Customs Strike Force and uneasy calm at the ports

Customs to commerce electronic cargo tracking in 2019- Ali
Comptroller-General of the Nigerian Customs Service, Hameed Ali. PHOTO CREDIT:

Customs Comptroller-General, Hameed Ali, has again stirred the hornet’s nest at the ports with the latest directive to his Strike Force to re-examine goods inside the port and make seizures where necessary. This directive is coming against the background of a groundswell of opposition that has trailed the deployment of the strike force to the ports. If the deployment of the strike force is seen as an aberration and an unnecessary addition to the multiple customs units at the ports, the recent directive arming the unit with overwhelming power to seize and detain cargoes at any stage in the clearance process, appears to be a bitter pill to swallow for the stakeholders.

The Nigeria Customs Service had a few weeks ago in a circular dated April 25, 2019 given the strike force absolute power over and above other customs units at the ports. The circular titled, “100% Examination of Cargo At The Seaports” was signed by the Deputy Comptroller-General in charge of Examination, Inspection and Investigation, DCG Augustine Chidi. In what appears to be a vote of no confidence on its resident officers, the circular directed all Customs Area Controllers to respond accordingly to the Strike Force’s intervention alerts or be held responsible for non-compliance.

The circular explained that the development was as a result of the inability of the officers assigned to do 100 percent examination at the seaports to carry out the assignment diligently.

“It has been observed that 100 percent examinations of cargo at the ports are not done properly by the officers assigned to do so. Consequently, the following instructions must be carried out with immediate effect and Area Controllers will personally be held responsible for non-compliance.

“Henceforth, every Area Controller must respond accordingly to Strike Force Intervention Alerts. The Strike Force team has been authorized henceforth to intervene right in the port and possibly make seizures where necessary without hindrance. Non-compliance to this circular would attract severe sanctions,” the circular stated.

Justifying the deployment of the Strike Force to the ports and the overwhelming power given to it, Customs spokesman, Joseph Attah, a deputy comptroller, said the new directive was designed to achieve a tidier process aimed at curbing the incidences of releasing non-compliant imports. Attah, who reacted to some media reports and comments on social media, said rather than read funny meanings into the directive, importers and their agents should applaud the development, which is designed to achieve better and faster services. Attah urged port users and the business community to demonstrate greater support to customs collection of government revenue and anti-smuggling fight.

Explaining further, the Customs PRO said the intervention of the strike force is being given exaggerated meaning to include sweeping powers that erode Area Controllers powers.

“The circular only reaffirms the power of the team to intervene only on suspected containers and not all, and certainly not the day-to-day running of any command which is the prerogative of the Customs Area Controllers. It’s only fair not to exaggerate on legitimate strategic step being taken by NCS management to ensure compliance and protect national economy and security,” he stated.

But despite all the explanations and justifications, stakeholders are not impressed. Neither are they moved to change their views or soft pedal on their opposition to the presence and operation of the strike force in the ports.

Condemning the deployment of the task force to the ports in its totality, the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) said the action would slow down the cargo clearing process, and would be harmful to investment. Director-General of the Chamber, Muda Yusuf, maintained that the move would undermine the Ease of Doing Business Policy of the federal government, and negate the Presidential Executive Order on streamlining of ports processes. He said the directive confers vast discretionary powers on the Strike Force, thereby making the cargo clearing process vulnerable to arbitrariness and coercion, which could undermine the integrity and credibility of the process.

“It is a duplication of functions of the Customs resident officers at the ports which have statutory responsibilities to examine and release cargoes to importers. This move will slow down the cargo clearing process as it amounts to creation of another layer of authority to intercept and seize cargoes that have been duly released by all agencies involved in the examination of the cargoes.”

The LCCI DG said the deployment of the strike force to the ports suggested distrust in resident Customs officers deployed to various commands by the Comptroller-General.

“The appropriate thing to do in the circumstance is for the CG to replace these officers with trusted ones rather than superimpose another set of customs operatives on the system. This new deployment will make the entire process chaotic, cumbersome, costly and inefficient,” he added.

