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Customs: The challenges for tough-talking Hameed Ali

Over two weeks after Colonel Hameed Ali (rtd) assumed office as the Comptroller-General of the Nigeria Customs Service, tension has continued to mount among some…

Over two weeks after Colonel Hameed Ali (rtd) assumed office as the Comptroller-General of the Nigeria Customs Service, tension has continued to mount among some officers and smugglers for whom the game is expected to change.
Being an expert in criminology with several years of top military career, the new Customs boss, Hameed Ali, is presumed fitting for the new tasks before him. His stern posture is seen as a rescue for the Service which is widely believed not to be free of corruption despite anti-corruption campaigns launched by previous bosses.
 With perceived decline in the Service’s efficiency, the House of Representatives during the sixth National Assembly in 2008 was reported to have raised concerns at its plenary session. It was reported then that the House Committee on Customs and Excise headed by Rep. Yakubu Dogara, now the Speaker of the House, instituted an investigation into the activities of the Customs from 2000 to 2009.
 Dogara had said at the time, “From the investigations of the committee it has become abundantly clear that the Service has departed from its core functions, namely revenue collection, trade facilitation and suppression of smuggling.”
 The then Minster of Finance Mr. Mansur Muhtar admitted that the operations of the NCS had been less than optimal and remained a source of concern to the Federal Government.
The committee during its technical sessions evaluated all memoranda and oral evidences and concluded that indiscriminate granting of exemptions, waivers and concessionary duties had negative effects on the Service’s revenue generation. An instance was the loss of over N14billion at Apapa Port Area Command, Lagos in the first eight months of 2008 due to zero tariffs on rice and spare parts importation.
 The Committee also found that from 2000 to 2007, a total of 154 firms and companies in connivance with unscrupulous Customs officials engaged in sharp practices and abuse of documentation process.
 Five years after, a non-governmental organisation, Human Rights Defenders and Advocacy Centre (HRDAC), raised the alarm over alleged fraudulent activities being committed by Customs officers. Spokesman for HRDAC, Mr. Alexander Omini in 2014 called for the immediate sack of the then Comptroller General of Customs (CGC), Mr. Abdullahi Dikko-Inde; the chairman, Joint Disposal Committee of Overtime/Abandoned Goods, Innocent Agu.
 Omini said, “It is pertinent to notify the general public concerning the process by which the NCS auctions seized and abandoned goods in Nigeria’s ports. Goods abandoned by importers are placed on auction sales by the CG or the JDC without due process.”
 HRDAC Chairman, Mr. Innocent Agu also expressed worries over same issue as he said, “When there is an auction, it should first be gazetted but this is never done. Even when it is gazetted, it is kept as top secret from the public. We have received over 50 complaints of this nature.”
More recently, a United States Department of States’ Nigeria Investment Climate Statement released in May 2015 indicated a prevalent rate of bribery among Nigeria Customs and port officials. “Bribery of customs agents and port officials remains common, and smuggled goods routinely enter Nigeria’s seaports and cross its land borders,” it read in part.
 Need for more anti-smuggling operations
The last months of the former CGC saw the launch of a special operation, Hawk Descend on July 7, 2015. Officers said it was to tackle the prevalent cases of smuggled poultry products. The operation, sustained for nine weeks, had seen a seizure worth N195.9million.
 Deputy Public Relations Officer of the Service, Mr. Joseph Attah told Daily Trust on Sunday recently that the Operation Hawk Descend came up because “The service wanted a special attention in dealing with the issue of poultry products’ smuggling and you know that it is has been very successful.”
 There is need to replicate more operations especially against the influx of cars being smuggled through the Cotonou/Kishi/Igbetti/Saki West border areas in Oyo state. An officer told our reporter that the border posts in some of these towns do not have accommodation for Customs officers.
“They have no choice but live as tenants in houses owned by smugglers. With this kind of relationship, it is difficult for the officers to tackle the prevalent rate of vehicles and textiles smuggling within these areas,” an officer said.
 A Deputy Comptroller of Customs and Coordinator, Customs Headquarters Special Anti-Smuggling Task Force, Mr. Shallangwa Hassan Sule was reported in July 2014 to have said the smugglers operating along the Kishi border axis of Oyo State had been mobilising youths in the area against security operatives.
 Repositioning Customs, increasing revenues
Stakeholders have said if the Customs is well repositioned, the country will benefit more from improved local productivity due to drastic reduction of imports and the boosting of confidence in local products.
