Pandemonium erupted yesterday when news spread that importers in Monrovia have blocked the Waterside commercial hub, demanding reduction in taxes the government has recently imposed on their goods.
The situation nearly brought the entire commercial activities at the Freeport of Monrovia and Water Street to a standstill when some of the importers forced stores and petty traders to close down and leave the vicinity in solidarity with the protesters.
The protesters blamed their action on difficulties they experience in clearing their goods from the port. They claimed that the process to release containers is associated with illegal financial deals during clearing and forwarding.
Several of the frustrated importers said they have tried to clear their containers for the festive season, but customs authorities had levied high fees on each of the containers, amounts none of them was willing to pay.
“You see this whole container issue is making me mad, because our government should have known by this time that we are trying to improve the economy, so I am surprised that our containers have overstayed at the port,” Morris Johnson, a consignee voiced out in anger.
“Some of the containers,” he said, were sent by overseas business partners to their Liberian counterparts. “For which some of us took the lead to free those containers, but the government agents have created bottleneck to delay the clearing process,” he added.
According to Johnson, the port charges US$5,000 to release a container; and added that after making the payment, the goods would still be detained by customs officers seeking kickbacks. He said some of the containers carried only toys for children, while others rarely contain heavy goods such as used vehicles and household materials for family members.
“Until the government can intervene directly by restructuring the system, we will continue our protest; and no one, we dare, should open any business here.”
Some of the protesters have also blamed authorities at the Central Bank of Liberia (CBL) for the new regulation on in-bound money transfers, for which money transfer agents would pay 25 percent in local currency, calling it “unacceptable.”
They also blamed the Liberia Revenue Authority (LRA), the Ministry of Commerce and its surrogate, Bureau Veritas (BIVAC) and the APM Terminals, for the increase in clearing and forwarding.
It can be recalled that importers recently expressed frustrations over difficulties they experienced getting their goods into the country via the Free Port of Monrovia. Most of the importers abandoned their consignments at the Port due to said frustrations.
Madam Lucia Moore, another businesswoman who trades in used cars, said she brought in a 40ft container with several items to sell for the festive season, but that the high storage charges have delayed its clearing from the Freeport.
She has since attempted to free her container and, although she has spent over US$10,000, the container is still being held at the port. Although the vehicle was not released, it still accrued an additional fee of US$600 “as storage fees for only three weeks,” she complained.
In view of yesterday’s situation, LRA meanwhile informed the business community and the general public that the Freeport of Monrovia and all customs and tax offices across the country remain open to the public for normal business contrary to rumors that activities at the Freeport have been shut down.
The LRA, in a release, said the European Union is not conducting any customs inspection services at the port or at any other customs offices in Liberia, as it has been alleged in the media by few importers.
The LRA said the European Union, at the request of the Government of Liberia, is providing the Customs Department technical assistance worth over 2 million euros through a private consulting firm.
The LRA, through technical coaching by the contract consultants, has been able to independently uncover potential revenue leakage at the Freeport of Monrovia.
The source of the revenue leakage is several small scale importers mainly from China and the United States who have provided false declarations and fake commercial invoices to customs. None of the shipments in question underwent the required pre-shipment inspection, contrary to claims in the media by few importers, adding that the “LRA would like to remind the business community and the general public that false declaration and fake documentation is a crime punishable by the Laws of Liberia. The public is therefore encouraged to make voluntary and
truthful declarations to the tax authority in order to avoid embarrassment. The LRA remains at the service of the business community and the public for tax education as we facilitate legitimate trade in a fair, lawful and transparent manner,” the revenue authority said.
Ministries of Commerce, the CBL and the APM management are yet to comment on claims by the protestors.