Our game plan against Customs —Lagos dealers

Even those who fashioned the new policy to recover what government had lost in revenue to illegal vehicle importation never envisaged easy operation. Their targets are confirming it won’t be. TOLA ADENUBI, CHUKWUMA OKPARAOCHA and LEKAN OLABULO moved round Lagos to get first-hand thoughts of vehicle car dealers and their preparedness for the coming Customs raid.

Through the ages, the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) is perceived to have its most disciplined, determined, accountable and toughest leadership in the current Hamid Ali-led management. But the tough retired colonel is also perceived as an outsider and probably the only yet-to-be contaminated “tree” in a “forest of a thousand demons”. But no one seems to be taking Ali for granted on policies, even if the system officials don’t agree with his many controversial policies, all in the bid to generate more money for the Federal Government. His directives must be carried out by the officers of the service, but Nigerians that would be affected are saying the implementation won’t be a piece of cake for Ali and his men.

While the equally controversial recent pronouncement banning land importation of vehicles is still generating waves, Ali’s Customs has come out again to force dealers and owners of vehicles to pay backdated full official duty on all vehicles in their possession between March 13 and April 12, or risk seizure of same.

In response to public complains and suggestions, the Comptroller-General of Customs, Colonel Hameed Ibrahim Ali (Rtd), on Wednesday, approved the adjustment of points of payment and 60% rebate across board from 2015 downward to ease the process and encourage all motor dealers in position of ‘uncustomed’ vehicles to come forward and pay duty.

Ali, in a statement signed by the acting National Public Relations Officer, NCS, Joseph Attah, said, “While the grace period remains Monday 13th March to Wednesday 12th April, the points of payments with the exception of Lagos and Port Harcourt will now be the nearest Customs Area Command. Motor dealers in Lagos are to pay their duties at Zone ‘A’ Headquarters, No. 1 Harvey Road, Yaba and Federal Operations Unit, Zone ‘A’, Ikeja. While in Port Harcourt, auto duty payment will be at Zone ‘C’ Headquarters, Nigeria Ports Authority.

“In the same vein, private vehicle owners who know that duty has not been paid on their vehicles could take advantage of this grace period to do so, therefore owners of such vehicles or their representatives are expected to go to the nearest pay-point for assessment and payment. It should however be noted that the 60 per cent rebate applies only within the grace period.

“For the avoidance of doubt, the decision to grant a grace period for auto duty payment was not a sudden and arbitrary one, but a product of consultations and long standing engagement with Leadership of Association of Motor Dealers of Nigeria (AMDON) who pleaded for a “window” to pay duty on all ‘uncustomed’ vehicles within the country before the ban on vehicle importation through land borders.

“Noteworthy also is the ongoing collaboration with the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC), Vehicle Inspection Officers (VIO) and Nigeria Police Force (NPF) in the Vehicles Identification Number (VIN) Project which is another bold step by the Service to boost revenue and enhance national security. The benefit of this collaboration is that those who do not pay duty on their vehicles will not be able to obtain licence and register them in Nigeria. We believe that when all vehicles are properly registered and owners’ identities tied to them, national security will be enhanced.

“While expecting motor dealers and indeed private owners of smuggled vehicles within the Country to use this grace period to pay duty, it should be noted that the Service will intensify its statutory functions of anti-smuggling operation with a view to seizing and prosecuting owners of ‘uncustomed’ vehicles and other goods”.

The new window and the attempt by the Nigerian Senate to put a halt, albeit temporarily, to the one-month notice, for many vehicle dealers, most particularly in Lagos and its environs, signify imminent trouble because most get supplies from adjoining land borders like Seme and Idiroko in Lagos and Ogun states, respectively and they had reportedly paid the demanded duty.


Customs and duty issues

Towards the tail end of 2016, the Federal Government, through the Customs, outlawed bringing in of vehicles into the country through the land borders. This singular policy makes all vehicle documentation through or at the land border null and void.

Therefore, the various Customs commands at the border points dismantled their Vehicle Evaluation Seats and started clamping down on importation of vehicles through the land borders. However, like rice, vehicles are still coming into the country. Results of Customs patrol inspection revealed that many vehicles are still being brought into the country, the directive notwithstanding.

Speaking to Saturday Tribune, a spokesperson of one of the Customs commands in Lagos, who begged not to have his name in print, said the issue is bound to generate controversy, due to the connections of some powerful car dealers. He explained that, “By April 12, 2017, Customs will begin clampdown on vehicles in dealer shops and even conduct stop-and-search on highway to verify Customs papers. Any vehicle that is found not to have genuine Customs papers will be whisked away.

“We have it on good authority that some vehicles have come into the country without valid Customs papers. We know that there is a cartel neck deep in forging Customs papers at some border posts, with assurances of collecting duty on behalf of Customs.

“We will be going from one vehicle dealer shop to another, searching for fake duty documents. We will also do random stop and search on highways, all to ensure vehicles plying Nigeria’s highways have duly paid duty to the Federal Government.”


