The Unit Controller, Nigeria Customs Service, Federal Operations Unit Zone ‘C’ Owerri, Comptroller Kayode Olumisire comes across as brief and straight to the point as possible.
He says the NCS derives greater joy in trade facilitation and making Nigerians embrace legitimate trade through regular sensitization campaign than chasing smugglers around; but insist “we will not think twice seizing imports that runs contrary to the prohibition order”.
In this interview with EGUONO ODJEGBA, he tells the story of how he bridges the seemingly opposite tasks. He says it is not the place of the NCS to ascribe economic or political reasons to the influx of smuggled armoured vehicles.
How do you react to allegations of high handedness of your operatives by traders in the zone who complain of duplication of checks and frivolous detention and delays
I am not aware of any high handedness by my officers; we are doing government work and implementing its policies according to the rules of engagement. I am aware that we are guided by the rules of engagement and can say we have not any point in time gone beyond our brief. We work with intelligence most time, apart from our power to stop and search. If we have reasonable suspicion that a container or truck should be subjected to thorough examination, we can do that. Once we are satisfied that the container or vehicle in question is free of these suspicions, we let them go, and we do so in a timely manner because we believe in trade facilitation.
How have you achieved cooperation with stakeholders in the area of compliance?
Recently, the Nigerian Shippers’ Council came here with the Aba Chambers of Commerce and Aba Traders. We welcomed them, we jaw-jaw on the need for trade facilitation and on compliance. Our major function is to facilitate trade in line with the WCO and that is what we have been doing every day.
How would you describe your seizure performance?
We don’t gloat on seizures, we just try to encourage importers and their agents to be compliant, to do correct declaration and pay correct duty. Seizure is a function of failure to be compliant, and this is not something anybody should be happy about, and that is why I said customs don’t draw satisfaction from making seizures, we draw satisfaction from facilitating trade. Today’s customs want to facilitate trade, provide necessary information on imports, and sensitize people on what constitutes offensive imports and to encourage people to embrace legitimate trade. That is the focus of the present administration, in addition, of course, to checkmating offensive and illegal imports, and we do that through seizure.
But given ever increasing seizures made by your Unit, would you say people are adequately sensitized or even that your sensitization has been failed and unable to realistically address particular socio-economic challenges of the people who just takes on to smuggling and doing the wrong things
Like me answer it like this, you earlier asked me about allegation of high handedness, as far as I am concerned as a customs officer in charge of this Unit, the law is the law. I am not in a position to analyze the content of the law, mine is to implement. Some of the seizures you will see tomorrow include imported exotic cars worth over N100million; they are at our Benin warehouse. So our appeal to Nigerians is to become compliant and to pay duties for their imported goods, whether they are luxuries or those that falls in the essential basket of needs. Every time we will be having people travel abroad to buy exotic cars and they prefer not to pay duty on them, I think that the problem is in us not the law. We have three armoured cars worth hundreds of millions of naira, yet the owners prefer to smuggle them, these are brand new armoured cars, 2017, 2018 models.
Let me also ask you, is the man who is able to import an armoured car worth millions of naira economically and socially challenged?
Is there perhaps some hard to fulfil requirements for the importation of armoured vehicles?
Yes there are the usual importation regulations, but it is wrong to describe the regulations as hard to fulfil, they are just the basic import procedures. Armoured cars are special with unique security features and therefore are restricted and not available for just anybody. In Nigeria before you can import an armoured vehicle, you have to first of all obtain what is known as End-User Certificate from the office of the National Security Adviser to the President. This requirement makes it possible for government to know who owns it and also be able to track its use, such that it does not fall into the wrong hands that can use them for criminal purposes.
It’s rather curious that there is an increase in the smuggling of armoured vehicles just as elections approaches; can it be linked to the coming election?
It is not for the customs officer to ascertain or speculate on what they are meant for. Ours is to intercept and impound every vehicle that runs foul of the import procedure or including armoured cars that does not have End-User Certificate. So we don’t know whether they are meant for elections or not.
Who are the suspects linked to the importation of this kind of cars, have you been able to jail them?
We have six suspects linked to the whole seizures. It is the duty of the court to jail anybody not ours, our task ends at the arrest, investigation and prosecution of the suspects.
Who is a smuggler?
A smuggler is anyone involved in the chain of importation, delivery, distribution and use of smuggled items, especially if such items fail customs documentations and checks. Anyone who shields a smuggler is regarded as one, and is also regarded as an enemy of the state. Anyone who manipulates customs documentation processes for the purpose of shortchanging government of accruable revenue is also a smuggler. A smuggler is an enemy of the state, whether in terms of national security or in terms of economic sabotage. A cup of imported rice that enjoyed illegal and informal distribution is a smuggled item, and therefore, as liable as the smuggler of a bullet proof car. From the position of law, a smuggler is an economic deviant or security risk, but CEMA has provided for differential in the scale of their punishment. A smuggler is a threat to national peace and growth. It depends on the angle from which you look at it, a smuggler can mean different things, but fundamentally, a smuggler is an enemy of the state.