Is Nigeria Customs Service becoming a lawless agency?

Customs CG Hameed Ali

This is a compelling question considering the deluge of accusations and allegations against the Customs officials in recent time. As a matter of fact, at no time has the Nigeria Customs Service been confronted with such avalanche of accusations as in this present dispensation. Curiously, apart from occasional denials, the Service seems not to be moved or perturbed by the accusations. Instead of taking notice and working towards changing and making things better, the Service appears to have developed tough skin, irrespective of where the accusation is coming from. In addition to the incessant shrill complaints and accusations of importers and agents, highly placed government officials and other agencies of government have in recent time joined in accusing and condemning the Customs for numerous lapses and actions that do not facilitate trade, but serve only their collective and personal interests.

Sometime last year, the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo accused the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) of posing a serious challenge to the presidential order on the ease of doing business. At a public lecture in Lagos, the Vice President accused Customs of not coming to office on time for examination of cargoes thereby frustrating the ease of doing business policy of the Federal Government. He also accused the Service of constituting an obstacle to the clearance and movement of cargoes out of the ports. The Vice President, who was represented by an official of the Presidential

Environmental Business Enabling Council (PEBEC), John Oboh, criticized the Service for intercepting goods it had cleared at the ports, describing the action as being against international best practice. He maintained that there is no reason for Customs operatives to stop cleared containers on the way for another round of checks, particularly within a few meters of the port gate.

The Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi also last year accused the NCS of frustrating the National Single Window (NSW) project meant to hasten cargo clearance process at the nation’s ports. The NSW is a platform meant to integrate all agencies involved in the clearance of cargoes at the ports in order to ease the inspection, calculation and payment of all import duties, levies and other charges online. At the inauguration of the Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence System, a marine operation and surveillance centre at the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) in Lagos, Amaechi appealed to the Comptroller-General of Customs to let Customs be connected to the platform to make the ports more effective. The Minister said every country had a single window, and blamed Nigerian importers’ preference for the port Benin Republic to a series of official and unofficial charges in Nigeria.

From stakeholders and users of port services, the complaints and accusations are endless. Recently, Customs clearing agents threatened to shut down the ports over Customs multiple check points that are slowing down evacuation of cargoes from Apapa Port, the nation’s premier port. At a joint press briefing in Lagos, the various agents associations which include the Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF) and the National Council of Managing Directors of Licensed Customs Agents (NCMDLCA), lamented that the customs Compteroller-General, Hameed Ali had allegedly deployed another team from Abuja to check the activities of the various Customs commands, thereby increasing the number of Customs’ operations teams at the port.

The agents identified ten units of Customs constituting bottlenecks inside the port. Some of the units include the CG Strike Force, Compliance Team, Customs Strike Force, Federal Operations Unit, CG’s Monitoring, Customs Intelligent Unit, Special Force, Enforcement Unit and CAC Squad.

All these are in addition to the various resident Customs units at the ports. The latest addition that sparked the agents’ protest was a recent deployment of a special team from Abuja to inspect third party cargoes. The agents said the CG Committee was sent to Apapa port under the guise of inspecting some third party containers, but that the team had taken over the job of resident Customs officers. They alleged that cargoes were being detained inside the ports while agents were being forced to pay exorbitant demurrage to terminal operators, stressing that 24 -hour cargo clearance has, as a result, become a mirage. They further alleged that the team randomly pick on containers after cargoes have been released and “ask you to reposition it for examination and we are made to pay for re-examination.”

The Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) has also complained bitterly about the activities of Customs officials at the ports, calling for the urgent intervention of the Federal Government to stop what it called the disruption that the numerous Customs units are creating for importers within and outside the nation’s seaports. In a recent statement, the chamber pointed at the proliferation of Customs units at the port, saying it is a negation of the ease of doing business directive of the Federal Government, which is also hurting investors.

Clearing agents, freight forwarders and members of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce are not the only ones feeling the heat and bemoaning the activities of Customs at the ports. Manufacturers and importers of chemical substances in the country also recently accused the NCS of abuse of End User Certificate, a situation that has made them lose over N200 million monthly to demurrage on imported chemicals for paint and some pharmaceutical products.

What is disturbing is that in the face of these accusations by users of port services, top government officials and Nigerians, the Service appears unconcerned. The Comptroller-General of Customs, Hameed Ali, appears to be comfortable with the activities of his men so long as revenue targets are achieved. Instead of effecting changes or reforms, the NCS seems to be basking in the avalanche of these damning accusations and criticisms. One therefore wonders if the Nigeria customs is becoming a lawless agency.

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