the content of the containers until we see it. We only deal with bill ladings on which is stated STC (Said to Contain). Such are information given to us. We are not the people who fix duty. The same document presented to Cotecna for RAR is the same document that is presented to the agent for clearing. So based on RAR value the importers pay his duty as stipulated on the RAR. The agent’s work starts when duty is paid. So the issue of low/high duty is not the making of any agent. A company like ours charges only clearing cost. Nothing concerns us with the duty; duty would be paid as stated in the RAR. And if customs feel that the RAR duty is low, that is after carrying out physical examination and discover that your goods is worth more than what is declared, they reserve the right to increase the value of the goods. If customs is not satisfied with what is declared or the assessment on the RAR they can now issue what is called debit note (DN) that is additional duty to make up the one already paid. If this arises, it is still not expected of an agent to pay this additional duty from his pocket. He should take this DN back to the importer narrating what customs said and what you as the agent observed. So the agents should not be held responsible or be blamed. We act on the term STC as stated on the documents we work with. We work believing that what was said to contain is how it is until proven otherwise.

With your explanation so far, why then are most agents uncertain on how to present a case of additional duty to their importers and prefer to cut corners instead? 
It depends on the terms the agent is given the job. There are conditions when the importer provides the agent with all information and money he assumes is needed to clear his consignment asserting that what is declared in his documents are genuine; that he did not under declare nor did he undervalue. He may be right and you would believe him because he is the importer. But when the agent starts the work and at a stage customs is not satisfied, the importer would attribute the problem to the agent’s inability to prove that the information given him is correct. To him, the agent is failing in his duty. The agent can only present his point, whether the importer accepts it or not is a different thing. If somewhere along the line the container is delayed and demurrage accumulated, the importer may not feel responsible for those extra charges especially if for sure accurate duty was paid or genuine declarations made unmindful of the fact that there are other elements that can cause delay in the clearing of the container. So what I am trying to say is that there areas we agents cause, areas importers cause and areas the system cause.

What is your advice to your colleagues to lessen this burden of blame on them? 
What you cannot do don’t say because you want to get job and get yourself hooked. A job you are not capable of doing, don’t accept! Do the one you can to the best of your ability and knowledge. Be honest.

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