Mohammed Abba-Kura is Customs Area Controller of Apapa, Nigeria’s largest Port with highest volume of trade.
In this interview, he talks about open door policy, uncompromising revenue collection and deployment of modern tools for customs operation , among others.
He also kicks against moving goods into the country in trucks, which he adjudged as violation of principles of transit.
As at December 30,2019, the revenue collected was N420,125,983.45 and what was collected from January to December 2018 before I came, was about N404 billion. So you see there is a difference of about N16 billion.
Yes there is improvement, because of what we put in place. We put some strategies to make them compliant. Some of these strategies are open door policy and working according to the rules and regulations on the ground. That has made some of them to improve because anyone that fails will face necessary sanction.
There is need for stakeholders to get more training on the use of the system because if you look at our modernization level, we’ve gone a long way from 2006 to the last upgrade that was July 2018 when the Service introduced NICIS II. The whole idea behind it is for the stakeholders to sit down in the comfort of their offices to make their own declarations, make payments and request for Customs release.
So a lot of things have been joined into one. Before the modernization you had what we called the Long Room. An agent fills his SGD form, he will bring it to the long room , we had various seats and officers that worked on them. We had the striking, the out gate and all other seats. All these have been collapsed and integrated into the system and the stakeholders have been given the new way based on the current system to make their own declarations, saying this is what we import, make payments before requesting to come to customs zone.
So it is after these payments and requests that the selectivity engine of the system will determine where the goods will go. It will determine those for physical examination or non intrusive examination including those that are going on fasttrack.
On Authorised Economic Operator(AEO), I think the service is thinking towards that direction. You know we introduced fasttrack because of the nature of our stakeholders and that fasttrack is a kind of incentive to the manufacturers that bring in raw materials. To some extent,those importers that have large quantity of import, so the service decide to integrate them into fasttrack.
The main purpose is that once their consignment arrive the port they can take those consignment away to their individual premises where further Customs action will take place. That is the examination of a cargo at their premises. If there is any need for additional payment, we make them to pay. If there is no need of any additional payment we just release it for them.
This is just a step towards integrating those of them that have qualified to the AEO status and I know the service want to start with some companies, they will accord them the status of the AEO to begin with.
How soon do you think that will happen?
Maybe this year. But if you look at the AEO, the requirement is a very tough one. Only very few and powerful companies can attain that, because if you look at it the level of AEO you have a lot of benefits there.
There is what they call mutual benefit, for example if a sister company in any part of the world that has an AEO status is establishing here, if they come with the same standard their process of getting integrated in the AEO status will be very easy than for a new company that has not been in AEO level before.
There is an improvement in export to a certain extent. Also what is being exported here are mostly agricultural products like cocoa, sesame seed, processed wood and others.You know, unprocessed wood is not allowed to go out. There is real improvement and if you compare it to last year, you will see what we are talking about. There is also improvement in the level of compliance and within the period under review I think the FOB is about $262,95.09 .This is equivalent to N40,610,70,114.55 billion. Like I said earlier most of the exported items were agricultural and mineral products.
But we have small challenges, not us in particular but the exporters. Some of the things exported to Europe and other parts of the world did not meet the required standards of those countries and they were returned.
There are lots of advantage to that because some of our neighbours are not even following the best practices in international trade. Anything coming from that side to Nigeria is transit. So any goods or consignments coming in as transit must meet up with the standard. It must come in the original form that it left the country of origin. One, it must be inside a container. Two, it must have all the necessary things like having a seal and that seal must be the original seal that is on the manifest and on the bill of laden. Three, it should come intact without any interference.
What they normally do, Benin Republic, for example, they unload the containers then put the loads into trucks and bring them into Nigeria. It is against the principles of transit. So it must come in its original form.
My advice to port users is that they should be compliant in their declarations and we are going to carry over most of the policies or strategies that we adopted in 2019. We’ve laid a very good foundation so we are going to continue on that. Like the open door policy, we attend to complaints when due. We give importers or their representative their rights according to the rules and regulations. If they have complaints, we attend to the complaints. And in the course of attending to those complaints, we look at our laws, books, notices and circulars and we will present it to them. We don’t do things by guess work. If you say you have a container of particular item and maybe the officers in the field upon their examination discovered that your classification is not right, then you bring your evidence to defend your argument or position. We will look at it together and we will convince the importer or his representative on why our argument is superior. The tariff is there and the explanatory notes are there.
Definitely, we resolved more than 95 per cent of the disputes here within and those who feel like they don’t believe in our argument have the right to escalate upstairs or to headquarters. Most of those that even went higher are coming back to agree in our own favour. If you do not allow people to ventilate their arguments, they will think you are forcing your position on them. You know with the way things are, it’s not like the rule of the thumb that I say as a Customs officer, you must do this, so you must do it.
You can disagree with me, if there is dispute or something you carry on with other processes while the dispute is being treated. At the end of the resolution of the dispute, if it is in the favour of the importer, fine. If he has his day but if it is against him, then he pays to government to the last kobo.
Tell us about your anti-smuggling operations
For anti-smuggling in the period under review, we seized 112 containers of various items but majority of the consignments we seized were drugs.
Drugs of various types, like 47 of them were drugs that were not registered by NAFDAC so they are not fit for human consumption in Nigeria but the importers went ahead and import them.
Definitely, we cannot close our eyes and allow them to go. So we seized them. Then we seized about 16 containers of tramadol, 18 containers of vegetable oil, 18 containers of tomato paste and we had one container of used tyres which they declared as used spare parts. We had some containers of rice, two containers of new empty bags of rice, 50kg type, it was printed with various brand names.
Local or foreign empty bags of rice?
No. It is supposed to be foreign since on the sacks, they put the manufactured date and the expiration date and made in Thailand another one made in Indonesia. So you see with that maybe their intention was they can use it for different purposes. they may decide to use foreign rice that they smuggled in and put them in those bags and sell. They can put foreign rice that is expired, they can as well use locally made rice as foreign to deceive Nigerians.
For us at Apapa, we don’t have issue with anybody. We work hand-in-hand with all government agencies and compliant private sector players.
NAFDAC ,for instance, supported us in making some of our drug seizures. Where they lacked capacity and they wanted us to assist them, we assisted them. So there is no problem as far as interagency cooperation and synergy are concerned.