Hameed Ali and the battle for more powers

By Foster Obi

In a bid to put together a new Customs and Excise Management Act (CEMA) that is all inclusive, the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) is currently holding stakeholders conference round the geopolitical zones of the country to make room for reasonable inputs that will form a more robust  law aimed at removing unnecessary bureaucracy and trade bottlenecks that impede  locomotion.
The seminar which took place at the Customs Training College Ikeja, Lagos was engaging. Although the hall of about 3,000 capacity was very scanty, yet representatives of various associations and companies made reasonable inputs.
The hall as usual was dominated by freight forwarding organisations with the Association of Nigeria Licensed Custom Agents (ANCLA) and National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders leading the pack.
Before this latest round of sensitization by the NCS on the CEMA review there had been clamour by stakeholders especially freightforwarding groups for the review of the act. Although many of them may not have read the law in full, they know the part that concerns them and are more particular about such portions which they consider obsolete and should be jettisoned without delay.
The administration of Goodluck Jonathan actually flagged off the CEMA amendment but could not complete the exercise before leaving office. The Comptroller General of Customs, Hameed Ibrahim Ali, acknowledges this in his opening remarks. “As you possibly know, this process of amending the CEMA was originally initiated under the last administration; however, after undergoing the legislative processes at the National Assembly, the end product did not get presidential assent until the end of that administration. The process therefore elapsed and we are back at the starting block once again.”
He also noted that “As the primary users of this law, we have subjected the draft document to another round of review, asking ourselves hard questions, learning from other climes and generally coming out with a draft that we believe will enhance the performance of the job.”
The Customs Comptroller did not however say whether the draft proposed amendment by the last regime formed part of the new draft put together by his team or if that previous effort irrespective of the merit was jettisoned for political reasons as were wont by past regimes after taking over the reins of government in what analysts refer to as “throwing away the baby with the bath water.”
At the risk of digressing, it is worth knowing that the initial draft to allow stakeholders make inputs has earlier been sent to them some weeks back before the round of seminars began.   Founder of National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), Dr. Boniface Aniebonam, earlier this month told the media that the group received the draft amendment to the CEMA as recently distributed to stakeholders for inputs by the Nigeria Customs.
He had argued that the CEMA which is the only solution to all issues relating to customs formalities and documentation need to be reviewed by the National Assembly.
“As long as we have not reviewed Customs law and repeal certain sections in that law, we are heading nowhere. There are sections of the customs law that we need to repeal. For instance, in our own part sections 153, 154, 155 and 156, the licensing regulations need to be repealed to give way for CRFFN to operate because there is conflict there especially when you look at section 19(a) and (b) of the CRFFN.
“The solution to all these matters is for the National Assembly to legislate on all of them and the customs law has been distributed for inputs to be made. We have collected our own copy band we will make representations. What I have just told you now; we are going to make representations on them”.
Aniebonam noted that his group would take a look at sections 4, 5, and 6 which had to do with the powers of the Board affirming that a critical look at the customs law would show that the Minister in consultation with the Comptroller-General of Customs would give direction to the Board which he argued to mean that there was no Board in the customs.
According to him, “the Comptroller-General of Customs has too many powers in moving officers at any level because the Finance Minister is a technocrat, she doesn’t even have time for all that even though she is the Chairman of the Board. So, we also have to look at the powers that have to do with the extent to which the customs can exercise discretion like the issue of exchange rate.
“If you look at section36 with regards to importation, you could see, people are crying that the new exchange rate is an anathema, it is too bad. It is not customs matter; customs does not handle monetary policy and all that.”
Participants at the seminar expected Aniebonam to come out smoking with NAGAFF paper on the draft amendment but the group was unprepared. Aniebonam said they are still working on it and would submit its decisions later. While all the groups that made representations declined that the Comptroller General of the Customs should not be the chairman of the Board but the Minister of Finance, Aniebonam differed with the reason that the Finance Ministry has not treated NCS well in the past. He canvassed a situation where the NCS be made a semi-autonomous body to allow for trade facilitation.
ANCLA Chairman, Olayiwola Shittu presentation was preambled with a covering letter and supported with a copy of the World Customs Organization’s (WCO) study on Customs brokers released in June 2016. He took other stakeholders on the expected symbiotic relationship between the Nigeria Customs Service and the Customs Licensed Agents, emphasizing the fact that Nigeria Customs ought to have leveraged on ANCLA to sanitize the Customs environment in the cargo clearing/delivery processes, and especially collect more revenue for the Federal Government of Nigeria.
