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Feature Article of Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Columnist: Staye, David

My Nightmare At Tema Port

Customs Excise and Preventive Service (CEPS) and Ghana Ports and Harbor Authority (GPHA) are agencies that, according to my experience, are unforgiving and rather callous when dealing with importers. It is a horrible ordeal to go through the simple process of clearing your goods at the famed port. The indifference with which you are treated and the lack of mea culpa from these two agencies leaves one wondering if this is the best Ghana can present to the world.

After living off the shores of Ghana for more than 4 decades, I thought my retirement and returning “home” would afford me a solace to enjoy my “golden” years in a country of my birth. Little did I know that my initial jolt to reality of what lay ahead of my transition to Ghana would begin at Tema port where my personal effects and a vehicle arrived to be cleared. It is possible that some lucky individuals are accorded a service that is second to none, but I will not count myself as being in this select group.

My vessel docked at Tema Port on March 29, 2011. My container was duly opened on April 13, 2011. But by April 7th, 2011 rent had already begun to bite. Although the container was not opened, I was already indebted to Ghana Port. It is illogical to penalize someone for not clearing items from an unopened container. On that fateful day, I checked my vehicle and drove it within the perimeter of the container in which it arrived; everything was fine. My personal items were inspected and every item was intact and in good condition. For reasons beyond my control, I had to make an immediate foreign travel. On my return to Ghana I was compelled to fire my agent over competence. On recommendation, I retained the services of a competent and honest gentleman who helped me throughout my ordeal. Ironically just before I arrived at Tema to clear my car and personal effects, I tuned in to GTV Breakfast Show one morning. Who did Ms. Gifty Anti have as her guest that morning but the head of the collections unit of CEPS? At the end of the segment, Ms. Anti asked this gentleman a rather poignant question about why duties on vehicles were so high. His response was that it was to encourage people to purchase new cars. That statement from the customs man was not only preposterous, but insidious and rather callous. In short, customs actions are diabolic and intended to “hurt” people so they will conform to an intended action. I was so appalled by that statement I almost brought up my breakfast in disgust. There is a certain portion of the population that would never accede to buying a new automobile, no matter how CEPS ups the ante on vehicle duties. And I can be counted to belong to this group. It is a policy that is misplaced and asinine at best. This is not a good way to begin the week for me. I arrived at Tema Port on Monday, June 13, 2011 at about 6:30 am. I was enthusiastic to get my vehicle and personal effects quickly and be on my way. Like they say, the early bird catches the worms. When the port opened for business about 90 minutes later, I experienced my first jolt. My vehicle had been at the port beyond the 60-day allowance and that it was in the process of being “seized”. I was instructed to go to the CEPS head office in Accra to get a release letter. Before I departed for Accra, I inquired from my agent and other “knowledgeable” people milling around the port how long it would take to secure this all-famous release letter. Judging from the varied answers I got, I decided to check into a hotel. I sensed this process would take longer than a day or two. It was important to get this release letter before the vehicle was “gazetted.” When a vehicle is “gazetted”, it means it has officially been seized and ready to be auctioned off.

I made 5 roundtrips from Tema to Accra (Monday thru Friday) in anticipation of getting my release letter. I finally got it on Friday, June 17, after paying penalties. While I was chasing after the release letter, my agent was working with CEPS at the port to determine the duty on my vehicle. I decided to share duties with my agent to facilitate things. I was anxious to get out of Tema as soon as possible. Remember, my original agent had presented the vehicle identification number and was quoted this ridiculous duty that only insane people would not blink an eye at. It was important I did a double take on this. On my return to Tema, my agent presented me with the final invoice from CEPS. In shock, I sat back totally chagrined. I was trying to make sense of why this vehicle which cost me $4500 is attracting this outrageous duty – 250% of the cost of the vehicle in duty. Was there a mistake on the part of CEPS to quote such a high duty on an eight-year old car? Then I saw how CEPS calculated the duty. They took the price of the vehicle when it was brand new (eight years ago at $32,000). According to CEPS, this is the Home Delivery Value of the vehicle (whatever that means). They then halved that price (50%) as the “depreciation allowed”. It does not matter to them what the true purchasing price of the vehicle was. They conjure their own figures and then slap you with what they term as the correct duty. Mass produced cars do not hold their value at 50% after 8 years. The reasonable and fair depreciation for an eight year old car at the time was 72%. In other words, my vehicle would be worth only 28% of the original MSRP of $32,000. Are the people at CEPS telling me that they will still use this 50% depreciation formula for my car even if it was 10 years old? If the answer to this question is “yes,” then it means reason has been thrown out of the window. I would be required to still pay the same duty irrespective of the age of the car, up to 10 years without going into unchartered waters of over-age as far as my situation was concerned.

