Assistant Comptroller-General Charles EpoweiEdike is a thoroughbred Customs officer. He has served in various capacities as the Customs Area Controller of Murtala Mohammed International Airport Command of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Lagos; Tin Can Island Command and the Apapa Area Command before his elevation to the position of Zonal Coordinator in charge of Zone ‘A’ covering Customs formations in the entire South West of the country.
Before becoming a Comptroller in 2010, he was the Chairman of the Joint Task Force comprising officials of the NCS, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) on recovery of Customs duty.
In this interview, he speaks on strategies being adopted by the NCS to realise its one trillion 2016 revenue target.
How have the commands under your zone been faring in meeting their revenue targets especially in the face of low import volumes and the Central Bank of Nigeria’s restriction on 41 items?
The prospects are high; if you had witnessed the Comptroller-General’s meeting with Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) or read about it in the news, you must have heard when he said efforts are being made to reach out to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) for a review of the policy. We are also taking it to higher level too.This is to fine-tune the policy as it concerns the 41 items affected. If that happens, our revenue will improve. To get the best out of our officers, we embarked on a tour of various customs formations under the zone, including Seme and Idiroko, Ibadan, Iseyin,Akure and others.
The CGC also visited recently and was at Ibadan too. The visit is achieving some things for the service; revenue is being collected alongside strict enforcement against smuggling. All the commands are doing fine and the CGC appreciated their efforts.
For the main ports, the issue of the 41 items is weighing heavily on the service. The prospects of higher revenue are good. We as a service will continue to try our best in meeting government target.
In the event that government doesn’t rescind its policy on restriction of the 41 items from accessing foreign exchange, are you sure of meeting the target?
We are not complaining; we are already thinking outside the box. We know that this zone is crucial to customs revenue drive. On our own, we are drawing up strategies and ways to improve on the collection being made. All our Area Controllers are sensitized and have keyed into the drive.
We are looking at plugging leakages and paying more attention to areas that before now, we were not looking into. Our Area Controllers are on the same page with the management on this and part of our strategy includes discipline.
We know that no matter the quality of training and equipment you provide for your men, if discipline is not put in place, you won’t get the desired result. You need a disciplined manpower to achieve commitment to duty and target driven workforce.
Another aspect is the area of trade facilitation. Cost of doing business in our ports, including ensuring that our port users get the best of Customs service is also very key to this drive.
If we get our port operations right, it can attract foreigners and boost our economy and add to our target through increased business activities.
Another critical area we are looking at is the area of excise. We are working on increasing excise duty collection. We have been going round factories to if there are some that have not done excise formalities for duty payment and bring them in.
We are also visiting traditional rulers at the border communities to talk to them on the need to educate their subjects about smuggling, while enlightening them on what legitimate imports are and how to go about them.We want to get the communities to work in line with us. Most of them don’t know much about the functions of Customs. They sometimes see us as people who have come to disturb their sources of livelihood, for that reason they put up resistance in ignorance.
We have stepped up our enforcement in all areas, including the free trade zones. When their finished products are to be exported, they won’t pay duty but if they are to be brought into the Customs zone, then duty is collected.
Part of the reasons why the CGC visited the free trade zones was to ensure the zones operate in compliance with the rules guiding their operations. You know before now we were not looking much at these areas because there used to be much container traffic. Now that it is no more so, we have started looking at the small areas we never showed interest.
There have been series of complaints over server failure at the port commands. What is the Customs management doing about this?
There is no how an individual can be greater than a country. You will agree with me that the server situation has improved from what it used to be.
Even the cell phones we use sometimes have network problems. You may have experienced network problems with your phones so the server cannot be exempted from it. There must have been times you tried making calls but you are not heard.These challenges come up once in a while. Recently, I am sure you saw the CGC and Minister of Finance going round the airports all in a bid to address this ICT challenge of our sector. We intend to make it much easier, quicker and efficient for port users.
With the stoppage of Direct Trader Input (DTI) cafe, what do you think is the future of that sub-sector in the clearing chain?
Well, management is yet to come out with a clear decision on their fate. You and I know that they have not been doing their best so far to prevent leakage of revenue.You will recall, when I was in Tin Can, one of the DTI cafes was releasing ten containers illegally from the traders’ zone online. Immediately we got to know, we traced the place and got the perpetrators arrested. Tendency of that still happening now is there. The CGC is paying attention to this with a view to addressing it once and for all.