Nigerian state governors on Thursday approved the release of $1 billion from the country’s excess oil account to the government to help fight the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency. The account holds foreign reserves from excess earnings from sales of crude. It currently totals $2.3 billion, according to Nigeria’s accountant general. “We are pleased with the…
The Comptroller-General of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Col. Hameed Ali (rtd), issued a directive last week warning all motorists in the country to pay customs duties on their vehicles within a month (March 13 -April 12). After the grace period, the NCS will embark on “an aggressive anti-smuggling operation to seize vehicles” on which duties have not been paid and to prosecute owners of such vehicles. The NCS advised all motor dealers and private vehicle owners to visit the nearest Customs zonal offices to pay the appropriate duties on their vehicles.
For the avoidance of doubt, all private car owners who are not sure of the authenticity of their vehicles’ customs documents were also directed to approach the zonal offices to verify their status with a view to paying their customs duties in line with Ali’s directive.
Many Nigerians were simply speechless on learning of this unprecedented and high-handed directive. It was such a relief when the Senate intervened on March 7 and tried to get the NCS to suspend the implementation of the directive, asking the Comptroller-General to appear before it to further discuss the issue. Nigerians, even the Senators, could not believe their ears when the NCS called a press conference to announce that the department was going ahead with the obnoxious policy no matter what the Senate thought or said.
First of all, the tone of the policy and the press conference which followed it remind Nigerians of the era of military dictatorship. On the rationale for the policy, the acting Public Relations Officer of the NCS, Mr. Joseph Attah, told the Press that “Senators are respected representatives of the people. When we visit them, we shall discuss and I’m confident that with the gains in this action, they will see reason.” It is then easy to see that the NCS placed the cart before the horse. Logic demands that the agency should have held wide ranging discussions with relevant publics, and representatives of the people, before making such a profound, potentially disruptive and controversial policy.
Secondly, did the department not foresee the confusion, sheer agony and public commotion the policy would create? A man who bought a car ten years ago from a dealer is now required to drive it to a zonal office of the Customs to check whether his car had been smuggled in or whether excise duty was avoided by the importer?
Nigerians see in the new directive one more antic not to increase revenue for the government but to widen the scale of corruption. At the macroeconomic level, any money raised from this spurious ‘duty’ would amount to extra taxation which will not only further depress the economy but will also inevitably fuel inflation. Economists are unanimous that 80 per cent of our inflation emanates from imported goods whose prices are at least 40 per cent higher than what obtains in other African countries, essentially because of the corruption in our Customs and the inefficiency of our ports.
Barely ten days ago, Prof. Itse Sagay, Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, despaired about the “brazen impunity” of the corruption in the Customs and said that “the level of insensitivity has become pathological.”
The Customs, he said, has completely ignored the fight against corruption, and it is operating as if it is not in Nigeria. Sagay narrated the shocking case of a Nigerian who relocated to Nigeria from abroad after 26 years who was made to pay N1.2 million for “approval of personal effects” and who paid for physical examination of items because the scanner was not working. “Bribe was demanded at every stage of the obstacle race called Customs clearance involving long table, short table and other ingenious instruments of extortion.”
We had thought that Col. Ali, given his credentials, would turn the NCS around and usher in a new era in the Customs Service. Now, the Colonel is heading for a confrontation with the National Assembly on this and other issues. We urge the NCS to see the irrationality of the policy it is proposing, and spare Nigerians further provocation and grief.
A Nigerian who has completed the registration of a motor vehicle should never be asked about Customs papers under any circumstances. It is not just an insult on the intelligence of Nigerians, it is an impertinent demand that Nigerians pay for the incompetence of the Customs Service. It is the vehicular equivalent of the shocking midnight raids on rice markets.
Just before Christmas, the agency raided a Lagos Market between the unholy hours of 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. and carted away 580 bags of rice. On February 22, its officials invaded the Kayero Market in Sango Ota, Ogun State. They broke into traders’ shops in the wee hours of the morning and carted away goods estimated at billions of naira with no court orders or search warrants.
Even if they had those warrants, the law demands that they be executed in the presence of the shop or premises owners. Last week, Customs officials also killed two persons at Kobape in Obafemi Owode Local Government Area along the Abeokuta-Sagamu Expressway in a so-called chase of a vehicle suspected to be carrying some bags of rice.
The Customs should confine its activities to the border posts and end the harassment of Nigerians. It should stop the extortion of traders and innocent Nigerians in the name of revenue drive.