Ichie Frank Obiekezie is the National Secretary of the Association of Registered Freight Forwarders Nigeria, AREFFN. In this interview piece with our correspondent, Saint Augustine Nwadinamuo, he x-rayed the 100 days in office of the Acting Comptroller General of Customs, Bashir Adewale Adeniyi, the trade agreement between the Nigeria Customs Service and the Benin Republic Customs Service, scanning and other matters connected thereto. Excerpt:
In the last few weeks, the media has been awashed with the stakeholders’celebration of the 100 days in office of the Acting Comptroller General of Customs, Adewale Bashir Adeniyi. As a major stakeholder in the maritime industry, do you think Adeniyi has done something spectacular in the last 100 to warrant the celebration?
Our people are fond of having celebration before the event takes place and falling on top of each other to know who will outdo the other person just to be visible. What statistics are they giving out to show? It’s not easy, the man is just starting, making some strategic changes like reshuffling of Cintrollers. There is nothing spectacular about the CG coming in and moving Controllers around, that’s normal routine. it is when all these changes are done and then, the result starts coming that you can now say ah! It’s because of so and so.
But some people will be waiting for that 100 days, even if he has celebrated 50 days, congratulations will pour in. We congratulated him when he was made the Acting CG. In that our letter, we told him that we shall arrange at an appropriate time to see him one on one and then, give him the roadmap for what we have in mind that if he goes on to implement, will help. It’s history, he is not the first CG and he will not be the last.
So, this attitude in Nigeria and it is not even helping us, the President comes, he celebrates 50 days even when you know that he still has time to manifest, he has not even manifested. Sometimes, some leaders get carried away by thinking that they are doing so well following the opinion of some individuals, they may relax. I don’t want to say that we have see something to show that things have drastically changed because right now, the ports; the other time, it was the new Tincan Island CAC that was talking about the drop in the importation of vehicles; when we know that the ports have changed.
You know when we say ports, our minds usually go to import, export can make the ports to bubble. Yes, I am happy that this new CG is trying to emphasize this export processing zones and I even understand that even Ijora will now have a Controller as an export command. Like I was telling our people now, let us take away our minds from import now, the dollar has made it almost impossible and a country does not survive on import especially a country that is not producing commensurate goods for export. Where will you be getting the money to continue to import? What has happened around the world has shown that a country has to be reasonably self sufficient in many things before you can now say you are a country.
And the position of ports and the position of the Customs CG is very important.
So, he is a young man and he has been in the customs for a long time especially being the public relations officer because most of us knew him as the public relations officer of customs. To me, after Innocent Okoye, I don’t think that there’s any other PRO that pulled weight like him. So, by being in such a strategic position, everybody will assume that he has known the customs. So, he is in a better position to do what is good, if he doesn’t do it, it is not because he doesn’t know but may be the circumstances. But we are praying for him that God will give him the strength and the wisdom to do the right thing because for now that we deal mainly on imports, the CG who is in Abuja, then appoints the ACG and Controllers and so on and so forth, the major problem we have is supervision and monitoring of the field staff.
A situation where you go to a port for examination, they tell you that they start examination by 11 or by 12, how many hours remain? So, if he makes it his working style to hear directly from the operators, it will help him more because it is we the operators that will tell him where it pinches us. His officers will always present a flowery picture of what is happening. At what cost and under what social environment? So, I will not be party to people or group that normally sing praises to our public officers. This is a man that if his appointment is confirmed, will have about four or five years, he has not even reeled out his methodology and people are already jumping over themselves.
There’s a process now about Seme Border reopening. From the grapevine, I understand that he has done a lot in that direction but it has not commenced and when it starts, we see how it works. It is from all these things that we will begin to judge the person who either introduced or implementing this thing but for the fact that, anyway, it is not his policy, it is the policy of the government. It is the government that says we want the borders open but the customs CG and his management will now work out the modalities. We understand that he is doing much with the Benin Republic Customs’ authorities. So, we are waiting to see what happens.
Now that you have mentioned the Nigeria Customs Service and the Benin Customs collaboration, we are aware that many have expressed divergent opinions about that collaboration. That collaboration, how do you see it and what is your take on that, sir? Do you think it is the best for Nigeria?
Well, I don’t know. The policy advisers must have predicated their advice on certain assumptions. I don’t know whether it is practiced anywhere in the world.
Yes! They said it is applicable in Europe and other parts of the world where once you clear goods in one port, nobody checks it again until it gets to it final destination.
