THE story of the Nigerian Customs Service in recent time reminds me of a play by late Professor Ola Rotimi entitled, “Our husband has gone mad again”. Of more interest to me is the title of the play rather than the content which sums up the present situation and action of the Customs Service in recent time. The Nigerian Customs is on what I would describe as a spree (I won’t qualify that with madness as in mad spree) in view of its recent actions. The actions could be likened to what people in my part of the world says happens when a newly- turned mad person ventures into the market. The mental sickness heightens and a cure becomes harder to find. So there’s always an effort to prevent such from occurring. Indeed, the customs, seems to have ventured into the market. Like a horse, it has taken the bit in its teeth, it is no longer listening to the voice of reason.
Late last month, men of the service raided a market in Sango Ota in Ogun state carting away rice and other commodities worth billions of naira said to be contrabands. As if that was not enough, the action was undertaken in the middle of the night, with the operatives breaking into shops to perpetrate the action. There was no witness, traders only woke up the following morning to discover what had befallen them. The legality of the action could be argued, but nobody would argue that it has put a moral question on the actions of the operatives. What was the purpose of the raid? To prosecute the owners of the contrabands? On that note, they failed woefully. There was no witness to their actions. There was no way what they took away could be determined. It could also not be tied to any particular shop owner. Who also determines the quantity or worth of what was taken? I can bet that substantial part of the commodities ended with the operatives. The Customs’ action reminds me of the joke about an armed robbery attack on a bank.
After the act, one of the thieves wanted to know how much they took but a more senior and experienced one said they should hold on, instead of going through the tiring process of counting, adding that the media would announce what happened and in the process they would get to know what they got from their criminal exploit.
Unknown to the thieves, the accountant and the manager of the bank saw what happened as an opportunity to cover their tracks as they had also been putting hands in the till, leading to the loss of amount that was three times more than what the robbers took away. They added this to what was lost to the armed robbery attack and it was announced as the money taken by the armed robbers. You can imagine the consternation of the robbers when they heard the announcement. For days they counted and recounted their loot until realization came to them that they had also been had.
Of course, they couldn’t come out to put a lie to the bank’s declaration. It is the same with the midnight raid. It is what the customs’ operatives declare. Nobody was there when it happened and the shop owners would not come out to say they had so much contrabands in their stalls. The outrage that trailed the action made the senate to mandate its Committee on Customs, Tariff and Excise to further investigate the raid.
A few days later, the Oyo state command equally raided another warehouse in Ibadan, the state capital, also at midnight and carted away 9,000 bags of rice. As the Controller, Temitope Ogunkua gleefully announced, the action took place in a bid to stop illegal importation of goods. On Wednesday, along Abeokuta-Sagamu road, in the same Ogun state, some people were shot dead by Customs operatives because they were said to have rice in their vehicles, believed to have been smuggled. This was several kilometers from the border. There was a violent protest which took the combined efforts of police and men of the armed forces to quell.
As if that was not enough, on March 2, the Service came up with a circular directing vehicle owners to visit their zonal offices to pay duties on their vehicles, if they had not paid. A grace period of one month, from Monday, March 13 to April 12, was given for vehicle owners to comply. The surprising thing about the directives was that it was short on details. It did not spell out the vehicles affected in terms of year of purchase. It only stated that vehicles imported before 2016 fiscal period. So if I bought a car about 10 years ago, I have to pay duties? The categories of vehicles affected were also not stated. Are we talking about new vehicles purchased from car dealers or fairly used ones. It was the most asinine directive that had ever come out of a government agency. Apart from the fact that it was not well thought out, it also did not reflect deep thinking. The directive is a sure recipe for disaster.
Having bought a new vehicle from a dealer, how am I supposed to know that there was underpayment on customs duties? In the first place, the dealer would have factored in whatever amount he paid as duties to the cost of the vehicle which he sold out. So a vehicle owner arrested would now have to pay again. The directive also said vehicle owners should verify whether the correct amount was paid and if not, pay the difference in their zonal office. How possible would that be? Where and how would vehicle owners do that check? From the Customs or the dealer? And after how many years? So many unanswered questions.
So it was good that the Senate wadded into the matter and ordered the stoppage of the implementation of the directive. In a motion calling for the suspension of the order, Senator Bala Ibn Na’ Allah, Deputy Majority Leader noted, “We are all aware that the area of operation specifically designated for this service is principally our borders.
“And we are aware of the fact that in this situation, we are unable to find the specific provision of the law that the Comptroller of Customs relied upon to issue this circular. I think we have a compelling need to protect the Nigerian public against this arbitrariness.” Unfortunately, there’s no stopping the Customs. It had vowed to continue with the exercise in spite of the Senate’s order to suspend. The acting Public Relations Officer of Customs Joseph Attah who signed the circular said there was no going back. Rather, vehicles imported prior to the 2016 fiscal period would be granted 60 percent rebate. “The 60 per cent rebate is to create a soft landing for people who are in possession of these vehicles. Sixty per cent rebate on the value of such vehicles across board from 2015 downward simply means that, 60 per cent of the total value , which means calculation will always be based on 40 per cent”.
It is obvious that the Comptroller- General (CG) of Customs, Col Hamid Ali (rtd) does not believe the Senate has the power to compel a rescind of his directive. He equally believes he does not take orders from the Senate and would only listen to President Mohammadu Buhari who appointed him, against all known service regulations guiding appointment of Customs’ CG. Something must be urgently done to avert the impending crisis that the directive would generate. Col Ali and his men should be reined in before they create further disruption in the system. Four zonal offices have been listed as payment centers in Lagos, Portharcourt, Kaduna and Bauchi, even if people must pay, it would still be a tall order. That means a vehicle owner in the interior part of Oyo state has to make his way to Lagos to verify his status and pay, likewise in other centers, It does not make sense.