Mr. Steve Okonmah, who is a Chief Superintendent of Customs (CSC), is the Public Relations Officer (PRO) of Ports & Terminal Multi-services Limited (PTML) Customs Command. He doubles also as the Chief Facilitator of Military, Police and Paramilitary Public Relations Officers’ Forum (MILPOPPROF). In this interview, Okonmah defends the spate of reforms in the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) with a conclusion that the new CGC has no ethnic agenda. He laments the dying state of PTML and calls on federal government for rescue. Excerpts:
What is the impact of the auto policy on PTML customs command?
In all honesty, I must tell you that our revenue has gone down so much because importers are no longer bringing in their vehicles through the ports. They prefer bringing in their vehicles through Cotonou. The irony is that these vehicles come into Nigeria through Cotonou cheaper. This is as a result of the auto policy and it is affecting our revenue. In 2013, we had about 172, 000 vehicles that came into the country through PTML, in 2014, we had about 126, 000 and surprisingly, last year 2015, we had just 66, 000 vehicles. You can see that it is a far-cry from what we have been having. And the whole of last year, we had just about 33,000 containers against 99, 000 containers in 2014. And so having just 33, 000, which is even less than half, you can see that things are no longer what it is supposed to be. So this is exactly what we are suffering as a result of the auto-policy because importers feel that it is easier for them to clear their vehicles at Seme border. The second aspect of the reason of the declining figure is that the rate of duty paid in Nigerian ports is relatively higher. Again, the exchange rate is another vital factor in this case because today we were told that a dollar was going for N340 (Three Hundred and forty Naira). This makes it very difficult for importers to bring in goods because the prices will be so high that they cannot sell them. Even at this, sourcing the forex is a big problem, because of the restriction procedures are herculean. You have to get your Form ‘M’ before going for PAAR. At this point, I would like to call on the government to take a second look at the policies governing importation and see how they could ameliorate some of these things. You cannot believe that in a whole command, only one container was examined just yesterday. Last week Friday, only four containers and last week, Thursday only three containers. This shows that we are going down and we are calling on the government to quickly do something to turn the situation around.
Let’s look at the issue of rightsizing or de-ranking of customs officers, is that normal?
Well, the issue of laying off 4,000 in customs is still a story because there is no list showing 4,000 officers or men being laid off. And then the issues of ranking and re-ranking, thus was not done today, it was done over six years ago. If you don’t have this qualification, you remain in the inspectorate cadre. If you have the qualification you will be in superintendent cadre. This has been said time and over again. That period some people were equally downsized. Yes, some left. Now, for the people downsized, because you don’t have this, you have to wear this. They were wearing it but all of a sudden the enforcement came. The last administration did not actually enforce it and so most of them now went and started wearing superintendent rank. I think the CGC has not tried to witch- hunt anybody in this case. He only said that you should wear your rank. Why are they not doing it. And if anybody says the CGC has sacked 4,000 workers let the person bring out the list. I stand to be challenged. Even, the people that left the service were the people that were due for retirement. They want to give the CGC a bad name. The people were due for retirement, may be, a month or two to go and their list were compiled. Is this retirement or sack?
Looking at the N1 trillion customs target for the year, with the volume of trade, do you think the target is realizable?
I must tell you that before the CGC came up with that figure as target, he must have put a lot of things into consideration. The idea behind the target is to push officers, that is, make officers conscious of the fact that you have target. If we work harder we can make this target. We know that cargo has gone down, but assuming it picks up tomorrow what happens? We are in a government, policies could change. The last time we talked about target, we made about N900 billion. At least, we pushed ourselves and we were almost there. Remember that if we had added waivers we would have made more than N1 trillion last year. But now waivers are gone so we can collect them as much as possible.
As the PRO of some of the paramilitary agencies, does it worry you that some of the agencies are back to the ports?
Well, when the agencies are back they should let us know that they are back. As we speak now none has announced its return to port.
The CGC has been accused of having ethnic-agenda, do you see that in his distribution of positions which does not favour easterners? Among all the CACs, we have one Igbo person.
If somebody says CGC has ethnic agenda in fairness I will disagree seriously because all the activities he is carrying out today, he does not want to know where you are coming from. So I see no any ethnic coloration in his activities. Now, coming to the issue of having only a Comptroller controlling a command and having a Comptroller. Compt. Alana is there, he is an Igbo man. The Compt. Edo/Delta Command is an Igbo man. And at the headquarters, we have many comptrollers who are Igbos. So they should try and make distinction between a comptroller which is a rank and that which is a position. So, I think that accusing the CGC of having ethnic agenda is most unfortunate. And it is unfair. What the CGC is trying to tell people is that the era of god- father is no longer there. For instance, look at the Customs Investigation Unit (CIU), before you will just see the list of postings come out. But the man said they should go and write examine. In fact, he said if you are interested you go for the exams. And all that put down their names were all invited to sit for the exam. I think that there is an element of transparency in that.
What is your take on corruption in customs?
As far as I am concerned customs officers are not corrupt. We may have few officers who are corrupt, but customs officers are not corrupt. How do we see this money? Most of these duties are paid to the bank. All you do is bring your receipt for us to check what you paid, whether your declaration is in order, whether it is not what you are carrying that you declared. And if we check and we find the one that constitute security risk we will impound it. And if we find out that the duty is small we give you Debit Note and at the end of the day you come and say thank you. So what is this compared to what is happening in other sectors? Customs officers are the second highest revenue generators in this country, how much is their salary? Do you know that there are officers in customs who are receiving N45, 000 salary monthly, are you aware?