Curbing the abuse of fast track scheme

CG Customs Hameed Ali

In what appears to be a bold step towards facilitating trade and reducing delays associated with import documentation, the federal government through the Nigeria Customs Service introduced the Fast Track Scheme.

The scheme was designed in conjunction with the Manufacturers Association of Nigerian (MAN) and importers are placed on fast track based on their compliance record with MAN as well as companies that import more than 20 containers per month.

The scheme simplifies inspection of imports as it allows Customs officers to inspect the goods at the owner’s warehouse outside the port thereby eliminating cost of demurrage for importers.

However, over time, there has been constant abuse of the scheme by some unscrupulous importers and multinationals that have been using it as a cover to import contraband items and give false declaration of imports.

Recently, officers of the Apapa command uncovered 16 containers of tyres falsely declared as paperboard and machine parts by one of the beneficiaries of the scheme.

The Comptroller General of Customs, Hameed Ali, had stated that the Federal Government would have lost N116.284million in tariff if the discovery were not made.

He said the imported tyres would have attracted a duty rate of 35 percent and an additional levy of 35 percent totalling 70 percent while the paperboard and machine parts attract a paltry rate of 5 percent duty.

Ali had then threatened to stop the fast track scheme over the brazen breach of trust by importers but barely a month to this threat, Nigerite Nigeria Plc, a leading manufacturer of roofing sheets allegedly brought into the country, substances confirmed by the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) as cocaine.

The items were discovered in eight bags (25 pieces per bag) found in 1 x 20ft container No.CMAU 045195/0 and weighing 214.732kg worth N2billion. According to the Area Controller of the Tin Can Island Port Area Command, Comptroller Yusuf Bashar, the level of seizure is unprecedented given the volume of the substance.

Speaking on the development in a chat with SHIPS & PORTS DAILY, a frontline Customs broker, Pius Ujubonu said rather than scrap the fast track scheme, Customs should step up its intelligence system and modus operandi of the scheme.

“The reason why the fast track was conceived was to give unfettered delivery access of raw materials to manufacturing companies and certain other important commodities to compliant importers.

“Customs did not envisage that the fast track would be tampered with and that is the reason why the fast track scheme allows the containers to be moved to the owner’s warehouse where it will be examined. It did not mean the consignment would not be inspected.

“If a particular company or importer is found not to have integrity, they are supposed to prosecute such importers. Anybody that abuses the scheme should be withdrawn from the scheme but that does not defeat the fact that there are no certain genuine importers.

“Having to say that because there are abuses and then the scheme should be scrapped, is policy somersault. Punishing somebody for another person is wrong. Those who have abused it, should be withdrawn from the scheme and if need be they should be subjected to prosecution. The policy is a laudable one that should be sustained but there should be checks,” he said.

But no less guilty are the Customs officers who have been accused of colluding with unscrupulous importers to bring in contraband or look the other way even when they have foreknowledge that the consignments have been falsely declared.

“If an officer is not doing his job and it is discovered that over time that the officers don’t put strict monitoring device on ground, some of the importers may be tempted to try to bring in contraband and once it goes, he might want to try it again,” Ujubonu said.

On his part, Founder, National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), Dr. Boniface Aniebonam said a major challenge confronting the scheme is lack of integrity.

Aniebonam said there is need for the Customs to review the procedures of the scheme noting that at a time the country is fighting corruption, there should be sanctions for erring importers.

SHIPS & PORTS DAILY gathered that the fast track system has been configured in such a way that a defaulting importer can only be downgraded or removed from the scheme after abusing or defaulting three times.

This means that an importer who enjoys the fast track benefit and makes false declaration can be issued with demand notice from Customs to pay additional duty depending on how often he commits the offense.

To curb the abuse of fast track, the conditions and rules of granting an importer the fast track facility should be strictly adhered to by Customs officers. The conditions are also due for reviewed. Having a company on fast track commit an offense of false declaration or importing contraband three times before appropriate sanction is meted is not good for the system. Rather, it will promote sharp practices.

Nigerite Plc must face the full weight of the law if after investigation, it is found culpable with regards to the alleged cocaine importation. The issue of abuse of the fast track scheme should also go beyond mere verbal threats by the Customs Comptroller-General. The Customs boss must take a major step forward by ensuring the prompt prosecution of importers, agents and their collaborators in the NCS who collude to defraud government and sabotage the nation’s cargo clearing system.


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