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Customs, this is national chaos

This week promises to be one of high drama between the Senate and Comptroller General of Nigeria Customs Service [NCS], retired Army Colonel Hameed Ibrahim…

This week promises to be one of high drama between the Senate and Comptroller General of Nigeria Customs Service [NCS], retired Army Colonel Hameed Ibrahim Ali. Senate has summoned Ali to appear “unfailingly” before it’s plenary on Wednesday to explain NCS’ plan to seize any vehicle in Nigeria that does not have appropriate duty payment papers and prosecute the owner. To add to the drama, Senate said Ali, who never wore the CG’s uniform since his appointment in 2015, must appear before it “in his appropriate uniform.”

Senate upped the ante last Thursday following a motion by Senator Dino Melaye (APC, Kogi) because NCS ignored its earlier resolution asking for suspension of the new policy. Instead, NCS reiterated its earlier plan but granted a 60% duty rebate on all vehicles that are of 2015 model and below. CG Ali also responded on Friday, saying he was not appointed Customs’ CG to wear uniform. This stance lays the ground for an epic showdown on Wednesday between Ali, a former military policeman known for his tough stance on all matters, and the Senate.

This drama should not however obscure the main issue at hand. On March 2, NCS issued a statement saying Ali “approved an extension period” from March 13 to April 12, 2017 for all vehicle owners in Nigeria who have not paid Customs duty on their vehicles to do so. After the deadline, NCS said it would mount an aggressive “anti-smuggling operation,” not at the borders as is traditional to it, but all over national roads and highways to impound any vehicle that does not have appropriate duty papers and prosecute its owner. NCS said the one month grace period is “for all affected members of the public, clearing agents and corporate institutions and government to comply with the directive.”

The statement said duty can be paid at NCS’ four Area Commands at Yaba, Lagos; Kabala Doki, Kaduna; Nigeria Ports Authority, Port Harcourt and Yelwa Tudu Road, Bauchi. NCS’ Acting Public Relations Officer Joseph Attah said “all private car owners who are not sure of the authenticity of their vehicles customs documents can also approach the Zonal Offices to verify with a view to complying with the provision of the law.” Another Customs’ statement mid last week added more payment centres and also granted the 60% rebate for older vehicle models, but only if payment is made within the one month grace period.

Since 2015 Nigeria Customs Service has introduced three very controversial measures in response to the national economic crises. One was banning rice imports through land borders. The second, rolled out last December, was a sudden ban on importing vehicles through the land borders. The latest one is however the most controversial by far because it threatens to affect millions of people all over the country, not just thousands of rice and second hand vehicle importers. No wonder that senators are up in arms.

One report said there are more than ten million vehicles in Nigeria. Most of these are second hand vehicles, which is where the duty payment problem is centred. New vehicles imported by reputable motor dealers usually have appropriate duty papers. As for tokunbo vehicles, anyone who is buying one from the thousands of dealers all over the country also asks for import duty papers. The dealers dutifully supply these papers. Trouble is, Customs officers at checkpoints later determine most of these duty papers to be “fake.” An innocent motorist buying a car from a dealer will not know the difference because the “duty” papers a dealer gives out are many, varied and impressive. To boot, they are made by corrupt Customs officers. In addition, most vehicles on Nigerian roads are very old and the owners have misplaced their duty papers. This occurred because over the years, NCS largely removed its check points in the interior and motorists no longer felt the need to carry duty papers around. They only carry those papers that are regularly demanded by the police, Federal Road Safety Corps, Federal Highway Patrol and Vehicle Inspection Officers, VIOs.

If Customs go ahead with this plan, it will cause national chaos on a grand scale. It will cause great anxiety all across the land, cause chaos on the highways and probably cause many accidents as drivers manoeuvre to dodge checkpoints. NCS will also impound more vehicles than it has a place to keep them, and NCS certainly lacks the resources to prosecute all the offenders because they are just too many. It is doubly tragic because the populace is being made to pay for NCS’ inefficiency and corruption over the years. Most of the cars on Nigerian roads were not made in Nigeria; they came in through the sea and land borders. For NCS to fail to collect duty at the designated points, only to cause national chaos by invading the highways to enforce duty collection, turns logic and responsibility on its head. Motorists will be paying for it when Customs officers pocketed billions and supplied fake duty papers.

This Draconian measure is clearly meant to enable NCS to meet its 2017 revenue target, which is over a trillion naira. It failed to meet its revenue target last year due to the biting economic recession, depreciation of the naira and consequent sharp drop in imports.  Whatever amount Customs are able to raise with this measure, the nation will lose much more than that in GDP due to the anxiety, sorrow, impeded movement of goods and people that it will cause. It could easily prevent the country emerging from economic recession this year. Therefore, it is not worth it. The Presidency should stop it immediately.

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