The Need to Revive Customs Auction Programme

As a result of the anti- smuggling duty of the Nigeria Customs service, which is one of its core functions, the service, on regular basis,  makes  lots of seizures of goods that fall foul of import guidelines, otherwise called contraband goods and those whose owners do evade duty payment.

Added to this category of  goods are those whose owners abandoned at the ports which are generally referred to as overtime cargoes.
In order to free the spaces where these goods are kept, an auction system was devised and as entrenched in the CEMA  as a means of disposing the goods.
The system serves a dual purpose of decongesting the spaces the goods are being kept, it also serves as revenue generation for government  as the goods are sold(auctioned) to members of the public at rock bottom prices.
As long as we can remember, the Customs has effectively used this method to decongest its various warehouses across   the country as well as the border posts and ports terminals where these goods are quarantined.
Even though the way and manner this auction system has been deployed over the years is a subject of controversy due to its not too transparent nature, but it has over   the years decongested customs warehouses and border posts as well as raking in additional revenue  for government.
But that was before the incumbent Comptroller-General of Customs, Hammed Ali, came on the scene.
Ever since the retired Colonel became the helmsman of the Nigeria Customs, he has changed the complexion of the service, including the age-long auction system.
The non-smilling Customs General stopped the manual auction system in 2015 when he came in.
In 2017, he  replaced the manual process of the auction system with e-auction due to what he said was the inadequacies of the former system.
As laudable as the technology -driven system was, it was short lived.
After two feeble attempts on electronic auction system, the platform came to a grief as it was buffetted with myraid of challenges which eventually stalked its operation.
Expectedly, the system was hastily suspended in 2018 in the same manner it was introduced.
The two epileptic attempts made on the electronic platform produced negligible success, suggesting that the concept was poorly thought out and shoddily implemented.
Before  the now suspended e-auction system was introduced by Ali in 2017, two years after he assumed duties, the Customs warehouses across the country and the border posts were already burgeoning with seized items.
Two years after it was suspended, the Customs facilities at Kano, Katsina, Maiduguri, Port Harcourt, Eastern and Western Marine commands, Customs  FOU in Zones A, B and C are currently bustling with seized items with most of them at various stages of decomposition.
Seized edible items, disposables, textiles and vehicles are currently wasting away at these facilities.
More pitiable sight are found at the border posts, especially at Seme and Idiroko, the two busiest border areas in the country where some of these items are openly left in the open to rot away under the harsh atmospheric elements, as the warehouses could no longer contain them.
The warehouse  and car park at the FOU,Zone A, ikeja, Lagos, which arguably the biggest, was so overwhelmed that the Customs authority had to convert its nearby  training school into an holding bay for some of these goods, especially exotic cars.
To say we are sad by this unwarranted huge economic waste would be an understatement.
As a matter of fact, we are outraged by this needless waste which has been conservatively  put between N30 billon to N70 billion.
More worrisome is the fact that the CGC seemed unconcerned by this waste as he betrays no emotion to the outpouring of grief by stakeholders as well as the members of the National Assembly who in 2017 promised to probe the unfortunate development.
Why would the CGC find it expedient to allow multi-billion naira worth of trade goods rot away under his custody when he has many options to maximise their use?
We are not swayed by his oft-repeated excuse that the  court process needed to condemn and forfeit these seized items to government is often slow and which has led to the delay in disposing them.
To us, such excuse is lame and flies in the face of logic.
Agreed that  court processes are needed to enable Customs dispose some of these goods through auction sales, but we dare say not all category of seized items need this legal process.
Contraband goods need no court process before they are forfeited to the Government as CEMA clearly stipulates that goods harmful to the economic well being of the country and which run foul of the stipulated import guidelines suffer instant and outright forfeiture to govennent while the owners, if caught, stand prosecuted.
Millions of bags of rice being intercepted almost on daily basis fall under this category.
We ask the CG what court forfeiture order he obtained before he gave million of bags to the IDP camps as ordered by President Mohammed Buhari?
The same applies to the controversial COVID-19 palliative rice  the CGC, at the prompting of the President, sent to some state government.
The only category of goods that needs court forfeiture order are those seized on Customs raids or those abandoned at the ports that in due course become overtime cargo.
Even at that, the CGC should not attribute his inexplicable refusal to dispose these seized goods to delay in court process as it doesn’t take eternity to procure one.
The situation has gotten to the point that Mr President should intervene in this matter to halt this mindless economic waste.
The President, as he normally orders the CGC, should instruct the retired Colonel, through relevant organs of government, to restore the suspended auction system not only to decongest and free the warehouses, port terminals and border posts but discontinue the irritating waste .
We suggest that if the Customs is not capable of running an efficient electronic auction sales , as it appears in recent times, the service should revert to the old manual system, notwithstanding its imperfections, so as to halt the economic waste.
The manual system could be adopted pending the time  Customs authority smoothers the rough edges in the electronic system.
In addition, we propose a method called buy- back system where the identified owners of seized items, not contraband goods, would be allowed to pay the necessary Customs duties with some charges as penalty, and allowed to take the goods.
We believe this will decongest the customs facilities as well as the ports while at the same time generate additional revenue for the government.
We believe that until a more superior powers force the hands of the powerful CGC Ali, he seems not in a hurry to dispose the decomposing seized goods from the Customs facilities nationwide.
We also shudder at the possibility that some of these quarantined seized goods could get missing or pilfered, if they are not disposed off, as we are not aware of any fool proof audit system or stock taking of these goods by the Customs authority.

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