Nigeria Customs in the eye of the storm

ON Tuesday, the Senate Committee on Ethics and Privileges decried last week’s invasion of the popular Oja Oba market in Ibadan, the Oyo State capital, by officers and men of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), during which they allegedly carted away eight truckloads of rice and money found in the shops of the affected traders. It consequently handed down a two-week ultimatum to the Comptroller-General of the NCS, Hameed Ali,  to return the seized goods to the affected traders, unlock their shops, and return the money taken from the shops. According to the lawmakers, the invasion was in breach of the Customs Act and the Executive Order signed by former President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2007, which empowers the agency to only impound smuggled goods within 40 kilometres radius to the border. They pointed out that a similar sting operation carried out by the NCS in Katsina State led to the dismissal of the officer who led the operation while the confiscated goods were returned to the traders on the order of President Muhammadu Buhari.

What makes last week’s invasion particularly unsettling is the fact that it was carried out a month after the invasion of the Bodija International Market, during which NCS personnel reportedly broke into and emptied 88 shops, with each shop containing bags of rice ranging from 400 to 900. The agency has of course put up yet another defence through an Assistant Comptroller General of Customs, Garba Mohammed, who told the Senate that Section 147 of the Customs Act gave the service the right to break windows or shops where there were reasonable grounds. In previous editorials, we pointed out that even if the raid on Bodija market was  legal, it was clearly not expedient. As we noted, it left open the question whether it was dictated by the rule of law and the need to curb smuggling, or extraneous factors.

Since the NCS personnel carted away the “offending” bags of rice in the dead of night and in the absence of the traders, we wondered how they intended to prove that their trophy was actually contraband, and validly clear themselves of the allegations of theft of traders’ money, bags of gari and cartons of noodles in the affected shops. We also wondered how the goods in dispute got to the market with all the Customs checkpoints at the borders, and around the country. But the overnight raids, provocative as they are, are not the only indicator of poor choices by the NCS and its leadership in recent times.

On March 30 this year, the Customs boss had, while appearing before the House of Representatives Committee on Customs and Excise during the agency’s budget defence, revealed plans by the NCS to ban the importation of vehicles older than seven years. This, of course, sparked outrage by Nigerians and players in the automotive industry, including vehicle importers under the aegis of the Association of Motor Dealers of Nigeria (AMDON), who declared the policy dead on arrival. National President of AMDON, Mr. Ajibola Adedoyin, wondered how many Nigerians could afford vehicles not made before 2014/2015.

To say the least, Ali’s policy pronouncement flies in the face of logic. According to the global statistical agencies, Nigeria is the global capital of poverty, the least electrified country in the world, and the third worst governed. That being the case, it is astounding that the NCS would willfully pronounce a policy that can only be welcomed by members of the same political leadership which has consistently pauperised the populace through unbridled corruption and theft of public funds. Besides, just how can Customs personnel turn the country’s roads into checkpoints, confronting vehicle owners and seizing vehicles not manufactured before 2014, without inviting absolute chaos? That would simply orchestrate massive protests with potentially disastrous consequences.

In rolling out policies, the government and its agencies are expected to take their environment into account. So far, that has not been evident in the pronouncements and actions of the NCS leadership and its personnel in recent times. Already, the agency has opened up itself to the charge of ethnic favouritism in a multi-ethnic state. That is a terrible path to tread. It cannot be a thing of joy that the agency has been making consistently poor choices, indicting both itself and the government which superintends over it. This has to change, and very fast too.

 

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