By Owei Lakemfa
A MAN who identified himself as a traditional ruler, strolled with a swag through Immigration at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja. He then walked towards Customs and was stopped. An officer pointed out he was carrying a pack that suggested he bought a pair of shoes abroad. He confirmed he did. He was asked to produce the shoes. He pointed at his feet: those were what he was wearing. The Customs said it was an item he has to pay duty on.
The man explained he bought the shoe on his journey and had been using it abroad. He was handed a hefty amount and given the option to either pay or forfeit his shoes. He paid under protest. It seemed strange that the Customs now calculate what a Nigerian is wearing and decides to impose duty. That means a lady passing through Customs wearing wedding rings or jewellery estimated to be over N50,000 may forfeit them or pay a duty the Customs may determine.
Another Nigerian, Mrs. Udensi Adaeze Nwagboliwe, who arrived from London on October 18, aboard British Airways flight, had a not too dissimilar experience. She had a pair of canvas footwear and a bag. She told her story: “I arrived with a pair of trainers and one mini-boy bag bought at the duty-free shop in Heathrow. For the records, I am a banker. I am not a trader. To my shock, Customs at Abuja airport … said they do not qualify as personal effects and calculated duty payment of about N175,000 for me to pay. Most shocking to me was that I was the only passenger on that flight BA 083 from London that was singled out for this treatment. What are Nigerians able to buy when they travel?
“I pointed out to her (the Customs lady) that someone who had shoes had just been released by same Customs without any charge and to my shock she said that it’s because he put his feet in it already.” But as the experience of the traditional ruler showed, wearing such shoes may not matter; it comes to profiling whether a person can pay or can be coerced into paying.
Customs spokesperson, Joseph Attah claimed that: “Since her attempt to evade duty payment by refusing to produce receipt could not work, it appears convenient to transfer reluctance to pay tax into unnecessary public incitement.” This appears judgmental, insulting and does not explain the apparent arbitrariness of the agency.
A friend returned to the country last Wednesday and it was detected that he had a phone in his luggage. Excited Customs officials asked him for the pack thinking it was a new phone. They seemed disappointed that it is an old phone with numbers that show old usage. The happenings at our international airports is doubtlessly part of attempts by Customs to significantly raise revenue for the country. But the line between raising such revenue and outright extortion of the citizenry, is blurred.
I am tempted to say this is an elite problem as only they can afford to travel out of the country. But if our elite are being put under siege, it will be myopic for us, lesser beings, to think we can escape such onslaught. All we need do is re-examine events at our land borders where the Customs, an essentially revenue collecting agency under the Ministry of Finance, seems to have taken over security, policy and the jobs of other agencies, including Immigration.
On November 6, 2019, the Customs issued a new circular which read: “The Comptroller General of Customs has directed that henceforth no petroleum products no matter the tank size is permitted to be discharged in any filling station within 20 kilometres to the border.”
I asked myself whether a revenue collecting agency like the Customs has such wide ranging powers to stop Nigerians living near our borders from having access to fuel stations in their communities and towns. The Customs is not any petroleum agency, legislature, judiciary or the Presidency; where then does it derive the powers to impose such suffering on fellow Nigerians?
Petroleum products sold in fuel stations in our border towns are neither stolen nor smuggled and it cannot be assumed that Nigerians buying fuel products there are smugglers. Despite the increasing lack or absence of governance in many parts of the country, and individuals and groups grabbing power, I do not think we have degenerated to the point where Customs will determine or regulate the supply of goods, including petroleum products within the country.
Even if this petroleum products ban was a directive from the Presidency it would still be unconstitutional because our Constitution forbids discrimination against Nigerians even if they live or are indigenes of our border villages and towns. The ban means shutting down fuel stations in that radius and that means that any Nigerian living in those areas would need to travel to other towns and villages just to fill their tanks or buy fuel to power their generators given the fact that we are subjected to long spells of power failure. It also means crippling businesses in such communities and towns since a modern economy requires power supply.
The same arbitrariness we witness at the airports and illegality of imposing a ban on petroleum products in border areas, informs the unilateral closure of our borders. Only a country which stands logic on its head will control 76 percent of trade in a region, and then shut its borders against itself, suspending all businesses with its neigbours. But what do you do when the Customs seems to be at the helm of affairs dishing out unverifiable figures of net “gains” from the closure. There are those who want the borders to remain shut because they claim we produce enough rice to feed ourselves. Who says Nigerians live by rice alone?
The Chairman of the Customs Board is Finance Minister, Mrs. Zainab Ahmed, who seems to have caught the bug. She is reported as saying the International Monetary Fund, IMF, supports Nigeria’s closure of its borders. True? An IMF for whom free trade is an article of faith, a body that preaches trade liberalisation and free flow of goods across borders, supports Nigeria’s arbitrary border closures? I think we should be far more intelligent than spread such stories. If any IMF official told Mrs. Ahmed that, she should know he was merely humouring her.
As for me, I have resolved to be on the right side of the Comptroller-General of Customs, Col. Hameed Ibrahim Ali (retd) who is so powerful that when President Muhammadu Buhari announced that the border closures would end on January 31, 2020, he countered that the border closure has no terminal date.