By Kenneth Jukpor
Mr. Anslem Nwadike is a retired Comptroller of the Nigeria Customs Service and former Customs Area Controller, Kirikiri Lighter Command (KLT). In this exclusive ineterview with MMS Plus, he appraises the executive directive on port operations, giving an informed analysis of the bottlenecks in Customs administration and the place of leadership in transforming the fortunes of the Service.
What is your opinion on the recent Executive Directive issued by the Acting President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo on 24 hours operations of the nation’s ports and 24 hours clearance of goods at the ports?
You can’t make certain policies by making declarations or coming out to say things. You must sit back and analyze the issues especially when dealing with things that bother on human behaviour. There is a dire need to study the situation in order to understand the problems mitigating speedy clearance at the ports over the years. There must be some sort of research to highlight the problems and how to overcome these problems. Such statements have been made several times in the past, yet nothing changed because the problems still remain. At the level of the Presidency certain things shouldn’t just be said, they should make efforts to find out what the situation is before churning out policies.
Do they understand what Customs clearance entails? If so, at what point would they say the clearance starts and when do we start counting the 24/ 48 hours? Is it at the point the agent gets the document from the importer or when he submits it to the Customs? Even if the Customs release the goods in 24 hours, can the bureaucratic processes at the terminals and shipping companies be completed in one day?
It would be unfair to compare the challenges peculiar to import in Nigeria to what is obtainable in other climes. Nigeria is an underdeveloped country and that’s the bitter truth. If you talk about 24 hours port operations, how would people work in the night when there isn’t light? Is there life in this country after 6pm when people are trying to run to their houses to be safe? I remember when I just retired the House Committee on Customs were having a meeting on the transformation of Customs operations and we presented a paper which the Minister of Finance as at that time (2006) was very impressed with but the committee said they wanted to take advantage of the Minister’s presence to discuss certain issues before coming back to treat the issues in the paper we presented. The first statement of the Minister when he returned was that the paper presented opened his eyes to a lot of issues, but that was also the last thing we heard him say on that report. In other nations, that paper would have been studied to enhance the sector. So, the paper open his eyes and he hurried away without making efforts to see the problems and proffer solutions. He never demanded for the paper. This is the kind of haphazard nation we find ourselves.
There are several challenges hindering Customs operations today. One of the major problems is the lack of functional scanners for examination, how can this issue be resolved speedily?
The lack of functional scanners at the nation’s ports is one of the factors that make it impossible to achieve 24 hours port operations at the moment. However, the problem of the Customs starts from the leadership. Look at the appointment of Col. Hameed Ali as Comptroller-General of Customs, by law he cannot be in that position but the President puts him there. The procedure for the appointment of CGC was followed either by law or by Act. What yardstick was used to assess his intelligence? What is his qualification? Why is there this reverence for the Army when recent discoveries by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) have shown that they are highly corrupt? What makes Col. Ali superior to all officers in the Customs Service as well as the previous top officers who served in the Customs? It would have been better to have appointed a senior Customs officer or a former one who understands the system. Everybody in the Customs cannot be classified as corrupt. It’s like saying everybody in Nigeria is corrupt especially with the perspective of the international media on the nation. There must be some people you can find that can transform the Customs service. All the recent corruption cases have since more Army officers indicted than any other military parastatal. Why pick a retired Army Colonel, whose rank of is the equivalent of an Assistant Controller. Is corruption only embezzling money? When you create a system that encourages people to steal easily, haven’t you created, nurtured and groomed corruption? Can’t you be said to be corrupt for creating such a system purposely and putting allies in such positions?
The issue of corruption was also highlighted in the Executive Directive with strong punitive measures spelt out. How can the Customs purge itself of this menace?
The issue of corruption at the ports is a reflection of the Nigerian society which celebrates materialism other than performance and effectiveness of a public servant. I always recall a sad experience as a Comptroller when a clergyman had asked me if an officer three ranks below me was my superior because I lived a modest lifestyle while the junior officer was seen living flambouyantly.
Customs officers have been brandished as lepers but the current investigations by the EFCC has revealed more corruption in the Army. Why hasn’t the image of the Army been rubbished like the Customs? Customs officers are Nigerians and they reflect the dearth of societal values in the country. It is the same in almost all sectors in Nigeria, the only difference is that the Customs officer wears uniforms and relates with so many individuals so the corruption is very obvious.
