By George Q. Deshields
Fargo, North Dakota
Freeport of Monrovia
It is like a huge shanty-town, with haphazardly built structures that serve little to no purpose. The buildings are all leaky when it rains; the main entrance is a narrow passageway that allows one person at a time – do not wear high-heels or stand more than 5’7” tall; the overhead hangs very low. You have to literally walk a tight rope to enter and leave the port. During the rainy seasons, the entrance is flooded, so they have built this concrete platform that also allows just one person in at a time. The platform is so narrow that people often fall in this diseased and very dirty water that stretches some 150 yards!
As you leave downtown or enter in from the Somalia Drive, you will see a dust cloud – grounds of the port are not paved - from about two miles away. As you near the port, the dust cloud thickens and begins to stick to your skin and irritate you eye – please do not wear white. The closer you get you will see a giant concrete fence with scores of unemployed, desperate and disadvantaged young men gathered at the various entrances; all looking for an opportunity to get in – most do! Not too far from the main entrance is a poorly made sign that reads: WELCOME TO THE FREEPORT OF MONROVIA THE GATEWAY TO LIBERIA’S ECONOMY! Curse the day you ever decided to send a container or anything through this jungle that’s masquerading as a port. Take a blood pressure pill, and if you believe in divinity, pray for a miracle. This is no exaggeration; your wahala (troubles) has just begun.
I understand that there are different types of goods that are shipped to Liberia, but I will focus on the type of container that’s usually shipped by Liberians living in the United States and other Western Countries. Most of these containers are DI (Destination Inspection), not because Liberians abroad don’t want to undergo BIVAC pre-inspections but because of BIVAC’s unavailability in most instances, lack of discretion to inspect without pre-approval from Monrovia, delays, and the Liberian government unwillingness to protect the interests of its citizens. In fact, the government does not even trust the work of BIVAC; this is a contractor they hired and maintain! Nevertheless, most people longing to return home are left with no choice but to ship their belongings home without pre-inspections only to be run through the Freeport’s fine-tune, corrupt ringers.
Freeport of Monrovia
On the other hand, I write with the hope that someone reads this and avoids the headaches, unnecessary expenses and stress that I had to endure at the Port of Monrovia. With that said, here are the steps or should I say the obstacles you will navigate in order to get your container out of the port if you should get it out at all. Be aware that about 20% to 25% of co-signees will not be able to get their containers out on their first trial, not because they don’t want to but because of orchestrated and planned tactics employed by port employees/administrators that ensures you walk away from your property. The port employees turn around and auction these properties to themselves at next-to-nothing-prices! This practice was so rampant that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was forced to stop port auctions and issued an executive order in February of 2016 to release hundreds of containers that people walked away from. Most of these containers had accumulated so much storage fees that they were sometimes 6 to 7 times higher than the value of the contents of the containers! So out of frustration, people simply walked away. Most of these late fees accumulate not because shippers don’t have their duties but because of co-signees refusal to pay government extortionists, deliberate delays tactics by government employees because you have not paid what they demanded, claims that their computers are down (this will happen at least twice a day and usually last about an hour) and thus cannot do your work, government employees playing Zuma on computers while people standing in long lines waiting during working hours, the time work actually starts (11 am) and the time they actually close down for the day (3 pm). There is also an hour’s lunch break in there somewhere. This is also in addition to all the “system down” bull.
Mind you, even though they do not work on Sundays, half day on Saturdays (which is more like quarter day), holidays, you still have to pay storage fees for those days of non-work! This is compounded by the number of government offices and contractors you MUST visit or deal directly with for a single container: National Port Authority, Customs, Liberian Revenue Authority, Drug and Firearms, Commerce Ministry, Finance Ministry, Central Bank of Liberia, A Nigerian base bank - First International Bank, APM Terminal, BIVAC, Truckers Union, Security, and “External Forces” whose interests far supersede yours. They are actually considering adding the Transport Ministry to this list! And when you finally get you container out, you have to deal with the Liberian National Police which has clear instructions to make sure no container truck plows the streets before 10 pm! Government has no alternate routes. Again, this is another extortionist’s tactic at work – set aside $50 - $100 for this final crossing. Moreover, note that some of these locations have 4 to 5 separate offices/desks/countertops you must visit. Your document could spend as much as 4 days at a given office just to get a signature!