If that is what they want to implement here, the question should be, what advantage does Benin Republic has in this arrangement? What do they have to come here to clear? If it ensures that there will be no loss of revenue and the national security is guaranteed, I will not have anything against it because from my enquiry, the understanding is that now you can clear a container there and bring it here. My argument in this whole thing when they said that they are going to clear goods through Benin when they open the borders and I said, look, let it not be a situation where one truck will be carrying four or five containers that will be reaching to the high heaven because it doesn’t look good. It was then that they said that containers can now come in.
Well, if they have the infrastructure, if they have the security and so on, part of the hindrances, the other day we went to the Rockview Hotels, where ECOWAS organized what they called non tariff barriers to international trade, they referred to our border with Benin as one of the notorious with over fifty checkpoints. So, these are issues that have to be streamlined before the wholly reopening of the border.
Now, the duty they are going to pay in Benin, would it be paid to the Benin Republic government or to the Nigerian government? The Benin Republic Customs will now collect money for the Nigerian government? My brother, there will be a lot of logistics challenges with this unless if it will be technology driven, then we can consider it. But if it is the normal thing we do, it will not last.
So, they have to think through it very well. Even if they do this in Europe, I don’t think Benin Republic and Nigeria are ripe for that type of international trade arrangement. The personnel who will man this, are they not our Nigerian and Benin Republic personnel? So, if Nigeria will say okay, we are now creating a transit camp in Nigeria so that all goods coming from Benin can be dropped there, whatever you want to do with Benin, like transshipment, pay it for them there but bring it here, our customs will come and see it and you pay our normal duty and collected by our customs following our normal procedures, issue PAAR on those goods.
But for us to go into Benin, finish everything, carry goods, cross and go, no! The arrangement can start but it will not last. No good crossing from Benin will not stop over here at the said transit camp. This is where we check them for final delivery into Nigeria. Check for contraband items, do they meet ECOWAS and AfCFTA standards.
Come to think of it because this clamour for goods coming from Benin, Nigeria can restrict the type of goods that can come in from there, maybe food items otherwise our ports and bonded terminals are not congested…
The argument is that most of the goods we are restricting from coming into Nigeria are being dumped there from where they eventually find their to Nigeria through smuggling…
Because our security agencies are not doing their work, they will tell you that there are multiplicity of entry points and so on. We must find a way to control them. You cannot say because our borders are porous, you begin to implement things that will not work. As far as I am concerned, we have no reason to have a wholesale importation from Benin. Nigerians are clamouring for Benin ports because of food items not because of any other thing.
Why should they come from Benin if they can come from Tincan? Find out why it is cheaper in Benin, study their rate and apply the same thing here. If they apply the same policy in Tincan and Benin, it will be more expensive coming from Benin. But because these people study us and lower down their assessment and handling and so on, so our people troop there. We have facilities, we have seaports everywhere, why are they not doing the same thing? The clamour for importation through Benin still beats my imagination. By so doing, are we not empowering and creating jobs for their people, expanding their ports while we have our ports here? Is Benin one of the ports belonging to Nigeria?
I think this idea is predicted on the economic importance of Benin Republic to Nigeria in the sense that the country serves as transit route for our locally manufactured goods being exported to other African countries and our people too…
When you talk of ETLS, there are goods that are qualified for that. If you come from China and dump something in Benin, it is not supposed to benefit from ECOWAS and AfCFTA concessions. Let me tell you, if Nigeria makes int impossible for those things dumped there to come in, they will not ask them to bring them because their market is so small to absorb them. So, they know they are importing them for Nigerians and because of that, Nigeria will now say there is nothing we can do,let us open it, Kill our own industries and kill our own ports.
Back to the 100 days in office of the Acting Comptroller General of Customs, there have been some strategic alliance and partnership he has strike since assumption of office, signing MoUs and so on. Don’t you think it is something to celebrate knowing that they will positively impact on the customs?
All these are not new, they are all at the preliminary stages. You remember there was a time the mull the idea of merging customs, NIMASA and FIRS, you can’t judge anyone until you start seeing the impact. If customs goes into collaboration with the Maritime Police and so on, the essence is that there will be seamless operations in the ports as far as the Police is concerned. This idea of you clear a consignment and there will be an embargo on it by the Maritime Police, these are the things that customs should concern itself with but they will ask you because the other time that one of our sister associations went to visit the Maritime Police and the man there was talking about customs that released that job is the same customs that intercept the consignment.
So, these are the things, before you go to equity, you must go with clean hands. We have to reform customs, clean up customs before we can now talk of what we want them to do and what we don’t want them to do. That idea of Federal Operations Unit , the customs police, he has to explain all these things to the people. Is there no technology that a consignment that leaves the port is gone? Why should there be customs checks from Toll Gate to Benin and to Asaba? We have up to 30 customs checkpoints on that route alone. When you talk of ease of doing business and trade facilitation, there should be a one stop shop for all these things.
