By Stephen Ubanna
Until Mahmood Ibrahim, a Deputy Comptroller, overseeing the Tin can Island Command, Area Comptroller’s Compliance team which was established in 2019, to track down any infraction at the port was redeployed to Port Harcourt Area 1, Onne, Rivers state, there was no crack in the working relationship with the officials of the Valuation or the Customs Intelligence Unit , CIU, in carrying out their respective duties.
There was Collaboration and Partnership between the command ad-hoc team and the two other Customs Departments as all efforts were geared towards blocking Areas of revenue lakes and ensuring that Importers with their Agents comply with the extant government Fiscal policies.
Importers who were found to have Contravened the government Fiscal policy by the Ibrahim led Compliance team were said to had been issued Demand Notice, DN,. Investigations by The Value News shows that that there had not been any complaint on the part of the Valuation or CIU, officials against the Compliance Team of taking over their job.
They believed that they were all working towards achieving the same goal of ensuring that the government did not lose any revenue from non-oil imports and exports. Officials of the Command Valuatiion deepartment, particular, were happy that that Ibrahim, then an Assistant Comptroller, and his Team members were working according to the mandate of Musa Baba Abdullahi, popular, MBA, the Area Comptroller: to control the excesses of importers with their Agents.
The Tin Can Island Command Comptroller may have been encouraged to set up the Compliance team having worked with one or two former Deputy Comptroller Generals DCGs, of Customs, Trade and Tariff, described as egg head which exposed him to the importers atrocities in order to shortchange the government.
This may have been where he came to the understanding that only about 30 percent of Nigerian importers, which are mostly the the Blue Chip Companies, Manufacturers and some other Companies that were really Compliant to the country trade rules while 70 are non –Compliant.
It was therefore , not very surprising that did not have to think twice on hold Consultation with the leadership of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents or the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders, NAGAFF and other Associations at the port before going ahead to establish the Compliance team to block the Areas of revenue leakages at the port in order to force the Importers to ensure they make genuine declaration and pay the appropriate duties.
He may have been emboldened to go ahead with his plan because’’ the law provides that certain Consignments should be subjected to physical examination’’. Indeed, for the first year of the existence of the Compliance team, there performance speaks volume. The team , which was under the close watch of Ibrahim, were said to have reduced to the barest minimum the cases of under declaration, and under payment , that are been perpetuated by Importers with their Agents to take delivery of their cargoes with ease.
This is reflected in the total revenue generated by the Command in 2019, which was boosted by the billions of naira of lost revenue that was said to been recovered by the team from the non- Compliant Importers. The defaulting Importers, according to insider sources, were happy to pay the DN , issued to them by Ibrahim and his officers, without Complaint or protesting to the Area Comptroller to reduce or cancel charge. The Command was said to have generated about N346.51 billion from non –oil imports and exports for the government because of the strategies put in place by the team to checkmate the Importers with their Agents.
The appointment of another senior officer to take over control of the Compliance team by Musa, the Area Comptroller,may have opened a can of worms . According to some aggrieved Agents who spoke to The Magazine disclosed , the ad-hoc team under the new senior Officer in-charge, had deviated from their original mandate and had resorted vitimisation and issuance of DN, indiscriminately to importers with their gents.
They had accused the team which was working harmoniously with the Valuation and CIU, unit under Ibrahim, a Deputy Comptroller, now at PortHarcourt Area 1, of frustrating trading by slamming outrageous DN, on already cleared cargoes, thereby taking away the responsibilities of the Valuation Udepartment. Chukwu Nwanne, a Tin can Island port based Agent had described the Compliance team as anti-trade as entrench by the Customs Command.
The aggrieved Agents want, Hameed Ali, a retired Army Colonel and Comptroller General, Nigerian Customs Service, NCS, to intervene and scrap the team which was frustrating importers with their AAgents at the port in taking delivery of their cargo.
But Uche Ejiesieme, a Superintendent of Customs and the Command Spokesperson, would not agree with the alleged Complaints of the Agents that the Compliance team had taken over the job of the Valuation and CIU. Ejiesieme, who could not hide his feelings stated that ‘’no Complaint had been brought before the Area Comptroller by any aggrieved Importer or Agent’’ who felt that the DN , issued to him or her was very outrageous.
The Tin can Island Command spokesperson said the importers with their Agents have no reason to Complain . He explained that ‘’the Command could not set out to create unnecessary bottle necks to free flow of trade’’. He may have dampened the enthusiasm of the Agents to have plan of meeting the Area Comptroller, when he said that ‘’the Command could not fold its hands and allow mindless infractions of unimaginable magnitude take place without intervention’’ at the port. He may have shocked the Agents when he declared that the Compliance team had not taken over the function of the Valuation Department or CIU.
He insists that the Compliance Team was just a creation of Musa, the CAC, ‘’to act as a check on all the activities of all sectors in the trade value chain. Appealing to the Importers with their Agents’’to see reason to Comply with the extant trade rules’’, he averred that it is the only way out for them to enjoy a hitch free trade facilitation.
Recall, that Musa, the Tin can Island Comptroller had said that ‘’there are rewards for Importers who are Compliant to the country’s trade rules. The Compliant Importers, he said, were said to have been ‘’placed on the Fast Track examination process, where there cargoes are taken to their warehouses for physical examination’’.
He had said that ’’if the Importers and Exporters are Compliant to the country’s trade rules, there could not have been any problem at the port that would warrant the setting up the Compliance team to be monitoring their imports. ‘’We have thousands of Importers who non-Compliant’, but who want to enjoy the rewards of trade facilitation’’, he insists.
In spite of efforts by the Tin Can Island Compliant team members to enforce the country’s trade rules at, there had been reported cases of cargoes released from the port, in the recent time , which had fallen into the waiting hands of Usman Yahaya, the Acting Area Comptroller, of Federal Operations Unit, FOU, Zone A, Ikeja. Jack Okpabi, an Assistant Comptroller and the arrow head of the Command anti-smuggling Operations, overseeing the Lagos Roving team, who have his teams everywhere in the south west and along the Oshodi-Apapa Express Way were said to have intercepted some Containers, both ‘’20’’ AND ‘’40’’ released from the Lagos ports and bonded terminals over alleged infraction and sunsequently transferred to the Command premises, where it was subjected to physical examination and DN, issued to Importeers found guilty.
Even the Command premises are currently littered with intercepted exotic vehicles released from the Tin can Island port and Port Multi-services Terminal Limited, PTML, by the FOU, Zone A, Roving team. A visitor to the Command premises recently remarked that the Customs Unit had bounced back to life with the number of exotic vehicles that were found at the premises in less than two weeks.