As part of efforts to enhance the ease of doing business at the nation’s ports, the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) issued a circular stating that no checkpoint should be situated above 40 kilometer radius from the ports; any checkpoint outside that place is illegal.
However, one begins to wonder how realistic and relevant this directive would be to enhancing the ease of operating with the Customs. Nigerians recall that several Police Inspector Generals have declared road blocks to be illegal, yet they still exist. The problem isn’t the road blocks but the level of extortion that Police officers perpetuate at those locations.
Prior to the banning of Customs check points, over 18 Customs check points can be found between the Seme border and Mile2 via the Lagos Badagry express way.
Similarly, between Alaba International market and Mile2, MMS Plus reporter counted 12 Police ‘N100 extortion points’ on Friday last week.
Speaking on the removal of illegal Customs check points recently, the Customs Area Controller (CAC) Federal Operations Unit (FOU) Zone A, Ikeja, Comptroller Garba Uba Mohammed said, “the Executive Order states that no checkpoint above 40 kilometer radius, any checkpoint outside that place is illegal. A circular has been issued to that effect which is a common knowledge, we don’t need to tell you, before we even tell you, you are already aware because if I go and set up a checkpoint outside the 40 kilometer I’m operating illegally there”.
The CAC who was speaking when members of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF) paid a working visit to his Command, also admonished the general public to report customs officers defying the directive of the Comptroller-General of Customs, Col. Hameed Ali on dismantling of illegal checkpoints.
“Outside 40 kilometer radius, if you see any checkpoint, it is not a checkpoint, it is a patrol base and that one by law should not last more than 24 hours. You have every right, if you see any customs officers staying more than 24 hours outside the 40 kilometer radius, you are at liberty to report to the appropriate authority and you can challenge them that you have no right to stay there, you can only stay for 24 hours. That is what is stated”.
According to CAC Garba, Customs by its law was allowed to patrol every part of the country freely, adding that section 147 of the Customs and Excise Management Act (CEMA) empowered customs officers without warrant to break into a place where there is a reasonable suspicion that uncustomed goods were warehoused and evacuate them and take them to government warehouse.
CAC Garba explained that the Customs hardly invoke that section because of its human care, “at times people react and in order to minimize human casualties, we enter into dialogue and say this is what is supposed to be done. So, if we say we are going to implement that section clearly, we will be having confrontations and once there is confrontation, there will be no progress, there will be disorder and the moment there is disorder, the environment is no more secured”, he said.
On his part the founder of NAGAFF, Dr. Boniface Aniebonam noted that the impunity in the Customs should be curtailed because Customs officers were present to do the examination of these containers at the port.
“A business man is primarily concerned with maximizing profit, but it is unfortunate that the Customs officers at the ports allow themselves to be swayed into corruption as the business man moves to maximize profit.” He said.
Aniebonam who was also speaking during NAGAFF’s courtesy visit argued that as an enforcement unit of the Customs, it was the role of the FOU Customs boss, Comptroller Mohammed Garba to checkmate the activities of the officers at the ports.
“This is important because if they do their jobs properly, there would be few cases of interception of containers after they have exited the ports. The FOU Customs is full of seized containers of products that are people’s investment and the contempt, hatred and commotion would be directed towards FOU, when you are only doing your job. The Customs officers at the ports who are responsible for the under valuation, concealment or wrong declaration should be sufficiently punished” Aniebonam opined.
According to the NAGAFF founder, the agent may not know what is in the container, he works with the bill of lading but he places the container before the Customs officers for examination.
“The punishment for this clearly spelt out. It is 5 years imprisonment without an option of fine. Some of us know that law, but this has been downgraded. It is easier for the Customs to control the officers than to control freight forwarders.” He said.
Earlier in his address, the National President of NAGAFF, Chief Increase Uche stated that the delegation was at the headquarters of the FOU Zone A to further strengthen the existing mutual relationship between the association and the FOU of the Nigerian Customs Service.
Uche added that NAGAFF appreciated the strategic role of the service in their operation especially in revenue and international trade related matters.
“This visit has become necessary in view of the Presidential Executive directive on Ease of Doing Business, consequent upon the issuance of circular No. 10/2017 on removal of all illegal checkpoints across the country which emerged through a letter dated 25th July, 2017 signed by the Ag. DCG (E,I&I) Alhaji Dangaladima A.A for the Comptroller-General of Customs.
“NAGAFF after a critical analysis of the Executive Order from PEBEC under the Presidency mooted the idea of reaching out to critical agencies of the government with a view to cross fertilize ideas on ways to ensure that the policy record huge success.
“It is our belief that with you in-charge of FOU and the leadership of CGC Compliance team that you shall allow justice to prevail by ensuring that circular No. 10/2017 of July 25th, 2017 is fully implemented and adhered to in practice. We will like to hear from you equally as to what happens to Benin checkpoint in Edo State and Asaba in Delta State and any other checkpoint outside the 40km from the border entry points”.
The NAGAFF President also implored the CAC to enter into strategic synergy with his counterparts at the ports with a view to ensuring proper customs examination adding that members of the association were worried over the level of damage being done to their clients’ investment arising from improper customs examination of laden containers.
On the issue of illegal checkpoints, the Chairperson, Ship-Owners Forum, Mrs. Margaret Orakwusi said, “The Customs may be different but there was a time the Inspector General of Police asked the Police officers to remove the check points on the road. Shortly after, I was travelling from Lagos by road to Onitsha and there were so many check points as though no instruction was given. One of them had the guts to stop me. I thought, ‘Oh, I can handle this as a lawyer’ and my driver had all documents ready. The only time I spoke was when he walked away with our documents and I asked him what the problem was and he replied that he would take me to the Police station.”
“I didn’t have any problem with that but I told him that he wouldn’t enter our vehicle but he could drive behind us. He said he must enter our vehicle and when I asked again if there was any offence against us, he said ‘Madam, this grammar you are speaking, if I take you to the station we would find something against you’. I had to use wisdom because he could enter the vehicle and throw a gun or something and I said your IG has instructed you to get off the highways and he said, ‘let the IG come here and meet us’. It is the same problem of corruption that we have in Nigeria. People are living above their income. As much as they are concerned they continue to do things the same way with impunity. We keep appealing to the officers to respect their uniforms” Orakwusi narrated.
The fear with the ban on Customs checkpoint is that the leverage to spend 24 hours at a location could be exploited by various patrol teams to move from one junction to another after 24 hours. However, this would also negate the genuine motives that led to the ban. The Customs should be able to carry out their jobs properly at the ports to avoid the delay, inconvenience and economic disadvantages of checkpoints.
Police and Customs checkpoints are now officially illegal and we hope that the officers have enough respect to honour the directives of their respective bosses.