By Clement Udegbe
WHAT we know today as the Nigeria Customs and Excise Commission was founded over a century ago, precisely in 1891, as the Nigeria Customs Service, NCS, by the colonial masters basically for the collection of inland revenue in the Niger Coast Protectorate, the South of Nigeria. It later became the Department of Customs and Excise in 1922.
In 1945, it was divided into two arms of Maritime and Preventive for the collection of revenues from import and export duty, the control and prevention of smuggling. In 1964, the first Nigerian CEO, Ayodele Diyan, was appointed. In 1974 , the late Alhaji Shehu Musa became the first Director who restructured the NSC as a sole administrator. In 1993 Brigadier General S.O.G. Ango remained as the head till 1999 when Ahmed Aliyu Mustapha took over as Comptroller General.
This brief history is needed to show that the leadership of the NCS since over a decade ago, has been dominated by the North, while enforcement is mostly in the South. The North had always headed the NSC, and any stint by a person from other sections of the country is quickly terminated.
In Abuja , there are 28 members of the House Committee on Customs,13 of them are from the North, seven from the South-South, four from the South West, three Middle Beltans , and one only from the South East! No wonder enforcement is as we see it today.
Dikko Inde is the Comptroler General who generally has positive reputation, having risen through the ranks; but a lot is left to be desired. The recruitment exercise he conducted last year has been criticised as largely in favour of the Fulani against the Christian North. Although all Northern states were favoured, it has been argued that not one Christian was chosen in spite of the fact that many of these states are predominantly Christians, while others have substantial Christian population.
It was for a breach of the federal character principle that Mrs. Uzoamaka Nwizu, a former Cmptroller General of Immigration from the South East was dismissed, yet nothing has been done about this.
With the collapse of industries, NCS has shifted its main focus to anti- smuggling enforcement, which is good, if fairly executed.
But they have set targets of huge sums that must be raked in periodically and thereby created the situation that is simply oppressive.
In Lagos, for example, goods are cleared from the ports of Apapa and Tin Can, with the knowledge of some Customs officers, yet they set up informants who help them intercept consignments at any point within the country. The importer either settles or gets his goods impounded.
The officers ‘chop’ the importer at the seaport, on the road, up to the warehouse. No one investigates or cares about how the goods left the seaport, perhaps because it is not their ox that is gored.
The oppression in import business in Nigeria has created a booming multi-billion dollar business for our neighboring country, Republic of Benin. There are two main routes to and from Republic of Benin from Lagos, the Mile 2 – Badagry- Seme border route , or the Sango Ota, Idi-Iroko route.
On the latter route you find only about seven Customs check points and none of them is anything unusual. Officers are gentle, humane and understanding, you could make the 100 kilometres stretch to Idi-Iroko from Sango in about one hour. This route feeds into Agege Motor Road, and to most of Lagos.
But on the Badagry-Seme border route you find over 34 check points from Seme to Mile 2, and it takes from about two to three hours to cover almost same distance, apart from the bad road. Officers are harsh, rude, and unreasonable in the sense that they may just refuse to distinguish between personal items and commercial quantities, and they appear trained or quick witted at devising extortion.
You could be caught for carrying one crate of 12 bottles of soda drink, and that you hold a receipt from within Nigeria is immaterial. A commercial driver must settle at all these points and it ranges from N200, for regular pliers of the route to N5000, depending on how they assess you.
In the case of new vehicles, they have points where they take them in near their hotel along that road and extort huge sums, and since it is a kind of guest inn, anything can happen to a lady found with anything. It was a pity to see poor women pleading over used clothes, perfumes and things like that, something they do to survive in this increasingly harsh economic conditions.
This is the route to Alaba Electronics International Market, the Lagos International Trade Fair Complex that houses the BBA and ASPMDA markets where mostly South Easterners trade.
These enforcement officers also lurk around seven locations between Sagamu and Benin on the expressway, at three locations from Benin to Asaba, totaling 10 locations from Lagos to Onitsha; whereas you have only about four locations on the Lagos-Ibadan- Akure to Abuja. A trader from the South East could have his truck load of items impounded even when he can establish that he bought and paid for these items with receipts from Lagos. But once that truck crosses into the North, say into Benue State from Enugu axis , or Kogi State from Akure, it is a smooth ride to the warehouse. What else is oppression?
The questions Dikko Inde should answer include: What happens to those his officers who allowed these goods to cross our borders, and seaports in the first place? Should an innocent purchaser of an item within Nigeria with receipts to show lose his goods ?
Why are the roads in the North not as monitored as those in the South? Why do we hear only of seizures and not of accomplices which we know are very many from within the Customs?
What applies to one section of Nigeria in terms of Customs enforcement must apply to the rest, and while not supporting smuggling, we need to be fair in enforcement.