Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Custom brokers association, another disgrace to Liberia

Custom brokers are suppose to be people with ethical, professional, and high moral character but this seems to be the opposite of the Liberian custom brokers association. The Liberian custom brokers association is notoriously known to be intruders into customers, visitors, and private citizen’s properties thus leaving Liberia or the National Port Authority with the ugly image. Hundreds “if not, thousands” of visitors & business people have been rubbed or victimized by the Liberian custom brokers association at the Freeport of Monrovia. Lots of complains have been filed against some of the major perpetrators but they are still seen roaming the yard and corners of the port with bunch of papers in their files claiming to be custom brokers. Many of their victims “including me” are now redefining the association’s name and functions. The name “custom brokers” is now defined or considered as the notorious custom of breaking into people’s barrels, containers, and even pockets at the Freeport of Monrovia.
It is becoming regretful to express to any Liberian abroad who whish to ship anything to Liberia because the custom brokers at the Freeport of Monrovia are now referred to by many Liberians as “worse than the typical waterside rouges”. It is sad that many Liberians who are opportune to share some of the wealth of the west cannot invest in our home country due to notorious behavior of the custom brokers at the Freeport of Monrovia. Usually, contacting the port authorities does not bring any resolution to ones problems. The custom duties are irrational and the path of clearance is extremely bribery and corruption.
The collection of custom duties at the port in Liberia is a good idea if the funds are used to improve and maintain the port and the country’s infrastructures but this has not been the case in Liberia, so where does the fund go? Since there are no proper accountability or used of funds collected, this is considered another form of extortion. When custom officers, on a daily basis, take home extorted goods from merchants. What do their spouses or family members say? (Sweet heart or darling, a good chopping today ooooo; more grease to your elbows yaaaa).
The incident and extent of bureaucratic corruption is everywhere a function of prevailing levels of political and economic competition. In well-developed democracies with heightened political competition, corruption is relatively rare, and in cases where there is strong evidence of it, the effects are often economically insignificant. This is because corruption is bread and nurtured in secrecy; where there is openness in government coupled with political competition, the rule of law is closely observed, and corruption personally contained (Werlin 1973).
A host of factors account for the notoriously abysmal economic growth rate or the absent of it in Liberia. Underdeveloped human resources, extremely low level of productivity, in ability to attract and sustain direct foreign investment, continuous mismatch of capital and needs, and deplorable infrastructures, but prominent amongst these is corruption.
Condemnation of bureaucratic corruption is not quite enough to contain its practice in Liberia. The fact that both developed and developing nations have laws against bureaucratic corruption suggests a universal indictment of extra-legal and executable/punishable laws against it. Since corruption is essentially an opportunistic behavior and exercised by custom brokers in Liberia, a genuine effort to stem it must begin with practical reforms of existing laws, rules of conduct, custom and tradition that govern socio-political and economic relations. For any change to be effective at the various ports of entry in Liberia, it must be drastically enforced and punishable by laws.

