Nigeria Customs: Passing The Buck Of Inefficiency/By Chigozie Chikere

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The Customs and Excise Management Act (CEMA) of 1958, which empowers Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) anti-smuggling operatives to seize trucks and other vehicles used in smuggling has, in recent times, been wielding its sword in the wrong direction. Nonetheless, the anti-smuggling effort of NCS has been commended at various quarters for stepping up security at various entry points in the country and making smuggling, be it across border or through the home ports, a costly trade in Nigeria. However, the CEMA anti-smuggling law is not designed to make innocent truck owners bear the brunt of the failure of Nigeria Customs to forestall the rising trend of cargo underdeclaration, false declaration, cargo concealment, and customs duty value underpayment, which respectively, are regarded as subtle forms of smuggling within the ambit of the law. But that is what is happening as evidenced by the various categories of road haulage trucks loaded with freight containers and detained at the operational bases of the NCS Federal Operations Unit (FOU) all over the country.

Besides the high cost of cargo clearing, it is on record that Nigeria Customs Service runs the most stringent cargo examination procedure in West Africa; one of numerous factors that led to cargo diversion from Nigerian ports , port capacity underutilization, and loss of revenue in the late 1990’s and to port concessioning by mid 2000. At a time, there were about fourteen (14) security agencies involved in cargo examination at the ports. It was of recent that the list was reduced to Nigeria Customs service (NCS), Customs Intelligence Unit (CIU), Police Anti-Bomb Unit (PAU), State Security Service (SSS), National Agency for Foods, Drugs Administration & Control (NAFDAC), and Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON). Each of these agencies is expected to be present each time a container is positioned and unsealed for examination. Moreover, they are expected to endorse the cargo examination form that enables agents to process other release documents for their consignments. This is in consonance with the Nigeria Customs cargo clearance procedure that is aimed at preventing release of contrabands, detecting cargo underdeclaration, unraveling false declaration, concealment of goods and smuggling of unexamined containers out of the ports.


As proposed, however, the procedure has not turned out quite as the NCS planned. Along the highways, the FOU has continued to intercept thousands of metric tones of cargo valued at hundreds of millions of Naira previously passed by the customs examination team, on the same grounds of underdeclaration, false declaration, and concealment as the case may be. At the Ikeja Zone A office of the FOU, for example, scores of container-laden trucks are reported as intercepted and detained for offences having to do with the inefficiency of the customs examination team who passed these containers before they were loaded onto trucks. Recall that cross-border smuggling does not involve integrated transport units like freight containers. Hence, all containers intercepted and detained by the FOU were previously passed by customs at the ports.

The customs FOU arbitrarily choose to detain trucks alongside impounded containers on the pretence that it would attract extra trucking cost for the importer and his agent depending on how long the truck is held. But truck owners see this as very unfair considering that it is not consistent with standard business ethics. It is noteworthy that, of all documents used in clearing, only the Terminal Delivery Order (TDO) permits a truck owner to load a container. The TDO is therefore the only document with which a contract of carriage between the importer’s agent and the truck owner is initiated and consummated. The TDO has no provision for cargo description or manifest and, as such, does not place responsibility on the truck owner for whatever findings the FOU may make as regards the content of the container, or value of customs duty paid or payable as the case may be. By detaining the truck alongside the container, the FOU runs the risk of illegally passing the buck of inefficiency of the customs container examination team to innocent truck owners. Moreover, the FOU, after detaining  the trucks on the pretence of increasing costs for defaulting agents, does not ensure the payment of such extra costs to the truck owners before they are released, thereby pitting truck owners against agents and their individual unions. On countless occasions, similar developments had caused serious fracas between the individuals and sometimes their unions.

Apart from the quantifiable costs accruable to the agent on event of a seizure or detainment of cargo and truck, there are the less quantifiable costs. The economic cost of one idle truck for one day is so significant when viewed from the angle of depreciation or wear and tear of the truck. Now, considering the weight of a fully loaded 20 feet or 40 feet standard TEU container on a parked truck for one day, there is no doubt that the impact on the wear and tear will be enormous. Yet, these costs run into days, weeks, and sometimes, months without anybody calculating their cumulative economic cost to the truck owner, the transport and logistics industry, and the nation at large.

The FOU boasts of a vast array of operational equipment ranging from exotic automobiles, powerful marine motor boats, customized air planes, and state-of-the-art office automation. This is commendable in the light of the Federal Government’s commitment to ridding Nigerian waters, land borders, and the hinterland of smugglers. But for the sake of innocent truck owners who provide invaluable logistic support to the maritime industry but unsuspectingly fall victim of the FOU’s draconian rule, the NCS should consider adding container handling machines to their fleet. This would enable the FOU operatives to offload impounded containers, letting the trucks off the hook, and saving truck owners unnecessary economic costs with their contingent multiplier effects. The NCS should also identify and subscribe to more effective standard cargo examination procedures alongside competent personnel to stem this ugly trend of discrepancies and irregularities that are a regular feature at the nation’s ports.

The Nigerian maritime industry is growing steadily and, in no distant time, Nigeria would assume her rightful position as the maritime hub for the West and Central African sub region. The Nigeria Customs Service should therefore endeavour to live up to their mandate as regulators, managers, and collectors of duties of customs and excise for Nigeria. Their unique position within the hub of international supply chain of goods and services should motivate them to vigorously pursue the fourth article of their vision of protecting Nigerian society, generating accurate and precise statistical data by developing a professional, transparent administration that implements international best practices and obligations.

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