By Omoh Gabriel
Last week Wednesday, the Comptroller-General of Nigeria Customs Service, Abdullahi Dikko made a surprise visit to Lagos formation of the service. At the federal operation base, he met with top officers of the service and stressed the need for free flow of information from the service to the general public for better understanding and appreciation of what the Customs service is doing for the nation. He said that the service was not responsible for the delay in the clearance of goods at the ports and that it was not a matter of witch-hunting or wickedness to importers when their goods are impounded as contraband. He raised several other issues of interest.
Why is it that prohibited items still find their way into the country with the introduction of destination inspection?
Well, everyone knows that vegetable oil for instance is under imports prohibition list, so without due diligence, how would you know that vegetable oil is coming into the country through the ports?
Even if you scan it, the person may tell you that it‚Äôs raw materials for making foam. So due to the diligence of our officers, we have to stop it because if it gets to the market, nobody will believe that Customs did not take ‚Äúthis thing‚Äù and release it. (Bursts into laughter)
That is why we really have to put in place all necessary checks and balances to make sure that all these negative perception is done away with. So we really like the public to understand that we are not making it difficult for anybody. We have a risk profiling system, if you break integrity, we fast-track you, and impound your cargo, but when you are doubting the integrity of citizens, the level of compliance is low. In this instance, what do you want me to do? You have excess cargo, you have false declarations, who would pay for the difference in revenue of what the person is importing? No one. So, we have to do the job, and we want people to understand us. The revenue the Customs Service is collecting goes into the federation account for distribution to the 36 states including Abuja and all the 774 local government councils in the country.
It is shared among the three-tiers of government. So whatever is given to each tier of government is for development of social infrastructure. If you try to build yourself alone and you import goods without paying the appropriate duties, you only maximise your own profit, you are not building the nation, imagine what is going to be the fate of other Nigerians?
The taxes are for the development of the nation. So, I think we want the stakeholders to understand us that we are partners, partners in contributing to building the Nigeria nation.
I chose to be a Customs Officer at the same time I am a tax collector, so, when I collect the taxes, I put it into the Federation Account, this is my contribution. Another person there is the policeman. He is for security, that is his contribution. He would not sleep day and night. If there is any problem with security, it is the policeman that will be asked what is wrong there? You are journalists, you are to inform Nigerians about exactly what is going on. And if journalism is easy, let everyone become a journalist and see how easy it is (laughs).
So which ever way you choose to follow, it is a way of life, it is a way to earn a living. But let us put ourselves together, the country, Nigeria can never change on its own. God did not make a mistake by making us blacks, and he did not make a mistake by putting us in a tropical region, God did not make a mistake by putting us together. Nigeria is huge and great. What you are seeing now is probably from people who do not know or have anything in their heads, but look at Iraq, they speak one language, Arabic, but till tomorrow, they are killing themselves – bombs everywhere.
But we owe it a duty to this country to use the revenue we are generating, after building infrastructure, to use it to build the youths that are coming, because the mayhem we are seeing now is as a result of people not being given value. If I am Comptroller-General and I go to my village, I know I have more than 2,000 Almajirai (beggars), and I have my best car, I wind up my glass and I ignore them, tomorrow I may be their target because as far as they are concerned, that man is from Abuja, he is a legislator, he is a Customs Officer. You know, to most Nigerians, Abuja is where the action is.
Yes, so there should be maximum utilisation of national resources in building our youths, to educate them through skills acquisition, for even if they cannot go beyond elementary education, build skills for them and give them the necessary tools and machines to make furniture, and acquire photostat machines.
You will see that the election that will come in 2015, nobody will come out to do the wrong thing and when they do come out, they will vote in an orderly manner because they know whom to vote for – the person who has done it for them. But if we continue ignoring the payment of taxes, the result is what we are seeing.
Why do we still experience delay in cargo clearance?
