Assistant Comptroller General of Customs, Charles Edike on assumption of duty as the Coordinator, Zone A of Nigeria Customs Service embarked on a number of tours of the various commands in the zone to commend the officers for their dedication to duty and also task them on the need to brace up for greater work demands ahead. Some of the commands under him, which he visited included Apapa, Tin Can, Ijora, Seme, Ogun, Oyo/Osun and Ikorodu.
In this interview with SHIPS & PORTS DAILY’s Shulammite ‘Foyeku and other select journalists, Edike speaks on the effort of the zone to boost Customs revenue in the face of drop in import volumes.
What strategies have you put in place to boost revenue collection in spite of the low-level of imports in the country?
For low-level of imports, there is nothing Customs can do about that. We don’t import, we can only collect duty on imports made. Throughout the tour, I told officers that every problem has a solution, that if last year we had the challenge, initially, after clearing the remnant of the previous year in January, February, we will wait until import start. But by March there was no budget so agents were just watching government direction before they work. As we were doing that, the election fever came up and from there, exchange issue went up, then, the 41 items out of foreign exchange participation came up. That compounded the challenge, but then, I said to them that if we had the challenge last year, by now we should have found solutions. I told them that even apes, when confronted with problems, think, and get answers. Even birds, some of them that would bring twigs poked into dead woods and bring out scrubs. So, if birds can think to do that and if apes can make tools to use, if ants will know this is water and build bridge for them to pass, then, we as human beings should think of solutions to problems.
Part of the way round first of all, is that we need to be a lot more disciplined than last year. Items that we thought were of no significance last year, thinking the money is not big and ignore it, cannot be so again, because every kobo must be brought into records. If you remove one kobo from one billion, it is no longer one billion. Also, if A brings in one kobo, B brings in one kobo; C brings in another one kobo, adding all of that would have gone a long way. Therefore, no Demand Note (DN) is too small, no duty is too small. I told them that those in bonds should go into their records, all those bonds they had not discharged, bring them out and let the people pay. Go into the system, probe the system, even up to three, four, five years back, if there is anything hanging, bring them in, let them pay. Look inwards, was there any area before that was neglected? Go into the areas, bring them out and bring them to record. At the Airport, I told them not to ignore certain items that have very small weight, but have values far bigger than some bulky. I told them that every Airway Bill must be accounted for, that every Bill of Lading must be accounted for. Once we begin to do that with discipline, dedication, certainly, we will be able to collect more revenue like in times of abundance. Above all, discipline, self-sacrifice, collective sacrifice is what we are looking to do the magic for us, particularly dedication and love for Nigeria. We also told them if they don’t sit up, government may be forced to look for other alternatives and that will not be pleasant for us.
Has the tour of the various commands in any way impacted on the performance of officers and how ready are they to handle work demand this year?
We have toured the commands under the zone twice now, and it was basically to express appreciation to the officers and to ask them to do more, because when you thank somebody that is doing well, there is a very strong possibility that the person will do more. When you don’t appreciate a child, he will just remain where he is.
Even after the tour, I still kept tab on Apapa and Tin Can, and up till the last working day of December 2015, I was still pushing Apapa and Tin Can because every additional kobo will certainly make entry into Federal Government revenue. It is only fair and proper for us to once again go back and appreciate them and urge them to do much more this year, after the push in December. Considering the dwindling oil revenue every day, public view have shown that when Mr. President makes comment on revenue, his attention is on Customs revenue and we cannot but work hard, so that we don’t disappoint him, so we don’t disappoint the CGC, and even Nigerians.
Like I told officers on the field, when there is war in any country, the country looks up to the soldiers for defence, so, now, Nigeria needs money, Nigeria cannot but look up to Customs and we cannot fail the country. That is why I ask the commands to recite the first two lines of the National Anthem ‘Arise o compatriot, Nigeria’s call obey’. I told them, ‘look, Nigeria is calling on us now, will we fail Nigeria? Will we answer Nigeria’s call? Will we stand in the gap for Nigeria? That was basically the crux of the tour and also to see what challenges they are facing in terms of equipment or other challenges that could hinder their work.
In all the places, officers were very ready to put in their best because of the encouragement they received. You will recall that twice now, Western Marine had made seizures; 350 frozen poultry products, the 4,500 kg of marijuana. And of course, the controller testified that our visit was a big motivation to them. Also at Tin Can Island Command, the arms and ammunition that were seized. In all the Commands we visited, we draw their attention to national revenue and to national security; that without national security there is no way we can get national revenue because even only one gun with one bullet can cause havoc in the country, can destroy a family and can destroy a community, a state.
I also told them not to wait until they see a container-load of arms. Of course, see the response from Tin Can Island Command. At Seme and Idi-Iroko borders, all loose ends have been tightened, and there is no way for smugglers to pass. That is why the smugglers are exploring the river ways where our operatives are also ready to combat them. We saw how the readiness of the officers of the Western Marine Command made it possible that the marijuana smugglers were caught, otherwise, they would not have wanted to go through the pains of navigating through the waters. They would have wanted to go through the land borders. All of these are expressions of the readiness of the officers to do their work.
