Between Okonjo-Iweala and Dikko

The wide disparity in the conflicting figures reeled out by the Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy, Dr. (Mrs.) Ngozi-Okonjo-Iweala and the Comptroller-General of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Dikko Abdullahi, has not only become a subject of intense public debate but has further exposed the unhealthy rivalry and power play among top government functionaries in the country.

The situation raises serious concerns because the Nigeria Customs Service is a paramilitary organisation under the direct supervision of the Ministry of Finance while Okonjo-Iweala, in her capacity as Finance Minister, is the Chairman of the NCS Board.

Nigerians are concerned that the NCS and Ministry of Finance figures were not harmonised before they were made public.

The questions that beg for immediate answers at this point border on the integrity of both the Minister and the Customs Comptroller-General.

Could the country’s Minister of Finance – the most senior and probably the most respected Minister in the Goodluck Jonathan cabinet – have misled the nation by stating that the total amount lost to import duty waivers over the past three years was N171 billion? Or is the Customs Comptroller-General trying to undermine the authority of the Finance Minister – and possibly discredit her – by deliberately announcing to a gullible public that the nation lost N1.4 trillion to waivers in the same three year period?

Could there have been a foul play somewhere? Did the Ministry of Finance, which has the powers to grant waivers and concessions as it deems fit and in line with laid down guidelines – approve waivers worth only N171 billion over the three year period only for such approvals to end up being recycled as was the case when Coscharis Group allegedly used the waivers granted it to supply vehicles to the Lagos State government for the National Sports Festival to import bullet-proof cars for the aviation ministry?

Is there an existing mechanism between the Federal Ministry of Finance and the Nigeria Customs Service to monitor the utilisation of approved waivers? Does the NCS possess enough capability to validate the waivers granted by the finance ministry?

Both the Minister of Finance and the Customs Comptroller General must put their differences aside and answer these questions in order to rekindle the trust and confidence of Nigerians in this government. President Goodluck Jonathan must query the duo over the public odium to which they have subjected his government and request immediate explanation which must be made public.

Due to the enormity of the amount involved, the President will also do well to institute a formal probe into the matter and make public the outcome of such probe.

What has become immediately clear in all these, however, is the serial abuse import duty waivers have been subjected to.

Politicians, businessmen and religious leaders have continued to collude to undermine the nation’s economy through the issuance of fraudulent waivers.

Duty is a tax levied on imports by the customs authorities to generate revenue and to protect domestic industries from more efficient or predatory competitors from abroad. Such duty is charged generally on the value of goods or upon the weight, dimensions or some other criteria of the item. Waiving such duties to well-connected businessmen and political loyalists automatically leads to loss of billions of naira in revenue; money that could have accrued to the public coffers and used for the common good.

Indiscriminate granting of import duty waivers is not only a drain on the nation’s resources; it is undermining local manufacturing and concentrating the commonwealth in the hands of a privileged few.

The President will do well to immediately suspend the issuance of waivers until such a time when the integrity of the process can be guaranteed.

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