We have no reason for delaying a cargo because if you delay a cargo, the demurrage does not come to the Customs. What comes to us is revenue. So the more we facilitate trade, the more we move cargoes out of the ports, and the more cargoes come in, the more revenue we get. So there is no basis on which a Customs officer would delay a cargo because it is not going to be in the best interest of the service. So if there is a way we can make it six hours clearance, we will do it in order to get more revenue. I can tell you it is not Customs officers that delay cargoes, because they know it is affecting the service‚Äôs seven per cent cost of collection. The more you collect, the more you get, and the less you clear, the less revenue you get and you do not blame anybody for the shortfall in revenue generation.
Everybody wants to ensure that enough revenue is collected. So in as much as we are together, we are partners in progress. That is why while you were coming in, I said all the Area Controllers should stay here and they must identify with you, and they must work with you, and they must volunteer information to you. So let‚Äôs not hoard any information within us, if you keep it you will see it on the internet if you don‚Äôt see it on their paper. It is better you see it in their papers and they make a balanced report than to see it on the internet on Sahara.
What are the challenges you are facing in leveraging on pre-shipment inspection and intelligence network?
I remember during the pre-shipment inspection that we have the largest record of seizures and when you talk about textiles, the problem we are having is that let‚Äôs look at what we have, what we can do and what we cannot do. Government should lift the ban on these items so that we can have revenue, and we will have less burden of pursuing people because of the problems of goods we cannot produce. In fact, that was the presentation made on Textiles and even the vehicles. Government listened to that and now they are un-banned. Now, China is leading the world economies, look at their population, they have the cheapest labour in the world, they produce en masse and they have to look where to sell the goods. And at low cost they can penetrate any country and dominate the market.
For instance, if you go to Kano, gradually, Chinese have taken over. So, it is an issue that government should look at, either government should un-ban prohibited items and allow them to come in or government should encourage people who are interested in textile manufacturing to bring in sophisticated machinery so that they produce quality materials here such that even if you go out and you compare, it will not reduce the quality of the ones produced here.
Let me ask you, is there anybody here that is drinking foreign fruit juice? Where will you even see it? We have Chivita, Five Alive, Funman, Dansa and all of them withstands the quality of foreign juice. So, if you look at it economically, we have done away with foreign juice. Let‚Äôs do the same thing for textiles, shoes, even cars. I don‚Äôt believe that import is much cheaper than production. How much is a litre of gas in Nigeria compared with a litre of gas in the UK? But they produce.
So the issue here is that it all depends on individuals and we have to start somewhere and build patriotism in our people. Whatever you take out will never come back. If all of us should go to Cotonou, it is not what it used to be ten years ago, they used to have one lane but it is not so today. Cotonou now is an importing economy and they even disregard international protocols on transit. We do not collect duty on transit in Nigeria but they do. And after collecting, you go through the bush paths to bring the goods to Nigeria, and Nigerians prefer to go to Cotonou and pay.
I am telling you, it is not easier to clear goods at their own ports because there, they speak to you in French but here, we speak to you in Hausa, Yoruba or Igbo , but there, they speak to you in French and tell you to go away. So it all borders on inculcating patriotism in our importers. We have to tell our people that what we are seeing and what is coming in is not good and is not safe. That is the only way we can block the influx of prohibited items that are coming into the country. Now that we have Destination Inspection, it is better and faster than when we were using CRI (Clean Report of Inspection). At times you find it difficult to challenge them.
What is your relationship with the concessionaires
The goodness of any organisation is to have a regulatory authority that can say this is wrong, this is right and to set a standard. The standard for Customs is revenue collection, and target is given to us. As for standards for the concessionaires, nobody knows how many forklifts and cranes they can bring, because nobody sits down and examines the size and the volume of traffic.
So I believe that the concession was based on the amount of money they were willing to pay. I think the agreement is only on monetary terms and the structures for service delivery I think is porous because you can not concession Apapa ports with that large size and volume of traffic and somebody is having only two cranes. So the responsibility is for the regulatory authority to challenge them, it is not for us in the Customs to do that because we are not the ones regulating them. So that is how it is. On the issue of Excise duty, maybe you have to see the amount of revenue collection from the excise unit.
