By Stephen Ubanna
When President Muammadu Buhari, a retired Army General, appointed Hameed Ali, a retired Colonel and close political ally, as the Comptroller General, Nigeria Customs Service, NCS, in August, 2015, with a mandate’’ to reform and improve the yearly revenue generation of the service’’, he knew he has a big task at hand and which must be fulfilled.
Initially, he had come to the service, with a mindset that the officers are very Corrupt based on people’s impression. He may have realised within the first few months at the helms of Affairs of the service that people had wrong impression about the staff of the revenue generating agency. This is because of the technical nature of the job that had to do with interpretation of the Customs and Exercise Management Act, CEMA, CAP, 2004, to ensure proper Classification of goods and collection of appropriate duties for the government as well as anti-smuggling Operations to avoid turning into a dumping ground by the developed economies.
Informed sources told The Value News that the first thing he did when he had settled down for real work at the Customs Headquarters in 2016, was to get the Katsina state born Nigerian President to change his negative impression about the service and his Complete turn- around to support the service by ensuring that staff Welfare services are taken care off and promotion carried out as at when do.
He may have seen this as a way to encourage the officers and men of the service to show more commitment and dedication to do their job. The first lesson he may have learnt was in 2016, when he revenue generation of the service dropped from N903 billion recorded in 2015 to N898 billion. This may have informed why he mobilised the Management Team and the Area comptrollers to restrategise on how to raise the revenue generation of the service.
He may have got it right as the Area Comptrollers were given the free hand to do their work in their respective Commands without any unguided interference from the power brokers at the Customs Headquarters who usually show interest on some jobs, thus forcing some of the Area Comptrollers who are desirous to retain their job to bend the rule to be in the good book of ‘’the big boys’’.
The fallout was that past and present Area Comptrollers of the major revenue generating units like Apapa, Tincan Island, Port Multi-services Terminal Limited, PTML, all based in Lagos, the nation’s Commercial nerve center, as well as Port Harcourt Area II, Commands, based in the south east port of Onne, were forc to restrategise, and re-focus their operations to be more business oriented ostensibly to enhance the revenue generations of their respective Commands.
They were said to have blocked all the areas of revenue leakage at their respective Commands in order to meet their monthly and yearly revenue targets set for them by the Management from the total revenue target of the service. They were said to have also embarked on a sensitization Campaign to encourage importers with their agents to do to stop doing things that will contravene the government fiscal policy such as false declarations, underpayment, wrong Classification of their imports, Concealment.
Having won the heart of the Nigerian President who was ready to provide all the necessary working tools to the service to do their job without Compromise, it was not surprising why the service annual revenue generation between 2017 and now, had jumped trillions of naira and more.
Take for instance, in 2017, the cumulative total revenue generation of the service was N1 trillion. It was said to have risen to N 1.2 trillion 2018, despite the government setting a target of N8777 billion for it. Indeed, the service had sustained the impressive performance in 2019, by collecting and paying into the Federation Account N1.342 trillion and N1.562 trilion in 2020.
The service may have gladdened the heart of the retired Army General with its revenue generation in the2021, fiscal year. Note that the government had set a target of N1,678,715,016,014.00, which was made known to the Customs Management by Hajia Zainab Ahmed, minister of Finance , Budget and National Planning, in her budget beakdown of 2021, notwithstanding the Asia country of China emerged coronavirus, popular, COVID 19, that had destabalised the global economy. The government may have set the revenue target for the service as it had generated N1.6 trillion in 2020.
As usual, Ali, the Customs boss and his men, had gone back to the drawing board to map out plans on how to ensure that the target was not only met by surpassed. A Statement by Comptroller Joseph Attah, Customs spokesman shows that between January and the end December 2021, the Ali led NCS, collected and paid into the Federation Account , the sum of about N2.241 trillion as against the N1.68 trillion target that was set for it by the government.
An analysis of the revenue generated by the service for the government shows that the 2021 collection was 45% higher than the target set by the government. An appreciative Ali, had attributed the increase in the service revenue generation in the preceding year ‘’to the pursuit of what is right and willingness to adapt to changes brought about by COVID 19’’.
Given the performance of the service over the last six years, Ali, the Customs Comptroller General, could beat his chest that ‘’the service annual revenue generation profile will continue to be on the increase as the ongoing reforms in the service insists on: strategic deployment of officers strictly using the standard operating procedure, strict enforcement of extant trade guidelines by the tariff and trade department, automation of the Customs clearing process by eliminating vices associated with manual processes.
The Customs Comptroller General was said to have also attributed the service annual revenue generation increase to ‘’the robust stakeholder sensitization Campaigns at the various Area Commands across the country resulting in more ‘’informed/voluntary Compliance to country’s fiscal policies’’. He noted that that ‘’there have been an increased disposition of officers and men to put the national interest above pecuniary interest.
But many believe that the Customs revenue generating units may have been surpassing their yearly targets in the recent years which had translated to the improved revenue collection of the service because of the close watch of their activities by the Interventionist units: Federal Operations Units, FOUs, Headquarters Strike Force Team and Border Drills units, across the country.
