· Customs CG was never accessible to freight agents – NAFFAC, APFFLON
· Dikko’s demise foiled plans to make corrupt Customs officers culpable
· Aniebonam, Customs tell conflicting tales on bribery over consignment
By Kenneth Jukpor
The Comptroller-General of Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Col. Hammed Ali (Rtd) has blacklisted all freight forwarding groups and their leaderships, encouraging Customs officers to operate with impunity under the guise of generating more revenues for the government.
MMS Plus findings show that none of the Presidents or Founders of the registered freight forwarding groups can access the Customs boss via calls, text messages or emails with a view to report some ills in the Customs service.
Ali, who rode on a mandate of reforms, restructure and raise revenue of the service, had pledged to deepen stakeholders engagement and partner freight forwarders to achieve his agenda. However, the Customs boss has opted to adopt a distinct approach which is believed to encourage the service to earn more whilst some Area Controllers, Deputy Controllers and other heads of Commands and terminals act as demigods.
This is coming on the heels of maritime industry stakeholders lavishing praise on the immediate-past Executive Secretary of Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC), Mr. Hassan Bello. The NSC boss has been described by many as an epitome of good leadership with his famed approach of stakeholder engagement and accessibility.
Economic experts have also argued that the recent increase in Customs revenue is fueled by over taxation as Customs officials have been collecting outrageous sums from freight agents and importers and utilizing almost all units for revenue generation.
Other sources also argue that the N1trillion collected by NCS is the first half of 2021 has come as a result of over taxation and the high poverty level in the country and hardships traceable to the rise in import-driven Customs revenue responsible of high cost of imported goods.
Recall that the value of the naira has depreciated in relation to dollar over the years from N198/$ when Col. Hammed Ali became the CG of Customs in 2015 to N405/$ today.
Corroborating this position, the Coordinator of Save Nigeria Importers, Exporters and Freight Forwarders Coalition (SNIEFFC) Dr. Osita Chukwu Customs should not to be carried away by the higher revenue which is influenced by the increasing foreign exchange rate.
His words: “The dollar rate is something that affects the revenue collected by Customs but it isn’t something that the Area Commands or even the national officers allude to, when they talk about increment in revenue collected. Recently, the exchange rate moved from N380/$ to N405/$ and this would also translate to increase in revenue for Customs.”
With proper scrutiny, it will be discovered that Customs under declared its remittances as declared because of the value of exchange rate which has gained over 200 per cent increase in value under which CG Ali’s predecessor, Dikko Inde generated an average of N600million in half year on consistent basis for years. Observers and stakeholders are of the view that Ali should be made to account for the shortfall rather than being praised in ignorance for short-changing the government.
Speaking with our correspondent during an exclusive chat last week, the Founder of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), Dr. Boniface Aniebonam lamented that there are no criteria or standards for valuation in Customs operations.
“As an ex-Customs official and an opinion leader in NAGAFF, I think it is difficult to openly criticize the Customs when I can seek other avenues for engagement. Nevertheless, the overtaxation is uncalled-for and it is a result of human element barriers. Something is wrong with Customs at the moment and that is over-valuation of imports,” he said.
According to the NAGAFF Founder, this lacuna has given rise to unregulated practices by various Customs officials who quote colossal figures as duties to enhance revenue collection via overtaxation.
“An officer could look at you and decide to slam whatever amount he seems fit, because he doesn’t like your face. If he puts it into the system and you complain, you’re asked to go to Abuja to resolve it. In the next three months you may still be struggling with the same issue. As I discuss issues like this, I feel pained because Customs is my alma mater. The situation is further complicated by the Comptroller General of Customs, Col. Ali because he isn’t communicating at all. If you’re leading people and you aren’t communicating, a time will come when people will be pushed to the wall and become suicidal because you blocked the channels of communication.”
“When you are having problems and the person to solve it isn’t willing to listen to you, you may have to adopt a suicidal approach. As the Founder of NAGAFF, I’m a leader. The President of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), Hon. Tony Iju Nwabunike is also a leader, just like the President of Association of Registered Freight Forwarders Nigeria (AREFFN) and the President of the National Council of Managing Director of Licensed Customs Agents (NCMDLCA) and other associations are all leaders. I have asked these leaders and they all can’t access the Customs boss. It is unfortunate that we can’t communicate with the CG of Customs to acquaint him of the challenges in Customs operations. I’m really surprised about this development,” he said.
When contacted, the President-General of the National Association of Freight Forwarders and Consolidators (NAFFAC), Prince Adeyinka Bakare stressed that Ali has always been difficult to access.
“I wouldn’t say that he has blacklisted the leadership of freight forwarding groups. I would rather say that this has been his style since he emerged as Customs boss. I have to engage the Assistant Comptroller-Generals and Deputy Comptroller-Generals for core issues that require the input of the Customs at the top level,” Bakare said.
