Retirement of Officers: Ali has done nothing out of place –Osunkwo

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Mr. Chris Osunkwo is the Command’s Public Relations Officer, Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Tincan Island Ports Command. He granted interview to journalists in Lagos last on the trending issues in the Service and the nation’s economy in general. Our correspondent was at the parley and filed in this piece. Excerpt;

What is your take on the recent wind of retirement in the Nigeria Customs Service?

What has been happening is not out of place. Every government has its own method, so when the new CGC (Comptroller-General of Customs) was appointed, he made it public that he has a three point agenda; to come to customs to restructure, reform and raise revenue and everything that has been happening since his assumption of duty has been line with that agenda.

I think he released 20 points policy thrust. So there is nothing that has been happening that is out of place. He sounded the notion that, look, I have come with a mission and we have to work to drive his mission.

As at the time he had his maiden press conference with journalists in Lagos, he said his mission to reform and restructure customs did not include sacking anybody. With what has been happening in the last one week or so, has he not contradicted himself?

No, there is no contradiction to our understanding. That is why all what he has been doing is in line with his policy thrust. Now, let me take a popular quote from a movie which most of us know,” The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin”. Idi Amin said in that film that “anytime there is a change of government in Africa, a few heads must roll”. So, I am taking it from there, I don’t think there is anything out of place that has happened.

Change, whether adverse, positive or any how is welcomed. All of us keyed into the change mantra and what is change? We are all change agents. So, to our minds, nothing extra ordinary has happened. Let us take this example; when Alhaji Dr. Muhammed Haliru Bello was appointed the CG of customs, most of our very senior customs officers were retired before he took over, then in that order. Even when Major Gen. Ango was there after the probe panel or whatever, then the same thing happened. So, it is in that order.

It has a laid down pattern. Even the CGC Col. Hameed Ali (Rtd.) refuted the news that he had no plans to sack 400 officers; he said he never told anybody that and he will never tell anybody that but that any officer found wanting along duty line will face the music.

Do you see the coming of Hameed Ali as restoring respect and discipline in the service as being speculated in some quarters among your officers?

In my very candid opinion, I wouldn’t want to buy your thinking that it is restoration but rather if I am asked to put it in my own words, I will say that he has come to fortify discipline because there is no organization whether military or paramilitary that can survive without emphasis on discipline. Discipline is the cradle of administration of this paramilitary organization.

It has been said that the terminal operators have not been having power supply for processing cargo clearance and the like. How can you describe this development in relation to your revenue generation drive?

We all know the power situation in this country, nobody except you want to pretend, we know that the power situation in this country has seriously improved, at least from two hours a day before now to averagely ten to twelve hours per day currently and everyone of us is expected to have an alternative source of power supply and these terminal operators are operating on Nigerian soil, they are not operating from the moon.

So, that cannot be an excuse because we as we speak have two 500 KVA generating sets, two of it. One installed by Webb Fontaine powering customs system and then the other one taking care of the administrative block. So, we have alternative, when there is power, we enjoy it. When the public power supply is off, we switch to alternative power supply.

Some agents has protested the experiences the encounter with Tincan Island Container Terminal (TICT) in respect to stemming containers to SCOA terminal with the attendant time wasting problem associated with carrying out customs formalities as most times, there seem to be confusion on which customs command should attend to the consignment. What is your take on this?

Well, in building your question, you have already provided the answers without knowing it. Now, what is the purpose of off dock terminals? To decongest the mother ports, so, if they are there to decongest the mother ports, there is nothing wrong, if a Marine Vessel MV Augustine is stemmed to SCOA bonded terminal, it means that anybody that has a container there should proceed to SDV bonded terminal to go and clear your cargo.

Nobody should tell you to go, every customs processes and protocols are embedded, they are there in the terminal. Infact the customs control is complete there, nothing is lacking there. The only thing is that the Area Controller is seated at the mother port but there are heads of terminal, the Deputy Controllers who are manning the place and very competent and capable.

So, any agent that tells you he has to run from point SDV to Tincan, from Tincan to SDV maybe does not understand the procedure.

Maybe in terms of raising alerts on cargoes that would have been cleared in Tincan at the SCOA terminal

Fine! You are talking of query and amendment? Yes, at a point, the query and amendment unit was decentralized. Each terminal had its own query and amendment but for control measure. When abuse set in, it was streamlined. So, what you are now saying is now, if you have any issue but don’t forget the DTI Cafes, they capture from here, so, if your declaration has an alert, as I said earlier, the CAC is in the mother port, you walk in here and handle it before you proceed to the bonded terminal.

The problem that we have here is that more than 80% of the patronage we have here of the people that operate in the port don’t understand the procedure. So, you see them complaining like market women, traders without knowledge. It is not fair! A seasoned customs licensed agent who understands the procedure will not tell you this.

Why are you not having stakeholders’ forum as they do have in Apapa where stakeholders would be made to come to par with all these processes and procedure you said they don’t understand?

Yes, you see, the immediate past CGC instituted that and luckily, it has been upheld by the present CGC and he has directed through a circular that we must continue to have it. So, as I speak with you, plans are in the offing from my CAC’s office, he has directed me that all things being equal, by next week (this week), we want to have one.

But the problem most times is, he will fix one for a given date before you know it, he will be asked to come to Abuja for one thing or the other and it is necessary that he is there. So, that is what happened but in the next two weeks, there is going to be a stakeholders’ meeting. We do have it in Tincan.

Sometime last two months, I spoke with you on phone over some officers posted from the PAAR ruling centre to some command to carry out field work. My question will be too legged, one would you confirm that they are still around and secondly what is your assessment of their performance on the field?  

