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Customs, auto dealers face-off: Time for truce

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THERE are strong indications that recent raids and closure of the premises of vehicle dealerships across Nigeria by members of the Comptroller-General of the Nigeria Customs Service’s strike force and Customs Federal Operations Units, FOUs, could trigger serious crisis in the polity. This follows reports suggesting that auto dealers in the country are already spoiling for a major showdown over the development.

The crackdown which started on September 29, had at the last count led to the closure of 272 auto marts across the country. The position is that the auto marts will remain sealed until the owners pay the over N2 billion purportedly owed the Federal Government in Customs duties.

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Reports have it that even before this recent crackdown by Customs, auto dealers had over the years complained bitterly about being victims of unrelenting extortion by Customs officials who routinely stop and impound their vehicles on the highways.

The grouse currently is that the Customs Service has upped the ante by raiding showrooms of auto dealers to impound cars they claimed are undervalued at the point of paying Customs duties and levies at Nigeria’s borders.

They further said the situation has led to many of their colleagues closing shops as the demand for payment of “variation of the actual value of the car and bribes run into millions of naira”. Apart from that, the dealers recently through their umbrella body, Automobile Association, accused Customs of operating two dubious regimes of duties, a system, they said, is “not based on any known indices and certainly not based on the World Trade Organisation’s, which applies only duties determined as Freight on Board, FOB”.

They also have issues with a document titled National Valuation Database for Imported Vehicles 2014-2019 which they alleged was contrived based on the whims and caprices of the Nigeria Customs Service, especially as the FOB therein was considered outrageously high. According to them, although the document is illegal, Customs officials continue to use it to ambush buyers of vehicles once they leave the showrooms of auto dealers.

Auto dealers are particularly aggrieved that Customs chose to sidestep the WTO guideline which provides that prices be based on FoB as stipulated by the manufacturer, which is the practice worldwide.

But in defence of Customs actions, officials insist that service officials, especially the federal operations units, have the right to stop any “dutiable vehicle on the highway and make the owner pay the actual duty value”. According to a senior Customs official: “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”.

The questions that urgently beg for answers as this simmering face-off between the Customs and the aggrieved auto dealers continues to unfold are: How did the vehicles in question get to the showrooms that are presently under Customs lock and key? Who is responsible for their being undervalued? Is it proper for the application of Customs price list to take retrospective effect?

We think the Customs is duty bound to address these questions and provide credible answers that will go a long way in dousing tension and pave way for amicable resolution of the problem.

It is, hereby suggested that a stakeholders committee comprising the Customs, auto dealers and the Federal Road Safety Commission, FRSC be set up to resolve the lingering face-off and save the country from further embarrassment.

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