By EMEKA EJERE
Initial hope raised with the appointment Col. Hameed Ali (Rtd), a close ally of President Buhari to reform the Nigeria Customs Service, NCS, seems to have petered out over the years as the nation bad guy agency has not really changed the narrative. As an outsider and supposedly incorruptible, Ali was brought in to salvage the system of its corruption image and plug the leaking hole in revenue collection. But all that is now history.
Upon his appointment as the Comptroller-General of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Col. Hameed Ali (Rtd), stirred the hornet nest by bluntly refusing to appear in the uniform of the service, insisting that he was not so appointed to wear uniform but to do his job.
It got even more fierce that he stood his grounds when, in 2017, the Senate ordered him to appear in “appropriate” uniform over the service’s planned action at the time against owners of vehicles without duty payment. Mr. Ali had stressed, “No, I was not appointed the Comptroller General to wear uniform.” “Does the uniform work or the person behind the uniform?”
He added: “Am I doing my job or not? I think that’s what should interest the National Assembly.” After five years on the saddle, it appears his achievement is answering that rhetorical question in mixed tones.
Mr. Ali, a retired colonel, was appointed Customs chief in 2015 by President Muhammadu Buhari, becoming the second to be so appointed from outside the service. Under former military head of state, Ibrahim Babangida, Bello Haliru became the first head of Customs to be appointed from outside the service.
As comptroller-general, he has been pragmatic in office, increasing the agency’s revenue generation by tackling many chronic problems in service, including personnel shortage, corruption and border insecurity. But it was not all success as the failures of the service to meet revenue targets eventually led to the closure of the borders in August 2018.
During an interactive session on revenue generation with the Senate Committee on Customs, Excise and Tariff in June, Mr. Ali disclosed that the NCS raked a total sum of N573, 190,265,605.41 as revenue between January and May 2020 fiscal year, even as a total of 28, 844 items were seized from 2015 to date.
The interaction was part of the committee’s oversight activities to assess the 2020 budget performance of the agency, update on recruitment exercise, number of seized goods, number auctioned and amount realized from the auction if any.
Deputy Comptroller-General ( DCG) in charge of Human Resources, Sanusi Abubakar Umar who represented the Customs boss said that Customs was able to realise more than half of the targeted revenue for the year due to blockage of identified leakages .
Umar said, “As a result of blocking of identified areas of leakages and free flow of traffic for importers during the COVID-19 lockdown , our revenue generation increased rapidly to about N6 to N7billion per day , making us to rake in N573billion within five months which is more than half of the N957billion targeted revenues for us in 2020.
“From January to May this year, the performance of the budget is N37, 865867750 representing 15.90%. The target given to the service in terms of revenue was N1.6trillion but due to the COVID-19 pandemic the target was reviewed to N957 billion. As at January to May, the service had collected N573, 190, 265, 605.21billion.”
Umar also disclosed that the agency had so far spent the sum of N300million on its yet to be concluded recruitment exercise of 3,200 officers as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, during a news conference to mark 2019 International Customs Day (ICD) in Abuja , Mr. Ali revealed that the service generated about four trillion naira (N4 trn) revenue for the country in the past four years.
The World Customs Organisation (WCO) dedicates every 26th of January for the celebration and drawing the attention of the global community to a particular aspect of customs’ functions. The day is also set aside for Customs administrations to highlight its activities, challenges, achievements and potential for national consciousness as well as greater support.
Giving a breakdown of the amount, Ali stated that the service realised N904 billion in 2015, N898.8 billion in 2016, N1.037 trillion in 2017 and N1.2 trillion in 2018, pointing out that the ongoing reform by NCS and growing attitudinal change among stakeholders and officers and men was the reason for continuous rising in revenue generation.
According to him, in the previous three and half years, the service had carried out reform programmes that turned the agency into a high volume revenue source and stricter enforcer of anti-smuggling laws.
“Our experiences within these years have shown that with an increased level of compliance from our stakeholders and integrity on the part of all operatives, the nation can earn more revenue needed to build the Nigeria of our dream,” he said.
The Customs boss said that smuggling remained a challenge that the service had been striving to combat. He noted that the three layers security strategy – Residents Officers of the Command, Federal Operation Unit and Headquarters Strike Force – had continued to make smuggling unattractive.
Ali revealed that within the year under review, 2,671 pump action riffles were seized in Lagos as well as 61 containers of Tramadol and other controlled drugs in Lagos and Port Harcourt. The deadly items seized by NCS, he said, clearly demonstrated Customs’ contributions to national economy and security.
In October 2019, while answering questions from the joint National Assembly committee on finance working on the 2020-2022 medium-term expenditure framework and fiscal strategy paper, Mr. Ali disclosed that the agency had been generating average revenue between N4.7bn and N5.8bn daily since the borders were closed. The Nigerian government had closed its land borders since August last year to curb smuggling.