I recently shipped five barrels to Liberia. Among those five was one barrel containing thousands of note books for kids in one of the clans in Gbarpolu County. The barrels landed at the Freeport of Monrovia. Few weeks after intensive efforts to retrieve the barrels, My brother was later told that the barrels were not declared on the shipment manifest by the shipper. My question was “what do we need to do to claim the barrels”?. My brother went to the custom offices at the Freeport of Monrovia and called me from there. I asked the gentleman “I spoke to” the same question. His response was, “you need to pay the custom duty for the five barrels before you will be allow to take delivery of the barrels. The total duty calculated for the five barrels was USD 150.00. I immediately went to the bank and transfer the money to my brother. I instructed my brother to make sure a payment receipt be obtained from whoever he was making the payment to. According to my brother (whose name am withholding for security reason), the amount was paid to one of the custom brokers only known as Nimely. The five barrels was being kept by the brokers association. After paying the money, he (my brother) was asked to pay USD 10.00 for each of the barrels to be transported from the warehouse to the port entry. When he pay the total USD200.00, he asked for receipt but was told that he could not get receipt because the deal was off record. He was hurried out of the port and made to wait outside the port to take delivery of his barrels. With not much options left for him after almost three weeks of tireless efforts to retrieve the barrels, he went outside the Port gate and waited. In about an hour, a pickup truck loaded with the barrels arrived and unloaded the five barrels off the pickup truck. They hastily headed back inside the port. When my brother took a close look at the barrels, they were all broken into and half of the content of the barrels was gone. When he contacted them, they told him they were not responsible. My brother immediately called me and reported the incident. When my brother got home with the half empty barrels, I called him back and asked him to count the content of his share of the barrels so that could compare the available content of the barrels to the original one. When he did, I almost went into coma. Out of almost 50 pieces of jeans and 15 pieces of sneakers, he counted less than ten pieces of jeans and less than three pieces of sneakers. I went online and email the port management. In that email, I provided my contact information and that of my brother in Monrovia. I demanded full investigation into the incident and also demanded that the money paid to the custom brokers be verified. In two days of my email, I received a respond from the public relations department of the National Port Authority. In that respond, the department promised to forward the mail or the message to the appropriate group concerned. I few days, someone from the custom brokers association contacted my brother and arrange a meeting. When the meeting was finally conveyed, instead of lunching an investigation into the allegation, my brother was told that I (Sam Zinnah/victim) used derogatory worlds in the email “such as criminal working with the custom brokers association.” The association decided to take a path that they think will silence me. They told my brother to inform me that if I don’t retract my article from the media, they (custom brokers association) will embarrass me. Since that day, I have anxiously been waiting for that embarrassment but yet to see or get one.

In November of 2006, I shipped a forty footer container (TRIU9199576 seal: 19783641) to Liberia. The container arrived the week of December 24th 2006. My experience with the Freeport of Monrovia. The behavior of some custom officers became a painful memory that I will always remember. Upon the arrival of the container, all offices went on the rampage with the intention of grabbing anything as a bribe to let the container out of the port. My custom broker joined the corruption queue and thought he “and his squad could use the opportunity to empty my pocket or bank account. From December 2006 to March 17, 2007, I realized that the custom brokers Association did every thing possible to empty my pockets. The common brokers maybe the ones running in the open but something suggest to me that If the custom brokers, security officers, and other port workers “without portfolio” running around the port do not heavily oil the mouth and elbow of their bosses, they run the risk of being transfer to an area where there is absolutely no chopping or assigned unpleasant functions. So, even the biggest boss knows what’s happening in the corners. During my frustrations from December 2006 to May 2007, I was very investigative and determine to expose some of the dark forest operations at the Freeport of Monrovia. In January of 2007, my container was scheduled to be release. On the scheduled date, one of the managers insisted that he had not received the tele-release from the shipping line. While I was sitting by my phone and waiting for the latest story about the container, my cell phone rang. When I asked what the latest was? I was told that the container could not be released in the absence of tele-release. I immediately called the New York office of the shipping line and reported the issue. In few minutes, an agent from the shipping line called and confirms that the tele-release was sent and received by the Monrovia office. A copy was sent to my email address. I forwarded a copy of the document (with all the shipping information) to my agents who later printed the hard copy of the document and took it to the appropriate offices for verifications. Because there was no cash escort, my agents were told that the documents needed to come from New York directly to the port. I was referred to the GEMAP representative (Adlophus Doring) ‘at the time’ in a telephone conversation with Doring, he said the issue was above his jurisdiction. He then referred me to the port Manager “at the time”. All efforts to get the port manager “Toga Nganangana” went fruitless.
While the container case was dragging, Bobby Jimmy “one of the custom brokers who was supposedly hired by Uriah Glaypo” to clear my container, “with the help of some high ranking port officials”, elbowed his way out of the port with three forty foot containers. Jimmy’s successful exit shows that if corruption has to be combated in any of Liberia’s’ sectors, it must start from the top. These are the same people who in a long time have not only plunder Liberia’s economy, but have done everything to ensure that foreign, even Liberians abroad fear investing in Liberia. We should explain our experiences for the public to read if the heads of the National port Authority finds it frightening to read or considered.

