The Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) was established a little over a century ago when the British Colonial administration appointed Mr. T. A. Wall, in 1891, as the Director-General of Customs for the collection of inland revenue in Niger Coast Protectorate under the Royal Niger Company. Sequel to the promulgation of the Customs and Excise Management Act (CEMA) No. 55 of 1958, the affairs of the Department was brought under the management of a Board headed by Mr. E. P. C. Langdon, a Briton.
On attainment of independence in 1960, the Customs & Excise Management, CAP. 84, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 1990, now known as Cap 45, Law of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004, vests legal authority in the customs.
No doubt the NCS has been carrying out its statutory duties as a major revenue source to the government. However, recent activities of the NCS has resonated more on controversial spheres. For instance, last December, the NCS mounted several road blocks along the South West, South East and South South geo-political zones, flagging down people travelling for the yuletide, impounding bags of rice purchased for the Christmas celebration. NCS had claimed that the impounded bags of rice were smuggled and bereft of customs duties. Up until now, there is no accountability on the bags of rise impounded then, neither were the owners of the rice permitted to explain the source of the rice.
Also on February 23, this year, the news media were awash with stories that operatives of the NCS broke into about 60 shops located at the Sango-Ota market in Ado Odo/Ota Local Government Area of Ogun State at midnight the previous day and carted away 18,000 bags of rice. Traders at the market claimed that the Customs destroyed their safes and stole their previous day’s sales proceeds. But, the NCS Public Relations Officer for Ogun Area Command, Usman Abubakar and his counterpart for the Federal Operating Unit, Ikeja, Lagos, Jerome Attah, denied the allegation. According to them, their operatives only took away 1,870 bags of rice and never broke anybody’s shop but only went to a warehouse where contraband rice were kept.
As Nigerians were discussing the implications of this act, the NCS penultimate week issued a circular directing vehicle owners to update their Customs papers and pay appropriate Customs duties or have such vehicles impounded and the owners prosecuted. The circular issued by Mr. Joseph Auta on behalf of the Comptroller-General, Hameed Ali, advised every person in possession of any vehicle, irrespective of the year of importation, to pay unspecified duties to avoid being victims of proposed “aggressive anti-smuggling operation”. However, immediately the directive was issued, the Senate passed a resolution directing Customs to halt the proposed plans. The resolution arose out of a motion by the Deputy Senate Leader, Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah. He stated that the policy “is not only obnoxious but anti-people”.
Rising under Order 42 of the Senate Standing Rules, Senator Na’Allah, stated the circular was “ridiculous” and that the agency failed to present clear-cut guidelines on which category of vehicles would be affected by the directive. He insisted that it was the responsibility of the NCS to ensure the verification of customs duty at the right time and that any attempt to shift the task of such verification to Nigerians must be rejected. Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu and Senator Dino Melaye (Kogi West) drew the attention of the Senate to the impossibility of importing any vehicle into Nigeria without clearance or “collaboration” of the Customs. Other Senators spoke in tandem with the motion stressing that presentation of Customs Duty Certificate and Clearance Papers forms part of the initial documents certified before relevant authorities issue vehicle number plate and road worthy documents. They noted that there was no room for making retrogressive laws, adding that too many law enforcement agencies on the road will certainly create chaos.
We at The AUTHORITY cannot agree more. The Customs directive raises more questions than answers. First, is this an admission that the Customs has failed all these years? What clear and verifiable criteria would be used in determining the genuineness or otherwise of particular Customs paper and if a vehicle owner paid the correct duty? Secondly, is it duty at the time of importation (probably several years back) or the current duty at the time of screening or an arbitrary duty to be announced by the designed Customs officer depending on his whims and fancy? Also, has the Customs placed any mechanism in place for redress by an aggrieved person?
Since the NCS failed to address any of the above questions, we strongly lend our voice in support of those opposed to the NCS directive. If for anything, the directive is most likely to bring in a regime of arbitrariness and unparalleled corruption. It will being about criminality and avalanche of impostors mounting illegal road blocks and harassing motorists just like the motor park touts and so-called local government revenue agents. Several similar negative social and economic outcomes will certainly crop up.
In the light of the above, The AUTHORITY calls on Col. Ali to tread softly and avoid actions that could further exacerbate the fragile security situation in the country. Also, any action that could impose more hardship on Nigerians should be avoided. It is better the NCS puts its acts in order and designs a foul-proof operational procedure that could enhance confidence in NCS internal systems. Issues of public engagement must be carried out before certain policies are put up for implementation to avoid a backlash. Col. Ali should concentrate more on identifying the bad eggs in the NCS than penalizing Nigerians for the seeming infractions of his men. Anything short of this is side-netting. It’s time we avoided arbitrariness or brain-wave management.