PAAR should be scrapped, it is a preliminary document that add no value to clearance procedure
Alhaji Babatunde Mukaila is the immediate past chairman of the Association Electoral Commission (ASECO) of the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA). In this interview with Shipping Position Daily Correspondent; Dapo Olawuni, he spoke extensively on Customs operations; especially the Pre- arrival Assessment Report (PAAR) and the need for it to be scrapped. He also opened up on how Customs agents can access indemnity forms which will protect them from bearing consequences of their importers’ misdeeds.
"The biggest challenge in import procedure is with the banks, but nobody has ever thought about it, they are so compromised right now"
"It would be my wish to become the next national secretary of our association’’
Stakeholders have argued that import/export policy of the Federal Government vis-a-vis Palletisation, restrictions on withdrawals abroad, would increase cost at our port. How true is this?
On the issue of palletisation, there was no need for that policy, it would increase the cost of doing business, ease of doing business is not just about the procedural aspect, the cost element is what constitutes ease of doing business, the palletisation policy is only going to be 'food for the boys'.
Some officials are going to make money during the palletisation regime and customs is also going to make more money, but an average Nigerian is going to pay more for the same product. So, if the idea is for customs to make more money for government, it would mean additional cost to the importer and by extension it would be transferred to ordinary Nigerians. On the policy of government that says importers cannot make withdrawals from their account abroad, I am yet to understand why such policy should stand, why must it be that after making a shipment, the beneficiary of the shipment would not be able to access the funds, it doesn't make sense. I am yet to understand the key of the policy but what I understand on the surface is that if the intention of the government is for every foreign exchange to come back to Nigeria, what should be done is to put a caveat or limit on the spending of dollars abroad, we live in a global world now, and I should not be stranded abroad while I have money in my account
Recently, Shippers’ Council defeated shipping companies and terminal operators on illegal shipping charges, will the verdict invite more importers to our ports?
Not yet. It is a welcomed development though, because it shows that government agencies and private businesses would be able to draw the line when their interest is at loggerhead. I want to wait until we get to the end of the proceeding, if at the end of the day the Shippers Council carries the day, it would restore a lot of confidence in the Council and by extension the Nigerian seaports. For a long time, the Council has been seen as a toothless bulldog, at a point. I challenged the Executive Secretary who said that they have teeth but they cannot bite, but if they are able to push this to the limit, it would restore a lot of confidence.
Nigeria Customs Service says it has fine-tuned the PAAR; do you have confidence that it would solve problems associated with clearing, especially alerts?
PAAR means Pre-arrival Assessment Report, but there is no enabling law that gives credence to it, the Customs management knew that PAAR has no legal base; it is just like a preliminary document that does not add any value to import clearing procedure. If the duty of the PAAR officer is to seat in the confines of his air condition office and administer value to a cargo and still went ahead to tell the resident officer that 'It is an advisory document, you may wish to accept it or not', why not give the officer on ground the proper power to decide and administer the value, why do we need to go through the rigmarole of PAAR which at the end of the day it has no locus standi in the procedure of clearing. There are lots of cargoes stranded at the port because of PAAR issue, there are technicalities and errors that when you commit them you may not have access to PAAR and therefore you may not have access to clear your cargo. Let me also correct an impression, Customs did not actually reinvigorate PAAR, what the Customs management did was to give a conducive environment to the PAAR officers unlike before, the management deemed it fit that the environment where the officers were operating from is not conducive, so they were moved out, they renovated the space and they brought them back to the space. On the day of the re-launching, I was in Abuja, all they did was to make the place more cozy, no procedures were altered.
Based on the foregoing, would you advise that PAAR should be scrapped or decentralised?
If I have my way, I will ask them to scrap it, there is no reason for PAAR, the way I see it, it is like a compliance document, it would have been so fantastic if it was not a final document. It could have been a final document if they match the number, quantity of cargoes match with the PAAR, the officer on the field wouldn't be worrying about your documents, but now that it is just a sentimental document that is still open to query and a lot of integrity test by the field officers, then the PAAR has lost its relevance. I would advise that the PAAR ruling centre should be decentralised and given to the examining officers at the commands.