On his part, the President of African Association of Professional Freight Forwarders and Logistics of Nigeria (APFFLON), Mr. Frank Ogunojemite lambasted the Customs Comptroller-General for ignoring calls and text messages from top stakeholders in the sector.
“Ali is holding a public office and a crucial one for that matter. It amounts to poor leadership and abuse of office for him to keep neglecting calls and text messages from the major stakeholders that he should be engaging to have seamless operations,” Ogunojemite said.
The APFFLON boss admonished the Customs Comptroller-General to practice better leadership approaches characterized by collaboration, engagement and prompt responses to crucial issues.
In another development, the demise of a former Comptroller-General of Customs, Abdullahi Dikko is believed to have scuttled plans to introduce some innovative approaches in Customs processes that would see corrupt officers who clear consignments liable to make payments when such goods are intercepted for undervaluation.
Dikko, while collaborating with the leadership of some freight forwarding groups, had initiated this plan before the protracted illness that eventually led to his demise.
Stressing the need for this approach to penalize corrupt officials, the NAGAFF Founder, Dr. Aniebonam last week accused the Officer in-Charge of Unity Bonded terminal of collecting N500,000 bribe for a consignment two weeks ago and withholding another cargo of the same product last week demanding N800,000 bribe.
“A Customs officer at the rank of a Deputy Controller at Unity Terminal, DC M.O Adetule released a consignment two weeks ago and the same consignment arrived again but it became a new ball-game. Right now, it has become an issue. The examination was done since Thursday in the penultimate week and the Inspection Act was just done on Wednesday, last week because she has been negotiating bribes. When you call her to speak to her, she says that you can’t do anything and annoyingly goes to the Inspection Act to contradict herself forgetting that she released the consignment just two weeks ago and collected a bribe of N500,000. Today, she is asking for a bribe of N800,000. This isn’t proper but the Customs CG doesn’t even pick calls, so how do we escalate these issues to him? Is he not invariably supporting this unprofessional practice,” Aniebonam said.
Meanwhile, the Customs Area Controller, Apapa Command, Comptroller Yusuf Malanta told MMS Plus that he was aware of the fracas between the NAGAFF Founder and the Officer in-Charge of Unity Bonded Terminal, DC Adetule.
According to Malanta, he had called Adetule to criticize her actions following a report from the NAGAFF Founder when the Officer in-Charge of Unity Bond Terminal revealed her account of the story which heavily indicted the veteran freight forwarder.
“It is important to note that the item that was declared wasn’t the cargo found in the consignment. Going by this Act, Section 46 and 47 of the Customs Excise and Management Act (CEMA) should be invoked,” the Area Controller said.
When quizzed on the allegation that DC Adetule demanded bribes, Malanta dismissed the notion, even as he stressed that both the giver and receiver of bribes are culpable under the Nigerian law.
An investigation by correspondent revealed that Dr. Aniebonam’s company, Ocean Star Shipping Company Limited had imported two 20ft containers of coated roofing sheets wrongly declared as pin insulators and paid N9.1million Cost Insurance and Freight (CIF), while another freight forwarding company Ekwemado Gold Limited also imported two 20ft containers of coated roofing sheets wrongly declared as pin insulators and paid N18million Cost Insurance and Freight (CIF) which was cleared after paying an additional Debit Note of N500,000.
When quizzed by our correspondent, DC Adetule who is in-charge of Jaelith bonded terminal and Unity bonded terminal stated that the N500,000 alleged bribe was an additional debit note paid by the freight forwarding company which carried the same consignment as Dr. Aniebonam’s company.
MMS Plus also visited the terminal where an agent who preferred anonymity said that the Customs excesses at the Jaelith bonded terminal and Unity bonded terminal was fueled by the lack of activities at the terminal.
“The problem is that there are no jobs at Jaelith and Unity bonded terminals. So, whenever any consignment is sent to these locations, the Customs DC ensures that they squeeze out all monies from the consignment,” the source said.
Going by CEMA, Section 46 which talks about “Forfeiture of goods improperly imported”, goods imported and concealed in a container holding goods of a different description…directly or indirectly imports or causes to be imported or entered any goods found, whether before or after delivery, not to correspond with the entry delivered thereof,he shall be sentenced to imprisonment for five years without the option of a fine.”
Meanwhile, the NAGAFF Founder describes this legislation as obsolete. “Matters of concealment, under-declaration, wrong description of imports are some of the anomalies that can lead to seizures depending on the Customs officers you encounter. However, it isn’t compulsory that those goods must be seized. There are provisions in the Customs law that provide for penalties. The penalty is six times the value of the goods when an offence of that level is committed. Customs could also add 25 percent of the short collection. A lot has gone wrong in Customs. The CEMA is before the national assembly for amendment and there is a dire need to review the law because it is archaic and obsolete. CEMA can’t be applicable with international trade,” he said.