A bitter battle is simmering among key government agencies that have been operating at the ports of entry following a surprise directive that has seen most of them kicked out.
The move, meant to improve operations, especially at the port of Mombasa, has triggered an inter-agency row, with some warning of security risks and an influx of counterfeit goods, the Sunday Nation has learnt
In a radical move, a memo sent from State House on June 4 removed more than 20 agencies from the ports. Major agencies with restricted access to cargo clearance include the National Intelligence Service, the Directorate of Criminal Investigation, Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services and the Anti-Counterfeit Agency.
The memo first grouped the agencies into five categories with only Immigration, Port Health and Port Security Office, Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA), Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) and Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) allowed full access.
Others have to seek authority to enter the ports by filling in an accountability form with the name of the officer to be allowed into the port areas, a move said to be opposed by those affected.
Most senior officials did not want to comment on record about the circular, underscoring the power with which it was delivered.
“Agencies in category three will undertake any cargo related intervention after making a formal request to the Head of the Lead Agency using the Port Entry Accountability Form,” Mr Joseph Kinyua, head of public service, wrote.
The letter also indicated that Kebs will be the lead agency in coordinating inspection of goods at the country of origin and the issuance of Certificate of Conformity to ensure quality standards “and the adherence to other regulatory requirements”.
Category three include the NIS, DCI and Kephis.
From the new port operations structure, Kebs and KRA will remain the most critical agencies in handling cargo, a move that is expected to save importers the lengthy clearance process that was driven by the presence of several agencies within the port.
It is this dominance by the two agencies that has sparked jitters among other agencies who fear they may not get sufficient support from the two based on past experiences that forced their inclusion at the port in the first place.
But it is the requirement to seek permission from lead agencies that seems to be causing anxiety.
“What if we seek permission and they don’t grant it? What are we supposed to do when we know some cargo is suspected to be either counterfeit or illegal and we cannot access the port? This is going to open a can of worms and we have been here before when Kebs, for example, would clear the goods only to be confiscated by another agency for violating some laws. At the end of the day, the same traders will be inconvenienced,” said a source from one of the agencies kicked out by the June directive.
There are also questions on the decision to restrict access for the NIS and the DCI, who have in recent months been involved in operations to intercept smuggled and illegal goods.
The circular also directed that all the agencies involved in cargo handling start operating on 24-hour basis, every day of the week in a move that could require the hiring of more staff.
A powerful lobby under the umbrella of Small Traders and Importers Association is said to have decried the existence of several agencies at the port, which was delaying clearance of their cargo, which come in consolidated containers and which are usually candidates for thorough verification due to risks of misdeclaration and counterfeiting.
Last month, President Uhuru visited the Inland Container Depot in Nairobi where goods worth billions of shillings are being held after meeting a section of the “small traders” at State House.
The two high-profile visits led to the intervention of the President, who also called for vetting and gazettement of all the cargo consolidators before they are allowed into the import-export trade.
The traders’ clearance tussle with KRA started from suspicion that the importers were trying to dump the Sh14 billion cargo within the country after declaring them as transit goods to Uganda.
The goods imported mainly from China would have denied KRA some Sh4 billion in tax revenue.
“There are people who engage in consolidation. They bring goods in containers, claiming they are in transit while their real motive is to evade paying tax. That is not right and we will not allow it,” the President said after ordering that the goods be released within three weeks.
The move to reduce the agencies at the port would later be announced by Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich in his budget speech in Parliament where he blamed the delays on additional inspections of imports by the Kenya Bureau of Standards and a host of other agencies once the goods arrive in Kenya.
“To address this challenge, it has been decided that once the Pre-Verification of Conformity (PVOC) has been done at the point of export and information relayed to our Customs and Standards teams, the same goods should not be subjected to further inspection unless there is prior intelligence on non-compliance. In addition, Mr Speaker, the logistics at the Port and at the Inland Container Depot will be streamlined to have the customs and the essential Standards team only,” Mr Rotich said.
Another source within the affected agencies in the changes said there are bound to be “friendly fire” cases among the agencies, with each trying to prove its relevance while those inside the port will be keen to keep the monopoly of running the port operations.
A major hurdle in this new directive, our sources said, will be agencies refusing to share crucial imports and exports data.
The directive that all the agencies must still deliver all their mandates has even further complicated the port operations with those whose access is restricted complaining they are likely to be victimised for mistakes done by others.
“For the avoidance of doubt, it is hereby clarified that all Government Agencies with mandate over international trade operations shall continue to remain accountable for the discharge of their respective mandates in accordance with the existing legal frameworks, but subject to adherence with the guidelines provided in this circular,” Mr Kinyua wrote.
So lucrative is the Mombasa port that at least 27 agencies had established operations.
With the port of Mombasa now clearing up to 1,000 containers in a day, it remains to be seen how the new changes will improve efficiency while at the same time curbing the potential loopholes that may hurt both the businesses who pushed for the changes and the consumers the government have been seeking to protect with such strict monitoring of imports.
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