Director-General of the Standards Organization of Nigeria (SON), Osita Aboloma recently warned importers of goods and licensed Customs agents to desist from falsifying import documents. He was shocked at the rate import documents were being falsified by Nigerian importers warning that import document falsification stalls trade facilitation while also allowing influx of substandard products into the country.
Falsification of import and export documents has been with us for a long time. In fact, it is as old as the business of importation itself. But recently, the practice has, unfortunately, assumed a dangerous proportion in Nigeria. It is becoming the norm rather than the exception. Hardly do ten or more consignments pass through the seaport or airport in Nigeria without the detection of at least one with compromised documentation.
All over the world, import document falsification is a criminal act because of the havoc it wreaks on a country’s economy and its citizenry. In Nigeria, the criminal act is often perpetrated by rogue importers with the active connivance of unscrupulous clearing and forwarding agents, and sometimes, greedy enforcement officers. The aim has always been to evade payment of correct and appropriate duties and taxes, or mislead Customs on the actual nature of goods so imported. Most times, the later happens when the items being imported are prohibited from entering the country.
Nigeria has over the years lost trillions of naira through import documentation falsification and the agony of it all is that a large chunk of the money goes into private pockets. While importers, their representatives and some criminal minded government agents smile daily to the banks, government’s coffers are left dry and empty. It is disheartening that a large number of the cars and goods that enter into the country pass our borders on fake and falsified documentation. Many imported car documents are machined outside, meaning that the document accompanying the consignment did not pass through the legal channel.
The country had in the past recorded huge import of prohibited and substandard products, most of which were imported with the use of falsified documents. The effect of this cannot be overestimated, especially when such imported goods are arms and ammunition. In a country that has recorded several cases of restiveness and religious violence, allowing the influx of such goods into the country is a sure way of putting the security of the country in serious jeopardy.
Documents play a major role in international trade. In fact, standard payment procedures rely on them, while it is through proper documentation that governments track what goods and their exact quantity that are coming in or leaving the country. As over 80 per cent of goods into Nigeria come through the seaports, it has become imperative for the Nigerian government to take a serious look into this area of the economy. With dwindling oil revenue occasioned by a continuous slide in the price of crude oil in the international market, revenue from the country’s seaborne trade come in handy to augment the shortfall from oil sales. It is necessary that importers declare the true value of imports in order to safeguard the country’s economy. Freight forwarders should desist from conniving with rogue importers to falsify import documents.
One sure way of curbing import document falsification is for government agents vested with the responsibility of enforcement to ensure strict compliance with the laws of the land especially as it relates to the Customs Excise Management Act (CEMA), which deals with issues of concealment, false declaration, wrong description of imports, over-invoicing, undervaluation and under-invoicing of imports. The law prescribes a jail term of seven years for forgery and falsification of documents. This law should be enforced irrespective of who is involved.
Another way of curbing incidences of import duty falsification is by reducing human interface in the conduct of business. E-business has reduced human contact and this should be embraced fully by those who are assigned the responsibility of safeguarding the ports. The Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) and other agencies of government operating within the port system should be adequately trained to embrace modern business trends with the aim of facilitating trade.
The officials of SON should not be left out of this training, because the agency has a very important duty to ensure that such items do not find their way into the country, as the effect of harmful substances on the citizens is too grave to be contemplated.
The organization should go beyond mere appealing to importers to halt the falsification of shipping documents and move a step further to apprehend the real culprits and ensure their full prosecution in a court of competent jurisdiction. Doing these would ensure that import document falsification is reduced to the barest minimum.