Emerging signals make it clear that our nation’s economy is severely imperilled. President Buhari himself decried the inability of the Federal Inland Revenue, the NNPC, and the Nigerian Customs Service to meet their revenue projections as captured in the budget. Chief of Staff had weeks earlier queried Babatunde Fowler, the Executive Chairman of the Federal Inland Revenue Board, over “discrepancies in tax collections from 2015 and 2018, noting that there were significant variances between budget estimates and actual collections. Performance in 2015 to 2017, the query held, was significantly worse than under Goodluck Jonathan, 2012 and 2014. Fowler in his reply blamed the recession (which government has blamed on Goodluck), fall in the price of crude oil, and reduction of crude oil production.
Away from the internal revenue, at the Nigerian Customs Service lately, the drive to collect revenue appeared to have reached panic levels. As if responding to President Buhari’s threat to sanction any shortfalls, Customs men raided highbrow hotels in Abuja and by coercion of receptionists and management, extracted names of owners of expensive vehicles in the parking lot. Valid import documents were demanded from the guests, failing which their parked vehicles were impounded and the owners asked to retrieve only upon producing evidence that duty was paid on the vehicles. Across the country, Customs officials were to mount road blocks and do likewise. To explain raids carried out the Comptroller-General of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Col. Hameed Ali (rtd) said that over 90% of vehicles in the country were smuggled in. “The law allows us to stop you and ask for the car papers, if your papers are intact, we thank you and bless you, if it is otherwise, we will ask you to pay the duties.
“If we find out you are not a smuggler, you are just an innocent buyer, we will value the car and ask you to pay the required duties on the car and you will be free.”
Impeccable Hameed Ali has a reputation for integrity and diligence the type credited to President Muhammadu Buhari. His appointment to the post of Comptroller General of Customs particularly given his clear mandate was highly welcome. Nigerians knew that Hameed’s task was herculean because besides the Nigerian Police Force, hardly any organisation has the reputation of corruption in the grade of the Nigerian Customs Service. I think his biggest success has been in the area of instilling discipline in the Service and giving it a new vigour to deliver on the mandate of prevention and enforcement.
I worry however, that Hameed has lasted too long on his task and is gradually being sucked down the vortex of maladies he came to solve.
Nigerians put it to Hameed Ali that while he is chasing 90% of vehicles without duly paid duties, he has failed to address the problem that caused this mishap. It is akin to chasing horses while the stable doors remain open for more horses to flee. Our ports remain porous. Pundits say that instead, it is 90% of containers that come in through the Nigerian Ports without appropriate duties, levies and taxes. They are mostly falsely declared, while many others grow wings and fly into the country. This is despite the “strenuous” efforts of the Comptroller General’s Special Taskforce and the so called Strikeforce. Though once in a while a media event is made of apprehended falsely labelled containers, given the large volume of smuggled goods in the country, particularly fire arms and ammunition, one can allege a collusion with smugglers that Hameed Ali must look into.
Instead of harassing innocent vehicle buyers, people should keep their vehicles once the point of purchase is identified. The public harassment is draconian and speaks of a lacking in ideas of how to address the failures of the Nigerian Customs Service. There is no way real revenues will be harvested if containers intended for Bonded Terminals and Fast Track premises are taken straight to the Importer’s warehouses without examination, seriously undermining the economy and national security. The collusion results in general and not specific description and classification, and mislabelling of containers with false descriptions such as “raw materials for industrial use, super market goods, and machinery spare parts”. There is also Waiver Abuse to the benefit of patrons of Government, obviously, this is where the real revenue on duty in millions of dollars is lost in comparison to the small matter of used vehicles.
Much media hype is made of huge revenue collections by Hammed Ali and his management team especially regarding a generation of N1.1 trillion in 2018, said to be the highest ever in the history of Customs. The reality as experts appear to have told President Buhari is that given the exchange rate of N306.00 to $1, the amount translates to only $3.6 billion, short of the 2014 collection of the revenue by rested Comptroller General Dikko Inde, of N997 billion which at the exchange rate of N197 to $1 translates to about $5.06 billion. It is this shocking reality that informed President Buhari’s angst and threat leading to the ongoing panic measures.
As we applaud the border closure and continue to celebrate our discovery that Nigeria was all along being leached by its neighbouring countries, we must know that all our neighbours did was to ease their port operations better than the duplicity in Nigerian ports where the Army, the Navy, the Police, DSS, and all other arms of Security have gathered to share powers of the Customs Service rather for more nefarious purpose than the national interest of enforcing payment of duty. Instead of reforming and making the Customs Service more effective, we further complicated the situation by involving other institutions often working at cross purposes. The Customs Act gives the service all the powers being exercised by the other arms of security from arrest to prosecution.
With Nigeria as a signatory to the ECOWAS protocol and President Buhari being current Chairman, we must review the border closure quickly before it becomes a matter for diplomatic embarrassment. The border closure cannot be a permanent solution. We must be in compliance with rules and regulations as set out by the WTO and WCO respectively which Nigeria is a highly noted key member.
Before Hameed Ali’s clean mien is muddied and a good man is compromised, it is imperative that the more fundamental elements of the mandate of his appointment as Comptroller General of the Nigeria Customs Service by President Muhammadu Buhari is faced more squarely and achieved quickly. We must reform and restructure the Customs Service in conformity with best global practice, and face the simple task of generating Customs Revenue. Hameed Ali’s appointment should have been a touch and go process that quickly rids the service of corruption and indiscipline, through Review and update of Customs Codes and the Customs and Excise Notices, training of the officers and men of the Service as well as the Customs Licensed Agents, and urgent restoration of the service under professionals of impeccable character. Surely 7 such men and women can be found in the service and trusted with managing a reformed organisation, even with a supervising statutory board.