Some of the recent goings-on in the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) have thrown up fresh controversy as to whether or not Colonel Hameed Ali (rtd), the Comptroller General, is leading the agency in the right direction. The renewed debate on the desirability or otherwise of his appointment is borne out of public reactions trailing some new policy measures introduced by the agency recently. These include the ban on importation of rice and used vehicles popularly known as Tokunbo through the land borders as well as the proposed plan to collect duties on all vehicles in the country, including those in use for upwards of 10-15 yrs. The latest action of the Customs operatives, which had elicited wild public condemnation, was the February 22 midnight invasion of shops at Ota in Ogun State where several bags of rice were allegedly impounded and carted away. The men of the NCS, Ikeja Unit, the market women alleged, damaged padlocks and doors of over 60 shops located inside Sango-Ota motor park and carted away 18,000 bags of rice and jerrycans of vegetable oil. In reaction to the development, some angry youths and rice sellers took to the streets and barricaded both sides of the Lagos-Abeokuta Expressway with used tyres and planks, causing disruption of traffic. The last is yet to be heard on the matter, as traders insist on getting compensation for the action of the men of the service.
Controversy is also raging over the imposition of duty on old vehicles imported into the country some couple of years ago. According to the NCS, owners of such vehicles have up to 30 days to pay Customs duty on them or face prosecution. Though the Senate had intervened and ordered an immediate suspension of the policy, pending the appearance of Ali before its Committee on Customs and Excise, the NCS has vowed to go on with the policy, setting April 12 as deadline for compliance.
The Senate, while rejecting the policy, described the NCS under Ali as incompetent, noting that “what the Nigerian Customs has done by this announcement is pure advertisement of incapacitation and incompetence.”
In defiance to the Senate’s resolution, the Customs has announced an adjustment of points of payment and 60 per cent rebate across board from 2015 downward to ease the process and encouraged all motor dealers in possesion of ‘uncustomed’ vehicles to come forward and pay their duties. A statement by the NCS read in part: “The CGC, therefore, calls on all persons in possession of such vehicles to take advantage of the grace period to pay appropriate duties on them as there will be an aggressive anti-smuggling operation to seize as well as prosecute owners of such smuggled vehicles after the deadline of Wednesday, April 12, 2017.”
In the face of this seeming obstinacy and rigidity, some critical stakeholders are now beginning to raise questions about the capacity of the Customs boss to achieve the turnaround of the NCS, which in the first instance, was the primary reason President Buhari had to circumvent the rule of procedure and chose him as Comptroller General. Coming at a time when oil revenue is dwindling owing to the combined effects of militants’ activities in the Niger Delta and the falling oil price at the international market, President Buhari had to settle for Ali as the CG of Customs with a mandate to reform the agency for better service delivery. This followed the voluntary retirement of Dikko Abdullahi on August 18, 2015.
In terms of contribution to the economy, Customs is the second highest revenue generating agency for the Federal Government after the petroleum industry. It is on the same pedestal with the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS). Both are domiciled in the Federal Ministry of Finance.
Right from the outset, Ali’s appointment as Customs boss had been mired in controversy. Some stakeholders accused the President of violating procedures of appointing the CG, citing Section 3.11:1 of the Federal Republic of Nigeria Official Gazette No 24 Vol. 89 of 25th March 2002, which says the choice of the Comptroller-General of Customs shall be by “appointment of a suitable Deputy Comptroller-General of Customs (General Duty)”.
A Lagos-based lawyer and rights activist, Ebun Olu Adegboruwa, had then challenged his appointment at a Federal High Court in Lagos. But Justice Muslim Sule Hassan dismissed the case on the ground that Adegboruwa lacked the locus standi to file the suit since he was not a member of the service. He also held that the President, by virtue of Section 5 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) has the executive power to make appointments. He consequently struck out the matter.
Barely two years down the line, many stakeholders say they are yet to see the desired change which President Buhari had envisaged before Ali’s appointment as NCS boss. While some, who scored him low in terms of performance, blamed his perceived failings on his military command training, rigidity and high handedness, others see lack of adequate working tools and poor salary package for Customs officers as his major handicaps.
Some of his critics, who made quick reference to his antecedent as a former military administrator of Kaduna State where he was alleged to have sacked about 30,000 striking civil servants and ordered the detention of 18 local government chairmen, traced the genesis of his problem to the recent purge in the agency which led to the sack of about 48 senior officers, including Deputy Comptrollers and Assistant Comptrollers. Since then, they added, Ali had lost the confidence of men of the service. “Today, Deputy Comptrollers of Customs are afraid of him because of his military background. They don’t give him quality advice. So, we have a situation where mistakes are made almost on a daily basis,” a source close to the agency told Newsmen.
A maritime expert and publisher, Asu Beks, speaking with Sunday Sun in a telephone interview, agreed that Ali had not achieved much in terms of dealing with the perceived corruption in the agency. However, in his opinion, Ali’s inability to turnaround the fortune of the agency is due to the institutional problems he inherited. According to him, poor welfare package and lack of working tools are the major challenges which make it difficult to have a corrupt-free Customs Service.
