•Strike Force detrimental to the economy —LCCI
•It’s within Customs law — PCC
By Godwin Oritse, Godfrey Bivbere, Eguono Odjegba and Naomi Uzor
Stakeholders in the Nigerian imports trade ecosystem are up in arms against the Nigerian Customs Service, NCS, over its recent decision to send its ‘Strike Force’ into the ports. The ‘Strike Force’ is a special unit created by the NCS with the aim of dealing with malpractices in the import chain.
In an order reference NCS/ENF/ABJ/058/S.23 and contained in E11/2019/CIRCULAR NO.002 with the subject matter: ‘‘100% EXAMINATION OF CARGO AT THE SEAPORTS,’’ the NCS, had last week, authorized the Strike Force to henceforth intervene in all matters suspected to be inimical to proper Customs due processes and documentation, including entering the ports and making seizures even after the cargo has been cleared by its men on ground.
The circular which was signed by the Deputy Comptroller General in charge of Enforcement, Investigation and Inspection, DCG A. Chidi, on behalf of the Customs Comptroller General, Col. Hameed Ali (Rtd), was addressed to all Area Controllers and heads of various Customs formations.
But port stakeholders including the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI), clearing agents and freight forwarders have, however, condemned the decision saying it would create a further burden on trade facilitation while worsening the already congested ports.
The Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry, LCCI, has said the circular issued by the Customs Headquarters, deploying its ‘Strike Force’ to all ports with the powers to intercept and effect seizures of cargo will be detrimental to investment and further complicate the already difficult cargo clearing process.
A statement by the Director General of LCCI, Mr Muda Yusuf, said the measure would undermine the Ease of Doing Business Policy of the Buhari administration while constituting an obstruction to the Presidential Executive order on the streamlining of ports processes.
According to him, some of the implications include a duplication of functions of the Customs resident officers at the ports which have statutory responsibilities to examine and release cargoes to importers, adding that, this move would slow down the cargo clearing process as it amounts to creation of another layer of authority to intercept and seize cargoes that have been duly released by all agencies involved in the examination of the cargoes.
“These agencies include Resident Customs officers of the command, NDLEA, DSS, Ports Police, Nigeria Immigration Service, NPA, NIMASA and Port Health.
‘‘The directive confers vast discretionary powers on the Strike Force which makes the cargo clearing process vulnerable to arbitrariness and coercion which could undermine the integrity and credibility of the process” he said.
He further said the deployment of the ‘Force’ to the ports suggests a distrust and lack of confidence in the resident customs officers who were deployed to the various commands including the ports by the Comptroller General, CG, of NCS in the first place, saying that, the appropriate thing to do in the circumstance is for the CG to replace these officers with trusted ones rather than superimpose another set of customs operatives on the system.
“This new deployment would make the entire process chaotic, cumbersome, costly and inefficient. It could also create an additional credibility problem. LCCI is concerned that over the past two years, the scanners at the Lagos Ports Complex have not worked. The persistent dependence on physical examination for cargo releases has not only been laborious and arduous, it is time wasting,” Yusuf stressed.
He noted that the Lagos Ports are the largest ports in the country handling over 1.5 million twenty-foot containers equivalent (TEUs) annually and that this underscores the enormity of the consequences of physical examination of containers for the efficacy of cargo clearing.
“It is incredibly detrimental to the cargo release process and the economy. It is imperative for the Federal government to expedite actions on the procurement of scanners for the ports in order to put an end to the physical examination of cargo and make the system technology driven.
“The LCCI submits that the deployment of the Strike Force to the ports should be reversed forthwith. Where the Comptroller-General does not trust the resident officers, they should be replaced with trusted ones rather than creating overlapping responsibilities and authorities which would further muddle an already arduous cargo clearing process. Delays in the cargo clearing often result in high and avoidable demurrage to importers; high-interest cost on funds used for import transactions, disruption of business processes including manufacturing activities, and many more” he stated.
Yusuf stressed that the Customs high command should ensure that there are corresponding authorities for the discharge of assigned responsibilities in order to achieve desired outcomes, as there is often a risk of creating a confusing system where responsibilities are assigned without corresponding authority.
Clearing agents petition CG
Speaking to Vanguard Maritime Report on the development, National President of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents, ANLCA, Mr Tony Iju Nwabunike, said that the group has written a letter protesting the directive and hoping to have a meeting with the management of the Customs as soon as possible.
Nwabunike said that the group considers the directive to be sensitive adding that they have decided not to be confrontational in their reaction to the development.
He stated: “My reaction is quite different from others. I have chosen not to be confrontational on issues like this because I consider the issue to be sensitive. When issues are sensitive, you do not go with a fight to resolve the problem. You have to sit down with the Customs to resolve the issue.
“I have written a letter to the Comptroller General of Customs and what I told him is that we want an audience with them to know exactly what has prompted this action and we will look at the pros and cons and see if there will be an amendment to the directive because the truth of the matter is that we need to work together so that the directive will work.”
On cost implication of this new directive, Nwabunike said he would not be able to figure it until they meet with the Customs management.
Commenting, National Publicity Secretary of Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents, ANLCA, Mr Adumaza Joe Sanni, urged Customs management to adopt a sustainable deterrence approach to the matter through stakeholders’ engagement and through genuine sanctions.
“There are three issues at stake that need to be addressed urgently in this back and forth tangoing within and outside Nigeria Customs Service. Customs must now begin to sanction its defaulting officers for such lapses to deter others; reward honest import/export/declarations for compliance, and put defaulting importers/exporters out of business; withdraw licenses of collaborating Customs Brokers/Agents, after due diligence/process, to establish facts behind the acts.”
PCC backs Customs
But the Port Consultative Council, PCC, in a sharp reaction in support of the Customs Service, said that the law allows the agency to operate anywhere in the country.
He explained that if the practice of intercepting cargoes from the port after due clearance is not working, then going to the source, inside the ports, may work.
He stated: “The Customs has the power to stop prohibited goods from coming into the country.”
NCS alleys fears
The public relations department of the NCS has said fears of worsening clearance of goods were misplaced, assuring that the new directive is calculated to achieve a tidier process aimed at curbing the incidences of releasing non-compliant imports.
Reacting to some media reports and comments on social media, the Customs National Public Relations Officer, Deputy Comptroller Joseph Attah, said rather than read funny meanings into the directive, importers and their agents should applaud the development tailored to achieve better and faster services.
Attah enjoined port users and the business community to show greater fidelity to the collection of government revenue and anti-smuggling fight.
His words: “There appears to be a deliberate misinterpretation of the recent circular from the Customs Headquarters to suit some individuals or group interests. A circular that insists Strike Force Team should be involved in the examination of suspected containers or those with strike force alert is now being given exaggerated meaning to include “sweeping powers that erode Area Controllers’ powers.
“The circular only reaffirms the power of the team to intervene only on suspected containers and not all and certainly not the day-to-day running of any command which is the prerogative of the Customs Area Controllers.
“It’s only fair not to exaggerate on legitimate strategic step being taken by NCS management to ensure compliance and protect national economy and security”.
Insider sources hint that some alerts raised by the Strike Force in the past were ignored by Area Controllers, giving the team the additional burden of having to look out for such suspected consignments.
‘‘Quite a number of consignments eventually intercepted by the men of the strike Force have been discovered to be released based on a false declaration or duty evasion; or with intent to smuggle concealed prohibited items.’’