In the history of the Nigeria Customs Service, there had been attempts to modernize and automate its operations. First, there was the ageless Customs Long Room, which first generation clearing agents knew, until Brigadier General SOG Ango became the Sole Administrator and he scrapped it; this gave birth to Customs Processing Centre (CPC) in the late 1990s.
Subsequently, the service embraced automation. It veered into the Automated System for Customs Data (ASYCUDA) series, and lately the NICIS 1and 2.
There is no doubt that automation is a powerful tool to facilitate trade and also make life easy for both the users and stakeholders to enjoy seamlessly operation, without having to pay for unnecessary costs incurred in clearing of goods during the era of destination inspection.
When in 2013 the Nigeria Customs Service took over from the destination inspection agents, it said it was embracing modernization and automation, the expectation was that, it would usher-in an era of paperless environments, internet-based systems, single window environments and harmonisation/standardization.
Whereas automation has the potential to facilitate trade while also helping to meet objectives related to the maintenance of national and social security, some countries that have also embraced automation have experienced smooth trade flows; can this be said about Nigeria and its Customs Service?
Predictable border services, customs clearance time and trade transaction costs are added advantages of automation. Apart from these, it serves other purposes than facilitating movement of goods and people. It reduces level of smuggling, corruption, increased productivity in customs operations, and improvements in valuation methods which may have the added benefit of increasing government revenue.
After seeing to the sack of the destination inspection agents, Customs handed over its automation transformation to Messrs Webb Fontaine, hence the creation of : software products, electronic single window portals, Customs automation, information and telecommunications technology and infrastructure services, peripherals and consumables, business process reengineering and standardization.
At a recent function, the Comptroller General of Customs, Col. Hameed Ali (rtd) said Customs has attained 75 per cent automation level while cutting down inspection hours of imported items and papers processing at ports and airports to ease business operations.
Col. Ali told an Extra-ordinary Meeting of African Union Sub-committee of Directors-General of Customs in Abuja, that the Nigeria Customs Service has achieved much in the area trade facilitation using automation.
He said, “If you have been following the trend of Ease of Doing Business initiated by the Vice President, the Customs is key to that. We have reduced the hours of inspection and physical examination; we have also reduced paper processing from 17 to 10”! With automation, you don’t need this number of documentation and paper work.
Yes, lately automation has aided customs revenue, but that is not all that is expected of it.
We are however more worried that rather than curb importation -related crimes, automation, single window, and other associated products have not abated.
A clear case is the rampant cases of hacking into Customs platform by fraudulent importers and clearing agents.
In the last few weeks running into months, there have been several cases of such. For instance, the Assistant inspector General of Police (AIG) in charge of Maritime Command; Akali Baba Usman, said recently that the Police has uncovered new antics by fraudsters who have been able to gain access to the software of the Nigeria Customs Service and some unsuspecting importers to ship cars into Nigeria, and subsequently evade duty payment.
According to him, a total of 160 vehicles have been imported into the country through that means by fraudsters who hack into importers’ licenses and used it to import goods.
Also recently, the Nigeria Customs Service charged members of the Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) to assist the service in fishing out bad eggs among its officers, especially at the Tin Can Island Port where fraudsters have been able to gain access into the customs software to import vehicles illegally and evade duty payments.
Assistant Comptroller General of customs, Fatade Aderinle said the hackers were able to gain access into the Customs Processing Centre (CPC) at Tin Can Customs with the help of some corrupt officers within.
Of course, hacking is not peculiar to Tin Can Command of the Customs. It is only pronounced there because of the high volume of vehicular import at Tin Can Port.
Good enough, the command has said that is making efforts to automate the valuation of imported vehicles into the country. It said that it has completed collation of the relevant data in terms of value, cost, country of origin, etc for the process to commence.
Nigeria, like many African nations, is a vehicle importation-dependent economy; a business that is divisible into two broad categories, namely: new and fairly used vehicles.
It is a fact that, importation of used vehicles has been a lucrative business both for Nigerians and for their relations abroad who ship those vehicles into the country.
The National Automotive Council said that importers spent as much as $31.67 billion (approximately N6.3 trillion) on the importation of vehicles and motorised equipment in five years. This is a no doubt humongous figure.
We are however circumspect that hacking is peculiar to vehicle importation, if it is done in importation and payment of duty on imported vehicles, then it can be done in the case of other items too.
There is no way the Nigeria Customs Service can absolve itself of blame in the current embarrassment called hacking. The sooner it fetches out the officers who are collaborating with the unscrupulous importer and clearing agent the better for the service.
The service seems to put all its trust in its NICIS 2. The question is: If previous platform are now pregnable, what is the assurance that NICIS 2 and others will be better?