The Federal Ministry of Finance has on several occasions indicated its intention to purchase new cargo scanners for the Nigeria Customs Service. Last month at a public hearing organized by members of the House Committee on Customs and Exercise in Abuja, Stephen Okon who represented the Minister of Finance, Zainab Ahmed, said government was making arrangement to procure three new scanners for the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS).
This said arrangement by the government to spend hard-earned and scarce public fund on purchase of scanners for the NSC cannot be in the interest of embattled Nigerians who have been reeling under the weight of a grossly mismanaged economy. It is a move that should be called to question by all patriotic Nigerians. Gratifyingly, the House Committee members, without reservation, rejected and opposed such a move by the government.
To all intents and purposes, the arrangement by the Ministry of Finance to procure a new set of scanners for Customs is deplorable, and we roundly oppose it. First and foremost, the arrangement is being made without any effort by the Ministry of Finance or the Federal Government to probe why all the 22 scanners inherited by the Customs from the Service Providers in good condition are not working. The government did not also bother to find out if the scanners that have been left to rot away could still be repaired and put to use, before deciding to commit scarce foreign exchange for the purchase new ones. If they did at all, they willingly fell for the lies of the Customs management, especially the lie of non-availability of spare-parts as mouthed by Mr. Okon at the public hearing.
It is important to recall, that in August 2016, nearly one year of taking control as the Comptroller-General of the Nigeria Customs Service, Col Hameed Ali (rtd) ordered that all imports into Nigerian ports must go through 100% physical examination. Ali gave the order in Apapa while addressing newsmen on the activities of importers who, he said, engaged in false declaration of imports.
Since then, the NCS has shown preference for 100% physical examination, abandoning the scanning machines to rot away. If there is anything maritime industry operators and observers agree upon, it is that the present Customs management willingly sabotaged the operation of the scanners because of its preference for 100% physical examination. Apart from the excuse of checking false declaration, the customs management believes it will help them to meet revenue targets.
On their own part, Customs operatives at the ports and border stations appear very comfortable with 100% physical examination since it helps them to line their own pockets. Thus, one does not need a soothsayer to see that the scanners are not working because of pecuniary gains.
It is sad to observe that after sabotaging and jettisoning the scanners, the Customs management is telling all sorts of stories as to why they are not functioning. The Customs management abandoned the scanners without counting the cost in cargo dwell time which increased by over 100 per cent, higher cost of goods clearance, the cost incurred in procuring the scanners, and overall trade facilitation which is the major function of Customs in all jurisdictions.
In addition to these unquantifiable costs, by abandoning the scanners, the present Customs management plunged the trading community into the archaic era of physical examination in an era of technological advancements. It is not only the scanners that have been dysfunctional: most of the electronic platforms the NCS had been using which enhanced goods clearance have also suffered terrible neglect, thereby returning Nigeria Customs to the manual era.
Without mincing words, we unequivocally oppose any attempt to purchase new scanners for the Nigeria Customs Service under the present management. We submit that the abandoned scanners should be repaired and put to work. It is instructive to note that the representative of Smith Detection, manufacturer of the scanners, Manoj Jagtiani, at the public hearing, said spare parts for the scanners were available and that majority of the scanners located in various parts of the country could be repaired and made functional. This is contrary to what the Ministry of Finance had said earlier. Jagtiani specifically stated that about 13 of the existing scanners can still be repaired and upgraded for the use of the Nigeria Customs Service.
Jagtiani also told the lawmakers that Smith Detection underscored the quality and durability of the scanners, and that the scanners in the National Assembly and the Presidential Villa were manufactured by the company which has been maintaining them for over 20 years. He debunked claims that the scanners have no spare parts.
He further disclosed that his company had held series of meetings with government and NCS officials, and submitted quotations for the repairs and rehabilitation of the existing scanners. But everything came to naught. Thus, after abandoning efforts to repair the scanners, these government officials are now talking of purchasing new scanners, and appear hell-bent on doing so.
One question that needs to be asked is, if these new scanners are purchased who would operate and maintain them? Is it the present customs management that prefers 100% physical examination or the few customs officers trained by the sacked service providers who did not show enough interest in the training, and some whom may have been retired or sacked from service?
If new scanners must be bought, the country is left with no other option than to bring back the Service Providers who had operated and managed the hydro scanners in the past. They should be re-engaged to take care of the new scanners as well as the old scanners abandoned by the customs, since they are in a better position to work with the manufacturers for the repair and maintenance of the machines.
Anything short of this will be a deliberate and willful wastage of public funds.
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