By Kenneth Jukpor
Following a myriad of complaints leveled against Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) at the Tin Can Island Port, the Command’s Public Relations Officer, Mr. Uche Ejesieme sat with MMS Plus for this interview.
Uche speaks on a wide range of issues at the port; ranging from multiple alerts, non-compliance of some stakeholders, alleged use of non-service personnel, efforts of Customs to facilitate trade, among others. Enjoy it:
Freight agents have described Tin Can Island Port as one of the most difficult locations to evacuate cargoes as a result of multiple alerts alleged to be frivolous. What’s your take on this?
The following units found in any Customs command are; Valuation unit responsible for addressing issues that affect value, Customs Intelligence Unit (CIU) responsible for intelligence gathering, Post Clearance Audit to audit post clearance, Systems Audit for daily intervention on goods processed in the system, while Resident officers examine cargoes, release them and perform other ancillary functions.
Queries abound across these units but the major challenge is the issue of compliance which has become a recurring decimal in the value chain. These issues wouldn’t arise if the freight agents and their importers resolve to comply with the extant trade rules. Don’t forget that the Customs system is configured in such a way that alerts would usually come up when there are discrepancies in the documentation.
Customs’ role in the value chain is actually limited to two areas; examination and release of cargoes. With the automation system we have in Customs at the moment, there is the trader’s zone where you can declare from the comfort of your office whatever value you place your consignment and there is the Customs zone which begins as soon as you pay duties.
Whatever value placed on such goods is what Customs take into the system, by the time the freight agent captures and pays duties it automatically goes into the Customs zone and when it gets into that zone, the risk engine is triggered into green, yellow, red, etc. If it’s triggered into a super green then nobody can disturb such goods, it means it’s express. If it triggered red it means there must be examination because it is deemed high risk. If it’s blue, that is fast track beneficiaries, etc. However, queries are addressed by the units with the relevant jurisdiction.
Meanwhile, an item properly classified may have issues relating to value, while other items may have issues with valuation. So, these things are technical.
The Zonal Coordinator, Zone A, Nigeria Customs Service (NSC), ACG Modupe Aremu recently said that there shouldn’t be five alerts on one consignment and stressed that such practice would no longer be tolerated. Isn’t it possible to have just one alert on a consignment showing all the problems?
We had envisaged this because of the Command’s penchant for trade facilitation under the leadership of Comptroller Abdullahi Musa as the Area Controller at Tin Can Island Port. Sometimes, stakeholders refuse to comply with certain good concepts and initiatives that could address these issues.
Last year, the Controller had a meeting with stakeholders where we agreed to have a one-stop-shop for alerts. The idea was to collapse all the alerts into one platform where all alerts will be reconciled. An office space was provided for this in Tin Can and facilities were provided. We did it in such a way that the relevant units which make alerts always met to reconcile issues instead of allowing stakeholders to move back and forth on such issues. I can’t explain how that project was abandoned but I’m sure the fault didn’t come from Customs. We developed the template, created an office and put the facilities in place. I recall that the Controller led stakeholders on a site visit to the place because it was his brainchild.
The CAC once created a template, a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), an enabling environment where issues will be sorted out and that’s why he went a step further to create a Dispute Resolution Committee (DRC). Before now, the committee was meeting every week but he has directed them through a circular that they must meet every day whether a dispute arises or not. The issues they deliberate bothers on classification, post-audit, risk management, among others.
Nevertheless, some people will always try to cut corners but thank God for the level of compliance we’re having from some of them who are patriotic, especially the multinationals.
In the course of doing this Customs job, we have identified three levels of traders. We have compliant traders who comply with the rules and hardly complain. Another category is the undecided. They are neither here nor there, but they can be convinced to do things the right way. There is also the group that are adamant on taking the wrong approach because they believe that they must cut corners. We’ve platforms like bonds if there are issues, so instead of allowing their consignment to attract demurrage they can make use of valid bank bonds to take their consignments as long as the importer is credible. By the time the matter is resolved, Customs can vacate the bond. We also have the DRC and Help Desk but some people don’t like to take advantage of all of these processes.
When Demand Notices (DN) are raised how long does it take to be sorted out?
