Editorial: Ali’s Volte-face on Barge Operations 

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Editorial: Ali’s Volte-face on Barge Operations 

On March 12, 2020, the Nigeria Customs Service, through a circular, took what turned out to be the most ridiculous policy ever shunned out from its High Command.

In the circular, Hameed Ali, the Comptroller-General of Customs, ordered a blanket ban on barge operations at the ports due to an “intelligence information” that the operators divert containers to unauthorised destination.

Expectedly, the uproar that greeted the unpopular decision made the CGC to hastily beat a retreat.

Notwithstanding the volte-face of the CG, the incident has thrown up a very fundamental flaw in the administrative acumen of the retired Solder.

The incident has given us an insight into the level of understanding of the CGC about the critical roles of customs in the economy.

We were shocked by the CGC pronouncement to ban barge operations.

How could he ever contemplate such decision let alone implement it?

Barge operations have tremendously helped to reduce to the barest minimum the cargo glut that was threatening to choke the ports in the wake of the malignant traffic snare that was the fallout of the dilapidated port access roads.

Evacuation of mounting cargo became difficult as the trucks could hardly have access to the ports.

Vessels turnaround time was becoming painfully slow and embarrassingly longer as the terminals lack space to take in fresh cargo.

The situation in the port was becoming a belam.

Then the barges came to the rescue as thousands of stranded containers were being ferried on waters to their destination.

Importers and their agents began to heave a sigh of relief as they were able to take delivery of their cargo.

The barge operations also crashed the costs of evacuation by trucks which had already hit the roof.

One can then imagine the shock and righteous indignation of the shipping community, especially the users of the barge operations, when the Customs made the unpopular decision.

What was the CGC and his lieutenants thinking when they made such an order?    Or error?

Are they really in tune with the reality at the ports beyond their passion to generate revenue?

Do they have any scruples for the difficulties being experienced to access and evacuate cargo from the ports, using the dilapidated port access roads?

Does the CGC understand the economic implications of port congestion?

Does he know that he will generate more revenue if the cargo are taken out of the ports faster as other agencies of government such as the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) and Nigeria Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) will record revenue yield with improved turnaround time of vessels?

We bet, he doesn’t.

If he does, he would not only encourage the barge operations but will support its sustainability.

We are flabbergasted that in the modern age when other modes of transportation, such as water and rails, are being used and encouraged in preference to road transport, to evacuate cargo from the ports, the CGC will want to ban the use of barges.

Even, if we can forgive Ali for these lapses as a result of being an outsider in modern Customs operations, what can we say of his lieutenants who are career Customs officers?

Couldn’t they have advised him against this unpopular decision and its implications?

Or does Ali run an autocratic administration which spurns the advice of his lieutenants?

For the fact that the decision was rescinded as soon as it was made was not only an embarrassment to the Customs hierarchy but shows the decision lacks depth and thorough appreciation of the exigencies of modern port operations.

It makes it more ridiculous that the security measures for the cargo on barges which the Customs should have earlier provided and which would not have necessitated the ban in the first place is what they now resorted to.

It is laughable to think that it was after the big goof by the customs that made it to reverse itself that it wanted to “take stricter measures, including the use of escorts to ensure that the containers on the barges are not diverted”

It beats us to imagine that the Customs think- tank failed to come up with these measures before it exposed itself to public upbraid.

We have consistently expressed worries on this platform that the unbridled passion of Nigeria Customs for revenue generation is killing trade facilitation.

It is a shame that when other countries of the world, especially members of the World Customs Organization (WCO) are passionately pursuing trade facilitation, as espoused and encouraged by the global Customs body, Nigeria Customs is still entangled in the web of its inordinate passion for revenue generation.

Or how else do you justify the progressively high revenue targets set for customs each year amidst sluggish economy?

It was even more paradoxical that customs, encouraged by government, gleefully sets higher revenue targets for itself every year amidst the claims by government that it wants to cut down on importation and encourage exportation.

The unsustainability of this passion for revenue was brought to the fore this year when government was forced to review downward  its 2020 budget by N1.5trillon as a result of the catastrophic effect of the rampaging coronavirus on the nation’s mono economy.

Consequent upon this, the mega Customs revenue target of N1.5 trillion has to be similarly cut.

We shall reiterate our advocacy that Nigeria Customs should be more concerned with trade facilitation as this will not only, by implication, bring more money to the government coffers but stimulate the economy through increased investments.

We believe that if the Nigeria Customs is made to imbibe this practice, Hameed Ali wouldn’t have rushed to ban what actually meant to facilitate trade, notwithstanding his hasty retraction.

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