Many Nigerians have called on the authorities of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) to investigate the incident involving some of its operatives and a Nigerian woman at the Nnamdi Abuja Airport, Abuja last weekend.
The NCS had confiscated a mini-boy bag and a pair of sneakers from Mrs. Adaeze Udensi Nwagboliwe, demanding that she pay duty charges of N165, 000 on the items on arrival at the Nnamdi Azikwe International Airport, Abuja. Mrs Nwagboliwe said the items were bought at a duty-free shop at Heathrow in London.
Some Nigerians, who have keenly followed the clash, have thrown their weight behind the woman, lampooning the NCS. But some others have defended the Customs, saying that the NCS did the right thing.
The social media has been awash with the exchange of words between Nwagboliwe and Attah. Some citizens have urged the Comptroller General of Customs, Col. Hameed Ali to look into the alleged questionable activities of officers attached to the Abuja Airport. Those in support of the woman have asked for a thorough investigation into the controversial amount being charged as duty on one pair of shoes and a mini-boy bag.
Mrs. Nwagboliwe said she was unduly delayed for hours when she arrived in Abuja in the morning of October 18. She described her ordeal as a selective maltreatment. She further painted the Customs’ charges as irrational and irreconcilable with the actual cost of the items.
The Customs, through its national Public Relations Officer (PRO), Mr. Joseph Attah, has defended his service’s position on the matter. He said the woman’s reaction and subsequent narrative was least expected and advised that it should be discarded by all and sundry.
But Nwagboliwe has vowed to seek legal advice over how she was handled by men of the NCS at the airport. She was especially miffed that the Customs exposed her passport number to the public.
She said two commercial planes had landed at the airport with about 600 passengers on-board on the day she came in from London about 4:30 am. She claimed she was the only person that was put through the ordeal of waiting for hours while other travellers with heavy suitcases passed without scrutiny.
Her lamentation, which has since gone viral on the social media, has apparently unsettled the Customs, which felt the urgent need to counter her narrative and put out its own defence.
After Nwagboliwe made her grievances public, the NCS spokesman, Attah issued a statement justifying the action of the officers who seized the bag and the pair of shoes. He said the expensive items needed to be charged according to the law of the land.
But Nwagboliwe has also punctured the statement by Customs, arguing that the explanations had further worsened the situation. She said that the defence was unsubstantiated.
The statement by the Customs spokesman partly read: “What was in her possession was far above the allowable value of N50, 000 and certainly beyond what normal discretion would allow.
“Upon routine search of this passenger’s luggage, operatives discovered a Loius Vuitton bag and shoe. Obviously knowing the luxury brand (Loius Vuitton), she was asked to produce the receipt which will be the basis for duty calculation or not. She could not produce the receipt of what she claimed she bought at the duty-free shop at the point of departure, saying the receipt was with her husband who did not travel with her.
“The officers had to take the long route of ascertaining the current worth of her items through the internet. The luxury items were found to be worth N570, 467.40k.
“Consequently, appropriate duty assessment of N165, 692.25k was made and given to her to pay into Federal Government coffer. Since she could not immediately go and pay, a detention notice was given to her showing that the items will remain with the NCS until she pays and brings evidence of payment before they will be released to her.
“Instead of paying the assessed duty and pick up her items or request to see any superior officer should she have any reservation on the assessed value, she took to irresponsible use of the social media drawing all sorts of conjectures, gender (even when the officer, Ms Essien who attended to her is a lady), tribe etc and even inciting the public against the service.
“For the avoidance of doubt, we are aware that many Nigerians complain about the allowable amount of N50, 000, but until the law is changed, NCS will continue to enforce the extant law that says personal effects shall not exceed the value of N50, 000. Anything more than the approved value is considered merchandise in baggage and therefore liable for duty payment.
“We, therefore, call on members of the public to disregard these conjectures and give assurances of our resolve to treat all Nigerians with deserved courtesy and respect in the discharge of our statutory functions.”
But the aggrieved woman has asked the Customs’ spokesperson to explain why he has to reveal her passport number to the public.
“I don’t understand how the Customs will deal with my passport number that was published to the general public. My passport could be cloned and used for all kinds of things. Did they have to go that low? This has to be addressed,” she said.
She added: “I have a few questions to ask the PRO so that Nigerians can see why I decided not to keep quiet about the happenings at our airports: How many passengers’ suitcases did you search on the two flights that landed at the same time on that day? I can speak confidently that not a single passenger on the two flights was booked.
“You mentioned that I ought to have requested to see a supervisor. Considering that I was among the first passengers to get to that Custom point and the very last to leave, how come this supervisor did not come out all through this period to see how his/her people were working?
“Thank God there are CCTV cameras at the airport and I have many more pictures to share should the need arise.
“I can show you proof that the bag which the Customs people priced at $1,100, higher than the canvas was indeed cheaper than the canvas from the same online shop they claimed to be their source. Only Essien and her staff know the website from where they picked their fictitious figures from.”
Nigerians, on different social media channels, have continued to react differently to the incident. Chuks Joseph, noted: “All politically exposed persons and so-called celebrities always have these items in excess, yet no one asks them to pay any duty. There is bias in their activities.”
A lady, Bukky, wrote: “The same man detained my jewellery that I took to Dubai for repairs. Because of the delay, I missed my train to Kaduna.”
A commentator on Twitter wrote: “Same thing happened to me with my kids’ schoolbags. They ended up collecting N10, 000 before they released my stuff. I even asked for evidence of what and how they were charging, but no one provided answers. It’s a shame.”
But some others insisted that the officers of the Customs were on the right track, noting that many Nigerians would not pay tax willingly unless they were forced.