Much ado about Customs Bill

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UNLIKE most public hearings conducted in the National Assembly, the  one conducted by the Finance Committee of the  Senate on the new Customs Bill was historic. The conveners were convinced that the bill, initiated from the Lower Chamber, was timely.

The new legislation sought to repeal  the existing Act which has been in existence before Nigeria’s Independence. The argument, as presented by the Committee Chairman  in his opening  statement, is quite simple. Customs roles and responsibilities have changed over the years, spanning different historical epochs.

The Service which started over a century ago as a colonial outfit collecting taxes and royalties on coastal trading activities has evolved to become a large organisation employing over 20,000 Nigerians, with responsibilities cutting across revenue collection, border protection,  public health and trade facilitation.

The Committee must have thought  that all they needed to do  was to align the provisions of the new bill  with the realities of the 21st Century. Provisions were, therefore, made for electronic processes of Customs clearance, use of non-intrusive intervention methods to enforce controls  and adherence with global best practice in  Customs operations.

However, a twist started unfolding when the proceedings of such an important bill was reduced to an unnecessary power tussle on the floor of the committee room.

The first salvo was fired  from the most unexpected quarter. The Finance Minister Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala , who by virtue of  her position is the Chairman of the Nigeria Customs Service Board raised some dust when she expressed concerns over the powers of Mr. President and the Minister of Finance in the new bill.

Committee members must have been astonished as the Iron Lady laboured to sound modest in kicking against the provisions which ‘whittled down the powers of Mr. President and the Minister over Customs’. Ahead of the hearing, sources close to the Ministry had indicated that she was primed to shoot from all cylinders, based on the recommendations of an expert group of  aviation and maritime lawyers she had commissioned to study the bill.

Another dissenting voice came from the Director of Budget in the Ministry, Dr. Bright Okogwu, whose argument centred on the notion that Customs should not be funded up to the tune of 2.5 percent of Value on Board (FOB)’ as provided under Section 18 of the new bill.

Though the Director also tried to give the impression of supporting an earlier position canvassed by the Central Bank of Nigeria, it became apparent to all, that the submission was very much like the hand of Esau, echoing the voice of Jacob.

It is a fact that many Nigerians were not opportuned to read the bill before the hearing. My interest in the bill was fired by the claim of the possibility of creating a Customs outfit that will be too powerful to be tamed either by Mr. President or the Minister.

On the contrary, the bill do actually seek for the creation of a stronger board capable of enunciating policies devoid of bureaucratic bottlenecks. The Minister still wields enormous powers under the new bill, chairing the board and being vested with the power to appoint some board members.

Perhaps it is the allegation of the bill stripping Mr President of certain powers that provided yet another interesting dimension to the debate.

Though protagonists of the argument could not mention specifically the sections which render the President powerless over Customs matters, my understanding of the argument is that some existing acts will be repealed for this new one to be enacted.

Customs currently operates under a multiple of enabling laws. These include the Customs and Excise Management Act, (CEMA)Cap . C45 , Laws of the Federation 2004, which is the principal Act. Others include CEMA C.46 of 2004 on Disposal of Goods,  Customs and Excise (Special Penal and other Provisions) Act, CAP C.47 of 2004,  CEMA (Amendment) Act no 20 of 2003 to mention but a few. The intention of the 2012 bill is to repeal all these fragmented legislation and consolidate their provisions in a single comprehensive Act.

The major omission in the Acts put up for repeal is the Customs, Excise Tariff, etc (Consolidation)Act, Cap C.49 of 1995. The Act provides for imposition of Customs and Excise duties payable on goods imported and manufactured in Nigeria based on a harmonised system of Customs tariff.

Perhaps the hullabaloo about the powers of Mr President stems from  the erroneous impression that all the previous Acts relating to Customs matters were being repealed. Section 13of this Act is emphatic about the powers on the much-hyped waivers and concessions.

The section vested  on Mr President the power to impose, vary or remove any import or excise duty on goods that are liable to payment of such charges. This provision is still extant.

Opposition to Sections 42 and 43 which sought to prohibit by law the future use of pre-shipment and destination inspection service providers was a source of disappointment to most Nigerians. Leading the pack of opposition was the  Central Bank of Nigeria with the argument that the provision ‘ties’ government hands ‘, if such service is found necessary in the future.

In 2005,  in furtherance of a comprehensive reform program  government had contracted these foreign service providers to run such strategic sectors of the economy. Their brief was to put the infrastructure in place,  operate and earn huge money and transfer to Customs after seven years.

Part of their contractual obligations is to develop the capacity of the Customs to run the project by 2013. Customs position at the hearing was to express readiness to take over its statutory roles.  If  there was any doubt about Customs ability, the CBN and the Finance Ministry, both supervisory organs of the destination inspection should be held responsible for the orchestrated effort to perpetrate or institutionalise self-gratifying contracts.

All said and done, Nigerians are patiently waiting for the Distinguished Senators  to ignore sentiments associated with the various positions canvassed during the hearing.  It should not be about muscle flexing of who wields what powers as was witnessed at the hearing.

It should neither be about the office holders, since the Service will outlive the  current actors involved. It is about building a strong Customs institution that can stand the test of time. What the Nigerian economy deserves now is an efficient, modern and responsive Customs Service.  If the new Bill will give Nigerians a new Customs, so be it.

*Mr. GBADAMOSI AIBUKI, a public affairs analyst, wrote from Abuja.

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