FUNSO OLOJO |
The appointment of Col. (rtd) Hameed Ali as the Comptroller-General of Nigeria Customs Service on August 27th, 2015, was a turning point in the history of the revenue-generating agency as it created both challenges and opportunities for the service.
It set a new template for discipline and efficiency as Ali came with a mission to reform, restructure and increase the revenue of the agency.
“The mandate he (President Buhari) has given me are three basic things: go to Customs, reform customs, restructure customs and increase revenue generation, simple”, Ali told his subordinates on resumption of duties.
While the Customs boss was carrying out this presidential mandate, controversy clung to him like a second skin as some of his actions and decisions were decked in the garb of the unconventional which set him on a collision course with the National Assembly.
Most of the reforms carried out by Ali were done in military style. As genuine and sincere as these actions were, they were said to be carried out unilaterally without recourse to the Ministry of Finance, which is the supervising ministry.
Some of these policies included the removal of restrictions on rice importation through the land borders that were notorious for rice smuggling. This measure yielded an unprecedented revenue haul in two months (October-November 2015) when a sum of N1.2 billion was collected by the Service as duty on rice imports.The policy was later reversed as the Customs strongman was said to have acted unilaterally and at variance with the Federal government policy of encouraging massive local production of rice.
Another laudable policy which was mired in debate as a result of its implementation was the total ban on vehicles through land borders.
Even though, it was an initiative of the Federal government to strengthen its auto policy programme, but its implementation created a wave of panic among Nigerians and set the Customs in confrontation with the National Assembly.
The customs, in its drive to generate revenue, extended the seizure threat to vehicles on Nigerian roads but whose duty were not paid at the time of import.
It gave the owners of such vehicles an ultimatum to regularize their papers or risk seizure. This policy was greeted with public outcry before the intervention of the National Assembly halted its enforcement.
The anti-corruption stance of CG Ali has helped to reposition the image of the Customs. Hitherto, the Customs was perceived as a bastion of corruption by Nigerians. The CG has made it clear at several forums that his administration would not condone corruption and anyone caught would be made to face the law. Resultantly, today, corruption or any form of malfeasance has been reduced to the barest minimum especially with the introduction of digital e-commerce platforms which has practically eliminated physical contact between custom officers and their commercial counterparts.
Officers are now more circumspect in their activities unlike in the past when they engaged in open bribe taking.
Since Ali’s coming into office, several officers and men of the service have enjoyed promotions. No fewer than three thousand senior officers were recently promoted to the ranks of comptroller, deputy comptroller and assistant comptroller and other senior ranks. This is historic as it was the first time such comprehensive and all embracing, promotion exercise has taken place. Before now, officers had not been promoted for upwards of 10 years.
Ali has also promised to reward exemplary and gallantry performances with promotions from time to time.
In furtherance of his reform agenda, the CG has undertaken a realignment of Customs Service rank structure to be at par with that of the Nigeria Police Force as officers in the Inspectorate Cadre on salary Grade Level 08 and above are to align with the appropriate cadre. He has also approved the removal of dichotomy between holders of Higher National Diploma and Bachelor’s degree in the Service.
Recently, the CG reconstituted the Customs management following the statutory retirement of some members with the appointments of four Acting Deputy Comptroller-Generals and seven Acting Assistant Comptroller- Generals. He also approved redeployment of eight Comptrollers to re-engineer the management of the Service for efficient service delivery.
He charged them to bring their experiences to bare in the administration of the Service, stressing that the modest achievements of the ongoing reform agenda in the areas of revenue generation, anti-smuggling operations and trade facilitation must be sustained and improved upon in the interest of the nation.
Also, the CG initiated massive transfer of staff, especially those who have dug their feet deeper in their respective comfort zones where they were perceived to have been heavily compromised in their assignments.
However, this restructuring exercise was dogged by controversy as some people alleged ethnic cleansing.
It was alleged that the promotion exercise was heavily tilted in favour of a particular tribe.
For instance, on the Comptroller cadre, North-West has 26 officers, North-East 22, North-Central 15, South-West 8, South-South 8 and South-East 6.
On the Deputy Comptroller- Cadre, North-East has 67, North-Central 60, North-West 55, South West 39, South-South 39 and South-East 23.
On the Assistant-Comptroller cadre, North East 92, North- Central 88, North-West 81, South-West 43, South-South 43 and South- East 42.
Mr Lucky Amiwero, a maritime consultant and freight forwarder accused Hameed Ali of usurping the powers of the Finance Minister, as concerns trade matters and officer promotions.
Amiwero said that with the non-constitution of the Customs Board, Ali has been taking certain policy decisions which only the board has powers to take.
