With the gale of protests to oust the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) multi-layer checks in and outside the seaports now doused by the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN) and their umbrella associations, Maritime Correspondent, ANTHONY NWACHUKWU, looks at some compelling scenarios surrounding the situation.
Campaigning with the #EndCGCStrikeforec and #EndFOU hashtags, a group of concerned agents had alleged that the customs’ anti-smuggling war was a “scam bleeding the nation and innocent traders and their agents mercilessly over the years, while enriching a circle of personnel and their cohorts.”
According to an arrowhead of the campaign and Secretary of Tin Can Island Port Chapter of the National Association of Government Approval Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), Godfrey Chukwuemeka Nwosu, the operatives of the Federal Operations Unit (FOU), as well as the Comptroller-General of Customs (CGC) Strike Force, are merely out to harass and extort money from traders and their agents.
Apparently out of patience with a system that frustrates rather than facilitate trade, many agents across various associations, including the dominant NAGAFF and the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) have severally raised protests, even threatened to down tools.
Their grouse was right, considering that such containers and cargoes had been examined and cleared by authorized customs and NAFDAC officers at the ports, whatever the declaration. Further re-examination at the expense of the importer cannot be justified by any stretch of fairness, just as the same importer pays the incidental demurrage, only to be further examined along the highways or warehouse by the same customs agents.
However, the obvious complicity and culpability of federal agents in the “escape” of trade infractions on the one side, and the logic of the above position on the other will never suffice to condone illegalities that threaten national security and economy, especially where no importer/agent has actually come up with a clear case of victimisation to negate the presence of multiple checks.
For the records, just last month, the FOU Zone A, Ikeja displayed intercepted contrabands that included 1,000 sachets of 250kg Tramadol with Duty Paid Value (DPV) of N250 million, 600 cartons of Codeine Syrup worth N240 million, 398 cartons of Really Extra (Diclofenac) worth N15.9 million, 1,056 cartons of Chest and Lung tablet worth N105.6 million.
Also intercepted were such regulars that included 113 exotic cross-border cars with DPV of N1.34 billion and 13,810 bags (over 23 trailers) of 50kg foreign parboiled rice worth N190.69 million – all between February 6 and April 16, 2019. The other everyday-seizures included Indian Hemp, vegetable oil, frozen poultry products, bales of used clothes, used tyres and used shoes, among others.
These were beside the 6,102 bags (over 10 trailers) of 50kg foreign parboiled rice worth N460.8 million, also intercepted in Zone A (South West) in 2019 Q1 by the Comptroller-General’s Strike Force led by Deputy Comptroller Abdullahi Kirawa.
Last year, the FOU Zone ‘A’ alone made a total of 1,193 seizures with an approximate DPV of N23.70 billion, beside the container of tramadol intercepted along Mile 2 as part of the ones intercepted at the Apapa Port. This comprised 88,530x50kg and 51x25kg bags of foreign parboiled rice with DPV of N1.2 billion.
Others included 220 vehicles worth N6.4 billion, 3,718 cartons of various pharmaceutical products, including tramadol and codeine worth N303.4 million, N916.5 million from textiles and related items, N13 billion from animal/wildlife animal products, and N693.9 million recovered from under-declarations.
These mind-boggling interceptions and seizures, which have continually been on the rise as cross-border smugglers, dubious clearing agents and even compromised customs officers at the seaports continue to perfect how to circumvent security and shortchange the nation, have given edge to customs’ multi-level checks in spite of the rightful concerns being expressed against its continuation.
Condemning the agents’ campaign for the abolition of the customs’ multi-layer checks, and in clear example of true leadership, the founder of NAGAFF, Dr. Boniface Aniebonam, had in the heat of the recent agitations advised agents to win the battle through honest declaration and dialogue.
Aniebonam, in an address to NAGAFF members titled, “Living in a glass house and throwing stones is self-destructive. asking for equity with a dirty hand is idiotic and criminal,” tasked agents on “education and knowledge, respect for rule of law and regulation, collaboration and partnership, friendship, and most importantly, patriotism.”
Regretting the “recent cases of blackmail” against the FOU and CGC Strike Force, among others, he warned practitioners that government would not blink on matters of revenue. Rather, he insisted on “the culture of genuine and proper declaration of import and export transactions for customs purposes and other related regulatory agencies of the government operating in the ports and boarder stations.”
Nwosu had urged Ali to “move promptly to stop the FOU nuisance along inner city roads and highways. If you feel so comfortable with the operations of FOU, send them to the ports to become resident officers. It is abhorrent that cargo duly released by Releasing Officer at an Area Command under the watchful eyes of an experienced controller will leave the port, enter the road for delivery and be intercepted again. Who is fooling who here?”
For the NCS, however, the protests and “blackmail” are regrettable, no matter how rightly provoked. According to the Comptroller, FOU A, Ikeja, stop and search operations are often on intelligence report and the unit must remain on the highways as part of proactive steps to enforce, achieve and sustain self-sufficiency in food production, protect national security and ameliorate the potential health hazards and impacts of smuggled items on Nigerians.
“As an enforcement unit, FOU Zone A will not rest until there is total compliance that will translate to effective revenue generation, suppression of smuggling, facilitation of legitimate trade and protection of our national security. We are determined to stem the tide against those not conforming to legitimate importation and exportation clearance processes.”
It is noteworthy that the unit, in the discharge of this duty, last December earned global award from the World Customs Service, and was recently recognised by the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) for its anti-drug smuggling fight.
And for the avoidance of doubt, the NCS Public Relations Officer, Mr. Joseph Attah, clarified that customs’ anti-smuggling activities are anchored on three layers – resident officers (command level), FOUs, and the CGC Strike Force (headquarters).
According to him, “In line with the Federal Government’s policy on Ease of Doing Business, check points are restricted to 40km radius of the border while operatives of strike force only step out to deal with credible intelligence and return to base.
“While NCS welcomes constructive criticism and suggestions that will help the course of making Nigeria a friendly investment destination, blanket accusation and even call for dissolution of otherwise hardworking and highly productive outfit like the HQ Strike Force known for making high profile seizures of ammunitions, drugs, rice and vehicles, among others, appear suspect.