He said: “One thing you cannot take away from him (Ali) is his incorruptible nature. I have not seen that Customs officer who can walk up to him to discuss any corrupt idea. He will lock you up, no matter your rank in the Customs. Ali will not also want to hear that an Area Commander collected N200,000 from any agent because there was not enough diesel to power the generator. He won’t take it, he will lock you up. When you say a person is hard, Ali is harder than our President. He doesn’t want to hear anything about corruption.”
Comparing the condition of service in the NCS with the standard in other climes, he painted a dismal picture of the men of the service. His words: “The Nigeria Customs officer is the least paid in the world, including our neighbour like Benin Republic. When you don’t give a worker the living wage, then anything can happen. You cannot give somebody nothing and expect something. In this case, the Customs man is given nothing. If you look at NIMASA, NPA, CBN and compare the take home of a Customs man with the salaries of workers in these parastatals, you will find out that there is a huge difference. A Comptroller General of Customs Service, who is equivalent of Inspector-General of Police, takes home less than N400,000 monthly, which is what a Level 8 officer in the Nigerian Ports Authority earns. Officers who are sent on the transfer hardly get their entitlements. Go to the ports, you will see officers who retired a year ago still going from table to table to get their retirement benefits. By the time retired Customs officers spend a year or two; they are back at the ports begging for alms.”
Beks added: “Again, they don’t have the working tools. Customs officers at Tincan and Apapa Ports still depend on clearing agents to fuel their generators. The electricity Bill for Apapa alone is about N800,000 a month, but what Abuja gives them is about N200,000. Where is the balance of N600,000 coming from? There must be a reform where Customs officers would be paid a living wage. I am not saying that these problems were created by Ali. But these are institutional problems that we need to address,” he insisted.
He, therefore, advised President Buhari to give the needed support to Ali to actualise his mandate to rid the service of perceived corruption. “It is either the man is overwhelmed by the enormity of his responsibility or he is still studying how the Customs runs after two years. Ali has not addressed some basic things like providing working tools. Officers have to go through self-help initiatives to run the service. As long as these continue, corruption will continue. Mr. President should do the needful,” he concluded.
In another breath, a former president of the National Association of Government Approved Forwarders, Dr Eugene Nweke, accused Ali of being too fixated with his reform agenda as well as aggressive revenue generation drive at the expense of the trading public.
“I want to say from the point of view of a stakeholder, who has been in the Customs Consultative Committee, that business environment under Ali has been very harsh. Within the time he took over and now, cargo output has been going down. It is one thing for revenue target to be achieved; it is another thing to facilitate trade. As far as I am concerned, his background has not convinced me that he understands what trading is all about. For us as stakeholders in the trading industry, his leadership style is affecting us,” he lamented in an interview with Sunday Sun.
Assessing the two-year period of Ali’s stewardship, Nweke scored the Customs boss low on some performance indicators such as discipline within the rank and file, level of information dissemination between the agency and the trading public, collaboration with other stakeholders, facilitation of trade as well as volume of cargoes handled per annum and the welfare of officers.
He, however, alluded to his uprightness as a disciplined officer with zero tolerance for corruption. “The man is a sound military officer. He is a disciplined officer with zero tolerance for indiscipline. That is what informed the decision of Mr. President to appoint him as CG of Customs. He came into the NCS with a mindset to reform it. But he does not have experience of revenue generation and anti-smuggling activities,” he said.
To promote a business-friendly environment, he urged the service to ensure “openness and transparency in its dealings.”
Acting Public Relations Officer of the Nigeria Customs Service, Joseph Attah, reacting to some of the insinuations by the stakeholders, maintained that Ali had been unwavering in his determination to actualize his three-pronged agenda: reform, restructure and enhanced revenue generation. “If you have been following the happenings in the Customs, there had been redeployment, re-sharpening of the disciplinary process and dismissal of those found guilty. These are processes of reforming and restructuring of an organization,” he stressed.
On the controversial night raid of the market at Sango, he absolved the agency of any wrong doing, adding that the action was in line with operational strategy of the Customs. According to him, Section 147 of Customs and Excise Management Act gives Customs powers to seize, search, break open and evacuate any item that is smuggled.
Further justifying the action of the men of the service, he explained: “Our operatives got information that about 20 or 30 Okada boys had smuggled in rice and they monitored them up till a point when the consignment was off loaded. In order not to let our operation result in casualties, we went there at night and performed our statutory function.”
Attah, therefore, challenged any of the affected traders who have documents to prove that the seized items were imported through the sea port to come forward, assuring that the Customs would do the needful.
He also dismissed the allegation that the aggressive revenue generation drive by the agency had created unfriendly business environment, saying: “We do everything within our powers to meet the target set by the government. But NCS will not collect tariff above what the law says. Those who are complaining about our tariff policy are those businessmen who were used to enjoying softer approach. But Ahmeed Ali insists that every collectable kobo must be collected.”
“With the number of channels we have to disseminate information on the list of items you are supposed to bring in and the approved tariff on them, it is very clear that NCS is open and transparent in its operation,” he concluded.