Taking your first question, they are no longer here; they have all been withdrawn to the headquarters. Secondly, that experiment like I always call it was short-lived because before we could, you know they have a given time, before we could find time to assess their performance and their impact, there was a change of leadership and they were asked to return to headquarters.

So, it was more or less inconclusive because they were to have operated for three months before we could be able to compare. But for the first month, it was just an experiment and we said okay, let us experiment with them on examination. So, that was what happened.

Could you confirm also that every other team; the CGC teams, Monitoring and Enforcement team etc, had been withdrawn?

Yes, none of them is in place any longer.

It has been long your command called for press briefing to showcase seized goods and the likes. Does it mean that the importers and their agents are now compliant to procedures or is it that you have given up that exercise?

Well, like I have always explained, I said anytime crime or our seizure profile drops, it means compliance level is high. So, we have been educating them, enlightening them, sensitizing them on the issues that require their attention and honestly, I can say without any fear of being contradicted that they have been complying but we have not yet achieved 100% but we are at a very encouraging level.

We are still making seizures but not like before. They understand the implication, the danger inherent in falsifying documents, in cutting corners. If you are an importer and I am an agent and you give me your cargo to clear and customs seizes it out of my stupidity, you will not be happy. That is why they are being more cautious and they are working according to the rule.

Could you let us know the impact of forex restriction by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) on the revenue profile of your command?

Definitely, it is natural that even a blind man can sense the impact in the sense that maybe ten people were doing business before, all of a sudden, the number is cut to four. So, if it is reduced to four, it is difficult, I am not saying it is not achievable for you to achieve the same result as when ten people were doing the business.

Definitely, there is no way the thing will not affect us because the medium scale importers, the people we call occasional importers now have restricted access to forex, all these Ladipo boys, ASPAMDA etc. For the fact that they cannot get forex to import, we are only managing the few, the affluent and the multinational importers, whatever they able to bring through our ports, we collect the maximum revenue for the government.

Are you in support for the call for the review of that policy?

Of course! But in today’s papers, check MMS, government has plans to review it. People have been crying out, so, if government promised that they are going to review it, so be it.

Sir, we know that that was just a speculation, in case government did not review it, don’t you think this forex restriction will affect one of the three point agenda of the CGC which is increasing the revenue profile of the federal government?

It is natural, that is what we are saying. We are not magicians but what we would do, we promised the government and people of Nigeria that the Nigeria Customs Service will do its best; we will collect and generate maximum revenue from the dutiable cargoes. We will collect the maximum revenue for government.

So, we are going to make sure that all identified and suspected revenue loopholes and leakages are blocked. So, people must pay to the last kobo, no compromise, no exercising control. We have to facilitate legitimate trade, compliance trade without compromising trade and so, we have to do all within our powers to ensure that maximum revenue is collected more so, as you find out that this oil revenue is going down every day.

Measures put in place by the Lagos state government towards ensuring free flow of traffic on the Oshodi-Apapa expressway is gradually paying off. Has it in anyway impacted in your revenue profile?

Yes, definitely, because when it was worse than what is obtained today, it was more of an evil wind. So, now that there seems to be a little sanity we are equally happy about it because only last month, we made about N24.7 billion approximately N25 billion but month before was 22 million. So, we can see this small impact.

So, it is impacting and we hope that because now that the matter has been taken to the national level, the senators are giving it every attention it deserves, let us see how it goes. If the road is good and smooth, we hope it is going to be better.

What is the situation of PAAR today especially in relation to the implementation of ECOWAS CET?       

PAAR is working perfectly well. The only problem we have always had with PAAR is as instituted or done by those whom PAAR was meant to serve their need, who is the trading public, we have this popular adage in my place that it is what a man put in a woman’s tummy that the woman gives out to him.

All the identifiable inconsistencies originating from PAAR comes from the agents, it is not from the customs. Just one in a million that you find customs make mistake.

We appreciate the fact that, we cannot tell you that there are no recognized inconsistencies in PAAR, that is being seriously taken care of. The headquarters, the high command is on it, they are seriously taking care of it, issuing amendments where there is need for amendment, doing the needful to make sure we have a smooth run.

How has the CET been faring since its implementation in the country by the federal government?

Apart from IAT (Import Adjustment Tax), for example, if you pay 20% on an imported used car in Nigeria, it is the same 20% you will pay in all ECOWAS member countries. The only difference will be in the IAT, what we call levy.

So, every country uses that levy to cushion, to protect the local market but the way it is, is that it has reduced the incidences of people running to Cotonou and Ghana because wherever you run to, it is the same thing except for the tax. I think it is working well.

Is there any provision that allow an individual to import goods into the country and clear it by himself without involving the services of a licensed customs agent?

Yes we have provision in customs law; it has provision for self clearing, that is what we call it. If you are an importer and you want to do a self clearing, you apply and you do your self clearing and clear it yourself.

There is a provision for you to do self clearing and there is provision for you to engage the services of a licensed customs agent. The only condition for you to do it is do you have the requisite knowledge so that you don’t clog the process because it is procedural. Maybe you want to do A, you go and do B, then there will be problem.

Most of the jobs I do in my office there are from these agents working in the ports. Infact, majority of them are touts, they lacked the knowledge but they will pick a bill of lading from people out there and walk up to me, Oga, I picked this bill of lading, how do I go about it and you look at him, will you collect the bill lading or will you drive him away? You educate him in order to minimize the risk and if you tell him to go and give it to a licensed customs agent, he wouldn’t go. He will tell you he is an agent.

So, every Tom, Dick and Harry, according to one of my ogas who is a member of the House of Representatives, he said that the only qualification you need to be a clearing agent is to be a human being.

Rumour has it that your command CAC is about being transferred. Do you have any information to that effect?

I am happy you called it rumour, so, it is just rumour. It is one of those rumours that is making round. There is nothing like that for now.

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