He said smugglers from neighbouring countries then had no choice than to bring their goods through the ports, which they paid duty on. “When we closed the border my fear was that our revenue is going to drop. To be honest, our revenue kept increasing, ” Ali said.
“There was a day in September that we collected N9.2billion in one day. It has never happened before. This is after the closure of the border and since then, we have maintained an average of about N4.7billion to N5.8 billion on a daily basis which is far more than we used to collect.”
In January, while addressing members of the Board of Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB), led by its chairman, Prof. Mohammed Isah, who paid him a courtesy call in Abuja, Ali declared that all officers of the agency would declare their assets every year. The first time he gave the directive was shortly after his appointment.
According to him, the declaration of assets was compulsory for the officers, to lead by example, as not only were they part of the enforcers of the nation’s laws but also because of their involvement in financial transactions.
Ali said, “The law that governs Nigeria Customs Service and bankers require that we declare our assets every year, because of the nature of the type of job we do. This is because of our involvement in financial transactions; so, we must lead by example as there must be checks and balances.
“The continuous filling of this form will not only keep officers in check but will make them have confidence that what they are doing in their life is well-programmed and structured.
“We will showcase ourselves, and we will lead by example by enforcing this, starting from this year. We will need your cooperation to ensure that whatever we declare is properly scrutinised, and we want to assure you that we will support you in achieving your mandate.”
Reiterating his commitment to ensuring every officer in the service follows the ethical codes, Mr. Ali said the asset declaration directive would start from the recruitment of new officers before it works its way to the old ones. That was just one of the Customs boss’ ways of demonstrating his zero tolerance for corruption.
However, a public affairs analyst, Dr. Luke Onyekakeyah, believes there is nothing unusual if Customs officers and men were now required to declare their assets as such directives in the past did not make any serious difference..
“The only difference is in the on-going anti-corruption war, which the Buhari administration is waging”, Onyekakeyah said. “That has raised the apprehension over what ordinarily is routine. People are afraid that anyone implicated to have corruptly enriched him or herself will be in hot soup.”
Also, when he visited border posts in Cross River State alongside Mohammed Babandede, Comptroller-General of the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS), in September last year, Mr. Ali warned personnel of the service against corruption, stating that culprits would face serious consequences.
Addressing officers of the two agencies after the visit, Ali warned against cutting corners, saying the days of illegality in the services were over. He noted that the NCS had been repositioned for better and effective service delivery for the growth of the country.
“It’s high time you committed yourselves to the service. If you cut corners, you will find yourself in jail,” he warned. “We will not only dismiss you from service, we will prosecute you; that is the only way to punish the bad eggs. When you compromise, be ready to pay for it.
Ali’s reform of the service is not just about correcting the ills at the ports involving officers; it is also about ensuring that there is transparency in whatever the service does. Part of this is Customs’ decision to change the old method through which overtime or seized goods are sold to the public by introducing an electronic platform to conduct its auctions.
The auction, a yearly ritual since 2017, was introduced to decongest the Customs’ warehouses. On Monday, the NCS resumed the electronic auction of vehicles impounded from smugglers on its web portal although, it was learnt, several Nigerians have lamented their inability to participate in the process.
A statement by the Customs spokesperson, Joseph Attah, announcing the re-opening of the process said:
“Following the re-engineering of the Nigeria Customs Service e-auction process, the electronic portal is now opened (live) for interested persons with valid Tax Identification Number (TIN) to log in and bid for items of their choice.”
According to the statement, for the current window, the bidding period opens 12 noon Monday and closes 12 noon Wednesday every week..
“Please note that the process is fully automated and requires no physical intervention of any kind to win,” the statement added.
However, there are speculations that several Nigerians who tried to participate in the process complained that the web portal would not accept their Tax Identification Numbers (TIN), among other things. The possession of a TIN, issued by the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), is one of the requirements to participate in the process. Applicants are also expected to pay a non-refundable “administrative” fee of N1,000.
One of the applicants, Obichukwu Obinna, twitted: “Try sorting out the TIN and email field, they are not working… I tried coy, BN, and personal TIN, none seems to fly.
Olanipekun Richard, another applicant twitted: “Please check the portal very well. I went to CAC to reconfirm my TIN number which is correct but this portal keeps saying “TIN number not found”. Please check! Thank you.
During the International Customs Day at the NCS headquarters, Abuja in January, Mr. Ali announced that the service would go digital once it concludes its automation system by 2022. He explained that President Muhammadu Buhari had earlier approved the e-Customs Project for the service.
The e-Customs Project is a Digital platform and an all-encompassing automation system that has to do with administration, payment, border management, export and import processing designed to migrate the service from paper to paperless system of operation.
Mr. Ali said when fully functional, any customs officer, who cannot handle the computer would be out of service. ‘‘It is our hope that once that platform is put in place, latest in two years, every activity in Customs will be paperless and digital”, he said.
“ That is why we have been notifying our officers that everybody must know how to manipulate computer, otherwise, in the next two years, anybody that cannot handle computer is out of Customs.’’