This year, we are organising a special training course for our Excise officers. We are bringing in experts from outside the country because people are approaching us with the new method of collecting excise duty. But we are not going to delegate our own responsibilities to a private company. So we are telling them that ‚Äòwhatever you have, come to us and teach us and we‚Äôll pay you.‚Äô We will adopt the system provided it will help us to maximise revenue collection.
There are complaints that the service is sidelining junior officers, why is this so?
We have done a case study of the operations of the service and discovered that majority of our officers are not computer literate. From the study, we realised that most of the junior officers have nothing at stake, so whatever they do, they have nothing because they are not wearing any rank, and that is why we have streamlined the release of cargoes through the most senior officers.
We have nothing against junior officers but we are looking at high level of responsibilities because this thing involves money and integrity and we want to know the level of compliance. If you have a most senior officer, he is not only going to work on the computers but also on the intelligence of the person who brings the document to him, and because of his years experience and depth of knowledge, he can advise where necessary.
So whatever we are doing, we are not doing it simply because we do not want somebody to be part of the system, no, we are doing it simply because we want to harmonise the system. We want to improve on our integrity, and we want to remove the perception of the public that we are corrupt, after all, we are into public service, and we do not have contact with agents or importers.
What is your relationship with the Nigeria media?
I found myself very comfortable with the media, and I am particularly happy with the Nigeria Press, because when you are seeking for a particular information, and transformation of a service for a system, you really have to use the press. Quote me anywhere, I have never for one day seen the Press as my enemies. I have always regarded them as my friends because good or bad, I have never picked an offence for anything that comes out on the pages of newspapers, positive or negative.
The simple reason is the fact that when a piece of information comes to you, you either use it the way it comes to you or you use it the way the person sends it to you.
Honestly, there is no hard feelings whatsoever about it, but we have to care about the environment by informing people of what actually will bring peace to the society because an information can go a long way to make a positive impact and it can also go a long way to make a negative impact. It depends on the way it‚Äôs being sent out.
I am most sincerely very grateful to the media for cooperation, and assistance for informing the whole country and the whole world about what we are doing. We cannot be where we are without the media informing the people because it is what people pick from what the media puts out in the public domain about the service that people would actually understand the way we are working.
What about public perception of the service, any change since you took over?
If you look at it, before now, nobody would like to see a Customs Officer. That has changed. It‚Äôs not because we improved our salary, and it is not because we changed our uniform. It is because of the way we are now handling issues, people and our own activities relating it to where we were before, where we are now and where we are going. And statistics speaks for itself in terms of the number of seizures and even the attitude of our officials. Few years ago, there were fewer newspapers in the country reporting the activities of the service, but now, we have magazines too. So, anywhere you go, people are watching and they must report you, most especially our own service that has to do with collection of revenue as you well know revenue collection has been contentious even since Jesus‚Äô time (Laughs).
We do know in the service that we cannot achieve what we want to achieve without having the Press around us and buying into our vision.
There is a lot of misinterpretation of our activities most especially now that we are in the ports and the CIO having three operations around, yes, it is because of our own attitude. Most seizures are done at different times and in different places. But we are very cautious of our own activities because we owe a duty to protect the lives and property of Nigerians.
What about the welfare of officers in the service?
We have increased our salary by 100 per cent and if any Customs officer is still demanding for N500, that officer is either cursed or he is not part of us, because now, our focus is service to the nation. What we are doing now is service to the nation. The nation has done very well for men of the service and what is left for them is to give their best and that best should be seen from the amount of revenue collected, but whereby officers of the service stop cargoes at will and for their selfish interest, I think that officer is not part of the present day Customs Service. And you can notice that majority of the activities of Customs at the ports are being changed.
When we talk about clearing procedures, it is not only Customs. The Customs Service form only 25 per cent of clearing procedures. Ours begins with checking to make sure that importers make correct entries and we give approval to make import duty payments, and everything is done online.
But what can Customs do about the operations of other partners like shipping companies and concessionaires? These are profit-oriented organisations, they have to make sure that they have collected the maximum revenue derivable to them. Agreed, if they can collect that much money, what about service to the satisfaction of users? So, these are the issues that the public and the government have to look into. And then you make balances.