Not many are in doubt that the current Comptroller General of Customs; Col Hameed Ali (rtd) has delivered on the mandate that he was given upon his appointment by President Muhammadu Buhari.
His was one of the first appointments that were announced and upon his appointment in August 2015, the first thing he did was to inform officers that his mandate was to undertake reforms and re-structure the service.
“The mandate he (President Buhari) has given me are three basic things: go to Customs, reform Customs, restructure Customs and increase the revenue generation, simple. I don’t think that is ambiguous, I don’t think that is cumbersome. It is precise and I believe that is what all of you are here to do”, he had told senior officers back then.
In doing this, Ali assured that capacity of the Nigeria Customs Service would be enhanced to generate more revenue. He went ahead to charge the Customs management which he inherited to deliver on the mandate given by President Muhammadu Buhari.
And apparently conscious of the circumstances surrounding his appointment, he pointedly told the services management not to see him as a stranger to the Nigeria Customs Service. He nevertheless solicited the support and loyalty of all officers and men to make Nigeria Customs Service great.
Instructively, one of the most vocal points of his meetings was the vow to rid the Service of corruption. His first statement was that: “all Customs area controllers, heads of Units and Departments shall now send a weekly report on all proven cases of false declarations, deliberate misapplication of tariff, undervaluation, concealment and seizures with full compliments of action taken to the office of the Comptroller-General and all Customs Area Controllers, heads of units and departments will be accountable for infractions in their areas of operations.”
At another forum with officers, he declared: “Considering my military background, I believe punishment must be punitive for others to see it as a deterrent, therefore, as an officer of the Nigeria Customs Service, if you are caught involved in corruption, I am not only going to dismiss you, I will make sure I prosecute and jail you!”.
At a visit to Sokoto/Zamfara/Kebbi Area Command of the Customs in November 2015, he obviously would have scared the officers, when he said: “The minimum jail term for corrupt officers is five years, but I will make sure that any officer found to be corrupt gets the maximum jail term of 10 years. This is to serve as a deterrent to any officer who finds himself in the Customs to make money and not to earn money.”
Not long after, he ordered that, all officers must declare their assets. All these happened shortly after he took over. Since taking charge, he has had to also do away with the management that he inherited, bringing on board new set of officers, whom he (apparently) expects to be loyal to him and maybe, the Service.
If the task given to Col Alli was to reform the service, raise revenue, and improve the welfare of personnel, to what extent has he achieved these since August 2015?
The Service collected N904.07billion in 2015, N898.67billion in 2016 and in the first three months of 2017, it collectedN239.4 billion. Its target in 2015 was N944.4bn, while that of 2016 was N973.3bn. And in 2017; the service probably shot the mouth of its ‘enemies when it returned a revenue collection in excess of N1Trillion. The figures for 2018 and 2019 were also above the N1Trillion mark.
Perhaps Ali’s greatest achievement is the series of arms that the service has seized. Ironically, it may also be his biggest confirmation of failure.
Stakeholders and even insiders in the service have variously admitted that many of such lethal imports might have been taken out of the ports, and that what were seized or intercepted may just be little fraction of what had actually arrived at the ports .
A lot of stakeholders say it openly that, irrespective of what he had said about wiping it out, corruption has not abated in the Nigeria Customs Service. Truth is, the average Customs officer is still very corrupt, it is either the system still allows it or there is still high level collusion between the officers, the importers and the clearing agents.
Even though Col All threatened to jail corrupt officers, the highest he has done since 2015, was to sack some officers, none of whom was outrightly accused of being corrupt.
In all honesty, nothing much has changed since Colonel Alli became the Comptroller General of Customs. His initial threats notwithstanding, corruption still thrives in the service. If in doubt, ask licensed customs agents who still face issues that were prevalent during the tenure of Alli’s predecessor; Alhaji Dikko Abdulahi Inde.
In the area of welfare, nothing has changed in the take-home pay or in the life of the average officer. In the area of trade facilitation, nothing has been added to what Alli inherited. Even the much-promised scanners are not available; it’s been hell for importers and their clearing agents, who have had to contend with multiple alerts on their cargo.
For the average Customs officer, it’s business as usual. They now understand that their CG lacks sufficient knowledge to checkmate his officers. He has limited knowledge of what Customs entails. We haven’t also heard him say anything about the scanners that have packed up; doesn’t he know that they are vital instruments for trade facilitation?
The proposal for increased salary also sounds patronizing. The fact is that the average Customs officer is a fat cat, except perhaps those who are not privileged to enjoy juicy postings. Even now, that category of officers no longer exists; no one stays in the office in perpetuity.
If the essence of increasing their salary is to bring it at par with other similar agencies, we are in support, but will it stop the corruption in the service. The answer is No. Certainly, increasing customs officers’ salary will not make corruption less enticing to them.
The argument that the officers deserve a pay rise because of the achievements in the area of revenue collection is laughable and does not hold water. They are performing their duty as revenue collection officers of the Government.
Since there is so much hype about the service’s unprecedented achievements in the areas of revenue collections and seizures of arms and ammunitions, there should also be manifest punishment for infractions. No officer has been jailed, a few are facing trials though.
Finally, the postings and redeployment of officers in the current dispensation of Col Ali as CG of Customs leaves much to be desired. The postings have neither reflected Federal Character nor fairness. It is tilted in favour of officers of northern extraction.
The recent statement credited to the CG that officers of the service should declare their asset sounds like a broken record. Was that not the same threat he issued in 2015 shortly after he was appointed, didn’t he threaten that the asset declaration by officers of the service should be annual. The fact that in 2020, the CG of Customs is redirecting officers to take assets declaration seriously is a pointer to the fact that, the 2015 directive was never obeyed! If it was, there would have been no need for a reminder.
While we are not arguing the fact that, there have been some changes in the Niger Customs Service; the modus operandi that its officers now adopt in quest for maximum revenue is negatively ingenuous.
At this point, a few examples would suffice. It is unacceptable that the Nigeria Customs Service will in the 2oth century in a Gestapo manner invade automobile shops and either seal them up or cart away ‘offending’ vehicles. This was done in 2019 all over the country, so brazenly and for the first time in the annals of Customs.
Moe than before, the veracity of disputations between Customs officers and clearing agents over correct valuation and multiple alerts. This hs led to stoppage of already-cleared cargoes.
Perhaps, the greatest disservice which Col Hameed Ali (rtd) may have done to the service as the attempt to farm out the revenue collection aspect of Customs responsibilities to a consortium of private interests. A lot of people have argued that the promoters would not have one far if the Service had a career person at its helm.