· FG’s secrecy on $3.1bn Customs concession jolts Freight Agents
By Kenneth Jukpor
Following wide criticisms of the complexities in handling the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), a serving senior officer in the Nigerian Army, Brigadier General Mohammed Buhari has been redeployed from his post as the Principal Staff Officer (PSO) to the Comptroller-General of NCS, Col. Hammed Ali (Rtd.)
Brig-General Buhari’s redeployment back to military duties has been on the wish list of most port stakeholders as he was alleged to have been the architect of the numerous Customs units and alerts that have become an additional toll for freight agents and shippers in the nation’s ports.
Recall that Senator Francis Fadahunsi, representing Osun East at the National Assembly, recently queried the Nigerian Army and the Customs boss, Hameed Ali, on the use of a serving officer, Brigadier General Buhari, as his PSO.
The lawmaker described the scenario as “anomaly that has been taken too far.”
In his submission, “General Buhari has been working with Ali as PSO for the past four and half years. This is to the detriment of professional Customs officers. This same army general is alleged to have taken over the function of the posting committee, as he now handles exclusively the posting of Comptrollers, Assistant Comptrollers and Deputy Comptrollers.”
Fadahunsi, who is the Deputy Chairman of the Senate Committee on Customs, added “Mr. President must disabuse the minds of Nigerians who now see the Customs as an annex of the Nigeria Army. The Senate committee Chairman is a retired Army Major, the Comptroller General is a retired Colonel and a serving General is the Principal Staff Officer.”
Some highly placed security personnel have also criticized the decision to have a serving Brig-General acting as PSO for Hammed Ali, who retired as a Colonel several years ago.
Primed to succeed Brig-General Buhari as PSO is the Deputy Comptroller-General (DCG) Sanusi Umar, however, Umar is billed to retire this month. He will assume duties in his new posting after retiring.
Umar, who was in-charge of Human Resource Development at the Service is said to have been properly briefed on the PSO job.
Although the NCS is yet to come up with the official response on this issue, our correspondent gathered that the Customs CG is perplexed with the redeployment of his PSO as well as the much criticized Customs Modernization project.
In another development, the Founder and Chairman of The Chrome Group, Chief Emeka Offor is angling for the concession of Rapiscan mobile cargo scanners at the Apapa port.
Recall that in June 2020, the Federal Government approved the sum of $18.12 million and N3.255 billion for the revision of a contract that was previously approved by the council in 2018 for the supply and installation of three numbers of Rapiscan mobile cargo scanners at Onne port, Port Harcourt port, and Tin Can port.
This contract was awarded to Messrs Airwave limited and the contract is in the sum of $18.12 million of foreign component, there is also a local component of N3.255 billion inclusive of five percent Value Added Tax (VAT).
While the Minister of Finance, Budget, and National Planning, Mrs. Zainab Ahmed revealed this at the 9th virtual Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting presided over by President Muhammadu Buhari, maritime stakeholders raised concerns as the nation’s premier port Apapa was left out.
In a bid to address the issue of scanners, MMS Plus gathered that Chief Emeka Offor, and other eminent personalities are jostling for the concession of scanners at Apapa port.
The Chrome Group has subsidiaries in shipping and logistics business with Global Scan Systems Limited (GSL), an international trade security and facilitation company, Inland Containers Nigeria Ltd, among others.
However, the government’s move to concession acquisition of scanners at the nation’s ports has sparked debate over the significance of the Customs Modernization Project which FEC approved the concession contract award sum of $3.1billion to Messrs E-Customs HC Project Limited, in the penultimate week.
Port stakeholders are yet to understand the link between the contract award sum of $18.12 million and N3.255 million for the acquisition of Rapiscan Cargo Mobile Scanners and the Customs Modernization Project with contract award sum of $3.1billion.
Some of the questions on the lips of Nigerian port stakeholders include; has the Federal Government been compromised on the role and significance of the concessionaires for scanners with the Customs Modernization Project? Where is the place of national security in the new arrangement? What other functions would be reserved for Customs officers when the Messrs E-Customs HC Project Limited kicks-off the innovative process? How does the concessionaire get its return on investment?
Speaking with MMS Plus last week, a former President of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) Prince Olayiwola Shittu decried the level of secrecy surrounding the Customs concession project.
His words: “I’m not comfortable when there are government policies shrouded in secrecy. I’m surprised that the industry hasn’t kicked against this, especially from freight forwarding groups. Only the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF) has taken a position against it, but I’m sure that the ANLCA President must have made some moves. This decision by the government is one that affects freight forwarders, so why are we in the dark? It could be because we have the benefit of history and the government doesn’t want history to come up.”
He recalled that similar approaches had been introduced by the Federal Government in the past. “At one time, there was Crown Agent; but freight forwarders came together and fought against it. Today, every group is only concerned about personal interest and not the collective interest of practitioners.”
Shittu also stressed that the 20-year period of the Customs Modernization contract was too long, admonishing the government to learn from the mistakes in the port concession exercise.
“There was a time we were doing pre-shipment inspections and Customs still carried out their functions. We considered this to be duplication of functions. Remember PIDA, which was a similar venture but you can’t take away the role of Customs. Customs play a vital role everywhere in the world. They are responsible for trade facilitation and security.”
“Are we doing away with Customs or we are going to have double handling? If the modernization would be the system in America, there would be no need for human interface; it could work perfectly. The Customs Modernization project would outsource revenue collection to the concessionaires. Is Nigeria ready for this? Would we have a system where people collect monies on behalf of the country and abscond with it? We expected that there would have been several meetings and sufficient consultations before this approval. They have gone ahead with it without an Enabling Act. We are just relying on executive orders; but what would be the role of Customs and Customs brokers in this arrangement? With the projected level of automation, would there be downsizing at the Customs because the number of officers at the ports are too many. This is why there is duplication of functions. Several units just do the same function under various titles,” he posited.
He argued that NCS could realize the same revenue targets projected by the concessionaire if the Service was encouraged to go into 100 percent automation of its processes and the officers were adequately trained for the new process.
Meanwhile, NAGAFF intends to set-up an investigative and technical committee to undertake historical and operational background checks on the listed firms involved in the Customs Modernization project.
The Association’s Head of Research and Policy Group, Chief Eugene Nweke disclosed this in a press statement issued on Friday, last week.
According to Nweke, the Customs Modernization concession process lacks seven crucial indicators, which are; right enterprises, the right price, the right scale, the right timing, the right operator, right sets of tariffs and the right regulatory regime.
He warned that the government must carry out adequate due diligence and commitment when embarking on such exercise to avoid colossal damages for the nation.
“We make bold to also state that from our practical experience with the port concession; lack of competition and ineffective regulations under private port sector regime breeds conformism, bureaucratic red tapes, operational delays, haggling, high-handedness, inflation, corruption, extortion and exploitation,” he posited.