There was a time the head of security, National Security Officer (NSO) brought in a truck load consignment manifested as general security equipments for the Nation’s headquarters but it turned out that the consignment belonged to a fashion house in Lagos. The person who was in-charge of the high security outfit of the nation brought in something and told a lie. The items were contraband but manifested as household equipments to fool the Customs. The contraband wasn’t even for the government but a private individual.
The appointment into certain offices like the Comptroller General of Customs shouldn’t be open to politicking. It shouldn’t be seen as a position used as settlement for people to recoup funds or as compensation for loyalty. The position requires technical nous and the appointment of refined officers as CGC should be sacrosanct.
We have seen cases where proven smugglers were put in Customs re-organization committees. Isn’t that sabotage on the part of those who set up the committee? Why should a committee to reform a major government agency like the Customs be subject to politicking?
Recall the policies to monetize the Customs were houses were sold to officers and when their successors emerged they had to rent houses. Aren’t these kind of policies inimical to the Customs and the nation at large. There are several bottlenecks in Customs operations, policy formulation, leadership, etc. there is need for a critical review to get things done the right way for the Customs to move forward and move faster. The central issue should be national interest and not individual interest.
Talking about policies, in recent times we have seen restrictions placed on the import of rice, vehicles, as well as 41 items restricted access to forex, and more. How would you appraise these policies?
There are several ways to look at these issues but I would like to narrow it down to the Customs leadership. Recently, Col. Ali was having problems with the Senate over his refusal to wear the Customs uniform. If you don’t wear the uniform, how do you intend to boost the morale of your officers? How can you be seen to be doing the right thing when you are making your officers feel they are below you as an Army? Aren’t you indirectly saying that you have no confidence in the job that you are doing? He doesn’t want to wear the uniform, yet he enters the Customs official vehicles with the Customs flag flying.
The underlying factor that affects the fiscal policies of Customs is that the person at the helm doesn’t know the nitty-gritty of the peculiarities of the Nigeria Customs Service.
The Customs recently organized a summit attended by African Director Generals of Customs in Abuja. How do we leverage on such meetings to enhance Customs operations in Nigeria and in the African region?
The issue at such conferences should be how to maximize regional trade in Africa. How do we treat issues of trade duty? Such opportunity is like going to the World Customs Organization, it gives the participating nations the privilege to compare their various processes. What are the peculiar problems or challenges facing Customs in Africa and how can they be corrected? Are all the participating nations working in line with the Brussels parameters? Otherwise what are the factors mitigating against the global standards in these nations? As a result of technological advancement, developed countries can afford to clear their good with 24 hours but Africa hasn’t reached that level. However, what can be done to ensure speedy clearance of goods?
Such meeting must have provided several opportunities for the Customs but what input did the Nigeria Customs Service make? How has it affected the Customs processes? What are the pros and cons? How do we recommend modalities for changing the procedures with taking advantage of other regional nations and prevent similar occurrence against Nigeria? Is Col. Hameed Ali competent enough to discuss these salient issues at such conferences? He has only spent two years as the Customs helmsman, how much can one learn about Customs in two years? Isn’t his appointment another form of corruption?
The genuine anti-corrupt vendetta by the President has been rubbish. Look at the Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi who was pointing out the corruption in former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration now caught in a web of corruption and the powers that be are begging for him to be pardoned. What kind of anti-corrupt war is this? Now you see why most people feel that the anti-corruption is lopsided.
Recently, some reforms were introduced in the Customs such as the introduction of Examination desk offices at all Customs commands in the nation. The import and export documentation have also been streamlined. What do you make of these developments?
That isn’t a significant development because there was already a scheduled time for examination when all interested parties are supposed to be in the port to supervise the examination but the process never worked. The reason is that one or parties would always be absent either claiming to be busy or asking that the documents should be brought to his office. These developments are not actually new and the problem is the implementation.
Things have to change in Nigeria. There is a dire need for reorientation. Perhaps, it is time to be serious with the war against corruption even if we can’t recoup all that has been stolen, we can put our foot on the ground and insist that this must stop and if anyone is caught henceforth, he or she must face the law.