 The Service raised weekly revenue bar to N35billion from N13billion earlier and many have said this should be the focus of the Customs towards curbing the many smuggling activities and not encouraging imports just to raise their revenue target.
 Chairman of Nigerian Ports Consultative Council, Otunba Kunle Folarin, said the new Customs boss should be concerned with facilitating trade without placing too much emphasis on revenue generation while also focusing on improving Customs processes with regard to information technology.
 “We need performance and those who will focus on different areas and not just a single area of generating revenue. If he can deliver, why not? Revenue generation should be a mandate but not the all-important focus,” Folarin said.
 A clearing agent who spoke in confidence alleged that the yearly revenue target given to the Nigeria Customs Service leaves room for corruption in the Service. An indigenous shipping company owner who similarly does not wish to be named said it allows Area Controllers to pocket excess money realized after their yearly targets have been met.
 “If you look closely at their monthly revenue profile, imports follow the same pattern with slight increment each year. What it means is that the excess money which would have gone to the coffers of the government has been pocketed,” he said.
Stakeholders seek thorough cleansing of Customs
Some freight forwarders have urged President Muhammadu Buhari to spread his anti-corruption dragnet to the Customs Service and Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON) if he must cleanse the nation’s maritime sector.
 The licensed customs agents alleged that the two government agencies were acting beyond their jurisdictions in the discharge of their duties.
 A maritime expert and Managing Director of Zetus and Associates, Emmanuel Ezetu said customs officials are frustrating them from conducting their clearing and forwarding businesses unless they part with financial gratification outside fees mandated by the Federal Government.
Ezetu alleged that customs officials make it near impossible for them to comply with government’s directives of 48 hours clearing of goods at the ports, thus compounding traffic gridlock around the ports.
“The traffic nightmare that Lagosians experience on Apapa-Mile II road is a direct result of activities of Customs officials,” he said.
 On his part, President of Importers Association of Nigeria (IMAN), Chief Ositadinma Okereke said customs officers are responsible for the influx of arms into Nigeria, adding that they (custom officers) are the ones who do not want licensed customs agents to come under the regulation of the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN)
 He alleged that dubious customs officers are frustrating the process of trade facilitation. He urged Col. Ali to ensure that officers leave the clearing of goods to the freight forwarders.
 Okereke recalled how his association pushed government on a pact to curb the influx of arms and ammunition, an effort which he said was frustrated under Dikko-Inde. “We are in support of 100% tracking of containers to be introduced by the Nigerian Shippers Council (NSC) and we will love to be part of the examination because I can tell you that 80% of customs officers are clearing agents today,” he said.
 War erupts with Ali’s few days in office
 Col. Ali within his few days in office may have begun instant tracking on the records of top management officers as he activates his anti-corruption war.
 Sources in the Service hinted that the boss is looking thoroughly at the records of active officers from the rank of comptrollers with a view to purging bad eggs immediately.
 Recounting his three-point mandate last Thursday when he resumed, Ali said, “Go to Customs, reform Customs, restructure Customs and increase the revenue generation, simple. I don’t think that is ambiguous, it is precise and I believe that is what all of you are here to do.”
 It was learnt that many officers became jittery after a meeting some senior officers had with the CGC last weekend where he was reported to have said officers found wanting will not only be dismissed but prosecuted.
 A senior officer told our reporter in Abuja that the Service may be in for a pruning. The officer said, “The boss may promptly adopt the model of the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission (ICPC) recently when they seized properties of some three staff at the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) believed to have been acquired with ill-gotten wealth.”
 It was also learnt that the Service may have enlisted the support of the Department of State Security (DSS) to trail the assets of officers within the cadre of Customs Area Controllers (CACs), Assistant Comptroller-Generals (ACGs) and Deputy Comptroller-Generals (DCGs).
 Ali has also vowed to arrest and prosecute anyone caught in the act of smuggling, stressing that all revenue leakages will be appropriately blocked.
The Service last Wednesday said the CGC had ordered that every act of economic sabotage, including false declarations, deliberate misapplication of tariff, undervaluation and concealment shall be dealt with decisively.
In the meantime, Ali is calling on all stakeholders to support the Service in order to achieve its mandate towards the Federal Government’s resolve to secure the nation, boost the economy and create job opportunities for the youths.