In Lagos, for instance the Headquarters Strike Force, Team A, under the close watch of Ahmadu Shuaibu, a Deputy Comptroller, which have a well- established Information Communication Unit, ICT, has forced officers at the Lagos ports of Apapa and Tincan Island, PTML, Kirikiri Lighter Terminal, Phases I & II, Command to sit up, for fear that any Compromised container released and exited from their respective ports may fall into the hands of the FOU,, Zone A, Operations and Lagos Roving Team or any other Team from the Command on routine Patrol. There are fears that the Consignment may even fall to the hands of Shuaibu’s men, using its ICT, facility to stop such cargoes from exiting the port but rerouted to Ikorodu Lighter terminal, ILT, for proper examination. This may have informed why the Lagos Customs Commands Area comptroller had braced up to the challenge to ensure that ‘’the right things are done boost their monthly revenue collections to avoid playing intoo the hands of Ali, the Comptroller, who will not hesitate to redeploy them to the Headquarters or Zonal office, where Comptrollers stay two or three in an office due to lack of space.
Even at the Port Harcourt Area II, Command, the officers were said to have cued to Awwal Mohammed, the Area Comptroller policy of ‘’no Compromise policy’’ and importers with their agents have now seen the need ‘’to do the right thing’’ at the West African Container Terminal, WACT, to be able to exit their Container at the gate manned by Mahmood Ibrahim, a Deputy Comptroller or it will end up at the Enforcement unit for proper physical examination.
The rerouting of some Containers that had contravened the government fiscal policy to the Command enforcement unit over alleged wrong Classification, underpayment, under declaration and Concealment which had originated from the Onne exit gate speaks volume.
In a related development, many believe that the gains of the installation of three new Mobile Scanner Machines, at the Lagos ports of Apapa, Tincan Island and Onne port, in 2021, will begin to manifest in the service overall revenue generation this 2022. Also, the introduction of mobile tracker, described in maritime circles as a good mobile application ‘’will enable individuals to remotely validate any declaration / payment and most importantly, the status of any vehicle/cargo at any point , expected to further enhance the service revenue collections this fiscal year and in the future.
The Customs boss is optimistic that these new innovations that have been introduced at the Lagos ports of Apapa, Tincan Island and the south east port of Onne, will ‘’impact positively as well, on trade facilitation, anti-smuggling smuggling operations, block areas of revenue leakages and significantly impact on the service revenue generation and national security’’.
Aware that the service may not have generated that much in 2021 without the Compliant traders doing the right thing may have informed why the Customs boss had ‘’commended the compliant traders’’, which number are increasing on a daily basis, stressing that ‘’compliance is a patriotic thing to do by citizens who desire a better nation’’.
In spite of the fact that between 2017 and now, the NCS, have been making impressive revenue collections for the government, Ahmed, the minister of Finance, who is not happy that she could not effectively put Ali under her control because of his closeness to Buhari, has initiated plan B to break the ranks of Customs personnel. She was said to have planned to take away ‘’the responsibility of revenue Collection from the service and hand it over to the Federal Inland Revenue Services, FIRS, which has Muhammed Mamman Nami, as its Executive Chairman, believed to have a good working relationship with the minister.
Only recently the ministry Permanent Secretary appeared at the House of Representatives Committee on Customs at the instance of the minister ‘’to defend the proposed Legislative framework that intends to strip the Customs of its primary responsibility of revenue collection’’. The Federal ministry of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Permanent Secretary, according to informed sources , wants ‘’the revenue collection responsibility of the service to be handled by FIRS while the NCS should be limited to trade facilitation’’.
The ministry had made known its thinking known at a one-day public hearing on a bill for an Act to repeal the CEMA, Cap 2004, and the NCS, Amendment Bill. The Legislative session was said to have been organised by the House Committee on Customs under the Chairmanship of Leke Abejide, who has never seen anything good in Customs for not having their ways to do what they want and who was said to have sponsored the Bill. He ministerial officials and the Lawmakers may have wanted to use the Bill to force Ali, to bow to their pressure to listen to them and honour their request at every point in time. According to an insider ‘’the Bill also seeks to rejig the Board of Customs and Excise Management with Competent and result orientated technocrats’’.
An agent who spoke to The Magazine on condition of anonymity disclosed that even the minister and her officials including the House Committee on Customs succeeds in wrestling the revenue collection function from the Customs and finally gives the nod to the FIRS, to take over, they will not be able to do it at the ports and land borders for the government because of the technicalities involved which is not a day, meaning that they will still fall back on the Customs personnel that mess up the system.
Meanwhile, with the take- off of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, AfCFTA, the Customs Comptroller General has told those that cares to listen that that ‘’Nigeria remains committed to the course of protecting the national security and the economy’’, urging he business community ‘’ to support the service as the country’s land border areas open to AfCFTA, in order ‘’to benefit from the trade agreement and other cross-border activities’’.