Nigeria Customs as corruption mill, by Ken Ugbechie
I used to think that the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) is the hottest corruption outpost in Nigeria. Perhaps, I was wrong. The manner men of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) have been conducting themselves on the highways these days tend to give the Customs a head-start over the police in the corruption race. In my trip from Lagos to my Delta country home this Yuletide, I saw the darker side of the nation’s outfit statutorily mandated to collect duties and sundry tariffs on goods imported into the country.
Between Lagos and Asaba, no fewer than 15 Customs check-points dotted the highway. Add to that the retinue of men and women from the Nigeria Police, the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), a sprinkling of Army personnel and a garrison of sundry uniformed men, each on a mission to ‘safeguard’ the road users. But indeed they were not safeguarding anybody. They were out to extort the people. While the men in military uniform appeared more professional and minded their duties with dignified disposition, not so for the police men and the customs officers; they seemed interminably determined to kick every road user in the teeth.
The sight of policemen on any highway does not strike a chord of shock; in fact their non-presence on the highway conjures fear and apprehension. So, it is no surprise to encounter police check-points on every highway even though some of the cops do the rather unprofessional conduct of extorting cash from commuters.
But, pray, what are customs officers doing on the highway? They claim to be on the lookout for contrabands and vehicles with under-paid duties. And they are doing a damn good job of it; seizing vehicles, confiscating so-called contraband goods and helping themselves to good cash forced out of (extorted from) their unlucky victims. I shudder to believe that men of the Customs who should be at the entry ports (points) , land and sea, collecting duties according to prevailing Federal Government tariffs would be the ones harassing road users on the highways.
If anything, they should be at the ports of entry whether it is at the airport, seaport or land borders with contiguous nations. Milling into the highways and byways with their guns, and kitted in poorly knitted uniforms sometimes bearing long clubs like medieval men hunting for fruits in the woods does not speak of efficiency on the part of the Customs. Rather, it is an effectual advertisement of the inefficiency, corruption and poor work ethic that attend the operations of the NCS at the entry ports.
If the NCS were efficient, then there would be no need for its officers to seize the highways with beastly animation. Goods come into the country through the airport, seaport and land borders. A confederacy of customs men man these ports and entry points. They are the ones who collude with clearing agents to undermine and undercut the nation’s economy. While this collusion is going on, the owners of the goods have not the slightest idea of what had transpired. In their good hearts, they have paid to government the relevant and requisite duties, unaware that the money paid had been sliced into two parts, one part for the government and the other part shared by the crooked customs officers at the place of transaction. Now, the same thieving customs officers having outsmarted both the importer and the government will send another batch of their colleagues to the highway to harass the importers and end-users of such product and blackmail them into further extortion.
These customs men are saboteurs. They are leeches and they speak most eloquently of the inherent corruption in the operations of the customs. The Comptroller General of customs, Hameed Ali, a retired Army colonel, once thought to be the one that would restore sanity to the Nigerian House of Cards called the customs, seemed to have been sucked into the miasma. He has issued a few threats, sacked a few men and suspended some but this is not enough. He needs an independent intelligence unit from the fold to monitor the activities of his men at the entry ports. Mr Ali would need more than firing a few personnel to cleanse the Service. He might need to take a cue from the minister of transport, Rotimi Amaechi.
Angered by the rot in the service, Amaechi recently revealed that the failure of the Nigeria Customs Service to connect to the National Single Window (NSW), a cross-government website for trade facilitation, is hindering the effective operation at the seaports.
He said: “The Comptroller General of Customs has to agree for the Customs to be connected to the NSW to make our ports more effective. All we are doing now is manual; it will not last for long.
“Very soon, Nigerians will protest against the ports. People are already importing through Benin Republic. Everyone has a single window. Niger that used to import things through Nigeria is doing so through another country. This is because we are charging both official and unofficial fees. Goods imported into Nigeria are too expensive.”
That says it all. The NCS has deliberately manipulated its operations out of effective monitoring and control into the realm of anything goes. The system is loose and fluid, deliberately so created to give room for looting, manipulation and cheating by the customs officials. If this were not so, why would a vehicle whose documentation passed through several customs desks at the ports be under-valued with concomitant low duty paid only for the same customs officials to shamelessly spill into the highways to do the same work they corruptly glossed over at the point of entry.
The place of the customs is the port of entry of goods, not the overcrowded, tired and weather-beaten Nigerian roads. Each time the customs seizes a vehicle purportedly under-valued it means some customs officers who documented the vehicle corruptly enriched themselves. The other explanation is that the customs officials who effected the release of such vehicle or any other good for that matter were inefficient and should be punished.
Mr. Ali should help even his own image by dragging this band of extorting customs officials out of the highways. Enough of this harassment! The CG should do the needful, to wit, strengthen operations and arrest sharp practices among his men at the ports of entry. It is not enough to ambush Nigerians on the highways when the foundation of the customs is afflicted with graft and greed.
On its website, the NCS lays claims to running a highly automated system. Not true, sir. The system, just as the minister pointed out, is largely manual, full of deliberate human errors and intrusions and therefore ineffective.
Upon resumption, Mr. Ali said he had a mandate from President Buhari to increase revenue, sanitise the customs and restore its dignity as a revenue-generating agency. He is yet to achieve this in spite of his efforts. But he still can. A good starting point would be to punish all officers connected with the clearance of any vehicle or contraband impounded in town or on the highway. It is not enough to punish the importers of such goods, the greater punishment must be visited on the customs officials who aided and abetted the shady clearance of such goods in the first instance. That is how to stop the rot in the service that is hotly contesting with the police for the infamous prize of Nigeria’s most corrupt agency.