Dr. Boniface Aniebonam is the founder of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF). In this exclusive interview, the freight forwarding veteran analyses the state of affairs at the Nigeria Customs Service since Col. Hameed Ali (Rtd) emerged as the Comptroller General. Aniebonam also discusses several pertinent Customs issues such as the level of corruption in the Service, revenue challenges and more.
When the Comptroller General of Customs (CGC) Colonel Hammed Ali (Rtd) was appointed in August last year, he said he was going to reform, restructure and increase revenue of the Nigeria Customs Service. One year after, has he been able to achieve that?
Well for us in NAGAFF, that’s a mandate and not his intentions. He had a directive from my President who appointed him to reform, structure and enhance revenue collection and of course the auxiliary function is there. This includes the smuggling operations, trade statistics, trade, facilitation, etc. You can go on and of course there is the issue of building capacity in terms of training.
Yes, on year is gone and our verdict is very obvious, we’ll consider it as a learning process. You know as a Customs officer, you needed six months to one year to be properly trained and then you will be able to master matters that has to do with revenue collections and of course enforcement of regulations. Remember he came from outside as a former Military Governor of Kaduna State.
As an ex-soldier, Ali was entering an area which is highly technical, so he needed time to study things. He operated in a terrain which he isn’t very comfortable with, so we are really not going to deliver his scorecard now because we consider him as somebody who isn’t a trained Customs officer. At the moment, we can begin to consider him as a trained custom officer having spent one year in office so we will begin to compile report in that regard.
Compare and contrast the tenure of Dikko to the current CGC Col. Hameed Ali (Rtd)
Do we have to do that now? Dikko is a core Customs Officer who gradually got to that position and he had clear directions. He knew what the officers were going through and he knew what to do. We would have to be patient before analyzing Hammed Ali’s success story, maybe in the next six months to one year; we will say one or two things very concrete about him. There is a lot to be done. You know the port is Custom’s port under section 12 of the Customs Law. Customs is the leading agency of the government as far as international trade is concern. They have a major role to play in this regard. The matter of change is weeping across and we expect that things will change.
For instance, on the issue of corruption within the port in Nigeria, we’ll tell you that fighting corruption has not yet started as far as we are concern. Even at the federal level, the kick against corruption and anti-corruption war has not yet started. If you recover stolen monies and all that, that’s Not Fighting corruption in our country, we should be looking at blocking all those revenue leakages. Some of them are systems that lead to corrupt behaviour.
What is your take on the poor conditions of service in Nigeria Custom Service?
Well you can’t separate them from the entire society. The poor condition is unanimous with Civil Service in Nigeria and this is why the output has not been encouraging in terms of achievement. If you don’t take care of those who are to protect your own interest, you can be sure you wouldn’t get the best. The conditions for service have not been the best and I know that the Controller General of Customs has been talking about that. But let’s see what he does in concrete time, maybe, in the next year.
We learnt that the Nigeria Custom Service has not recruited in the past five years, what could be responsible for this and what are the implications?
I think that is wrong. Customs have recruited between five thousand to ten thousand Corp members. But, I think there’s need for further recruitment. As an ex-Custom officer, if I look at those of us who came into Customs say 1981 or thereabout, most of them are going out either by age (60 years) or tenure of office (35 years).
Is it true that the Nigeria Custom Service is so broke so much so that they cannot even effect postings and transfers approved over three months ago for lack of funds for their allowance?
I wouldn’t say that, because am not a Custom officer. I don’t have access to their funds. But I do know that the Customs are entitled to 7% of the revenue collected. For the period under review, it’s certain now that the exchange rate has favoured transactions in terms of revenue due to the government. For me, it is official Customs definitely must be in trouble. So I wouldn’t move away from that perception that things like that should happen if you understand. Again that is why the Comptroller General of Customs needs to exercise caution because some of the seized containers so far they have made is unnecessary under the circumstance.
Even at the level of the anti-corruption war, we need to exercise caution now. I give you a very good example. The 31 containers that were seized in Tin Can Island Port is unnecessary. Even when the owner of the consignment made a genuine declaration, to position the container for physical examination; so under that circumstance, there’s nothing to conceal anymore. So nobody can begin to talk about concealment or wrong description of import when the cargo was placed on board on the examination day to be examined and the person came forward for that too. So that was done in a manner that is with bad faith. Again it is detrimental to revenue due to the Government.
The anti-smuggling function of the Service is to bring into focus all consignments that had intention to invade Customs procedures or what one may call untrue declaration. The concept of anti-smuggling function is to verify why these people are going away from paying tax. Now, government tries to drag the net and bring them in to make sure they pay their taxes. So what I’m saying is that, if they are not buoyant in terms of finances, it is not news but that will be a lesson for them so that they should go for revenue rather than to seize quality or unnecessary goods.
What is the position of NAGAFF on the proposal received on CEMA?
It gladdens our heart to hear the CGC say that if there is any superior law to CEMA in view he wouldn’t be part of it. Now that simply makes it very clear that those who are going against the Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN) regulation of the freight forwarding profession and they must take a second look at what they are doing.
If you look at section 28 of the CRFFN Act which made it very clear that for you to be a licensed Custom clearing agent, your name must be in register of trade forwarders. So you must be a trade forwarder before you can be licensed by the Customs or any other agencies of the government. For example, the insurance of PAAR, Customs issue per quarry. So they are the judge in their own case. We are not going to get the best out of it. Give the power regime to an unbiased umpire. The issues like single window should be handled by somebody else so that we can have a balance of forces or in times of even competitions. I know that Comptroller General of Customs will be disposed to giving Nigeria the best at least for the interest of the country.
The review of CEMA is okay; we started so early talking about that the validity of the custom law. When a law of 1958 is still been used in 2016, you know that something is wrong. When you look at the globalization as far as international trade is concerned, a lot has to be changed.
What would you like to see improved in the Customs Service and what are your expectations in next one year?
In the next one year, there are things we don’t want to start talking about again. There is a need for transparency and a lot of things are not clear. Customs questions must be clear and definitive. Those who come to do business with Customs must have direction. There should be some kind of predictability about Customs procedures to know what is expected but right now we don’t. If we go to the issue of value, you don’t know what you will get and it’s a problem. The Customs will release a consignment right here in Apapa or Tin Can port, just in Mile 2, another Customs unit is picking it up and discovering things as if the other Custom did not work on it. What is wrong? This has to stop. Customs need to be more coordinated. When you get information about an importer or an agent, you put a caveat if you have suspect. But along the line you discovered the caveat become so abused coming from several quarters of alert, C.I.U ALERT, APM ALERT T.N.T HEAD QUARTERS ALERT, REFORCEMENT ALERT in one transaction and yet this consignment will leave the port as if nothing has been done on that consignment that will lead to Federal Operations Unit (FOU) picking it up and discovering things that were supposed to be treated by the initial examiner. The CG must ensure that this kind of systematic corruption is a thing of the past. We wouldn’t want a scenario where we see the state commands take control of the state highways and federal highways bridging the corridor of trade.
We want to see the scanners working as a tool for trade facilitation. It will be much easier for large consignment, bulk importers to move their cargo very fast out of the port premises to fast track development. We want to see where issue of transire application of usage is not abused because of revenue risk and security of the state. These are critical issues that CGC Ali must speedily address.