He noted that in the process of this focus on ANLCA as the immediate, relevant private sector driven association, Nigeria Customs would have built the capacity of licensed Customs Agents/Brokers to be more proficient on to attaining international best practices.
He advocated that the chairman of the Board should be the Minister of Finance and not the CGC.  But he also asked for MAN and ANCLA or Nigeria Shippers Council to represent the Organised Private Sector. He called for blocking of licenses by Customs as way of settling debt to stop. Of all the freight forwarding associations, ANCLA was the only one ready with its articulated position on the draft review.
The manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) and the Lagos Chambers of Commerce and Industry  and the Nigeria Breweries PLC want the Finance Minister to be the chairman of the Board instead of the Customs Comptroller. MAN and NBL canvassed for the inclusion of MAN in the draft to be on the Board with another member of the Organised Private Sector. NBL wants the draft to specifically mention that MAN and any other member of the Organised Private Sector (OPS) should be on the Board, adding that term OPS should be left hanging or made generic for that purpose. MAN called for transparency following the rules of corporate governance. It also canvassed for more deterrent measures to check counterfeiting and touting explaining that penalties of N1.5m and N500, 000.00 respectively suggested by the draft should be increased if it must achieve the desired impact.
Justifying the inclusion on the Board argument, MAN said that the Association is important in the trade facilitation chain and a key contributor to the Nigerian economy. The group specifically noted that the Excise duty is majorly paid by manufacturers.
The LCCI wants a situation where those who are well versed with custom issues should be on the Board to enable the flywheel function properly. It proposed 4 year tenure for CGC on the Board and requires that top retired custom officials should form the fulcrum.
The Nigeria Maritime Administration and Safety Agency( NIMASA) represented by Momoh Ahassan, Chief Shipping Development Officer , requested that Customs manifest should be made easily accessible to NIMASA electronically especially midstream discharges and information and statistics on oil rig and platforms that belong to oil majors.
The NIMASA  representative said that presently export manifests takes about a month for NIMASA to access  from Customs and the more this information is delayed the more shippers are delayed which is antithetical to the much touted trade facilitation. NIMASA also wants  to be on the Board.
Turner Ogboru, a participant said that the CGC should not be the chairman of the board for the reason that there may be issues that affect him and so he should not be a judge in his own case. This line was also toed by many of the speakers.
There were other individual speakers but there was unanimity of opinion that the CGC should not be the Board Chairman.
But responding, the CGC acknowledged the views of participants, but faulted the argument that being the chairman of the board will make him a judge in his own case.  He told the participants that as the chairman the CGC cannot operate outside but will be guided by the law. “We cannot go outside the law so the issue of who really chairs the Board should not matter if the laws are followed,” he declared.” He noted that it was wrong for people to think that the CGC as the chairman of the Board would lord it on everybody.
He explained that why the NCS wants the CGC to be in charge of the Board is to get things done quickly so as to speedy trade. His position that if the Minister is in charge of the Board the civil service bureaucracy in getting decisions endorsed will slow down trade as was highlighted.
He told participants that what the NCs has presently on the CEMA review is simply a working document and that stakeholders has the opportunity to make input until it is passed into law by the national assembly. The following email addresses: cgc@customs.gov.ng and pro@customs.gov.ng   were provided by the Customs for stakeholders to make their inputs.
Chairman of the Review Committee, Paul Ikhenoba said the views canvassed by stakeholders were quite robust and would be properly harnessed for inclusion.  He said that all the submissions by the stakeholders are to improve the Customs and the committee will not disappoint stakeholders. He asked people to read the draft well and understand it before making inputs.
“The essence of the law is for a better Customs; that is why CEMA is necessary. It is a law that governs us and our trading partners,” he declared.
It must be recalled that the NCS is tasked with the function of collecting fees, duties and charges at the nation’s ports and borders. By this, the NCS is the second most important source of revenue to the federal government after the petroleum sector.
CEMA which is the current legal basis of the NCS is obsolete as it came into being since 1958 and has not been amended in spite of the World Customs Organisation’s Revised Kyoto Convention (RKC)-an international set of best practices with over 600 benchmarks for modern Customs. The law is considered out of date, lacking in improvements in Information Technology and even the recommended penalties out out of reality with modern times. This is why the review has become necessary.

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