I studied my invoice further and realized that the other beneficiaries of the whopping duty I was expected to pay on my car were VAT, ECOWAS and NHIL, etc. But why would I be charged twice for VAT and NHIL? What was this NetCharge VAT and NetCharge NHIL? And to boot, CEPS was charging me “Exam Fee.” What did they examine - my vehicle that was still in the container at the time? This exam fee was charged to me on a date when the container had even not been opened? Is this CEPS for real?

Saturdays (half-days) are usually lazy days at the port. This is how I characterized it. Before you could even begin one process, it was noon, and you’d be advised to return on Monday. Already, I have spent a week in a hotel, not to mention the added cost of my meals, transportation, and a bout of diarrhea from the bad food. I was determined to short-live this misery. I needed to pay for the vehicle duty, no matter how outlandish it was, today (June 18), and get it out of the way. Now I had to work my way to my bank to get a bank draft. Getting there at the fishing harbor was not a problem, but getting back I instructed the taxi driver to take the shortest route back to Ecobank next to the Long Room because time was of the essence. Miserably, this short route took us through a deplorable road filled with gullies and ponds from the rain the night before. Is this the Tema port that is considered the cash cow of government coffers with its infrastructure being allowed to decay so badly? Don’t ever attempt to go to the Black Star Line building. You will not leave with a good feeling. Before noon, my agent had paid for the duty. Now I have to wrestle with the rent (rent for keeping the vehicle on Ghana Port parking lot for “so long.” This could only be done come Monday, June 20.

I returned to my hotel physically and mentally drained. The agents that do this for a living are just conduits to clear importers’ goods. There is no emotional attachment. On the other hand, as a retiree, I had a rather personal connection to my vehicle, let alone my personal items. They (the agents) are just doing their jobs without actually realizing they are making it possible by virtue of their silence to allow CEPS and Ghana Port to continue to treat Ghanaian importers as if they are enemies. I had earlier spoken to some of them while on the port grounds and in a heartbeat, they would recite a litany of things that are so, so wrong with the operations at the port. Monday, June 20, was not without its challenges. Since I had changed agents, the new agent had to be “officially accepted” as my representative. While my agent was busy re-listing my personal items for taxes to be levied on them, I shot off to the offices of the shipping company. What a mad house! The shipping company had just moved into new offices and their employees were literally working out of moving boxes. I placed my documents under a huge pile of other documents. I grabbed a seat and patiently waited my turn. Three hours later, I was called. I took my documents and headed back to my agent’s office. He was still busy listing my personal effects on a CEPS (Declaration for Customs Use Only) form on his computer template. He could only list two items on each sheet of paper and I had lots of items. The amount of paper used here was mind boggling. I thought by meticulously listing all my personal items on a spreadsheet, lots of paperwork could be eliminated. I did not think there was a need to re-list the items. But this is CEPS. They do what they want. The CEPS agent took the computer list of my personal items from my agent and proceeded to handwrite them in red ink on another sheet, (Importation of Personal Effects) form. On that sheet he literally guessed the value of my items and applied the relevant tax due on each item. A motorized bicycle pump I had purchased 20 years ago for $3.99 was valued by this “brilliant” customs agent for $50, and so on. How do you fight this sort of thing? Go and challenge the valuation of my personal items and spend extra days at Tema going through administrative shenanigans that would get me nowhere? Besides I was beginning to run low on funds and just wanted this misery to end so I could get out of town.