Let the new CG emphasize technology. Where is the position of scanning machines? Now, they will tell you about porous borders, if they get the port properly managed, it will be easy and all these trickling in of items from the land borders won’t be there. But they don’t want to put the ports in order. I want to believe that 80 percent of what comes into Nigeria by way of import comes through the ports and the airports not necessarily the land borders.
Why should there be multiplicity of customs on the road? So, any customs CG will start from there. It is not like the new Police IG coming on air to say I have dismantled all the police checkpoints, he will just say that in Abuja but go to the roads and see a different thing. If you are a CG of Customs or IG of Police, people will judge you by what they see on ground not the policy statements you make.
Clearing has not been made easier but I am not judging him in person because he is just a new person. Maybe, most of these things he’s doing will come to fruition in a short while and the beneficiaries, the people will begin to see it. But as at now, it is too early to start celebrating. What is one hundred days? One hundred days, is it not three months?
If you are to advise the Acting CG, which areas would you advise him to focus his attention to get things right?
As an operator, my major concern is to go and take delivery because most of us doing import clearing would want to have a seamless operation. Ihave my documents, lodge them in and an officer will look at my paper without waiting for me to come, that my papers are okay and process it and thereafter, forward it to the next table. Clocking – the time this paper got to you and the the time you sent it out. If there’s any issue on my paper, there will be a seat you will forward it to immediately and when I come, I will go there and see it and then collect it and make the necessary adjustment.
I will let him know that scanning is of essence, it provides more security and it saves time. It reduces the number of people milling around. If the scanning machine is working, you may not have all these so called labourers everywhere. You scan the goods and have good interpreters who are operating the machine because sometimes, you find out that the even the people operating it are not even very knowledgeable. It causes delay and misinterpretation.
But some people have argued that this scanning machine causes delay because when you have one thousand containers, you have the scanner scanning between one hundred and one hundred and twenty containers a day…
The other time we went to meet the immediate past Apapa Controller, Auwal, it was the time the people were talking about that thing and he showed me the report that they just brought to him from the port. There were two days in a week they had issue with trucks taking containers to the scanning site and that was sorted out and then, there was a time the scanning machine had issue and they brought in people immediately to come and fix it.
The truth is that any genuine business man will not run away from scanning. And our worry is that those who are doing their work genuinely are being delayed unnecessarily because as they say, it takes two to tango. Some officers will preach this and preach that but behind, they do some other things. Then this Webb Fontaine that is managing the customs ICT, is there anything customs can do about it? You can put in your documents and they will tell you that there is no network for about two days. And at the end of the day, customs will just release it to you, you have paid them their duty but they are not aware that you pay demurrage to shipping companies and pay storage to terminals.
So, if I were him (Adeniyi), depending on where he worked before, I will adopt undeclared inspection method. The time they set up customs police, the impression they gave us was that they will be policing the Customs officers but are they policing customs officers today? Everybody is interested in container examination. So, if I were the CG, I may even have my own private monitors that are not on uniform and people may not even know them and I won’t ask them to arrest anybody or intercept any container. They will just be getting information for me. Because if you add anything to their job description, they become another clog in the clearing process.
This is because the CAC here is in his office, he has field operators, the CG is there in Abuja, he works on reports and they decide and filter what gets to him. But if they know that this guy can pay a surprise visit, everybody will be on his or her feet and somebody has to do it sometimes in many if Nigerian sectors for things to start working well. And when you are doing it, you are doing it with proven pedigree of transparency in your activities so that people will not take you for granted.
You saw what Umahi did in Abuja the other day and before you say Jack, the whole thing turned against him. But this is what we witness here. You will come here, an officer will not come to work until 10 O’clock or 11 and when he comes, you have to stay out so as to allow him Change because most of them come in mufti and when he’s done changing, you wait for him to eat, by the time he finishes eating, our Muslim brothers will go to pray and before you know it, he is off again.
So, these things have to be regulated. I was told that in China, you are not even allowed to answer your calls when you are at work. So, when they have their normal holidays, they know they are in holidays but when they go back to work, it is real work. But here, somebody who is using government time will be in call talking things that have nothing to do with what brought him there and if you try correcting them, they will say you are teaching them their job.
The CG has a lot of work to do. He is a young man, we know. He is a new person, we know but let him come down, let him not rely on the information from his officers alone, at least for one year, let them take it that this is the way he works and then, he can now relax.
Photo: Ichie Frank Obiekezie, National Secretary, AREFFN.
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