The Customs, Commerce Ministry, BIVAC and the Liberian Revenue Authority are notorious locations for prolonged stay. They are the most unprofessional and arrogant government employees you will deal with. Be very careful in dealing with them, any show of frustration or anger because they are not doing their jobs, which, by the way, they are not doing, could cause you intentional delays and a definite increase in your duties and storage fees. Hold your horses, calm yourself, drink some cold water and go outside for some dusty fresh air. Overall, you will visit between 20 to 30 offices/desks/countertops to complete your rounds. Half of these so-called offices are not all at the port, so you will shuttle between the port and Central Monrovia a few times. There is no reliable public transportation; the frequent trips from the Freeport to Central Monrovia (about 2 miles away) could last as much as an hour one way! That crap about “One Stop Shop” is not just a lie, but an abuse of power and total wickedness! It does not exist.
Moreover, my explanation is going to be limited to a 40’ container, containing a 2001 pickup truck and the entire household items of a Liberian who decided to move back home. Also, all monies listed here are in U.S. Dollars; giving anybody Liberian Dollars during the clearing process is considered an insult. You will be consequence for this. This is no joke. Make note of it.
Here are the monies you must set aside to begin clearing your container:
Freeport of Monrovia
Because you ship DI, you must list every item in your container. EVERYTHING! Yes, even the numbers of forks you bring in with you. If you forgot to list a single needle, and that needle is discovered during the inspection, LRA can fine you five thousand United States Dollars for false declaration! There is no clear distinction made between an unlisted cooking pot, 2 undeclared mattresses, personal or business items; you can be screwed just the same. Inspecting agents have absolutely no discretion, so they claim – bosses want all the powers from their ivory tower. Note this: there is a common belief at the port that if you can afford to ship a container from America to Liberia, you must have a lot of money. They are going to chop (create ways to make you pay them extra) theirs. Please DO NOT forget to list the number of G-strings you have! I shit you not. But then again, G-strings are not afraid of pupu, as they say here in Liberia.
Also, be aware that all your belongings are going to be thrown about and some will be broken, stolen, placed in the mud and dirtied during the offloading at the port. Yes, the first time your stuff gets offloaded is at the port, the second will be at your destination. Cheeky port/BIVAC employees will abuse you at every chance they get and remind you that you should have done BIVAC; they are not going to make any effort to save your $2000 mirror. They are not responsible if it breaks. I AM DEAD SERIOUS! BIVAC inspection platform is only big enough to offload two full containers at a time. It is not unusual for BIVAC to only offload two containers during an entire working day! BIVAC is squeezed up in this very tight corner of the port; trucks can barely turn around in their fence. It’s a wonder a container truck has not flattened a BIVAC employee yet, or perhaps it has. Take your personal safety seriously when in the port. The place is extremely dangerous for pedestrians. Containers are always falling off trucks!
Be careful, during the offloading process, if the DEA, Custom or BIVAC agents see something they like and want, they will make up something about your shipment or document, squeeze you and force you to give it to them. Remember the extortionists’ fees in the list; you will deplete that in no time. If you can part with your stuff without any major setback, I recommend you give it to them. If you refuse, it could cost you a whole lot more. Trust me on this one.
Home of the Liberian legislators
Furthermore, BIVAC has no scanners as they agreed to when they signed the initial contract with the government. Nobody checks or questions them. BIVAC and APM Terminal operate like special interest organizations whose sole purpose is to exploit the Liberian people and pay “respect” to their handlers. The president’s son, Robert Sirleaf singlehandedly brought in BIVAC which went under little to no scrutiny; APM Terminal was brought in under similar circumstances. They make huge profits, do not meet their contractual obligations yet still operate at the port like da their pa farm (An inheritance). Our legislators have been silenced with chicken feed, not realizing that they too will suffer the consequences of nearsightedness. In fact, you will sense that BIVAC and APM Terminal operate like front companies, which have been sanctioned by people we have empowered to represent us. They will claim that they are not money laundering entities or behave like one, but if it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, well, you know the rest. The only thing these yamayama (quasi) contractors care about is shipping their huge profits out of the country. Now, I understand why they selected the port. To hell with the contracts they signed with us. You will give BIVAC and APM Terminal your money without any benefits! This is no candid camera; breathe, you’ve been hoodwinked! Moreover, these practices place our people between a rock and a hard place or something I like to call the Freeport Effect – Freeport exploitation breeds public burden. Do you still wonder why the cost of an item is 3 times more expensive in Liberia than most countries?