On Tuesday, June 21, 2011, I paid the rent on my vehicle. I was charged “rent” for every day my vehicle was on the property of GPHA, safe for five days. Even when the container was not opened to remove the vehicle, I was charged rent. One thing I learned after spending 10 days at Tema port chasing after my things is that surprises were never in short supply. I was even charged for Sundays and holidays when the port was closed for business. You cannot take delivery of your imported goods on holidays and Sundays. So why charge for those days? In any reasonable jurisdiction, an exclusion of rent for such days would be in order. I guess reason is “orphaned” at GPHA. After paying the rent on my car, I was told it had been moved to Atlas Manufacturing Company – a non-descript facility about 20 minutes drive from the port in the middle of nowhere. It was here I had to take delivery of my car. By my car being pulled to Atlas Manufacturing Company, it meant it was on its last leg. Here, it would have been auctioned off to some well-heeled clients who are privileged to inspect vehicles at the Atlas lot in advance of being auctioned. The day was pretty much spent and I needed to retire to my hotel to press my luck the next day. Wednesday, June 22, 2011 was a day of infamy. I instructed my agent to go to Atlas to retrieve my car while I trekked to the Jubilee Terminal to pay the rent and tax on my personal effects. Three hours into the day, I had a call from my agent from Atlas Manufacturing Company that he could not take delivery of the car because I was being charged rent there too. He needed more money from me. My car had been dragged (literally dragged) to Atlas on June 15, 2011. So they wanted their share of rent. I had to pay for the 7 days my vehicle was in their possession, at GHc 8.17 per day plus VAT, plus NHIL. My agent took a taxi back to the Jubilee terminal (at my expense) to collect money for the Atlas rent. At this point, I was becoming exasperated. What a convoluted system! This system at Tema port is designed to frustrate people, not help them. What a sham! By 4 pm, my agent called me from Atlas and informed me that the vehicle had been delivered to him after all the relevant charges and taxes had been paid. Unfortunately he could not drive it and that I should come down myself and see if I could move the vehicle. I did not ask any more questions and simply grabbed the next available taxi to get to Atlas quickly. During that 20 minute taxi ride, a million and one possible reasons floated through my head as to why my vehicle could not be driven. I know it was drivable when it was offloaded from the vessel. So what happened to it?

It was just before 4:30 pm when I arrived at Atlas Manufacturing Company and the condition in which I saw my vehicle almost made me cry. Was it actually worth the time and money I had spent in these 10 days in Tema? My vehicle had been vandalized; the parts that were shipped with it for repair purposes were all stolen. The rear bumper had been bashed in and the seats and carpeting were soiled with grease. A rope was tied to the front axle and the vehicle was dragged from Golden Jubilee Terminal to Atlas Manufacturing Company (I have kept this rope for posterity). In the process all the soft copper high-pressure power steering fluid pipes imbedded in the rack and pinion steering system were destroyed. The power steering fluid that lubricated the steering mechanism had all leaked out and rendered the vehicle inoperable. I was livid and disappointed at the same time. Oh, Mother Ghana! Is this the best you can do for your sons and daughters? If I had the opportunity to examine my vehicle before paying for the duty and rent, I would have walked away and kept my money in my pocket. My only loss then would be the cost of purchasing the vehicle overseas and the shipping charges. But I would still have been way ahead of the game. I was not even informed that my vehicle had been dragged to another location until I had paid the duty and rent. How sneaky!

