• Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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BusinessDay

ANOTHER ROUND OF REFORM: Nigeria Customs Service face fresh scrutiny

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CLIFF ALOZIE-ERONDU

Federal Government’s quest to reform the Nigeria Customs Service has commenced earnestly amidst the organisation’s dwindling revenue collection in the last five years. The reform is part of government’s efforts to reposition the country to meet the country’s vision to be one of the top 20 world economies in 2020. Reforming customs, maritime operators say, has become necessary to reduce revenue leakages through the ports and border stations and to ensure that the organisation conforms to the international best practices.
Customs is the body charged with the responsibility to collect excise duties on goods, facilitate and generate trade statistics for planning purposes, as well as the main co-ordinator of anti-smuggling operations at the sea ports, airports and border stations. They are to ensure security of international trade supply chain and combats international crime in conjunction with other members of the World Customs Organisation (WCO).
However, because of the poor performance of the organisation in the revenue collection, the Federal Government has set up a Presidential Taskforce on Customs Reform, in April 16, 2009 comprising of the former comptroller general of Customs, Bello Haliru Mohammed, Ahmed Aliyu Mustafa and Dehinde Banjo, with a mandated to re-organise and transform the service into a modern institution capable of enhancing revenue generation, facilitating trade, and curbing smuggling, as well as checking the importation of illegal arms.. They are also to address the issue of recruitment, promotion, discipline, retirement and dismissal of officers, welfare, as well as accommodation, among others. But the problem which may be difficult to address is genuineness of government to carryout the reform when the committee finally comes out with recommendations that are expected to move the industry forward. For instance, some customs officers who were involved in the last recruitment exercise carryout by the organisation expressed dissatisfaction with the Federal Government interference in the Service, stressing that a situation where the President, National Assembly members, Governors and Ministers have there own candidate, makes it very hard for them to conduct a free and fair exercise. The stakeholders also expressed doubt on the willingness for the Federal Government to make the Nigeria Customs Service, autonomous peradventure the Presidential taskforce comes up with such recommendation.
For the Minister of Finance, Mansur Mukhtar, the purpose of the restructuring is to overhaul the Nigeria Customs Service for more efficiency and effectiveness. His administration he said is committed to making the customs play its statutory role in a more efficient manner, which is consistent with the country’s changing objectives and global demands, as well as make the necessary reforms of the NCS that previous administrations have failed to do..

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The minister regretted that last year the Nigeria Customs Service realised the sum of N230 billion, which was below its given target, expressing fears that the record of last year may be repeated as the organisation was only able to collect N89.695 billion for the period of January to March, which was against government set target of N166.67 billion for the period.

Mukhtar pointed out that a decline of nearly 50 percent from the expected revenue was not acceptable to government and ordered for the immediate implementation of corrective measures to enhance revenue within the next few months without which there will be a drastic overhaul of the system. Henceforth he said all the area controllers will be held accountable for assigned targets, stressing that such responsibility is aimed at intensifying efforts towards reinvigorating all aspects of customs operations to meet up with challenges posed by the global economic crisis.
For some senior customs officers, reform is good but government ought to have appointed an independent agency that will give a transparent assessment and findings in the customs, stressing that it is not right to use officers or those who have served in the organisation in the past. From there reasoning, customs in the last 15 years have had one reform committee or the other, yet they have not moved the organisation forward, rather corruption is still thriving.
The chairman, board of trustee of the National Association of Government Approved Freight (NAGAFF), Boniface Aniebonam, in his opinion suggested that the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) which is one of the oldest government organisations established in 1891 and vested with powers and functions spelt out in the Customs and Excise Management Act (CEMA), 1958 and amended in Cap 84 of the Laws of the Federation, 1990, should be revisited to comply with international standard. He pointed out that one of the problems impeding sustainable customs administration in Nigeria is the structural defects in the legal framework establishing and regulating the Service. Aside from the CEMA, which is a replica of the British Customs Act of 1950s, he explained that there has not been any deliberate attempt to review the Act to make it reflect the dynamism of international trade and the realities of a sovereign Nigerian nation.
Aniebonam who is also a former customs officer, explained that various concepts, definitions, trade practices, procedures and sanctions in the 1958 customs law are no longer relevant to modern day trade realities anywhere in the world. Since emphasis is now on trade facilitation, trade liberalisation, economic integration and globalisation of markets, he said the 1958 law is obsolete to address the recent challenges in the international market. For him, certain sections of the law such as customs use of discretionary powers, the power of the minister of finance and comptroller-general, as well as various sanctions for the administrative breaches of trade laws need to be looked into.

The president of NAGAFF, Usman Sanusi, on his part, said the primary objectives of customs are to facilitate trade, revenue collection, curbing smuggling activities, ensuring national security, as well as provision of statistical data for budgeting and planning purposes. Other function he said is to ensure that Nigeria comply with international conventions, obligations and recommendation and to carryout research, planning and enforcement of fiscal policies of government. However, he regretted that corruption in the customs has resulted to inefficiency which brought about increase in the cost of business in the maritime industry including port congestion.
Sanusi therefore called on the National Assembly to ensure that proposed customs reform will bring efficient and effective service delivery, reduce increasing cost of business, improve transparency, staff welfare which will in turn motivate and boast moral of officers and men of the service, among others.
Speaking, the chairman, Technical Committee on Customs Reforms, Mohammed Bello, said the Federal Government set up the Presidential Task Force on the Nigeria Customs Service because of the rots in the organisation. He explained that customs is supposed to be the second revenue earner for the country, regretting that the organisation is not living up to its expectation. According to him, series of tasks forces put up in the past to carry out extensive reforms in the organisation failed to achieve any result, expressing confidence that the taskforce will do a thorough job this time to address burning issues as regards to the customs.
Bello who is also a former customs boss, pointed out that failure of the e-duty payment introduced by the organisation to improve revenue generation, is because the programme is done partly electronic and partly manual, which he said the taskforce would address in the reform programme. He maintained that that there are a lot of discrepancies in the electronic payment, which must be harmonised for government to reduce revenue leakages.
For the stakeholders, the Committee on Customs Reform should work towards developing and improving system procedures to accommodate changes required in complying with international and regional commitments, which will be in line with the revised Kyoto Convention and other World Customs Organisation instruments. They insist that customs should strengthen the management and leadership competence of the organisations service personnel, as well as analyse, design and implement effective organisational and administrative structures. Moreover, they called for implementation and improvement of communication and information technology system and infrastructure in the customs service.

Similarly, Aniebonam further said the Presidential Taskforce on Customs Reform, should recommend four percent Free On Board (FOB) value on total imports coming into the country as part of customs funding. The fund he said will help to solve the problem of welfare in the Service, which has been identified as one of the major causes of corruption in the organisation, saying that the only source of funding is the seven percent which they receive from government from their total revenue collection for the year.
Last year, customs collected the sum of N230 billion, while 16.1 billion was given to the organisation, which operators say was not enough to take care of the salary, infrastructure development, pensioners, among other needs in the service. They pointed out that poor remuneration brings about lack of job satisfaction in the Service, which is the hallmark of corruption. In the same vein, they advised that the newly constituted Presidential should re-visit the issues of welfare, rightsizing and downsizing, which has created a lot of acrimony in the customs.