Recently, if you heard the Comptroller-General of Customs at the budget defence broadcast, the CGC was talking of motivation for officers in terms of salary increase. He canvassed that with increase in customs allocation, officers will have increase in salaries, which means better performance. When officers heard it, they jubilated that somebody is taking interest in their well being and their welfare. In that regard, officers were highly motivated and promised even better performance. At the Oyo/Osun area, we visited Ibadan, Igbeti, to Saki and Iseyin. Those are hot spots, hot beds for smuggling. We spoke to our officers that they should not wait to see a trailer-load of arms and ammunition before they make arrest. In the past, there had been seizures of arms and ammunition in that axis. They are not big revenue generating station, they are basically enforcement stations. We drummed it into their ears and hammered on the need to partner, collaborate with government agencies like the Police, Immigration, Department of State Security, National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps and in those three stations, I noticed and I confirmed a good synergy, a fine working relationship, cooperation among these government agencies. To me, it is a thought of note that Customs alone cannot get all the intelligence they need to their work; intelligence from each of those government agencies will be an asset for enforcement duties. We didn’t just talk with the government agencies only, but spoke with the host community on the relationship that helps to enable us do our work well.
We visited the Obas and requested their support. At Iseyin, I was told of how the villagers got up to defend the Customs when some armed smugglers were coming to burn down the Customs station. That could not have been possible if there was no good working relationship between Customs and the host communities. For that reason, we went to appreciate them. In all, one sees a better, stronger, much more prepared and disciplined officers to face the challenges of this year and able to meet the expectations of Mr. President, the CGC and Nigerians generally.
What is Customs doing about the state of the scanners, most of which have been grounded and the constant server failure at the port?
On scanners, the service providers particularly in Apapa, handed over dead scanners because before they left, the scanners were due for service but nothing happened. By the time they were handed over to Customs, we had a challenge because of the three levels of maintenance we can only do two levels, while one must be done by the manufacturer. The manufacturers on their part, said they don’t know us, that it is the service providers they had agreement with. The service providers were not forthcoming, so there was that challenge. At a time, we brought some foreign experts to come and work on the fixed scanners, and they came, but after two weeks the thing collapsed again. Along the line, our officers worked on them and they started working. I must add that the CGC is working very hard on issue of the scanners and listening to people, organisations to solve the problem once and for all because once the scanners are working, it goes a long way to better the time and cost of doing business in the port when you are able to scan about 500 containers in 24 hours. At a time in Apapa, we had day and night shifts when the scanners were all working; the fixed and mobile scanners then. So, at times, day and night, we could do between 450 to 500 containers daily. We will definitely get back to that point when the mobile scanners are all fixed. On the issue of server, we also depend on the giants of telecommunication in Nigeria. We link up to them, so, if they fall, we fall, and when they are functional, we also are. It is just like when people experience difficulty in making calls because of network fluctuation. But by and large, the service is doing its best to be able to assuage some of those problems associated with network fluctuation. You will recall that before 2014, it was far worse than now, until in Apapa, we installed a 160-metre communication tower, which made things improve significantly.
There have been several complaints from agents about valuation unit at various commands issuing different value on the same items. Why is this so?
The issue of valuation is very controversial that people will always cry. In the first instance, nobody wants to pay duty, even the high and the mighty. Nobody wants to part with that. But because we are there, we must make people pay what they are supposed to pay. Somebody can travel, buy a pen for N10 and he comes and tells me it is bought for N10, and then, he thinks that is it. But, I will also ask him where he bought the pen and he tells me. For instance, if he bought the consignment in Michigan Flint, there is no port there. So, you will have to package the consignment and transport it from Flint to Houston, where there is a port. The cost of transporting that consignment from Flint to Houston is usually silent. He will argue that that is not the price. At Flint, they must also give him discount; there are discounts that are allowed and those not allowed. He adds all of that and by the time the valuation officer looks at it and say this man has not added these and he computes it and adds the costs. I have vast experience in valuation spanning nine years. I was officer in charge of valuation at two commands. People have often argued that they were made to pay higher duty on the same product they imported and sent to different ports, not considering the fact that the products may be different models that have different values, so will attract different duty.
For instance, there are many specifications of Wrangler Jeep, but the public just knows the car Wrangler. Meanwhile, this product may not be identical, though similar. The same applies to different cars and other products that have different specifications and attract different values. The same happens to containerised items, but people should know that value is not given by container. Value is given in terms of the unit price of items in a container, like different brands of television attracting different prices, therefore, different duties.
Some importers even ignore insurance, which should be added. So, by the time the officer looks at all of these and gives his duty, the importer begins to shout that it is not what he bought. But all the calculations must be made to arrive at the value for Customs; it says ‘value for Customs.’
The World Customs Organisation updates the tariffs every four years, so items today that are classified in this chapter may not be there again after the review, but the different countries have their own rates. For issue of value, it is cost, insurance and freight time rate of duty. So, the valuation officer checks classification and then, looks at the value for correction.
Of course, the individual position can come either in terms of classification or value. The tariff is interpretative, but there are six rules governing classification of tariff. Even among us, we argue when we classify items and it is very healthy argument. Officers can have different opinions and importers too may have different opinions, but it is for either of them to understand a superior argument and accept. There is trade dispute, which is acceptable. In trade disputes, the importer can bring in a bank bond to capture the amount in dispute. Where he is not satisfied he goes to the headquarters or goes to the Finance Minister, or even go to Brussels if he is still not satisfied. There are different stages in which someone can make arguments or defend his position. Also for value, if the valuation officer gives a value and you have enough documentary evidence to show that what you imputed is correct, of course, he will let you go.
What effort has the Nigeria Customs Service put in place to boost operations at the marine commands?
We have two vessels at Marina; one for Western Marine and the other for Eastern Marine. Sometime last year, another vessel strayed and collided with the vessels where they were anchored. They are currently being repaired and once they are done the CGC will commission them. And once that is done, they will be put to use for operations. Arising from the seizures by the Western Marine Command, it is very clear that the Service will support them more in terms of training and equipment. They have done well and certainly, the service will respond because the training will increase and strengthen their capacity. I have also told the CAC what to do to enhance their work.
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