In a paper presented during a three-day training programme for maritime journalists in Lagos, he told participants that the Customs Board is supposed to be under the control, management and the direction of the Minister of Finance as provided by Customs and Excise Management Act. (CEMA)
He said that so far, this was not so, alleging that the CGC was actually the one exercising such powers.
He said that it was amazing that for about two years of the present administration, the Customs has remained without a board, leaving the functions of the Board to be run by one person under a democratic setting.
Amiwero claimed that what has happened in the case of the Minister of Finance not constituting the board and being in full control was a political gang up against her.
He also claimed that the Finance Minister was being denied her powers to function because of her gender as a women and also her relative youth.
Appreciating the prime role of training and education in the discharge of duty by officers and men, the Nigeria Customs Service Staff College in Abuja is now headed by an Assistant- Comptroller General of Customs. The CG has promised training and retraining of officers and men in the modern customs operations without leaving behind customs licensed agents and other stakeholders who are relevant to the operations of customs. Only recently, all the public relations officers of the Service and some journalists were trained in crisis communication and management by the Nigeria Customs Service in conjunction with the Nigeria Institute of Public Relations (NIPR).
CG Ali is said to have been the only customs boss in the recent times who has taken out time to visit all the customs formations in the country. This is said to have impacted positively on the morale of all officers and men in far-flung formations who had never seen in flesh who their comptroller general is.
In consolidation of the relationship between the Service and port stakeholders, CG Ali has visited the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), NIMASA and all freight forwarding associations like Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) and National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF).
Increasing revenue generation
The impact these policies have had on revenue generation of the Service under CG Ali cannot be ignored. The policies have spurred and reinvigorated officers and men to double up their energy in the discharge of their duties.
One of the benefits of this is the successes being recorded by the anti-smuggling arm of the Service. The stance of the CG on corruption is a booster for the anti-corruption drive. News from each command has been a cheering one. Between January to May, the service has made a lot of seizures including arms and ammunitions.
The service made two landmark seizures in January and May, this year which included the 661 pump rifles intercepted after they left the Lagos ports and another seizure of 440 pump action guns imported from Turkey recorded by the officers and men of Tincan Island Customs Command on Monday, May 22, 2017 in Lagos.
It was a land mark achievement of the unsmiling retired Army colonel.
To make doing businesses in Nigeria easy and profitable, the Nigeria Customs Service, as the trade facilitator, has not failed to key into various economic measures put in place by the Federal Government. It has long introduced a trade portal for all relevant elements in the logistics trade chain to key into for an effective document processing, for easy cargo clearance in the ports and borders.
CG Ali has restated that all the scanning machines in all the ports will be replaced with new ones towards effective cargo delivery and loss of revenue and time.
To further strengthen trade facilitation, Ali administration has expressed an unwavering commitment to the quest of the Federal Government towards delivering reforms through the Change Agenda for business to thrive, with a target set to reduce import and export time by up to 50 percent, and ensure that import procedures meet international standards.
Deputy Comptoller Joseph Attah, the National Public Relations Officer of the Service, while speaking on the customs role in the FG’s Quest for good business environ in the country, noted that guidelines are available that addresses some of the issues causing inefficiency and delays at the ports, several of which relate directly to the operations of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS).
“The NCS is now required to schedule and coordinate the Mandatory Joint Examinations and sign-off Form to ensure that there is only one point of contact between impoters and officials.
“Similarly, the minimum cargo replacement notice time for examination required by terminal operators has been reduced from 24 hours to a maximum of 12 hours. This means that after the NCS agrees with all parties on a suitable time for physical examination, terminal operators now only require a 12 hour notice to place the cargo for examination” Attah noted.
Another novel idea introduced by the CGC was the e-auction of goods. This initiative was meant to sanitise the crises-ridden and corruption-infested manual auction process.
The first set of winners has since taken delivery of their spoils while the winners in the second batch are waiting in the wing to savour their success.
However, the only dark spot in the otherwise noble initiative of Ali is the fact that only one innocuous bank, Jaiz bank which is a Muslim bank, was, as at the time of writing this report, accommodated on the e-auction platform.
Notwithstanding the explanation of the Customs service that more banks will be admitted as only Jaiz bank showed signs of commitment to the system at inception; the development denied a good number of prospective bidders the opportunity to take part in the bidding process.
Others also fault the use of a Muslim bank in respect of such a major project.
The uniform saga, which was still fresh in the memory of Nigerians, is another testimony to the relish at wish the CGC hugs controversy.
At any rate, the appointment of Col.(rtd.)Ali by the Buhari Administration as the helmsman of the Nigeria Customs has restored a semblance of sanity in its operations and service, regardless of his controversial methods in carrying out his presidential mandate.