Why trouble looms

However, in a separate chat with Saturday Tribune, a vehicle dealer, Alebiosu, wondered why Customs allowed those vehicles to come into the country in the first place. In his words, “Some of my vehicles came in through the Idiroko Border. I paid duty for them before bringing them in. So Customs cannot come to my shop and whisk away vehicles I bought with millions of Naira, all in the name of duty verification.

“I will fight them with everything I have, both spiritually and physically. Customs should rather rid the borders of unscrupulous people issuing duty to vehicles before the vehicles are brought in. I paid duty on my vehicles before they were brought in. So, I don’t know why they expect another duty payment from me.”

Alhaji Mustapha Ashafa aligns with Alebiosu as he noted that religion does not stop traditional efforts geared towards safeguarding one’s investment. “Yes, I am a Muslim, but I can tell you that I am not bothered about the Customs raid on vehicles over duty verification. Even though I have utility vehicles that came in through the border, I have paid for those vehicles and expecting to sell them so I can make profit. I won’t sit here and wait for Customs to come and make me bankrupt. They won’t even come here in the first place”, he said.

When asked why he is so sure Customs won’t come near his shop, Ashafa replied, “You just wait and see. Customs has given vehicle dealers between 13th of March and 12th of April. After that grace period, you can come around to see things for yourself. They won’t come near my business. I am so sure of that”.

When Saturday Tribune asked if it wasn’t better for him to just go and regularise the duty payment of vehicles in his possession, he countered by saying, “That would amount to double payment because duty for all the vehicles here have been paid for before they were brought into Lagos.

“We pay duty at the border to Customs. I don’t know if the Customs at the border is fake, but if you don’t pay duty, they (Customs) won’t let you bring the vehicle in. So, if I go to Customs now that I want to pay another duty, won’t it affect the money I have spent on such cars? It will double the money I have spent on the cars and I won’t be able to sell again because nobody will buy it at the very high rate I will want to sell it, after adding up all the duty expenses such a vehicle would have incurred.”

Another car dealer at the Ajala area of the Lagos-Abeokuta Expressway, Mr Aderibigbe Gbolahan, in a chat with Saturday Tribune, berated the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) for what he deemed an unnecessary tension which he said the planned clampdown would create.

Aderibigbe, who insisted that he personally had nothing to fear as all his vehicles were duly cleared at the border, insisted that the planned clampdown would only worsen an already bad situation. For him, culpable car dealers would surely look for a way of beating the new order.

But more importantly, he said, serious and law-abiding dealers would be made to suffer for what is clearly the result of a faulty system.

“Personally, I have nothing to fear because all my vehicles are duly cleared. I have always striven to ensure that I don’t do any business where the law is circumvented. But when the clampdowns begin, there is no way people like us would still not be affected. It is an open secret in this country that law enforcement agencies sometimes step beyond all reasonable boundaries when carrying out a mandate”, he said.

Babalola, an auto dealer in the Abule Egba area of Lagos State, also told Saturday Tribune that the major worry of most of the people in that line of business is an envisaged high-handedness and overzealousness of customs officers who will implement the new directive from the Customs Comptroller General.

He said “that is not the first time that they have done such a thing. It is just that it is pronounced now. We have had cases in the past that some customs task force members have seized some vehicles from some of our members. At times, they followed such to the shop or they just invaded the shop and take away ‘suspicious’ vehicles.

Babalola also stated that, “with this new policy, my major concern is high-handedness and overzealousness on the part of the customs officers. Many of them often do beyond what they send them. We have had encounters with them in the past and I know what I am saying.

“It is true that some of the vehicles on sale don’t have genuine duty papers, but the number is minimal compared to the alarm raised by the Customs. Some people do fake customs papers to clear their vehicles in order to attract quick sales, but I have never done that».

Another auto dealer who pleaded anonymity while speaking with Saturday Tribune, also blamed the Customs for some of the fake duty papers in circulation and urged the service to “first purge itself” before trying to implement the new directive .

“These are the same set of people that collect money from smugglers at the border and allow them to bring vehicles into the country. They are also the people who encourage dealers to do cheap and fake customs duty papers. It is impossible for these things to be done without the connivance of customs officers. They are actively involved.

“The CG has just given them a license to misbehave because I know some of them will go beyond the directive of their boss. Many vehicles with genuine customs papers will also be impounded by these people. It is certainly going to bring more pains and crisis when the implementation begins”, he said.

The anonymous auto dealer however expressed the readiness of the other members in the business to resist any injustice on them as he said, “We are not against them impounding any vehicle that does not have genuine duty papers. What we will not tolerate is any act of mis-implementation of the policy from the customs officers”.

A close associate of Alhaji Mustapha Ashafa, who simply identified himself as Jimoh, advised the Nigerian Customs Service to work with its counterpart in Benin Republic to eradicate the issuance of duty at the border on vehicles.

“I don’t blame vehicle dealers who will see this duty regularisation as double payment because most have been charged duties before bringing in the vehicles in the first place. Some officials of Benin Customs issue duty papers on these vehicles. They even issue duty papers with Nigerian Customs approval on it. Customs should go and stop that, instead of coming after businessmen who are simply looking for how to put food on our table”, Jimoh added.

The coming clash is akin to two desperadoes aiming at a prized desire, the outcome is better left to imagination.