On April 25, 2019, a circular issued on behalf of the Comptroller-General of Customs, Hameed Ali and signed by DCG Chidi, gave a matching order to the CGC Strike Force to henceforth enter the ports where they should get involved in cargo examination and arrest containers that commit infractions in clearance procedures.
The circular upgraded the existing powers and influence of the ubiquitous strike force team which hitherto could arrest and detain containers already cleared from the ports.
This time around, the team has sweeping powers to intervene in the cargo clearance procedures right inside the ports.
Another detail of the circular, which is very instructive, is the instruction given to the Area Controllers, who are the statutory heads of customs commands, to defer to the authority of the strike force while non-compliance attracts severe sanctions.
The nigeriamaritime360.com finds the latest development in cargo clearance procedures very unfortunate and a sad commentary of the total collapse of trust which the customs boss has in his lieutenants at the commands.
We are equally saddened that the level of distrust of CGC in the ability, competence and honesty of his officers at the commands, especially the Area Controllers, has degenerated to the extent of empowering a Deputy Comptroller, who is the head of the strike force, to keep an eye on their activities at the commands.
CGC Strike Force, just like the other ad-hoc units in the Customs, is a creation of Hameed Ali for administrative purposes to ostensibly detect any infraction in the cargo clearance procedures and guard against revenue leakages.
Given the high level of corruption among the customs brokers and the culpability of customs officers who collude, aid and abet these acts of financial criminality, the Customs helmsman is justified by imposing multiple levels of checks in the clearance procedures to safe guard government revenue.
His action is equally in line with the mandate given to all the member-states of the World Customs Organisation (WCO) which allows any sovereign member state to create this ad-hoc arrangement to deal with peculiarities of such country.
Unfortunately, one of the peculiarities of Nigerian trade environment is non-compliance of importers and their agents with extant rules and regulations.
Also, the willingness of some Customs officers to collude with the traders to circumvent the guidelines on cargo clearance for pecuniary gains.
So, these unfortunate realities have created a fertile ground for successive customs administrations to create special ad-hoc bodies to check the abuses in the cargo clearance procedures.
In as much as we concede the justification for his actions, we are however alarmed at the level to which the current Customs helmsman takes the use of ad-hoc arrangement to substitute conventional procedures.
Even though, previous customs administrations resorted to this ad-hoc arrangement in cargo clearance at one time or the other, but none did so at the scale the present leadership of customs has used it.
These ad-hoc units are not only maximally deployed in customs operations but they proliferate the numbers.
Apart from such units that are already part of customs operations at the commands such as Customs Intelligence Unit (CIU),Post Clearance Audit (PCA),Query and Amendments ,Examination officers, Releasing officers, DCG Terminals group as well as Federal Operations Unit (FOU) which is the anti-Smuggling arm of the service, other ad-hoc teams such as strike force, compliance team, surveillance team, Customs police are created to proliferate the numbers of the ad-hoc units which are directly or indirectly involved in cargo examination and release.
Little wonder that at no time under any customs leadership has trade facilitation role of customs suffered neglect than under the leadership of Hameed Ali.
In as much as the present Customs leadership pretends to encourage trade facilitation, the multiple levels of checks and security created to safe guard government revenue have unwittingly hobble clearance procedures.
To show that Hameed Ali gives little consideration for trade facilitation, he felt unperturbed by the total breakdown of cargo scanning machines which the customs inherited from the retreated foreign Destination inspection officers but concentrated on 100 percent cargo examination with its attendant slow and laborious process that engenders delay.
It is sad that it is this slow process of cargo examination Ali and his team have come to embrace.
The more reason why he spite the Area Controllers at the commands by imposing the strike force team on them for their failure to properly observe 100 per cent cargo examination.
We are concerned by the sweeping powers the CGC concedes to the strike force team and the ability to intervene in cargo clearance both inside and outside the ports.
Our concerns stem from the fact that high concentration of powers in the team will invariably and unwittingly transform it to a behemoth.
When too many powers are concentrated in one man, the tendency to become a tyrant is very high.
With this arrangement, the strike force team is so powerful that it is only the CGC its leadership takes orders from and reports to.
In as much as we commend the efforts of the CGC to achieve maximum revenue for government and acknowledge his frustration at the level of complicity among his officers, we want to call his attention to the likely damage the arrangement can do to the command structure in the Customs.
A situation where a Controller has to defer to the authority of his assistant as the instructions contained in the circular suggest leaves much to be desired.
We do not sympathise with the resident officers, especially the Area Controllers, for losing initiatives and influence to the team; neither do the importers and their agents who will bear the brunt of the new arrangement deserve our pity.
Both collaborators have displayed no scruples at the level of abuse to which they subject cargo clearance procedures.
However, our concerns are the unintended consequences which this ad-hoc measures will have on our ports operations.
Though the measure may shore up customs revenue performance in a short term, but the delay it engenders in cargo release process will have unquantifiable negative impact on the ease of doing business initiative of the Federal government, in the long run,
As a result of this, the Nigerian Ports will lose the much anticipated patronage which the government programme seeks to attract.
We have always believed that Customs will gain more in terms of revenue than what it currently gets through its aggressive hunt if trade is facilitated as more cargo will be cleared in record times.
We are not by any means advocating for compromise in cargo clearance procedures, but rather we want seamless, less cumbersome and fast -paced process devoid of any encumbrance.
We are aware that this is only achievable if the importers and their agents are compliant.
But due to the economic challenges in the country and the high drive towards making huge profits, there is high tendency among the trading public to cut corners.
We recommend that infractions of any type in cargo clearance process such as under declaration, concealment, duty evasion and smuggling should be criminalised and offenders penalised.
Also, collaborators with these unscrupulous importers and their agents in the Customs should be fished out and punished to deter any officer with such tendency.
Any consignment which exited the port is assumed to have gone through the whole gamut of clearing process and given clean bill of health by the customs resident officers.
Eventually if such consignment is caught with any infraction, the releasing officers should be heavily sanctioned.
We find it as hypocritical for customs to shield such officers but punish the importers and their agents in the event of interception; a development we believe has emboldened the unscrupulous officers and made their illicit activities continue unabated.
We therefore frown at the present attempt to make a monster out of the strike force team by giving its members unrestricted access to the examination bays.
What assurance does the CGC have that members of the team will not get involved in the same infractions the residents officers are accused of?
We wonder if they are from the outer spaces immuned against sleazy activities.
As far as we are concerned, both the indicted resident officers and members of the strike force team are all customs officers who are all bound together by common desire.
Being in the strike force team does not confer on them higher moral rectitude that will give them strong will power to resist temptations that their job entails.
It is our wish that the CGC should restore sanity and normalcy to the cargo clearance procedures by confining his strike force team, if he insists on having it, to the fringes of cargo release process where they will serve as a counter-balance force against the excesses of resident officers.
The CGC should begin to remove from his position and punish any releasing officer who is found culpable of wrong doing.
While the CAC whose command has high level of intercepted containers with questionable release within a period of time should be reprimanded.
We believe this measure will reduce the incidence of compromise among the resident officers as well as discourage the importers and their agents who normally “lure” officers with juicy offers.
Rather than rely on heavy use of ad-hoc units that are alien to conventional clearing procedures, the resident officers who are the conventional officers familiar to the cargo clearance procedures should be purged of bad eggs that compromise their positions for pecuniary gains.
This will give a fresh lease of life to the cargo release process which will be less encumbered by the over-bearing presence of ad-hoc units.
Nigeriamaritime360.com does not want a system that will promote and turn an otherwise innocuous ad-hoc unit into a tin god with an undue influence which its members may likely abuse.
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