The managing director and all the other senior managers are all fully aware of the exploitive measures at the port. Most are too inept to appreciate what’s happening, those who do take their cut and look the other way to the detriment of the public. The tax payers are left to the wolves to be torn apart. The most vexing part is there is no avenue to redress this grave injustice. Disengaged administrators will tell you that there is, but it doesn’t exist.
Nevertheless, shadow your broker at all times – do not stay home and expect your broker to be aggressively working on your behalf. Because of the artificial barriers and delays in the process, and because your broker will be working on several other containers at the same time, s/he will lie to you at every chance he gets. Not simply because they are dishonest people but also because they are working in a system that promotes and encourages crocrogeeism (unscrupulous activities) and dishonesty! Stick to him like a Chinese polyester suit in a 90 degree heat on a Liberian law maker. Remember, every time you leave him alone, he sets aside your work and commences working on another shipper’s document. This is the way it works. Believe nothing he tells you, there is a very high probability that it’s a lie. Verify, verify and verify some more. Neglect to do this and your storage fees will be in the thousands of dollars.
I was privileged to clear a few containers in the mid 70’s and 80’s in Liberia. I have also cleared a few containers in other African countries, the United States and I can assure you nothing comes close to the level of unnecessary stress and the painful experiences one undergoes at the Port of Monrovia. Under this administration, the Freeport of Monrovia is a port setup for a couple of reasons. It is not a port setup to enhance the Liberian economy, provide easy access for goods and services or improve the standard of living in the country as is the mission of other ports in the region, but rather to stifle economy growth and discourage importation at all cost.
Secondly, I am sure the administration’s poorly educated mouth piece will claim that none of this is true! They will all swear on their ma “taytay water” (breast milk) that all is well and no such broad day theft is going on. But here’s a challenge: Conduct an undercover investigation without interference with secret cameras and document at least 3 separate DI containers being cleared at the Port of Monrovia and see if you don’t experience everything listed here. Present the types and audio to the public unedited if you truly believe the crap coming outta your blowhole.
Let’s be clear, the government knows the truth and will not take up this challenge. So, here’s what you should do as a shipper to somehow protect yourself:
1) Avoid the Freeport of Monrovia if you can. The Government of Liberia has mismanaged its affairs, massively overpaid themselves and claims there is a “budget shortfall” and is looking to fill in the gaps where the budget has been pocketed. Instead of one duty, the government now reassesses the initial custom quote and issues you a second quote which in most cases is equivalent to the original quote. You have to pay both. Separately! The Nigerian-based bank gets a cut on all of this.
2) Safe yourself the headaches and unnecessary stress and extra expenses and pay the extortionists the first time. The longer it takes you to pay, the more they will intentionally delay you. You cannot take them anywhere; their so-called bosses are all in on this. No amount of talking can save you. You must as well forget your container if you take their complaint to one of their bosses.
3) The Nigerian-based bank that supports the Freeport duty payment closes at 2 pm; get there quickly if you have to pay duty. Failure to get there on time could cost you additional storage fees. Remember, APM Terminal purse is fattened every time there is a delay. Appreciate that delays are calculated moves. Keep this in mind.
4) Accept that you have made a grave error by shipping to Liberia and try your hardest to make the best out of it. Understand that your country is being run like a cartel; any attempt to question what’s going on could cost you more than just money.
5) Make sure your vehicle is not made before 2006! The government of Liberia, in order to further tax you – up to 20% additional, has come up with this ridiculous rule that vehicles brought into the country MUST be less than 10 years old. Mind you, this is country where the capital city has little to no roads. Where one of the largest rubber plantations exists and yet has not managed to produce a single tire or a bolt for a car in almost 200 years! The rest of the country is still stuck in the 1800’s. The only cars that can survive on Liberia’s so-called roads are five ton military vehicles. Yet, this is the country that wants 2016 luxury vehicles when over 90% of the country has no transportation. Avoid this trip.
6) Be prepared to see older women openly weeping, grown men cussing because they have been screwed in so many different ways that their brains cannot comprehend the “takay you win” (a card trick game use by deviant young men to swindle locals) underhand they have just been dealt.
I hate to be the bearer of realistic news, but this is how your country is being run. Good luck and Godspeed - you will need it.