Killing trade facilitation on the altar of Customs’ hard revenue drive
Statutorily, the major functions of the Nigeria Customs Service are revenue generation, trade facilitation and anti-smuggling drive.
However, modern economic realities have imposed additional task of data gathering for economic planning, trade security and other related duties.
In as much as revenue generation and fighting of smuggling are critical for economic growth and survival, countries of the world are laying much emphasis on trade liberalization and facilitation.
As a matter of fact, the World Customs Organization (WCO) and World Trade Organization (WTO) are urging and encouraging member states to pay more than passing interest on trade liberalization and facilitation.
This is more germane in the quest of the two international bodies to remove trade barriers among member nations and promote inter-regional trade cooperation.
Customs organization in each country is therefore encouraged and primed by the World Customs Organization (WCO) to play a pivotal role in achieving the objective of trade liberalization and facilitation.
The importance of Customs organizations in this respect is further accentuated by the proliferation of Regional Trade Agreements (RTAs) whose objective is to increase trade among countries in these regions through elimination of trade barriers.
While other Customs authorities in most member nations of WCO have keyed into the objective of the World Customs body by playing up their trade facilitation role, the reverse is the case with the Nigeria Customs Service.
We note with concern that despite the over century existence of the Nigeria Customs Service, the agency is still lagging behind its other contemporaries in effective trade facilitation.
The passion of the Nigeria Customs for revenue generation over the years, has assumed an alarming dimension.
Each year, the agency sets revenue target for its personnel whose performance is measured on their ability to scale the hurdle.
Most of the times, they not only meet their targets but surpass them.
In recent times, under the leadership of Abdullahi Dikko, the late erstwhile Comptroller-General of Customs, and his successor, Hameed Ali, the service has hit one trillion naira revenue mark.
We are by no means condemning nor disparaging the service for this commendable feat, which falls within its purview anyway, but our concern is predicated on the distressing level to which the equally critical role of trade facilitation has been whittled down and relegated.
Ask an average Customs officer his role in the service and he will be quick to tell you he is in the service to collect revenue to the coffers of the Federal Government.
He may be right because his psyche is tuned to that direction only.
We dare say that the policy thrust of the incumbent Comptroller-General Ali is revenue generation and he doesn’t mince words in his determination to carry out this task.
He measures the ability and capability of officers, especially his field commanders such as Area Controllers and other unit heads, by the amount of money they generate and not how fast they aid and quicken cargo clearance process.
This policy has unfortunately led to high mortality rate of the tenure of the Area Controllers who, in their morbid fear to keep their seats, deploy no-holds-barred means to meet their targets.
Inability to meet monthly revenue target consecutively attracts instant redeployment to less fancied places.
This hyper-drive for revenue has led to some infractions in the past that attracted the intervention of the National Assembly and scratching remarks from the public.
To show its commitment to trade facilitation among its member states, the WCO encourages various Customs authorities to conduct Time Release Study (TRS) meant to measure the time taken between arrival and release of goods as well as calculating the average time required for the release of goods at various Customs clearance points.
This study is to enhance trade facilitation.
We recall that the Nigeria Customs Service, in recent times, has embarked on series of TRS exercises, at the behest of the WCO.
The agency conducted the exercise in 2006 ahead of the deployment of ASYCUDA++ processing system.
Another one was done in 2010.
Under the incumbent Customs Administration, the study was conducted twice in 2018 and 2020 with no visible impact on the trade facilitation drive of the Customs.
We however discovered that no meaningful result came out from these exercises as, to the best of our knowledge; the results of these exercises were consigned to the dust bin of history, if there was any result at all.
To show the importance attached to this exercise, WCO, in the previous exercises, supported the agency with technical expertise and necessary tools to achieve the desired goal, trade facilitation through fast cargo clearance.
But unfortunately, the mind of our Customs administrators is firmly set on how much they can realize than how seamless and timely goods can exit Customs control.
The consequences of this action have been unnecessary delays in goods clearance as a result of man-made hurdles placed in the clearance procedures.
As a result, our ports have become inefficient and expensive to carry out transactions which invariably lead to high level of smuggling, cargo diversion and loss of trading opportunities, especially with landlocked countries in the sub region.
Our position should however not be construed.
We encourage and even commend the revenue collection propensity of the Customs but this should be done with human face with equal passion and intensity for trade facilitation.
It makes more sound economic sense that by facilitating trade through elimination of trade barriers, there would be higher turnover of customers at the ports who would wish to make use of our port facilities as a result of its efficiency and quick cargo clearance procedures, a development that will automatically lead to higher revenue generation.
We however make bold to say that our ports are increasingly becoming inefficient while cargo clearance and delivery procedures are not yet out of the woods despite the automation process.
This is not only because of the levity with which the Customs are taking the issue of trade facilitation but because there are other intervening factors which have unfortunately made our ports kill joy for trade facilitation.
Government has woefully failed to provide critical infrastructure to make the port amenable to quick cargo clearance and delivery system.
A case in point is the absence of serviceable scanners at the ports to aid quick cargo clearance.
As a result of this, customs has now resulted to 100 percent physical examination of containers with its attendant delays and security risks.
Added to this shortcoming is the slow pace of work on rehabilitation of port access roads which has resulted to malignant traffic congestion.
The half-hearted commitment of government to link the ports with rail system for quick evacuation of cargo is another impediment to achieving port efficiency.
Similarly, the lip service being paid to the implementation of Single Window System which admits all the relevant government agencies on a single platform to ease cargo clearance has also become a big drag on government efforts to make the ports efficient and competitive.
The cumulative effect of customs overbearing and overzealous attitude towards revenue generation and the port infrastructural gap have all combined to make the oft-repeated 48-hour cargo clearance target a myth.
These lamentable lapses have equally robbed our ports off the chances to becoming cargo loading centre, a status that would have resulted in increased patronage and more revenue.
Sadly, we dare say that these impediments will make the government crusade on ease of doing business at the port a mere slogan.
This platform however wishes to encourage the Customs authority to pay more than a passing interest in trade facilitation by removing all the man-made barriers in goods clearance and delivery.
The incumbent Comptroller-General of Nigeria Customs Service, Hameed Ali, will write his name in gold if he musters the same zeal he has for revenue generation and anti-smuggling drive and deploy it to enhancement of trade facilitation.
The results of previous TRS exercises conducted by the customs should be put to good use to enhance trade facilitation.
Equally, we urge the government to provide necessary infrastructural facilities that will not only aid quick evacuation of goods but make ease of doing business crusade realisable.
We believe these efforts will be complemented by terminal operators, who as business men, would not brood delay in cargo service delivery.
It is our belief that our ports could only be made efficient and competitive if cargo clearance and delivery process are simplified and made seamless, port infrastructural facilities are available and functional which will enhance trade facilitation and give the Nigerian ports unassailable advantage to become cargo loading centre within the West and Central African region.
To this end, the high revenue which the Customs craves for at the expense of trade facilitation will start to surge in.
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