I started the vehicle and turning the steering wheel was almost impossible for a man who had not had any other meal since breakfast. I was determined to see some person in authority who could give me some answers as to why I had paid so much money for rent of space to GPHA and yet someone dropped the ball. GPHA did not meet their end of the bargain by securing my vehicle. In haste, I drove straight to the Commissioner of Customs office next to the Long Room only to be advised by one of his aides that I needed to go to Golden Jubilee Terminal Car Park and seek a lady by the name of Rose, supposedly she was the person in charge of the car park. At the Golden Jubilee Terminal I was given so much run around that my head began to spin. No one would give me straight answers as to how I could get my problem resolved. I was not allowed into the terminal itself because I needed my agent to be with me. He had gone off to take care of another client after delivering my car. Nice guy, but he had to make money; he had a family to feed. I was now on my own. At the Golden Jubilee terminal I had never seen so many “important looking” men and women who could care less about what bothered the average importer. I trudged around the terminal looking to get to that Rose lady, but to no avail.

As the afternoon wound down, I left the terminal in frustration and headed for a roadside mechanic about a mile from the terminal. I definitely could not drive my car in that condition home – a distance of over 200 kilometers. On examining my car, the mechanic called his boss, an “expert” in repairing my type of vehicle. He was frank with me. I needed to purchase another rack and pinion steering mechanism plus the power steering pump. The pump, he promised me, would not make it to my destination. After all the expenses I have incurred in the last 12 days, the few cedis left were going for the purchase of petrol to get me home. Buying these two parts (used ones, at Abossey Okai) was going to run me close to 1,500 cedis, not to mention the several liters of power steering fluid that needed to be replaced. I did not have that kind of money on me. Since it was dusk, I informed the mechanic that I needed to get back to my hotel. I was now weak from hunger and dehydration. God willing, I would tackle this vehicle repair the next day.

On the morning of Thursday, June 23, 2011, I placed a phone call to the security division of the Ghana Ports and Harbors authority. I told the security officer who answered the phone about my problem and asked him how I could get redress. He simply chuckled and told me he could not help me. I then told him that I would retain a lawyer and leave the rest for him to handle. His reply to me was “don’t waste your time!” Really? What does he know that I am not privy to? Have countless victims of CEPS and GPHA tried and failed to seek redress for their grievances with these two agencies?

The roadside mechanic tried all day to fix my car and make it somewhat drivable to get me home. He would weld the busted pipes, tighten bolts and nuts, re-fill the power steering fluid only to see everything leak out once the engine was started. I stopped him after a while because this was not getting us anywhere. At 6 pm I “limped” back to my hotel with the hope of getting on the road the next morning with my DVLA DP plates. ‘ On Friday, June 24, 2011, my nightmare at Tema was ending as it began – very early in the morning. I had promised myself that come hell or high water, I would leave town. I rose early, bade farewell to the night desk clerk of the hotel and in a few minutes I was on the road, my emergency blinkers flashing since my vehicle speed could not be par with the highway speed limit. Twelve hours later I arrived home; I could not drive beyond 40 kph. Every now and then I would stop and check the power steering pump. I did not want this motor to cease on me. But cease it did, because it was devoid of oil.

It is unfathomable and beyond comprehension how there is not a governmental agency that has oversight over CEPS and GPHA. Are these two agencies laws upon themselves? They do whatever they want to importers and get away with it. Where is the justice in our system? On Ghana’s Coat of Arms, the inscription on it says: FREEDOM AND JUSTICE. We might have the freedom, but is the justice eluding us? Isn’t there a place where someone who has been aggrieved by any government agency can go for redress? Is it the courts? May be not, because the GPHA security man said I would be wasting my time. Is there an ombudsman appointed by the government to handle matters of aggrieved Ghanaians relating to CEPS and GPHA? Could you report this to the Castle? No, they are too busy to listen to such complaints. Is there a ministry for ports and harbors? Will they listen to the maltreatment meted out to me and countless others and take appropriate action? There are millions of Ghanaians who would narrate to you stories similar to mine. Has the government felt the way these people have been treated by CEPS and GPHA is fair because it is in the interest of collecting revenue? If agents of CEPS stood on Ghanaian streets and stuck guns to people’s heads and demanded money in the name of revenue, would government acquiesce? I do not think so.

So why are they allowing what is going on at the Tema port to continue to fester?

By: DAVID STAYE

E-mail: stay960056@aol.com

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