Following cacophony of angry voices that trailed the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) policy on duty payments on old vehicles, the organisation was forced to suspend its implementation “in order to resolve issues with the Senate Committee on Customs”.
The Comptroller-General of Customs Hameed Ali had on March 2, 2017, issued a 30-day ultimatum to the owners of vehicles on which Customs duty have not been paid, to do so or face prosecution.
Ali had given private owners and motor dealers between Monday March 13 and Wednesday April 12,2017 to visit the nearest Customs Zonal Office to pay the appropriate Customs duty on their vehicles.
For many, the policy was not just unpopular and self-serving but dead on arrival. The babel of dissenting voices that ensued proved this. Less than a week after the policy was introduced, the Senate fired the first salvo by ordering Customs Comptroller-General to halt the directive until he has duly conferred with the lawmakers.
To show how unacceptable the policy was to the citizenry, the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) sent a strong-worded to the Customs Controller-General, condemning the policy, which it described as unrealistic, self-serving and designed to enrich some “unscrupulous personnel of the Service who contributed in no small measure to the present situation through acts of commission or omission”.
The position of NLC was that attempt by Customs to ask Nigerians to pay import duties on vehicles they bought several years before was callous and would create unimaginable chaos and suffering for innocent vehicle end-users.
Also a rights group, the Centre for Human Rights and Social Justice said the policy was “self-serving, barbaric, anti-masses, draconian, self-centered, satanic, illegal, ungodly, an anathema, an abomination, unconstitutional and undemocratic”.
The height of the condemnation was the gathering of some civil society organisations from different states in the South East in Onitsha, Anambra state, staging a protest demanding the Ali’s resignation as the Comptroller-General of the Nigeria Customs Service.
Since the introduction of the policy, the Customs boss has been in the eye of the storm, with the Senate requesting for his appearance at the national assembly in uniform. Ali had refused to wear uniform since his appointment; an attitude which many consider unhealthy and AN insubordination to the law of the country.
The Senate had walked Ali out of the red chamber, after he appeared before the lawmakers in mufti despite earlier directives to the contrary. Ali’s appearance without uniform, last Thursday after his failure to appear on Wednesday, was deemed contrary to the resolution of the Senate which requested that he must wear “appropriate” Customs uniform to brief them over the now suspended duty policy.
Beyond chasing him out of the chamber, following an adopted motion, the Senate further resolved that Ali should return on Wednesday in uniform after the lawmakers took turns to reprimand him.
It is rather messy for Ali to have boxed himself into the precarious and awkward position he is at present. His attempt to make life more difficult for Nigerians, who are battling with the harsh economic environment and low purchasing power, by implementing a retroactive policy, is uncalled for. Ali and his management team neither consulted not sought the inputs of critical stakeholders before making such major pronouncement.
Customs, as it were, wanted to transfer the burden of its failure to track smugglers at the border to innocent citizens. Where on earth is it done that an end-user, who was not privy to the importation and clearance of the goods (s)he bought in the market, would be required to pay import duty?
In the name of collecting additional import duties, Customs has long before now been severally condemned for unduly harassing motorists travelling to their home states on inter-state roads. Customs officers would typically stop a vehicle on the road and slam Debit Note running into millions of Naira on the hapless owner. Failure to pay could lead to the vehicle being impounded. It did not matter to these officers if the vehicle owner was travelling with his entire family in the vehicle, as they would not bat an eyelid before callously throwing everyone out of the vehicle and stranded on the highway. Unscrupulous Customs officers also explore loopholes in this untidy arrangement to extort huge sums of money from motorists.
Mr. Hameed Ali and his men must understand that duties on imported vehicles are payable at the point of entry and subjecting vehicle end-users unnecessary trauma in the name of duty collection is unfair and unacceptable. The ill-advised policy, which has been suspended, must therefore be scrapped and confined to the garbage can of history.