The story is told of a then Minister–to-be-of-the Federal Republic of Nigeria, who took a “night flight” (night luxury bus service) to Abuja to meet up with the inauguration ceremony at the Aso Rock Villa. And, as the story goes, this said person, on becoming a substantive Minister, was in the vanguard of the argument against the importation of used vehicles, commonly known as tokunbo, claiming they were environmental hazards. It counted little to this Minister that the bulk of the citizenry, including persons and organisations (private and public) have become vehicle owners simply by the grace of these tokunbo vehicles.
The Minister’s position was, of course, a case of parochial interest seeking to ride the larger public interest.
The set age limits of imported (used) vehicles, particularly cars, have remained a sore point, even as these fluctuated over the years. Thankfully, the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) has been sensible enough to adopt discretionary powers in the issue of clearing imported used vehicles vis-à-vis the matter of set age limits. Were the NCS to follow the law to the letter, over 90 per cent of such imports, irrespective of whether brought through proper channels or smuggled (“flown” in industry parlance) would be in breach of the law.
The Service has, therefore, helped to puncture the “cars are not for the poor” theory of then Industry Minister, Lt. Gen Alani Akinrinade (rtd).
To be sure, the NCS, except for the typical few bad apples among the lot in the barrel, is dead serious in combating smuggling. But, then, the effort has largely been the search for a needle in a haystack scenario Nigeria’s unwieldy import prohibition list, largely influenced by puerile parochial interests, makes the Service’s anti-smuggling war something of a macabre dance in the village square. Routinely, Customs chiefs, knowing fully well in their hearts that they are merely role-playing, would announce fantastic seizures of contraband, and revenue collections that could have been higher, but for the challenges of smuggling, among others.
The common, and, to say the least, very cheap excuse, the Federal Government has always given for Nigeria’s heavy import prohibition list, is that local industries need to be protected from foreign competition. What asinine reason in the face of globalisation and the very real challenges local industries contend with in terms of unfriendly operational environment, such as rapacious taxation by each of the three tiers of government, respectively, and all without commensurate delivery of much-needed infrastructure and social amenities/services.
Without doubt, the NCS has proven itself to be a top revenue earner. But it could even do far better if the Federal Government summons the moral courage to take on and overwhelm the parochial interests that influence policies, including the import prohibition list. Will local industries ever meet the demands of the Nigerian market that is the suppliers’ paradise. The teeming and ever-expanding population, like the wide open sky, in which the birds fly without collision, is more than accommodating for the products and services of local and foreign industries alike. Competition can only breed efficiency.
If in the most basic definition, “democracy is government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” it becomes incumbent on one-time Customs personnel, President Jonathan Goodluck, to further empower the Service to better facilitate legitimate trade, by unshackling it from the fetters of policies that favour a minuscule, at the expense of the majority. Mr. President, please, lighten the import prohibition list, so that the NCS could have additional avenues for revenue collections. It would also help demilitarise the Service, sparing us from persistent incidents of “accidental discharge” by Customs personnel shooting persons at checkpoints, and the cases of officer-on-officer shootouts. Lightening the import prohibition list will also snuff the life out of numerous smuggling syndicates that permeate the system, and, whose membership, comprise traders, Customs personnel, agents, residents of border communities and operatives of other government security agencies.