By Rotimi Fasan
IT’S not everyday Nigerians get to read about the Nigeria Customs Service even when personnel of the agency in the course of their corrupt, illicit activities, are often to be seen in many of our major towns and cities.
They are almost as ubiquitous as the police and you find them on major highways across the country in a manner that gives one the impression they are an arm, say, of the police rather than a border agency whose primary place of operations is at the country’s entry outposts. But the Customs has been in the news of late and expectedly not for very good reasons.
There was the illegal importation of 661 rifles right under the nose of Customs officials. The immediate past head of the agency, the Comptroller-General, Abdullahi Dikko, has been the subject of a corruption investigation. While the issues concerning his dismissal were yet to be resolved, up came the scandalous discovery of a garage allegedly owned by him housing at least 17 so-called exotic vehicles.
Now, this presented an interesting scenario because when former Inspector General of Police, Solomon Arase, was accused by his successor of the illegal removal of 24 vehicles belonging to the police, Mr. Arase swore there was no iota of truth in the story. He wondered, if he was not about establishing a car sales mart, what was he expected to do with all the vehicles attributed to him.
The new IG, Ibrahim Idris, he concluded was out to defame him. Outcome of an investigation ordered by Idris to provide an audit of vehicles owned by the police did not appear to have exonerated the former IG. Neither did Mr. Idris offer Arase, a trained lawyer, any apology. Nigerians were thereafter left to reach their own conclusion. But Mr. Mohammed, the former Comptroller General of Customs, has not attempted to contest the allegation against him which leaves Nigerians, contrary to Mr. Arase’s stance, to imagine that you need not be a local representative of a car manufacturing company or plant to set up a car sales mart to acquire tens of state of the art cars, even if illegally.
That the Nigeria Customs is under the searchlight should not surprise anyone. The Customs Service is without doubt maggot-rotten in addition to being one of the most corrupt institutions in Nigeria. You don’t need to embark on any special investigation to know this. The rot in the Customs permeates every aspect and cadre of the agency’s operations which is why its immediate past comptroller general has been under investigation since he left office. The average Customs officer lives above their legitimate earning and they make no effort to hide the fact that they hardly live above board. Young Nigerians acknowledge the organisation as a cesspool of corruption, but one through which they can come into fast and unearned wealth.
The Customs is certainly one of the highest revenue earners for the country outside crude oil. But a lot of what it earns goes back into the grasping hands and pockets of its officials. Only God knows by how much the country is shortchanged because of the failure of the Customs to live up to the performance of its statutory duties.
Even when it looks like there might be something to say about the Customs outside the excesses of its officers and their ineptitude, even when one thinks there might be something to remember the Customs for beside the corruption in which it is steeped, one soon realises that is hardly the case. Which is what we are witnessing with the needless controversy that has pitched the new Customs boss, Hameed Ali, against the Senate. It all started with the agency’s plan to seize vehicles on which full customs duties were not paid.
The implementation of this foolish policy that gestures at the corruption within the Customs is to be retroactively applied. It is to cover vehicles bought by Nigerians in the last two years. While there are lots of complicated details to this policy that is ostensibly aimed at increasing the revenue earning capacity of the Customs, the main point of interest is that it seeks to punish Nigerian car owners for the corrupt ways and irresponsibility of Customs officers. It is trite knowledge that duties are paid on every vehicles imported into this country, and this is invariably done by private or licensed importers/dealers at the point of entry manned by authorised Customs officials. It also goes without saying that no one could without the connivance of Customs operatives slip through this process without paying or just after making partial payment.
Which then means that if anyone is to bear responsibility for any breach in the process that should be Customs personnel. But rather than cover its face in shame while offering apologies to Nigerians and pledging to take a more responsible stance in its revenue drive, the Customs has with the typical and overbearing impunity of public officials/institutions chosen to heap the blame for its failure on Nigerians.
It issued a month deadline beyond which all vehicle owners unable to provide proof of full payment of Customs duties would have such vehicles impounded. No doubt it is from such pool of vehicles impounded for whatever reasons that customs men and women like the former Comptroller General freely make their pick. They ensure they keep such vehicles for themselves by imposing fines too steep for the vehicle owners to afford. When they pay for such vehicles at all, it is mere pittance that can hardly cover the actual cost of the vehicles. It’s in order to implement this policy which has been in operation for some time now that Customs men and women have of late left their border posts to take up duty on our highways.
Riled by this new imposition, the Nigerian Senate has uncharacteristically risen to the defense of Nigerians. It summoned the Customs boss, Hameed Ali, to explain the rational for this policy. But Ali has so far been playing hide and seek with the senators by initially ignoring the summons from the senators who insisted he must appear in the uniform of the comptroller general. When he finally appeared at the Senate last week, Ali did so in mufti claiming no law compels him to wear the customs uniform (that’s a matter for another column). The senators were prompt to dismiss and order him to reappear this week. Now ego seems to be taking over and the real issue at stake is being ignored as Ali and the senators engage in a clash of will. But can we return to the point at issue please? After all Fela long warned in a different context ‘uniform na cloth, na tailor dey sew am’.