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Customs reform: Presidential Task Force wades through rot

At the inauguration of the task force in Abuja, Minister of Finance, Dr. Mansur Muhktar said, “The task force on the reform of Nigeria Customs…

At the inauguration of the task force in Abuja, Minister of Finance, Dr. Mansur Muhktar said, “The task force on the reform of Nigeria Customs Service has as terms of reference to oversee, on behalf of the Nigeria Customs Service Board (NCSB), the implementation of an agreed action plan for the on Customs Reforms.”  

Members of the task force comprised Dr. Bello Haliru Mohammed (as chairman), Malam Ahmed Aliyu Mustafa and Mr. Dehinde Banjo.

No sooner than the members of the task force commenced their assignment than some stakeholders in the maritime industry alleged that the exercise was targeted at the current Comptroller General (CG) of the NCS.

But the chairman of the task force, in his response, said that the task force was not set up to usurp the power of the CG as it does not have the power to carry out the day-to-day running of the service.

He said, “We are not set up to retire anybody or usurp the power of the Controller General or the Customs Board but only to do our findings and make recommendations to the Minister of Finance”.

Similarly, major stakeholders in the nation’s maritime sub-sector have said that until Nigeria is transformed, the on going reforms in NCS would be unnecessary.

The National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF) in its swift response said, “Your committee tour on NCS facilities/service providers etc is quite appreciated that to reposition NCS requires NAGAFF, ANLCA, Council and Freight Forwarders Council input as a necessity and for the success of the Presidential Task Force, operationally, professionalism and discipline among others are the roadmap to success in your endeavour…”

Some of the stakeholders, who commented during the four-day tour of NCS formations by the task force were however, of the view that both the NCS reforms and the transformation of the Nigerian system should go together.

The three-man task force is unique. According to a member of the task force, Mallam Ahmed Aliyu Mustapha, a former CG, the new task force is different from earlier committees because President Umar Musa Yar’adua gave it two years to perform, hence the task force is not only to make reports but would also implement its recommendations.

The task force members expressed concern over the slow rate of service delivery by all agencies engaged by government to aid and boost the activities of the Nigerian Customs.

The task force members have also decried the state of infrastructure and equipment in the Nigerian Customs noting that until the operational environment was looked critically into with the view to improve on it, the image problem in the Nigeria Customs would persist.  

Speaking at the end of the stakeholders parley held at NCS Zone A, Harvey Road, Yaba Lagos last week, where the four-day tour was wrapped up, the chairman of the body expressed concern over the poor environment and the demeaning operational structure of the Customs.

He blamed the present situation on the lack of professionalism in the organisation, saying, “The factor of posting has seriously affected the officers on professionalism.”  

According to him, “The four-day tour has really shown that most officers demonstrated slow rate of understanding in the discharge of their duties basically due to posting. What I meant is this, when a particular officer is trained on a particular job in a command, before he could settle down to master such job, the wind of posting would have blown him to another command to start afresh on a new job.”

The task force expressed concern over the poor state of equipment and the high rate of encroachment at the Western Marine Command, Apapa.

Some of the shocking discoveries were the grounded operational boats, dilapidated state of structure and serious encroachment on the commands territory by civilians.   

Out of the 38 boats acquired by the Western Marine, only four were serviceable, yet these four could not travel more than two nautical miles.

It was observed that the water front patrol of the Nigeria Custom was next to nil due to the grounded boats and lack of equipment.

At the Apapa Custom Area Command where Bello noticed a crowd of agents and manual system of posting, he said the task force would seriously look into the issue.

The task force urged all the service delivery companies to the Customs to improve on their services and ensure that the terms and conditions of their contracts with the federal government were adhered to.

According to Bello, “We noticed that most of the commands are not well connected on the system therefore, making the issue of posting somehow difficult in certain areas.”

For instance, it was gathered that some commands were not connected to necessary financial institutions for appropriate verifications. This most often led to financial difficulties.

Although several top officers and comptrollers agreed that the Customs might not be having problems with the strength and ability of its officers to perform and discharge their duties effectively, the problem of welfare and operational equipment had been impeding performance.

For instance, some commands did not have the appropriate numbers of vehicles and fire arms to confront smugglers and in some cases where Land Rovers Vehicles were needed to wade through jungles, they were not available.

Another observation at the Murtala Muhammed Airport revealed that the Customs was not having enough space to detain deported criminals from overseas.

While pointing out factors that had made the operations of the Customs -fall short of international standards, Bello called on stakeholders to be ready to face the truth and embrace change.

He warned that government would no longer condone any acts that might damage the image of the nation or encourage fraud in the system.

It was also discovered at the Idiroko Border that only 15 containers had been scanned since 2006 out of the hundreds of containers passing through the border.

One of the reasons, which the task force members contested was that most of the containers coming into the country through the Idiroko/Seme border-line were over-sized carried by monstrous trucks and not built to specification.

It was gathered that two or more importers often joined together to load a truck into the country, leading to the monstrous size of the trucks.

However, some of the issues raised by some importers and terminal operators against the Customs include: indiscriminate auctioning of containers without following due procedures and where it pretended to follow them, they were grossly abused even as they complained of high cost of clearance.

According to them, this and the pressure on the Customs to meet targe which eventually fell on importers abated corruption.

It was also said at the meeting that all commercial banks having financial dealings on imports and exports or other related issues should link up with Central Bank for easy verifications.

But Maritime experts who spoke with our Correspondent wondered if there was basis for a reform in the NCS. “What was intended to be achieved with the earlier reforms? Were they achieved and is there a need for a reform?”

According to the experts, for the reforms in NCS to be meaningful, they have to consider issues like ports congestion, personnel remunerations, qualification of personnel/computer literacy, machinery like helicopters, satellite, equipped  patrol vehicles and boats, 48-hour clearance of goods, anti-smuggling and a review of the Customs and Excise Management Act (CEMA).