Colonel Hameed Ali (Rtd), the Nigeria Customs Service and yearly revenue target

 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 he would 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 told the senior officers.

In doing this, he assured that capacity of the Nigeria Customs Service would be enhanced to generate more revenue.

Since one of the tasks given to Col Alli was to raise revenue, to what extent has he achieved these since August 2015?

For reasons that may be apparent, in the first year of Col Ali as the CG, the Service collected N904.07billion in 2015 and  the figure nosedived again in 2016, when it  collected N898bn as revenue.

But the story began to change as from 2017. In that year, the Nigeria Customs Service recorded an unprecedented revenue collection of N1.037Trillion.

While announcing the figure, the service’s Public Relations Officer, Mr Joseph Attah, described the revenue performance as spectacular, and added that the 22017 figure was more than 300Billion higher than the target of N770.57bn set for the service in 2017.

And by 2018, the Nigeria Customs Service also upped the ante by collecting N1.2 trillion. The figure is also N164.8 billion higher than the 2017 collection, which was N1.037 trillion.

The figure for 2019 that has also been released stood at N1.341 trillion.  The revenue target for the year was actually N969.831billion

While justifying the soaring collections, the Customs boss had attributed it to the resolute pursuit of what was right rather than compromising national interest on the altar of individual or group’s interests.

He also attributed the huge collection to the reforms are strategic deployment of officers strictly using the standard operating procedure and strict enforcement of extant guidelines by the tariff and trade department.

While we agree that the partial border closer positively affected Customs revenue in 2019, certainly, the previous years’ huge revenue were not before the Customs officer at the various entry points were more nationalistic and uncompromising than the previous years.

In the area of compromise and corruption, not much has changed at the airports, seaports and even the land borders, except for the downward trend on account of the closure.

The experience of the average clearing agent is enough indication that the cycle of corruption has only been redrawn by the customs officers, who now use all manners of methods to arm-twist the importer or the exporter (as the case may be) and /or the agent. The clearing agents complain of multiple alerts and constant disagreements with valuation officers.

Yes, the revenue has been on the rise, but at whose or what expense? It is at the expense of trade facilitation and at the expense of the importer and the clearing agent, who have had to be forced to pay more.

Since he came in, nothing has been done to get scanners back to the ports and borders. We haven’t seen him do anything about the scanners that have packed up, except the occasional promises. Doesn’t he know that they are vital instruments for trade facilitation and faster and transparent cargo clearance? 

For the average Customs officer, it is business as usual. They probably understand that their CG is a typical Nigerian leader who only barks. They are also probably taking advantage of the fact that their boss ‘lacks sufficient knowledge’ to checkmate his officers. Col Alli has limited knowledge of what Customs entails. 

The fact is that the average Customs officer is a fat cat. 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, was to sack some officers, none of whom was out rightly accused of being corrupt.

One area that we need to touch on is the Gestapo approach that the CG has introduced into revenue collection. One that stinks like a sore thumb is the invasion, closure of car marts all over the country, even to the ridiculous extent of invading hotels; all in the name of looking for vehicles for which correct customs duty were not paid.

In like manner, it is more common nowadays to see customs officers of different units, formations and nomenclatures either in the ports, or at strategic places along the routes of the cargoes.

Finally, the most critical opposition to the humongous annual revenue target is its negation of trade facilitation 

We agree with stakeholders who have postulated that the target, such as the N2Trillion the service has set for itself in 2020 will put the officers under avoidable pressure

The officers, including the Customs Areas Controller will be more desperate in the attempt to meet their targets; they will certainly pass the pressure to the consignee and the clearing agent.

Before setting the target, we hope the management of Nigeria Customs Service avails itself of the cargo throughput in the preceding year This is certainly not true because by the time the target is being worked and eventually announced, the Nigerian Ports Authourity would still be in the middle of collating the yearly throughput.

We dare say that the revenue target given to the Customs and the one given to itself are neither scientific nor based on any data; they are at the very best based on permutations from the supervisory ministry of transportation and the management of the service respectively. Little wonder, commands and  units put themselves under pressure to meet these expectations.