By Eguono Odjegba
THE Comptroller-General of the Nigerian Customs Service, CGC, Col. Hameed Ali (retired), has said that falsification of documents by importers and their clearing agents necessitated the practice of stopping containers on the nation’s highways by his officers and men for scrutiny.
Ali who was responding to query from the House of Representatives on why Customs operatives intercept and ransack consignments already cleared from the ports by the same Customs, explained that the action is patriotic and necessary as a means of checkmating illegal imports and recovering government revenue.
According to the Customs boss, no agency of government will allow unscrupulous businessmen to exploit the law to the disadvantage of the national economy and security of citizens. He maintained that the various layers of counter checks for transparency in the importation chain will remain in place, for as long as the import trade continues to suffer infraction, such as cloning of cargo clearance documents.
He said, “We had cases where agents cloned clearance documents to evade correct duty payment. There are some importers who connive directly with their agents and reduce the duty and they expect that when the paper is out, that it is done. If we discover that the value of the car that you are riding in is not commensurate with the duty you paid, then you will be questioned.”
While condemning continuous interception of already cleared containers on the highway by operatives of the Customs the House of Representative Committee on Customs & Excise, called for urgent amendment of the Customs and Excise Management, CEMA, bill currently at the National Assembly.
The Committee Chairman, Leke Abejide, who spoke when Ali appeared before the House Committee to defend the NCS 2021 budget proposal recently in Abuja, accused the Customs of operating outside the law establishing it.
He said, “We need to amend the CEMA quickly because it’s like you are operating without law now. We need it to come so that we can amend it. Customs operatives stand at the gate of the port to intercept containers, but I don’t think that is what the CEMA says. They are within the perimeters of the port.
If they want to operate, it should be some 200km from the port but immediately after the gate of the port, they are there, and they position their vehicles.”
Rather than flout the laws setting it up, Abejide urged Customs to develop an electronic app with which genuine vehicle duty payment can be verified without having to subject Nigerians to double and triple checks, and thereby causing compliant importers and clearing agents hardship.
“You have to do something about this issue of disparity of duty payment and I will suggest you develop an app. Some of the importers have genuine papers but Customs still want to get something because they are not inside the port.
“This is what we need to discourage and that is why we need to develop this app on time so that whoever pays correctly, even without going to the port, he knows he has paid correctly and nobody can ask him for anything. It is not that they will give to agents and agents will now reduce duty.”
But Ali said that whereas government restricted the importation of vehicles to the seaports to ensure appropriate duty payment, he lamented that many vehicles entering the country through the land borders are often smuggled to evade duty payment.
His words, “We restricted importation of vehicles to the seaport because that is where we can properly scrutinise these vehicles. Secondly, even if you open the land borders, not zero percent of those cars that come into the country through the borders will go through the approved route. The reason why they take these cars to Cotonou is to evade duty and therefore because we say they should bring it through the land border, they will not bring it through the borders but unapproved route.
“We are working with the Customs administration in Benin Republic to see how we can ensure the adherence to the ETLS, ECOWAS Trade Liberalisation Scheme, protocol. Once we agree with them and they are ready to enforce it, there are no goods that are meant for Nigeria that will land at their port and will find its way out. They will escort it and hand it over to our own Customs. That is how it is supposed to be and that is what the law says. But it is the failure of this that is causing the smuggling.”