The tasks before the new Comptroller-General of the Nigeria Customs Service, Col. Hameen Ali (rtd) are enormous. If he truly desires to succeed and fulfill the three-point mandate handed down to him by President Muhammadu Buhari, the first major project to undertake will be the enhancement of the information and communication technology (ICT) backbone that drives Customs processes in the country.
Building and strengthening an ICT-based clearing system will not only facilitate trade and cargo clearance but expunge the discretionary powers of many Customs officers through which corruption thrives.
The new Customs Comptroller-General must realise and appreciate the role of ICT in the cargo clearance process as a key enabler.
It is worrisome that while cargo volume has doubled over the past 10 years, Customs documentation and clearance processes have remained the same and largely manual.
ICT functions like the nerve system of modern Customs operations and brings multiple benefits by providing real-time visibility, efficient data exchange and better flexibility during declaration, clearing and release of cargo.
As the agency of government responsible for collecting and safeguarding import, export and excise duties and for controlling the flow of goods including animals, personal effects and hazardous items in and out of a country, the Nigeria Customs Service cannot continue to operate a manual process in handling trade volume of about 90 million metric tonnes valued at over N5 trillion annually.
The Pre-Arrival Assessment Report (PAAR) platform, which was created about two years ago, must also be strengthened and observed lapses in its operations addressed. It is ironic that the same Nigeria Customs Service that issued the PAAR on consignments will turn around to issue query on the document and go as far as waylaying and intercepting goods cleared using the document on major highways across the country.
PAAR also arrogates excessive discretionary powers to valuation and releasing officers at the ports and border posts. This trend must not be allowed to continue as it breeds corruption and leads to huge loss of government revenue.
It is important that human contacts, manual processes and discretionary powers are eliminated from the clearing and documentation processes as soon as possible.
Customs officers at the nation’s seaports must now be ready to work 24 hours daily, seven days a week. One of the critical challenges facing port operations at present is the limited working hours of Customs officers, who carry out clearing processes only during the daytime from 9am to 3pm. This must change in line with the spirit of the Federal Government’s port reforms. Just as terminal operators and the Nigerian Ports Authority work round the clock, Customs, clearing agents and truck operators must do the same. Customs officers must begin to run shifts at the port so that at every point in time, Customs documentation, clearing and releasing can be carried out without undue delays and man-made bottlenecks.
The new Customs Comptroller-General must also endeavour to reduce the unnecessarily high level of physical examination associated with the clearance of cargo at the nation’s seaports. Efforts must be made to bring down the number of containers that are manually inspected from the current unacceptable high of 85% to a tolerable limit of 10% as is the practice in leading ports of the world. It must be pointed out that high level of physical examination impedes trade, promotes inefficiency and breeds corruption.
The new Customs administration must adopt a strategy and action plan for risk management that would not clog or cause delays along the supply chain, while facilitating trade. The strategy must include profiling of importers and their agents.
It speaks of poor management of infrastructure and resources that scanners inherited from former destination inspection service providers by the Nigeria Customs Service less than three years ago have all packed up. This is rather disturbing and curious. It is important to investigate reasons behind this, while no resources must be spared to repair the existing scanners and acquire new ones to enhance speedy cargo clearance at the seaports, airports and border posts.
The series of complaints that characterised appointments, promotions and postings under the immediate past administration led by Alhaji DIkko Abdullahi should be revisited. This is necessary in order to ensure equity, justice and fairness. It will also serve to boost the morale of personnel of the NCS.
The burden is now on Ali to restructure NCS and reposition it to perform as a well functioning customs administration that provides traders transparent, predictable, and speedy clearance of goods. Indeed, a poorly functioning customs administration can effectively negate the improvements that have been made in other trade-related areas.