By Seun Ibiyemi
Barely after three week the Comptroller General of Customs (CGC) empowered Strike Force team to intervene in the port and seize illegal items where necessary without hindrance, apparently reacting to the concern of forces against the CG Strike force, the Comptroller-General of Customs, Hameed Ali, has whittled down the powers and influence of the strike force in a major re-organisation.
In a short circular signed by the Deputy Comptroller in charge of Enforcement, Investigations and Inspection, NCS Augustine Chidi announced the dissolution of the notorious task force and replaced it with a decentralized one that split into three.
The head of the force Augustine Chidi was removed and redeployed to Katsina Command where he was hitherto serving before he took over the leadership of the now dismantled strike force.
According to the new structure, the ad-hoc body is now to operate on Zonal basis in Zone A (Lagos), Zone B (Kaduna) and Zone C (Owerri).
Each of the zone is headed by a Deputy Comptroller of customs.
The dissolved Strike Force, hitherto headed by Abdullah Kirawa,a Deputy Comptroller that covered the whole country was asked to handover to the newly decentralized body.
Deputy Comptroller Idris Dal, formerly of Bauchi /Gombe Command takes charge of Zone A, Deputy Comptroller Kolobe B. formerly of the Eastern Marine Command is to oversee Zone B while Deputy Comptroller Adamu A. M formerly of Western Marine Command takes charge of Zone C.
The dissolved Strike Force made seizures worth over N17billion duty paid value and had recovered over N1billion this year through issuance of demand notice given on consignments that underpaid duties.
The disbanded strike force came under heavy attacks from freight forwarders who described it as a tool of harassment, intimidation, coercion and extortion.
Its activities have brought the customs boss in collision course with the aggrieved freight forwarders who demanded for its dissolution.
However, the Customs Authority has often defended the task force, describing it as the third layer of prevention and detection of cargo clearance infractions.
Observers however described the decentralization of the body as capitulation of the Customs helmsman to the avalanche of pressure mounted by the agitating freight forwarders.
They believed that while the decentralization of the strike force will whittle down its powers, it may also mark the beginning of its eventual wind down
Recall that the National President of NAGAFF, Chief Increase Uche disclosed in an interview in Lagos that with the recent development, customs seemed not to have definite direction and it seemed not to have target on how to sanitize the clearance process at the nation’s seaports.
Uche explained that NAGAFF had been harping on the licensing regulation of the Service reiterating that there was need for a holistic cleansing so that the issue of non-compliance would be tackled headlong from the source.
According to him,” It appears that customs prefer the manipulation of the process, a situation where you skew the process in your favour in order for you to rake in revenue when you are supposed to be pushing to create an enabling environment. So, here you see the reverse is the case. We shouldn’t be talking of dispatching Strike Force at this stage of port reform which also has to do with customs modernization.
The approach we are seeing now is quite undesirable; we shouldn’t be talking of use of Task Force though some are of the opinion that WCO do allow use of adhoc committee when there is infraction that is somehow peculiar to what is expected.
On whether or not the development was an indictment on the resident customs officers, the NAGAFF President said that he didn’t see it as a vote of no confidence on the officers working at the seaports even as he added that ordinarily, it should have been seen as such but for the fact that customs enjoyed duplication of functions as exemplified by multiple units created by the service.
Also, the General Secretary of ANLCA Joe Sanni said that NCS Nigeria Customs Service should go beyond these intermittent half-measures, to completely nip the recurring incidences in the bud, by engaging relevant stakeholders in a determined move to end sustainably the overly noticed trade/technical lapses.
“There are three issues at stake that needs to be addressed urgently in this back and forth tangoing within and outside Nigeria Customs Service.
He added that Customs must now begin to sanction its defaulting officers for such lapses to deter others, reward honest import/export/declarations for compliance, and put defaulting importers/exporters out of business, withdraw licenses of collaborating Customs Brokers/Agents – after due diligence/process, to establish facts behind the acts.
“In my personal opinion, these measures, coupled with regular analysis/interrogation of periodically gathered data and deployment of results thereof, improvement in Port infrastructures/provision of rugged scanners, can bring up the sanity levels appreciably, boosting compliance, towards acceptable international standards and facilitate trade too” Sanni said.