…As seized goods, others rot away in Customs’ custody

From Uche Usim and Basil Obasi, Abuja

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On assumption of duties in August 2015, the Comptroller General of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Hameed Ali, banned the auction of all seized goods that have been legally forfeited to the Federal Government. The seizure list is endless but the major items identified always are assorted vehicles, containers of household items and clothing materials worth billions of naira.
His reason for the ban was to immediately overhaul the auction processes and procedures such that it would be insulated from abuses associated with senior Customs officers who allegedly doled out valuable items to influential Nigerians at ridiculous amounts, thereby robbing the government of the revenue it ought to generate from the exercise.
So far, about 15 months after the ban, there has been no auction. While the Customs high command perfects the processes and procedures, various Customs’ formations, especially the Federal Operations Units (the enforcement arm of the service), are littered with hundreds of seized vehicles, containers of assorted household goods, clothing materials, consumables, among other items. A good number of them have been gazetted, condemned and forfeited to the government as approved by various courts in the country.
Regretably, Customs is not the only agency guilty of having its premises littered with decomposing forfeited goods. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission (ICPC), the police, among others, are also guilty.
What perhaps may observers are bothered about is that most of these items, especially the vehicles, are rapidly rotting away and depreciating in value. They constitute an eyesore to visitors and have also become the natural habitat for birds, termites, rodents and reptiles.
From Seme, Idi Iroko, Apapa, Tin Can to FOU Zone A, B, C and D, Customs’ warehouses are filled with seized items that are polluting their premises.
It took a presidential order in 2016 before thousands of bags of 50kg parboiled rice, dumped at various Customs warehouses, were donated to the Internally Displayed Persons (IDP) camps to help tackle the food crisis in those places.
The maritime community wonders what the government would have gained if those bags of rice were abandoned at the warehouses to decay.
At the Seme Area Command of Customs, scores of vehicles seized some years ago have rusted to mere carcasses. What is worrisome is that Customs may end up spending money to dispose of the rotten goods when it ought to have generated revenue by auctioning them before they’re weathered out.
According to Nigeria Association of Auctioneers (NAA), Customs and other government agencies with forfeited goods should not fold their arms and allow them decompose, and waste while the Buhari administration groans over paucity of funds to run the economy.
The President of NAA, Aliyu Kiliya, at a recent programme in Abuja said Nigeria can generate over N1 trillion from the auctions industry if the government can put in place business friendly policies with right legal framework.
Kiliya explained that if government engaged the services of certified auctioneers and develop a profit oriented business model, the country could generate more revenue from the sector.
He bemoaned the current situation where properties that could be converted into money are left to waste and decompose at various offices of government across the country, while the leadership goes cap in hand looking for foreign investors.
According to him, government should be selling all unserviceable items by open competitive bidding as it ensures transparency and accountability. “With that approach, no item will be sold in contravention of the standard laws of procurement,” he noted.
The NAA President also disclosed that the government has been blind as it concerns the sector, which he said was a billion dollar industry in developed climes.
“A lot of properties including confiscated items by the Nigerian Customs, EFCC, properties that are no longer being put to use, but are abandoned at various government offices such as the Nigeria Railway Corporation (NRC), CBN, NITEL to mention but a few, could be sold than allowing all to decompose into waste.
“Cases to mention are those of government departments like the NDLEA, NCS, EFCC and ICPC, which seize and confiscate vehicles and property from drug dealers, smugglers, and people indicted for fraud and graft.
“On a yearly basis, they confiscate items worth several billions of naira; the seizures are always announced and broadcast in the media but what happens to the seized items is never disclosed,” he lamented.
He said the NAA was established to unify auctioneers, valuers and insolvency professionals in both commercial and private practice as he urged government to allow the body take its rightful place if auctioneering is to become a  viable source of revenue.
On why the Customs appears to have turned a blind eye to auction, a senior officer said the Comptroller General, Hameed Ali, had since set up both evaluation and disposal committees to take stock of goods that have been duly forfeited to the government through the courts.
“The two committees have completed their tasks and submitted their reports. I think the CGC wants to digitalise the auction process to reduce human interference, which leads to fraud. He wants to make the process very transparent. I can assure you that very soon, the Customs will start auctioning.
“Again, remember it’s not everything the Customs seizes it immediately auctions. There is a procedure. The seized goods have to be condemned and forfeited to the government. The courts do that. It’s a legal process. Again, some goods are only impounded, meaning the owner may have underpaid duties and charges. Once he pays up and pays the penalties, the goods are released to him or her. All our operations are guided by laws. We know what we’re doing. We don’t need the NAA to tell us what to do. We have our own procedures and we’ll operate with it,” he explained.
Also commenting on the auction of forfeited items, am importer, Edward Dike, said it does not make economic sense for the enforcement officers of Customs to risk their lives to battle smugglers and when the contraband items are seized, all their efforts end up in vain because neither the smuggler, the owner of the goods nor the government gets to make money from it.
“Everyone in the equation loses. That is wrong. If the importer has brought in fake products or contrabands or smuggled vehicles, there is a procedure to dispose of those items. For a start, the law allows Customs to auction such goods and generate revenue for the country after they have been condemned by the court. But unwholesome consumables like food and drugs must be quickly destroyed upon seizure, while other items like vehicles and households should also be auctioned before they rust away. Or else, Customs or any other agency concerned will spend money to dispose of the goods when they decompose,” he said.