In this interview with SHIPS & PORTS DAILY’s Uju Ozoeze, Founder of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), Dr. Boniface Aniebonam, talked about the problems inherent in the new customs cargo clearance scheme, the Pre-Arrival Assessment Report (PAAR) and how the interim use of provisional release would help these problems. He also spoke about the pros and cons of the involvement of the Customs Intelligence and Federal Operations units in cargo clearance.
What do you think about the removal of the controversial Deputy Comptroller of Customs, Jane Shoboiki from the seat of Officer-in-Charge of Terminal B1 of the Tincan Island Port Complex?
I just think that this issue of Jane should not be a personalized matter. Her issue has to do with the system. The system that brought her there, the same system has removed her from there. The issue of allegation against her and her staff officer Egesi is already in the public domain. I do know that investigation is ongoing at the customs headquarters in that regards and so we leave it at that so that it does not become a personal issue.
When you say “not become a personal issue” is this in relation to Shoboiki’s invasion of NAGAFF Headquarters during which she allegedly threatened to kill you?
For us in NAGAFF and me in particular Jane is a sister. It’s unfortunate that she allowed herself to be deceived by some people and then acted ultra viral to the extent of infringing on the rights of Nigerians to invade the Headquarter of NAGAFF with armed soldiers, which was on 1st August 2012. Anyway we still pray for her. For God to help her so she can learn how to live with people.
There was a recent protest by clearing agents operating at Apapa port over the involvement of Customs Intelligence Unit (CIU) in cargo clearance, what is your take on this?
We must have limit to our agitations and we must have bounds to what we do. The Customs is a paramilitary organization just like Immigration and of course military organizations like the Army and Police have their own intelligence unit. So Customs have CIU as their own intelligence outfit! We should have limit to what we do and what we seek to do. The point herein is that the Comptroller General (CG) of Customs is the number one in the Customs Service, every territory within Customs area belongs to him and he can come into that place at any time. I want to believe that one of the things he probably found out to do with the issue of CIU been seen and felt within the port operations. You are aware that some of them (CIU officers) were invited at Ikeja when he (the CG) came and thereafter he dissolved them completely by way of ordering them to leave the ports and operate from the zonal office. In other words, what he has tried to do is to go into professional standards of practice where the Intelligence Unit of the Customs will go to the examination bay, observe examination, take information they need, go back to their office, put their write-up and inform the Area Controller in that regard if there is any need to do so. So for us to begin to agitate that they should not participate in examination, that is asking for too much and we are crossing our bounds. I believe that NAGAFF should not be part of that.
What about the involvement of the Federal Operations Unit (FOU)?
I have said this severally. A lot of people have limited knowledge. There is nothing we do that is not attached to the law. The Customs and Excise Management Act have given FOU, or the Customs as a whole, free access to enter premises and power to stop and search vehicles within the Nigerian territorial boundary. I think what the freight forwarders might be talking about is the abuse in that regards. FOU is a sting operation of the Nigeria Customs Service. A strike force based on intelligence information, reasonable suspicion. And therefore they can only patrol to hit a place and go back not to mount a checkpoint. And for me to solve this problem is very simple. The earlier freight forwarders and their importers become compliant to import regulation the better for all of us. And that will actually send FOU out of the system completely. I think also that Customs have devised another means of handling some of these issues. Some of these containers they picked that are in conflict or in default; most of the customs officers bear the brunt now. In fact some of them, at FOU now, once anomalies are found that has to do with revenue that officer is going to pay that money. It is internally what is going on now. That is another way of trying to deter officers who connive with freight forwarders to cheat the same government they swore to uphold and respect.
There have been numerous complaints about the workability of the new cargo clearance scheme of Pre-Arrival Assessment Report (PAAR)…
It just takes a right thinking person, somebody who is patriotic to understand that this is a transitional period of the Pre-Arrival Assessment notice. The teething problem is there and that we must contend with. We cannot get everything at a time. If you look at January till now, the fact that Customs has taken over of Destination Inspection this country is richer by over ten point something billion naira which could have been given to the service providers. And at the end of the day we will be looking at forty billion naira. Trade is about compliance and the Pre-Arrival Assessment notice as the name says clearly the expectations are quite obvious that the customs and other bodies that has to do with this procedure must receive information. But what we get now is that goods are already on ground before we submit documents for pre-Arrival Assessment notice documents. Aside from that we are not compliant. The declaration we make for customs purpose are not genuine. They lack in integrity. Even with the RAR if what you have in the RAR does not tally with what you have in the container it doesn’t make sense. The way I look at the entire system is that whether it is RAR or PAAR it does not add value to foreign trade in Nigeria as far as I am concerned because destination inspection or customs examination is characterized by self declaration. When you make self declaration the automation is just to enhance the trade. When you talk of trade facilitation what does it entail? It is about simplification of procedures and commitment to making genuine declaration for custom purpose. So if we want to move goods within 4s hours out of the port control, it is very easy. By the time the Customs evoke Section27 and 28 of CEMA dealing with improper importation and documentation which everybody knows as provisional release, 48 hours the goods are out the ports! Because when you make formal application for an approval they endorse that but you have now made an entry through the Direct Traders Input or the trader zone Customs picks it up and you go straight to examination and thereafter they compute the duty and if there are discrepancies off you go! But here we are, whether it is PAAR or RAR, because we want to create food for the boys we are talking about issues on PAAR. I have advised Customs that the provisional releases should run side by side at this moment of this transition without creating bottlenecks in the port system.
Are you saying that it was unwise for Customs to have stopped the issuance of provisional release?
They acted somehow spontaneously because of the various abuse inherent in that provisional release because some people were recycling such documents. And sometimes when the RAR has actually been issued some people who receive the RAR may look at it as been higher and then they go through the other channel. That is infringement of trade but I think those infringements is not enough for us to stop. At least between now and June we should be able to harmonize all these for the system.