110 car marts shut down in the North; Customsmen raid Abuja CBD
Car sellers wail, allege Customs out to ruin their businesses
Pay duty, retrieve impounded autos — CUSTOMS
By Emma Ujah, Theodore Opara & Godwin Oritse
ABUJA — The Nigerian Customs Service, NCS, yesterday escalated its crackdown on car dealers who defaulted in payment of duties, as it took its operations nationwide to the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, and other states in the North, including Kaduna, Kano, Ilorin, Sokoto and Kebbi, where it sealed about 110 car shops.
Operatives of the Federal Operations Unit, Zone ‘B’ in Kaduna led the operation.
The development came barely a week after some car marts were sealed in Lagos, Ibadan and other South-West states, with the owners asked to pay up over N2billion owed the federal government in Customs duties.
FOU Zone B Controller, Comptroller Mustafa Sarkin-Kebbi, said yesterday that the operations in the North was part of a renewed anti-smuggling campaign aimed at ensuring compliance with import guidelines.
Sarkin-Kebbi explained that the extant laws empowered the Customs operatives to enter any building suspected to have smuggled items.
He said: “The Comptroller-General, Col. Hameed Ali, has graciously approved that owners of vehicles affected in the shutdown can come forward to pay and collect their vehicles.
“This is a window of opportunity for owners of smuggled vehicles to come forward and pay Customs duty to avoid forfeiture.
“Persons with vehicles that do not have duty papers can also voluntarily come forward to pay duty on such vehicles too
“Duty evasion which robs government of revenue will not be condoned under our watch because our Comptroller-General has declared zero tolerance for such unlawful act.
“It is no doubt, economic sabotage and will not be allowed to stand. As we speak, our men are intensifying efforts in this exercise which aims at ensuring compliance, collecting maximum revenue for government, discourage smuggling and growing the economy.”
He added that the sealing of car shops was being carried out simultaneously in nine states and The Federal Capital Territory, FCT, under the zone.
Customsmen raid hotel in Abuja CBD
In Abuja, the Customs raided Fraser Suites in the Central Business District between Wednesday night and yesterday morning, seizing four exotic cars, including bullet-proof SUVs, on which duties were allegedly not paid.
It was learned that another six of such cars were still parked in the premises when Vanguard visited the hotel about 10 am yesterday, but the manager of the hotel wrote an undertaking to provide the documents of the affected cars.
Customs image maker, Mr. Joseph Attah, said that the agency was not out to intimidate anyone, stressing that once the manager produced the documents as promised, the vehicles would be returned to him without delay.
Some media reports indicated the NCS officials stormed the hotel while guests, including diplomats and military personnel, were still sleeping and chased them out of their rooms.
However, Mr. Attah, denied that any such thing happened during the operation.
He said: “How can Customs do such a thing? It was a neat operation which involved our officials speaking with only the manager of the hotel. Otherwise, our officers did not talk to any other person.
“The story that Customs officers were harassing people and waking hotel guests up to go out and identify their cars was not true. We had nothing to do with guests. It was a neatly performed operation. That story was the handiwork of some people who don’t want Customs to do its work.”
He added that those circulating false reports about the operations were trying to discredit the agency and paint it in bad light.
The Customs spokesman disclosed that the operations to identify smuggled vehicles were on-going and that NCS went to the hotel because it received intelligence that some of such cars on which duties were not paid were moved from car marts to hotels and other facilities to avoid NCS operatives.
A top official of the hotel who did not want his name mentioned, said he was at the premises of the hotel throughout the night and was surprised when he saw stories that were trending in social media, which did not represent what transpired.
Vanguard observed that an NCS operational vehicle was stationed at the Northern fringe of the hotel, with some armed Customs operatives and hotel staff examining some papers, ostensibly car documents.
110 car marts shut in the North
Speaking on the development in the Northern zone, the Public Relations Officer of FOU, Zone B, Mr. Usman Abubakar, told Vanguard that the 110 auto shops shut down by the Customs was for entire Northern Nigeria.
Meanwhile, the Comptroller-General of Customs, Col. Hameed Ali, retd, has approved that owners of vehicles impounded in the recent raid for not paying Customs duties should come forward to pay and take their cars.
Reacting to the development yesterday, a retired Customs officer Mr. Chris Osunkwo, told Vanguard that the onslaught on auto shops was a national operation across the country and not targeted at any particular region or zone.
Osunkwo said importers of vehicles have nothing to fear if they brought in their vehicles through approved routes and paid correct duties.
It was also gathered that besides storming auto shops and shutting them down, Customs officers have also been barging into hotel rooms and waking guests to come and identify their vehicles and show evidence of duty payment.
Kelechi Iheme of Eminenthouse Autos in Owerri, Imo State, said they had heard about the clamp down by Customs but noted that they were yet to experience it in the South-East.
‘Customs ruining our business’
Similarly, the Managing Director of a popular auto company on Victoria Island, Lagos, who would not want his name nor company in print for fear of being victimized, wondered why the Customs was attacking their shops.
He said: “The worst part of it is that they sealed our offices over the weekend without inviting or telling us why they are doing so. As I speak with you, we are confused. We pay our duties. They are ruining our business by their actions.
“How do they expect us to close shop under these harsh economic conditions? Where do they expect us to go in this hard time? We are appealing to government to carry us along and not intimidate us for an offence we did not commit.”
Meanwhile, most of the car companies’ management staff have refused to pick their calls. They rather preferred to send text messages that they were sorry they could not take our calls.
Commenting on the development, Mr. Haroun Malami, Corporate Communications Manager of Peugeot Automobile of Nigeria PAN, said: “We are not being harassed. We saw a lot of cars being held at the Customs premises in Kaduna.
“From what I gathered, they are vehicles on which duties were not paid. For us at Peugeot, we are doing legitimate business; we pay our duties as responsible corporate citizens.
“We have stationed Customs officers that ensure that the content of our container is what we declare. Apart from that, they pay surprise visits to check out our books.”
‘Customs working against govt on this’
In his reaction yesterday, Managing Director of BKG Exhibitions, organisers of Abuja and Lagos Motor shows, Mr. Ifeanyi Agwu, said: “It is totally wrong, unacceptable and working against the economic policy of this government, which means there is no cohesion, because the government can’t be working against itself.
“What they have done reverberate across the globe because car companies have sitting representations in Nigeria and they will report back. This will jeopardise solid investments like setting up auto plants. That is why countries like Ghana are taking advantage to encourage them to build assembly plants in their domain.
“Customers cannot wake up and go to the car companies and asked them to bring documents of cars that are already in their showrooms. We should be careful with what we do with some of these companies who do not tolerate the kind of acts that Customs are exhibiting.
‘’Besides, these companies have global standards for their dealerships all over the world.
This is totally uncalled for, it is de-marketing Nigeria. The Presidency should wade into this and ensure that no agency of government jeopardises its efforts to revive the economy.’’