There is no doubt that for decades, the Nigeria Customs Service has been using the most unorthodox way to dispose of seized and overtime cargoes.
But, with effect from July 1, the novel e-auction method is expected to start, and this means that the old process of cargo auction has been dropped.
Under the previous arrangement, once a cargo has been certified and gazetted after seizures or after having stayed in the ports or border above the stipulated period (which is three months or 90 days), it is liable for auction and the Customs headship decided what to do, including who to sell to and how to sell it. The process is long and tedious, the courts are also involved. The goods must be gazetted before they can be sold.
Once the process of gazetting is completed, Customs sometimes allowed the owners of such goods the right of first refusal, that is, to buy such goods before any other person. Customs did also use registered auctioneers to sell the cargoes.
However, the most common approach often used by Customs is to allocate the auction papers directly to whoever they like.
All taken, the ageless method of Customs cargo auction is open to abuse. It lacked any modicum of transparency. It allowed the top hierarchy of the Nigeria Customs Service to use the exercise to ‘reach out’ to their friends. The process was always used to settle politicians, political leaders, traditional rulers and other friends of the service. Of course, senior officers of the service also benefitted directly.
While justifying the new method, the Public Relations Officer of the Nigeria Customs Service; Deputy Comptroller Joseph Attah said it was simply to bring sanity and transparency into the process of Customs auction exercise. “So the auction exercises will be electronically driven. So when we say e-auction platform, (we mean) a platform in our trade portal that gives opportunity to all interested people to see what they want with a full description of its present state”, he said during one of his media interactions.
He affirmed that the Comptroller General of Customs, Col. Hameed Ibrahim Ali (rtd) introduced the process as a way of enhancing transparency, reducing human contacts and ensuring that only the highest bidders for any auctioned item takes it.
With the processes that have been put in place, it is most likely going to be a departure from the old method.
Under the guidelines, auctioned items cannot be replaced or funds paid refunded to the bidders. Successful bidders are expected to make payments within five working days as auctioned items whose winners fail to pay within the period would forfeit the auctioned item to the second highest bidder.
The demand for Tax Identification Number (TIN), the disqualification of customs officers and their families from participating in the bidding process either directly or indirectly, is quite commendable.
However, the most trending fear that has been expressed has to do with the activities of internet fraudsters who are most likely gearing up to hack into the portal to defraud unsuspecting buyers.
Another fear is the likely collusion by Customs officers who will be in charge of the process.
It is our hope that the officers handling the exercise will not manipulate the process in favour of their cohorts.