Importers in Nigeria are not organized, this is why clearing agents are arrested whenever there is an infraction, how can we change the narrative?
There are so many ways of doing this, first of all, the clearing agents should decide what segment of the commercial enterprise he wants to work for. Another way is to make sure that the government agencies are alive to their responsibilities, a situation whereby a substandard good is given a SONCAP, it means somebody somewhere has compromised, if the government agencies are alive to their responsibility, the clearing agent has nothing to do with the quality or standard. Also the banks should be seriously looked into, everybody is complaining about SON, NAFDAC, Customs and so on but no attention is paid on the banks, we have a situation presently on our hands, the banks are so compromised now that documents are being transmitted to Customs on another persons' company name, the mechanism is very simple, there is no way a bank should have transmitted a document to Customs unless the customer has an account with the bank, this practice cuts across all banks, they transmit documents using a company name while the owner of the company is not even aware. The big problem and challenges in import procedures is with the banks, but nobody has ever thought about it, they are so desperate, the international department of these banks has criminals working in them; Customs and government need to direct their attention to them.
Nobody is ready to defend the Customs agents, even the Customs that licensed us will be asking you why you are challenging the value of cargoes given to you when the importer is willing to pay. In Nigeria, an average importer or group of importers are not organized and it is because of the corruption tendencies in Nigeria, go and profile members of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) to see how many of their members has an operational factory, the game has turned around, a whole lot of the people carrying the certificate of MAN do not have a factory, they must have gotten one before, but now that it is no longer operational, they still hold on to that tag of being a member of MAN, Customs has gone ahead to grant a lot of concession to them, at the end of the day, you see somebody with a fast track importing cocaine, importing tyre and calling it raw materials, whoever imports tyre is not a genuine member of MAN.In changing narrative also, the security agencies need to be on their toes and do their job.
Do the customs agents still have what is called 'indemnity forms?
Yes, but how many agents have access to it? How many of them even know that indemnity form exists? Customs has been able to emasculate people from going through indemnification on the point of argument, Customs would insist that it has to be by a bank bond, and you don't get a bank bond unless you drop the cash value of the indemnity figure amount, whereas there are insurance companies, part of what we need to do is to go to Court and make sure that insurance bond is acceptable. For the renewal of licenses, I started the process single handedly, it took me about two years to make sure that Customs finally accept insurance bond, what we normally do before is to drop N250,000 with the banks, but there are insurance companies, they are risk takers unlike the banks who are business men.
The road to seaport is a nightmare, how best do you think government can repair the road. Will you subscribe to tolling?
I think we are stuck, in the first place, it is the responsibility of government to fix the road, therefore we would need to continue putting pressure on them and keep the discussion open for government to be alive to their responsibility. Talking about tolling, we are already paying tolls on Apapa roads, we have what is called the Wharf Landing Fee, what are they doing with the money? If the Lagos State Government is getting paid per container, they need to get involved in the fixing of these roads. Some of us who are professionals also need to put on our thinking caps, there must be diversification, presently ANLCA is working from two different angles, we have embraced rail movement of containers from APM Terminal to Ebute Meta, in the next one month there would be an extension to Sango, as this is going on, there are talks that there should be an extension to Papalantoro area of Ogun state, we are looking at these different points but presently we are making do with the rail to Ebute Meta, we need to relieve the pressure on the road. We are also looking at moving containers from TICT terminal at Tin Can Island Port to Ikorodu, this inaugural flag-off has already taken place. We are enjoining our members to embrace the alternatives.
What are your aspirations in the coming ANLCA elections?
ASECO has lifted ban on campaign and it would be my wish to become the next national secretary of our association, this is my intention, with this I will serve the association better.
My advice to the present ASECO is for them to be focused, they should be up and doing and they should have a mind of their own, they should be very transparent. From my experience, there would be a lot of mudslinging and unsubstantiated allegations against their person, but once they are transparent they would be able to answer any questions from any quarters. I have no doubt that the present ASECO with the quality of people on it, they would deliver on their promises.