My recent inquiry into some of the causes of corruption in Liberia has made strong connection to the culture of impunity. Much of the problems are rooted in the fact that many people in Liberian society enter Government with very low or no moral character and have little or no respect for public property. Majority of those in high ranking positions live by the three Gs: Get, Grab & Go. These crooks and hustlers fight tirelessly to get into government positions and then grab whatever opportunities they see and get out of the country “Liberia”.
The major reason why these crooks always succeed in getting into high places in government and snatching away people’s or the country’s wealth is because there has been no system by which new and succeeding administrations would be compared by law to pursue and prosecute perpetrators of public crimes in Liberia. Instead, these criminals run away from Liberia and spent some time in foreign country (ies) and later return to Liberia with their stolen riches. They used the same stolen riches to elbow their ways back to public offices and continue their usual routine.
The misuse of office by government functionaries is relatively common in Liberia in areas of public procurement, revenue collection, government appointments and contracts, licensing and permits. In these areas of specialty, graft and venality are readily executed through anyone of the following activities:
A civil servant receives from a private contractor a fixed percentage of awarded government contracts; the kick back may be in kind or cash paid directly into the beneficiary’s pocket.
Police or other law enforcement agents use their offices to extort bribes in lieu of official fees or taxes.
Customs agents insist on payment above the official rates or side payment before providing requisite services to both importers and exporters.

One victim who recently returned from Liberia told me “if you want to see how corruption can cripple a society, go to Liberia.” The victim explained how her container was broken into at the Freeport of Monrovia. She spent weeks chasing BIVA and custom at the Freeport. She said “when I finally took delivery of my container, I had lost five bags of slippers and my personal clothes I had on the container.”

After three months of hustle at the Freeport of Monrovia, my container was finally released on March 17, 2007. Instead of taking the container to the ELWA campus where the container was to be off loaded, it was forced into the Telema fishing company’s yard with custom officers, BIVA representatives, and port securities sweating to enter the container and grab something for themselves. While the container was being of loaded, some custom officers broke into one of the cars and lay away with a bag containing two laptops. In the process, one bye stander saw one of the laptops being smuggled in notorious Jimmy Bobby’s car. A police officer was called to intervene while the rest of the custom officers, BIVA representatives, and port securities were left unattended to. In the process of investigating the mysterious disappearance of the laptop bag, one of the cars from the container (a 1995 black Toyota 4 runner) mysteriously disappeared from the Telema fence. Witnesses or bystanders saw one custom officer driving the 4 running toward the port. I immediately called Star Radio and reported the incident. When the reporters arrived at the port, they were told that there was unpaid storage on the container but how the arrangement was made to get the container out of the port remains the misery of the century. After series of investigations, it was finally discovered that the 1995 Toyota 4 runner was in the process of being covertly bought by notorious Bobby Jimmy, a custom broker. According to notorious custom broker Bobby Jimmy, Uriah Glaypo (another broker) took USD5000.00 from him “Jimmy” and promised to give him the 4 runner in exchange.
From the week of December 24, 2006, the last car was finally released from the Freeport of Monrovia on May 5th, 2007. To date, one of the laptops from the container is at large.
After all these painful occurrences, should we be referring to this so-called association as one of the best in the country or among the worst tainted character organizations? Is the custom brokers association legally charged with the responsibility of breaking into people’s containers, barrels, and even plastic bags at the Freeport of Monrovia?. After the publication of my 2006 , 2007 experience with the same custom brokers association in Liberia, a journalist and philanthropist from Australia emailed me expressing her frustration over the way she was treated by the Custom brokers when she last visited Liberia with relief items intended for war affected kids in Liberia.
From own experience & observation, I think the existence of the custom brokers association is a disgrace to Liberia.


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