He regretted that delays in cargo clearing process often resulted in high and avoidable demurrage to importers, high interest costs on funds used for import transactions and disruption of business processes including manufacturing activities. He called for urgent reversal of the deployment of the Strike Force to the ports in the interest of ease of doing business.

The National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), in its reaction said the Strike Force Unit should not have anything to do with cargo clearance at the port if the automated system Customs claimed to have put in place is working. The President of the association, Increase Uche, said recourse to the “Strike Force” is an indication of a system failure. He observed that rather than lay emphasis on acquiring scanners, customs is more concerned about conducting 100 percent physical examination because they are benefitting from the system.

His words, “This is a clear indication that there is apparent system failure in the cargo clearance system. Strike Force intervention is manual so if at all the automated system is fully working, the system is enough to detect any fraud what so ever. Since they migrated from ASYCUDA ++ to NICIS 1 and 2, there has not been any value addition; they have not really upgraded the system as to ensure that the tool for risk management is created in a way that all this non-compliance will be checked.

Uche added, “It does not speak well of the country when other smaller countries including Ghana and Togo are moving forward in cargo clearance, we are still at the same spot. As we speak, no single scanner is functioning at the port and they care less about it because Customs prefers manipulating the system.

“The introduction of strike force to the port is not healthy at all because we still have the patrol units on the roads, so why the duplication? The duplication is killing business, yet they are bringing in more stringent measures that will continue to make people cut corners. When the process is simple, people will not go into vices such as cutting corners but when you make draconian laws, compliance will be very difficult. Customs is the problem of cargo clearance process so they should overhaul themselves.”

Regretting the absence of scanners at the ports, the Director-General of LCCI, Yusuf expressed concern that for the past two years, the scanners at the Lagos Ports Complex have not worked.  This, he said, has led to dependence on physical examination which is laborious, arduous and time wasting.

He noted that the Lagos Ports are the largest ports in the country, handling over 1.5 million twenty-foot containers equivalent (TEUs) annually, observing that this underscores the enormity of the consequences of physical examination of containers for the efficiency of cargo clearing. “It is incredibly detrimental to the cargo release process and the economy.  It is imperative for the federal government to expedite actions on the procurement of scanners for the ports in order to put an end to the physical examination of cargo and make the system technology driven.”

The LCCI called for the reversal of the deployment of the Strike Force to the ports, advising that where the Customs Comptroller-General does not trust the resident officers, he should replace them with trusted ones rather than creating overlapping responsibilities and authorities which would further muddle an already arduous cargo clearing process.

Adopting a middle of the road approach, Customs clearing agents in their reaction petitioned the Customs Comptroller-General. The National President of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), Tony Iju Nwabunike, said his association had written to the Customs CG protesting the directive, and requesting to have a meeting with the management of the Customs as soon as possible.

“My reaction is quite different from others. I have chosen not to be confrontational on issues like this because I consider the issue to be sensitive. When issues are sensitive, you do not go with a fight to resolve the problem. You have to sit down with the Customs to resolve the issue. I have written a letter to the Comptroller General of Customs and what I told him is that we want an audience with them to know exactly what has prompted this action and we will look at the pros and cons and see if there will be an amendment to the directive because the truth of the matter is that we need to work together so that the directive will work.”

But the association’s National Publicity Secretary, Adumaza Joe Sanni, urged Customs management to adopt a sustainable deterrence approach to the matter through stakeholders’ engagement and genuine sanctions. He said Customs must begin to sanction its defaulting officers for lapses to deter others, reward honest and diligent service, as well as discipline erring importers and agents.

The latest deployment of a strike force to the port to do exactly what the Federal Operations Unit does outside the port is viewed by majority of stakeholders as an unnecessary duplication and an act of impunity. They cannot see the need for another customs outfit in the port, which is already saturated with multiple customs units. These units include: Comptroller General’s Task Force, Federal Operations Unit (FOU), Customs Intelligent Unit, Comptroller General’s Monitoring Team, Enforcement Unit, the CAC squad, and now the Customs Strike Force.