By Ghanaweb.com Columnist:Nana Akua Tweneboah-Koduah
October 22, 2013
In what can pass as the biggest day light robbery ever to hit the country since independence, some importers have conspired with some customs officials to dupe the nation to the tune of 367 million dollars by clearing their imports from government bonded warehouses without paying anything to the state.
The robberies which involves some leading companies in Ghana, ranging from steel companies, auto dealerships, pharmaceuticals, fisheries, supermarkets, telecoms, foods, veneer and plywood, energy, foam, construction, dates back from 2005 to the end of 2012.
What is more worrying is that there is one steel company which has duped the state to the tune of 86 million dollars by repeatedly clearing it imports from bonded warehouses without paying anything to the state. This is followed by another which has also cheated the country by 48 million dollars. Then we have forty one (41) other companies involved in the underhand deals which have cost the country between $1 million and $20 million dollars.
Ironically, investigations have established that all the imported goods lodged at various bonded warehouses scattered across the country have been cleared by the cheating importers under mysterious circumstances.
Sources close to the Flagstaff House in Accra have indicated that the massive fraud was uncovered by the Special Operations Unit (SOU) under the office of the Chief of Staff, Mr Prosper Bani.
It is recalled that the country has an arrangement whereby importers who do not readily have monies to pay the duties on their imports send them to government custom bonded warehouses to avoid the payment of demurrage.
This procedure enables importers to make their own arrangements with financial institutions and others in order to pay the duties before clearing the goods from the bonded warehouses which are manned by officers of the Customs Division of the Ghana Revenue Authority.
But extensive investigations conducted by the SOU have revealed that from 2005 up to the end of 2012, some importers who have their goods at the bonded warehouses have cleared those goods through the back door without paying a cent to the nation. It has been established that those goods were cleared by the importers through the connivance of some customs officers manning the bonded warehouses.
A 68-page document which details the names of the importers or companies involved in those dirty deals, the declaration numbers and dates that the goods were sent to the bonded warehouses, import and bonded warehouse codes, bonded warehouse numbers and the cost insurance freight will blow off the mind of any Ghanaian who sees it.
My sources within the SOU have revealed that all the unscrupulous importers have been notified by the government to settle the duties on the goods they have unlawfully cleared from the bonded warehouses by November 30, 2013. I am further told that the list of the companies involved in these massive corruptions would be published in the newspapers and announced on air if they fail to settle the amounts outstanding.
I am also hearing that the government has referred the issue to the Criminal Investigations Department of the Ghana Police Service and they have started investigations in earnest to bring to book customs officials who aided in these robberies at the expense of the nation.
I am also told no stone will be left unturned as the government has been on the receiving end for the past few months for failing to meet its revenue and expenditure targets for the first half of the year, with wage bills continuing to rise which has led to the downgrade of the country’s credit rating from B+ to B by the International Rating agency, Fitch.
What is mindboggling is that some of these leading companies who have so much respect in the country have repeatedly been clearing their imports from bonded warehouses without paying any duties to the nation. Yet, it is officials and owners of these same companies who turn round to accuse the government of doing little or nothing to fix the economy when the going gets tough.
We are always crying for good roads, water, electricity, schools, medicine and good salaries among others, yet for eight years running these thieving companies have bilked the country to a whopping 367 million dollars.
Since the government has directed all the companies involved in this dubious activities to pay the monies back, I strongly suggest that a Special Account be opened by the Ministry of Finance so that all the monies to be paid back can be easily tracked. The opening of a Special Account will enable Ghanaians to know from time to time the exact monies that have been paid back into the government kitty.
I am strongly advising the government to urgently do something about custom bonded warehouses sited on the premises of companies. I believe that if a company has a bonded warehouse on its premises and that same company has goods in that bonded warehouse, it is very easy for officials of that company to connive with customs officers manning the warehouse to clear the goods from that bonded warehouse without paying anything to the state.
It is therefore very dangerous for companies to have their own bonded warehouses on their own premises. It portrays serious conflict of interest. This easily gives room for collusion and corruption at the expense of the state.
I also suggest that the government should revise the rules concerning bonded warehouses in the country. Goods lodged at the bonded warehouses must be given a certain amount of time for clearance to avoid possible collusion and thievery. Companies must no longer be given infinity time to clear their goods from bonded warehouses. They must be given a certain time target for clearance just like other importers at the ports are given a stipulated time to clear their goods before they are confiscated and auctioned.
Since customs officials have been compromising with importers to cheat the nation, I further suggest that the government must look at the possibility of adding the military to guard the bonded warehouses. Even though the presence of the military will not totally erase corruption at the bonded warehouses, it surely will minimize the thievery currently going on at the bonded warehouses.
Thorough unannounced audit checks at the bonded warehouses throughout the country must immediately be instituted. These checks must be conducted at least four times yearly to ensure that goods that have not been paid for are still intact at the warehouses. And customs officers found during these audit checks to have colluded and aided importers to clear their goods without paying the duties must be swiftly prosecuted at the law courts.
I am of the view that those who have stolen this massive amount of monies from the government must never be allowed to get away with it. They have to be exposed, shamed and prosecuted. In fact penalties have to be slapped on them to prevent others from indulging in such unpatriotic acts.
I further suggest that companies involved in these massive stealing must never again be allowed to send their imports to bonded warehouses since they have abused the privilege. Parliament can pass a law to blacklist any company that clears goods from any bonded warehouse without paying the required duties. This will scare companies that indulge in those acts which contribute in preventing the nation from meeting its target in revenue generation.
We have contractors who have finished their projects but have not been paid for months. Currently, we have civil servants on strike due to non-payment of their allowances. The government has been besieged with so many strike actions this year while we continue to stand by and watch the reprehensible behaviour of importers and customs officials.
This issue must never become a flash in the pan. Since the SOU has the list of all the culprits it should cause its publication if these nation wreckers fail to pay back the duties to the state. We must never allow this to be swept under the carpet. Three hundred and sixty–seven million dollars can do a lot for our dear country. Never again must we stand by and watch why some few unscrupulous companies and individuals rape the nation with impunity.