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Liberian Authorities Tighten Security at Monrovia Port

Monrovia's port became a symbol of corruption and disorder during Liberia's 14 years of civil war. Goods were regularly stolen and huge amounts of revenue were lost. The new government is tightening controls to increase port revenue.

Workers at Monrovia's Freeport are unloading a shipment of 25,000 tons of rice from China.

Next to the ship lies another, sunken and rusting at the broken loading platform. A harbor pilot says that sunken ships pose underwater obstacles, making it harder to navigate the channel leading into the dock.

The Freeport was a symbol of corruption and disorder during Liberia's 14 years of civil war.

Rebels once held the port for a final assault on the capital in their bid to oust then-president Charles Taylor. Many containers were looted. Theft was commonplace. Relief workers reported that government soldiers broke into a World Food Program warehouse at the port and stole trucks and food stocks.

Now, soldiers from the U.N. Mission in Liberia keep an eye on the perimeter from guard towers.

Liberia's new government under President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf says it wants to tighten security at the port and enforce import duties more stringently.

Director of Seaport Police Michael Williams says he found security in a state of disarray when he arrived two-months ago.

"You understand there was a former administration here that was running haywire, because methods were not put in place properly," he said. "I was notified of the high indiscipline issue that was coming from within the Liberian Seaport Police. So I had to come up with some mechanisms to control indiscipline."

Williams says violations will be dealt with severely.

"They range from suspensions to verbal warnings to written warnings. In fact, dismissal is also an option, depending on the severity of the action committed by our officer," he said.

Across the bridge is the thriving Vietown Market, where vendors sell mostly clothes and household products. King Mohamed has his office above one of the shops. He has been importing plastics to Liberia for 10 years.

Mohamed recollects a lax system under previous governments.

"The past regime did not enforce everything," he said. "There was a feeling that you could just come in and do whatever you wanted to, which led to a whole lot of malpractices."

Mohamed says regulations are now being enforced more stringently. Among them, he says, are the regulations of the Bureau of Inspection Valuation Assessment and Control.

Known as BIVAC, the international organization is charged with controlling shipments between many countries to facilitate the customs process. It ensures that international standards are upheld at ports around the world.

Mohamed says importing goods used to be easier.

"Things were pretty good at the time, because things were not as expensive as they are now," he noted. "One of the critical issues is that the issue of the BIVAC inspection in the country of loading seems very strange to most business people in Liberia."

BIVAC also ensures that revenue is properly collected for participating governments. But Mohamed explains why that can pose a problem for importers and make wares more expensive for the consumer.

"If I import goods that were not inspected and they arrive in Monrovia port, I will be taxed 'X' amount of money. Obviously I have to sell to make a profit, so you will expect that there will be some addition in terms of profit margin," he said. "And if that should happen, the consumer, who is the last receiver becomes affected greatly."

Mohamed says dealing with a much stronger port authority is a real challenge, but he is optimistic that it will generate more income for the government and thus benefit all.

"As time goes on business people will get adjusted. But for now it is very strange and tough," he said. "If you compare the importation of goods into the country between then and now, you will find that the amount has decreased, because of the new measures. But people will try to pick it up and get accustomed to it."

Port authorities say that annual port revenue was around $12 million during the past three to four years. They hope this will increase drastically.