The first Customs and Excise Management Act (CEMA) was enacted in 1958 and since then, there had been many attempts at amendments, but there had never been any comprehensive efforts to get a completely new set of laws for the Nigeria Customs Service, until 2013.
Apart from failure to enact a new law, government has over the years, inaugurated committees and task forces to either review or restructure the service; the last being the one headed by former permanent secretary, Federal Ministry of Finance, Mr Ochi Achinivu.
We recall that while inaugurating the committee, the then-minister of finance; Dr Ngozi Okonjo- Iweala had observed that: “the Customs that we need is not one that not only does its job professionally, but also lives up to its billing as the prime agency at the nation’s ports, by actively seeking solutions to the challenges that port users face and advising government proactively on them. “We can’t afford to keep losing trade and revenue to neighbouring countries as we currently do.”
With this, the minister gave the Achinivu group the matching orders to turn the Nigeria Customs Service around. Sadly, the committee immediately turned itself to another superintending agency over the Nigeria Customs Service. Its report was never reckoned with.
Before the Achinivu committee, there was a former Finance Minister; Esther Nenadi Usman committee which led to the emergence of Jacob Gyang Buba as the Comptroller General of Customs; taking over from Alhaji Ahmed Mustapha who also at one time was member of a Task Force to restructure the same Customs service.
The last Task Force which was an all-Customs affair, was actually headed by Dr Bello Mohammed who was the sixth chief executive of the same Nigeria Customs Service (between 1988 and 1994). Although this task force had two years within which it was expected to have put the Service back on the track in the quest to modernize reform, reorganise and refocus it, it was roundly condemned as a having failed in this mandate.
This probably led to the creation of the Achinivu panel which drew its membership from across stakeholders; including a retired senior Customs officer, a frontline licensed customs agent and a maritime lawyer; among others.
It was this committee that is credited with initial efforts aimed reenacting and reviewing the Customs and Excise Management Act. The efforts were futile, because the Bill never made it pass the National Assembly.
We recall that at the peak of the lobby to pass the CEMA Bill, during the tenure of Dr Ngozi Okonjo- Iweala, it became obvious that the Bill wouldn’t sail through, owing largely to the sharp disagreements between her and the then-CG of Customs; Dikko Abdulahi Inde (now deceased).
While the leadership of the Nigeria Customs Service wanted a new-look Customs that would enjoy the autonomy that it had always craved for, the Minister insisted that the Service could not operate outside the nation’s fiscal policy.
The face-off with the Minister and the Presidency eventually killed the Bill. While it may be true that the Customs deserves a lot more say in its affairs, one is at loss as to why the Customs is desirous of removing the influence of the minister of finance from its neck and whittle down the Minister’s influence.
A clear evidence of that is the clause that categorically confers the power to engage service providers on the Comptroller General of Customs.
And just when concerned stakeholders had almost given up, the news broke that President Muhammadu Buhari had assented to the new Bill, signaling a new era in the management and operations of the Nigeria Customs Service.
We recall that the President had previously refused assent. His position was predicated on some allegedly questionable Clauses and Schedules which are contained in the bill as passed by both chambers of the National Assembly.
Apart from the above, the amendment also tampered with the superintending position of the Minister of Finance over the Nigeria Customs Service, and this angered the President!
We recall that the Minister pointedly shouted that the drafters of the amendment deliberately attempted to undermine the powers of the Minister of Finance, and an attempt at stripping the office of the minister of its supervisory role over the Nigeria Customs Service. She accused the Service of being too ambitious and that the bill seeks to remove the powers of the President and the Minister of Finance from the activities of Customs. She argued that the Nigeria Customs Service can not be independent of the fiscal policies of the Federal Government.
The new CEMA is an improvement, no doubt, especially since this is the first time in the history of the service that it will undergo a major overhaul.
We agree that the Customs that Nigeria needs is not one that not only does its job professionally, but also lives up to its billing as the prime agency at the nation’s ports, by actively seeking solutions to the challenges that port users face and advising government proactively on them. It It It should be one that facilitates trade, because that nation currently loses trade and revenue to neighbouring countries.
There is no doubt that the Nigeria Customs Service does not enjoy favourable rating by Nigerians on the corruption perception scale. The average Customs officer is perceived as a clog in the wheel of clearing of cargoes, be it at the seaports, airports or land borders. Whatever law that will reform the Customs is therefore a welcome development.
We are happy that the National Assembly is also conscious of this; hence the new CEMA will tackle indiscipline, training, deployment of officers.
Apparently created to white down the influence of the Finance Minister, the new Customs Commission will also have powers of oversight on the various customs operations.
All said however, we are a bit uncomfortable with the provision that the Chairman of the Commission will be appointed by the President. It seems like the Senate is desirous of a Customs that it can subtly control through the instrumentality of confirmation of its chairman.
The Nigeria Customs Service has been rated low in the area of trade facilitation. It has been blamed for obstructing free flow of trade into and out of Nigeria. Rather than try to make the Customs more accountable to itself, the National Assembly ought to have enacted a new Customs Bill that will assist the service to improve on its performance as a revenue earner for the Federal Government.
The new Act has taken a bold step by providing that freight forwarders will be represented on the board of Customs. This is very commendable as it will give the practitioners a voice in the board where decisions are taken. Its about one of the best gifts for freight forwarders.
Another gladdening aspect of the Act is the provision that the appointment of the CG of the Service will no longer be thrown open to non-carrier and serving officers.
Finally, it is our hope that the new law will be implemented fully and that it will impact positively in the nation’s economy as its drafters had intended.
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