Non-compliance of importers, agents gives rise to multiple task forces  – Attah, Customs PRO

Joseph Attah, the National Public Relations Officer (NPRO) of the Nigeria Customs Service , explained the rationale behind the rejigging of the CGC strike force which has now been decentralised.
In an exclusive interview with our correspondents in his Abuja office , Attah corrected what he considered as erroneous reports on the decentralisation of the strike force which he said was meant to boost its performance.
He also spoke on the time release study conducted by the service.

Q :Recently, the CGC signed a circular decentralising the Strike Force and people thought it was in reaction to avalanche of complaints by freight forwarders. What actually informed the decentralization and what does the Service hope to achieve?

A:  It is the responsibility of the management of the Nigerian Customs Service to from time to time review our strategies and fine tune them and take decisions considered appropriate at any given time. At this particular time, the management of the Nigeria Customs Service feels that it will be the best for our anti smuggling strategies to decentralize the Strike Force.

Before now, you know that it has been one man that has been in charge of the activities of the Strike Force nationally and coordinating the activities nationwide.

It is a herculean task. Sometimes he is in Lagos when his attention is needed in Sokoto and on his way to Sokoto, his attention is needed in Port Harcourt or Owerri and all that.

So, it is in the wisdom of the Service that having tried his best, and performed creditably well, there is also need to bring other people on board and this time, with smaller areas of coverage such that will enable effective, intense and sustained implementation of the anti smuggling strategies. So, that’s just it. It is a routine thing that is aimed at having better results.

Q : Some people have criticized the sweeping powers given to the Strike Force like going into the port for cargo examination which you have explained. But some people said by doing that, you have whittled down considerably the influence and powers of the CACs. 

A: Not at all. If anything, the powers of the CAC is strengthened. Every Commander is emboldened when he looks round and sees his troops behind him, when he looks round and sees agile, strong, effective officers around him.

At the end of the day, we are all Customs officers working under the same umbrella for the same country. So, there is nothing like whittling down powers, there is nothing like sweeping powers. It only shows that the Nigeria Customs Service has the capacity and willingness to bring about strategies that counter-balance itself.
It means that we are accountable, it means that we are open, we are transparent and we check ourselves.

We do not want a situation where somebody else sees something. Any system that does not have check and balance is open to abuse, is open to corruption, is open to compromise. So, if there is anything to take away from this, it is the fact that the Nigeria Customs Service has a system that counter-balances itself.

As regards the powers given to the Strike Force, never forget that the Strike Force is the third layer of our security. The first one is the resident officers, second is the Federal Operations Unit, third is the Strike Force.

 So, in order to reduce the number of seizures we have on the highway, where intelligence points to a particular container, alerts should be given through the Area Controller and that the Area Controller should honor the alert by allowing these people who gave the alert to be part of the examination of that particular container.

Not all the containers and certainly not the day to day running of the command which is the prerogative of the Area Controller. It only strengthened our transparency and make it even more believable to any well meaning person.

Q: Does that mean the Strike Force would not interfere on the road again? 

A: If there is reason to intercept, not only the Strike Force, any Customs officer who has a genuine reason that a smuggled item is in this particular place can mobilize a team with appropriate permission and authorization go and strike. In fact, even you as a civilian, if you see a criminal thing happening, patriotism demands that you quickly alert the security agencies to go there or even alert fellow civilians to protect that thing until security agencies come in.

Q: As noble as this objective is and the CGC has the powers to do that, some people are beginning to say multiplicity of these forces from first to third layer is going to impinge on facilitation of trade. Goods will now take more time to be released. 

A: How I wish that the compliance level in Nigeria is 100 percent accurate, there will be no need for all these and come to think of it, is there any country that has 100 percent compliance level?

There is no country in the world that can beat its chest and say there is no smuggling otherwise why would President Trump bother himself about building a wall between USA and Mexico.

 So, smuggling is a criminal act that is carried out by criminal minded people and as far as it is human beings that commit the act of smuggling, it will always exist in one way or the other. Our job is to ensure that we suppress smuggling to the barest minimum to a level that its impact on the economy and security well being of Nigeria will be near zero.

It will be to our advantage as a nation and as a people if  importers and agents are compliant. The maritime media support by creating robust awareness around the evils of smuggling, the dangers of evading duties, dangers associated with trying to shortchange the government, trying to conceal things that could constitute national security threat.

Once we are able to do this, once we are able to see smuggling as a crime and not as a business, smuggling will be dealt with decisively.

But for avoidance of doubt, let us not take it to mean that the decentralization means whittling down the powers of the Strike Force. It only says that each leader of these three groups now has smaller region to cover and we expect more effective implementation of the directives of the management of the Nigeria Customs Service.Q : What happens to the officers at Tin Can 2 command of the Service since NPA has taken over the place and converted to truck park?

A : Redeployment will take place. The management is attending to them. That is a normal decision to take.

Q: Won’t it lead to redundancy like having to place more officers in the same place to do the job of few persons?

A:  If that is the case, then we should not recruit. Why are we recruiting more people. We need more hands, a lot more hands. Here we are talking about porous borders, here we are talking about inadequate non-intrusive equipment such as scanners and all that that demand physical examination. Physical examination as you know is a tedious process and that is what causes delay in clearance time. So, there is nothing like that.

Q:  Customs is being accused of frustrating the result of time release the Customs embarked upon because it is not favourable. It was inaugurated last year and up till now, we have not seen the result, that Customs is frustrating it.

A:  The time release itself was introduced by who? How can Customs frustrate what the same Customs introduced? It is our desire, if we don’t like it, we should not even have brought it up. Compliance is the issue that is confronting all types of programmes in the maritime. The compliance level is low, if you do your own properly and I do my own property, and at the right time, we will not have problems.

If something is supposed to stay on my table for thirty minutes for instance, and I look through it and see no reason why it stay up to thirty minutes, it will go but when it comes with multiple reasons, even when it should have gotten to my table it will go and start from square oneWhen people complain that the Service does not keep to time, it is due to compliance deficit. It is what is affecting virtually all our programmes.

Q: People want to know when the result of the time release will be released. 

A:  It is  work in progress just as I will call on every stakeholder to do his or her own part of duty properly but regarding the time release, it is work in progress.

Q:  You are talking about compliance, but it takes two to tango. Some Customs officers have been compromised or they are ready tools to be compromised. How do you deal with your men who aid and abet corruption? 

A:   If you want to be fair to Customs, you will know that Customs does not treat with kids gloves those caught in any act of compromise. Can you remember the case of 661 pump action rifles at Apapa?.

 When investigations indicted five officers, they were dismissed and handed over for prosecution. Does that not speak volume of zero tolerance stance of the Nigeria Customs Service especially that of the present Comptroller-General of Customs, Hameed Ali (rtd)?
Those who arrested the rifles and refused to be compromised were promoted and decorated. As I speak with you, there are officers who are facing disciplinary committee. The disciplinary committee sat for three days to look at different issues. So, on the part of the Service, it is zero tolerance. If you take any risk and put your job on the line, and you are caught, you will go in for it. But beyond this, the real issue is that of stakeholders refusing compromise. Why do you need to bribe somebody?

It must stem from the fact that you have done something wrong, it must stem from the fact that there is false declaration, there is concealment, there is an attempt to evade payment of duty. If we all agree to do what is right, all these blame trading will come to an end.

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