It does not take long, because everything is done electronically. Once it can be accessed on the system and printed, the DN Is generated. We put a penalty and it is paid. Don’t forget Customs is gearing towards full automation; it’s only a few areas that are not automated. I keep saying that it’s not possible for freight agents to come to Customs with equity and we try to frustrate them. Customs also applies flexibility in its operations and I say this with all sense of responsibility. Customs isn’t bent on frustrating anybody at Tin Can Island Port or hampering trade, but we also cannot fold our hands and allow people to do things recklessly.
Some of us have spent over three decades in this career and we cannot afford to do certain things that can ruin our career. If anyone feels a Customs officer is trying to punish him/her on a particular issue once the person approaches the DRC or the Help Desk, it’ll be resolved. Such a person can also seek permission to see the CAC because all the bureaucracies have been dismantled a long time ago. Stakeholders can access him anytime to resolve any genuine issue.
In the past, one could spend up to a week before you see the CAC but now under few minutes you’ll see him and clarify any issue you have. Sometimes a Customs officer can escalate an issue to the DRC if he feels he can’t handle it and the DRC will get back to him. Part of our SOP here is that any matter that is beyond the desk of an officer, he/she should direct it to the next officer that is more knowledgeable irrespective of the rank.
There are also criticisms on Customs operations at Tin Can on the use of non-service personnel for dispatch?
As far as I’m concerned nobody has raised that matter or brought it to my desk. This office has four roles and they are; the Public Relations unit, Help Desk, Servicom and the Secretariat of the DRC.
This is the first time I’m hearing this complaint. We’ve not received any formal report on this. However, if we receive any report and find it to be true, such a matter won’t be swept under the carpet, appropriate actions and sanctions must be applied.
Is it true that when alerts are raised it’s simply to draw attention to an issue and monies don’t have to be paid if the freight agent/ importer hasn’t defaulted?
No, alerts are done to prepare the mind of the next Customs officer who wants to take action on a consignment to be guided. Alert is not an indictment. Also, it can be vacated without paying any fee. If you can defend your consignment and anyone still decides to put an alert on it the person will be sanctioned because the CAC will not take it.
The problem is that most people are not knowledgeable about what they’re arguing about. The allegations are that Customs is trying to frustrate trade. If they have any tangible reason that can convince us we will use the Customs Excise and Management Act (CEMA). The law is very clear. We have the general interpretative rules on clarification and valuation. Once you’re knowledgeable to apply them and we look at the books and it is aligned with what is stated there, we will vacate the alert immediately.
I’m using this opportunity to employ the freight agents to be on top of their jobs. The era of cut and join is gone because Customs is nearing full automation and everyday opportunities are being narrowed for infractions. We are not saying we’ve achieved 100 percent but the good news is that it’s a work in progress. Once we identify any grey areas we narrow them down.
Recently, the Controller of Federal Operation Units (FOU) Zone A said that if Customs starts prosecuting compromised examiners at seaports over 50 percent of Customs examiners would be affected. On the other hand, Customs says going by CEMA strictly would lead to seizures of over 75 percent of cargoes. If these are true, how can sanity be restored in port business?
These are just assumptions on the level of infractions because no one has researched that yet. I agree there are gaps but these are the gaps we’re trying to block every day. There’s no society in the world today without gaps because smuggling is a global phenomenon. America and Mexico are still battling with the issue of drugs passing through tunnels, cars among others, but part of our core mandate here is revenue generation, facilitation of trade, stopping of smuggling etc.
Customs have only said it will suppress smuggling, we have never claimed to eradicate smuggling. It’s a huge task but we’ll continue to sensitize and engage the stakeholders. If you go to the border areas, Customs are having community meetings with the residents, speaking with the locals in their dialect and making use of the community leaders to make them understand the dangers of smuggling into the nation at large. We do the same thing at the seaports too.
It’s good to be a compliance trader because there are rewards for it. At Tin Can, the CAC created a reward for compliance, also at the local level, there’s a reward. These are things we don’t advertise but they’re platforms in line with the World Trade Organization (WTO) standards to facilitate legitimate trade. Once we see that over time you’re consistent we can ask you to take your consignment to your warehouse and officers would come and assess it and you pay your duty because we know you have integrity. These are some of the things we deliberately put in place to make sure compliant traders are not subjected to unnecessary rigours in the trade value chain.