The Customs Area Controller of Apapa Command, Comptroller Mohammed Abba-Kura, in this interview explains the Customs’ positions on COVID-19, revenue generation from Customs receipt, exports performance, enforcement and anti-smuggling and policy interplay, as well as maritime issues in the front burner.
By Eguono Odjegba
LET’S talk about your revenue collection for first half of 2020 and do some comparison with 2019
In the first five months, a lot had been achieved in consolidation of the previous achievements. January to June 2020, we collected the sum of N227.3 billion, while during the same period 2019, N203.2 billion was collected. For this year, January to June, you will notice a steady movement of revenue collection all through the first five months except the month of March and May which recorded a decline of about N3.5 million. If you compare 2019 half year and 2020 half year, you’ll notice that we have been able to be on the positive side. Our collective resolve to enforce the Federal Government fiscal policies have yielded the desired results. Equally, our secondary layers of checks and balances have contributed immensely in recovering revenue loss, revenues that escaped the first layer in one way or the other.
That’s talking about your anti-smuggling activities
Yes, we have a strong response system to wrong importation, under declaration and other offences listed in import and export. In total we recorded the seizures of 142 containers of various items, this includes one Rolls Royce 2018 model and a Lamborghini Hurracane Sport Car 2019 model. We have always called on our esteemed stakeholders, importers, exporters and their agents to observe laid down import and export guidelines to avoid forfeiting their consignments to government.
There were reports of some of your officers getting infected with COVID-19, what’s the position now?
Yes we have some officers that contracted the COVID-19. Ten tested positive, and they were isolated. We thank the Lagos State Government, the professors in LUTH especially Professor Atasie and two other doctors, they took good care of our officers and all of them are now okay and back to work.
What are you doing to support export trade?
Since my resumption here last year January I have made it a duty that Apapa Area Command under my leadership will encourage growth as much as possible, and under my wing to encourage legitimate trade, be it import or export as long as due processes are followed. So anybody that wants to participate in export trade, once he has fulfilled all righteousness will not have any issues with the Customs.
Your command reported very impressive export outing since January, but there have been issues of 800 trucks of export trapped outside and unable to access your premises, which is against the spirit of ease of doing business. What are you doing about it?
What you are asking is beyond Nigerian Custom Services, the ports are struggling with the infrastructure to support export trade; and there’s the issue of control over COVID-19. That is why the trucks cannot come in, so as long as they have not come in, they have not come to us. I like to advise that exporters should explore other means of doing their business. Some people are bringing their exports through the waterways.
Some are taking their import out of the port by barges, so why not go and try the other options than for them to be wasting money paying demurrages? If you take a trip on water from Apapa to Mile 2, you will discover that even trailers bringing in empty containers prefer to go through the waterways to come into the ports. So the challenge of COVID-19 and infrastructure should make not only importers and exporters, but Nigerians in general to look inward for alternatives because if we look onwards, we are going to reduce cost of so many things.
You have made remarkable seizures of offensive items, but how many people have been penalized and sent to jail? If there are no meaningful punishment system in place to serve as deterrence, how will offenders stop?
Even if we stop at the seizures of goods alone, that is enough punishment. But you know under Section 180 of CEMA, we have the power to prosecute, I am assuring you that we will soon approach the court to make sure that this people will be punished.
You just admitted that about ten of your officers were infected with COVID-19 in the course of their jobs, what are you putting in place to discourage crowds surge during physical examination of goods?
Government is trying its best to do what it can, the basic thing is for the individual to take care of themselves. For example, you see this mask am wearing, am supposed to dispose of it after today, but some persons will decide to wear it for much longer, you will end up hunting yourself, so personal hygiene of every individual matters. Before you came in I believe you washed your hands and must have sanitized your hands, so do our officers too, that is the best we can do. Customs work cannot stop under any guise being part of the international trade chain. Each individual must learn to take care of himself.
A government department issued a notice recently of consignments coming from COVID-19 prone countries. What are you doing to protect your officers having been forewarned?
You see there is need for you to go and read about the virus itself, goods coming in cannot contaminate an individual, you see when this thing started initially, the World Health Organisation said the corpse of those who died as a result of COVID-19 should be specially buried but later on, they said that once a person is dead, he cannot infect others with this virus. So the high temperature we have here is an advantage, looking at the life span of the virus. If there is too much heat, if something is closed in the container, there is no ventilation in or out, that virus cannot survive for 14 to 21 days or one month. Yes we might have mentioned that vessels are coming in from high risk countries, but having counted, ten, thirty, hundred cases of infection, somebody can say we are equally COVID-19 pro country.
But if you look at the rules and regulations governing vessel going out, if a vessel is coming in it can come in from any place. If they have case of infection for a number of days, there is a red flag they will hoist before even arriving at the port, like the anchorage for example, that is a warning that the vessel has case of infection with a particular disease for three day or less. And before we even board a vessel, it must be free from any infection, it can be malaria, diarrhoea or anything contagious. So if a vessel is infected or has one two or three crew members infected, port health officials will be able to know with that flag. Even customs personnel with our basic training will know, so any vessel that is infected we are not going to board. So you see we have cleared that one up from the beginning, to say any vessel coming from China to Nigeria, that virus will not survive.
Customs insistence on physical examination of cargo and social distancing appear to be two opposites, what can be done about it?
What you are trying to say if I understand your question is that maybe we should reduce the level of physical examination; that one cannot be possible because there are a lot of implications when we say we are not going to do physical examination. One, we cannot generate the required revenue, two, the examination is not only for the enumeration of the goods, talking about security, it is for the protection of the society. You know you cannot group everybody and say they are good.
If you have 80 percent of people doing honest declaration what about the remaining three or even two percent that are not doing honest declaration, they will cost you more, because when you go inside to see what we see you will better understand what am telling you. Somebody will tell you these are all there is, that the declaration is correct, but by the time you do the physical examination, you discover something different. So if you are saying due to COVID-19 no physical examination of goods should be done, once there is payment of duty, you confirm container number and then you release, that is dangerous for the country.
What can you say regarding the issue of cargo scanning machine? We hear different stories every other time
That question is beyond me as an area controller but if I get a scanning machine I’ll be the happiest person because it will assist us in discharging our duty. But for as long as it is not available, we will continue to work with what we have and to do our best.