Recently, the Customs high command promoted some deputies comptroller to the rank of Comptrollers of Customs. The lucky ones were subsequently made area controllers of commands. Mr. Austen Warikoru is one of them. He is presently the Controller in charge of the elite Port and Terminal Multi-services Limited command at Tin Can Island, Lagos. He recently spoke to a select team of maritime journalists. We bring you details of the brief but illuminating interaction.
You have been in this Command for almost a hundred days, how well (will you say) has destination inspection fared here?
I think this is one place that destination inspection is working perfectly well, we
have our 48 hours cargo clearance time without any disturbance, and I mean any disturbance what so ever because the PTML is a very purpose built functional terminal. They have necessary facilities to carry that which they were set up to do and we complement that effort because we have here in PTML a combination of the agencies. W e also have a seamless transfer of document from Customs to PTML; that way our release note get to them real time on time and when it does, they can go ahead to complete their processing and before you know it, the containers are at the gate and they are ready to go. Up till now there is no form of delay in the process of good clearance in this terminal. I am sure that you are aware that we have commenced the electronic method of payment in PTML, although we are still fine- tuning the process until we get to the desired level, but right now, customs agents now get their payment done electronically. Every body has been briefed on what to do, by the time you come in here next week if you do, you see that we are operating smoothly. Do not forget that agents are already operating e-payment in other ports in Lagos, so for them, there is nothing new that is being introduced. For us in PTML we have a perfect situation here.
Do you think the newly introduced electronic system of payment of duty will address the problem of revenue leakages?
Well I would yes, because it would assist in beating fraud because I must tell you the truth fraud is part of living. You find out that even the Western world in spite of their advance nature they still have fraud, what any organization can do is to find a way to eliminate and if you can not eliminate fully, you reduce it.
You aware of the fraud in the banking industry today through the Automated Teller Machine (ATM), it is a dynamic system, and every achievement you make should be the starting point of your next level of movement because as you get to a level somebody is sitting down some where analyzing every move you make, studying the in and out of everything you have done and would see how to beat it. Before you know what is going on, you find that your newly secured system has been beaten by criminals. So that is exactly what we are doing, e- payment is here today, we in this command we already starting to work to see the likely places where we may have problem and see what are going to do and I am not going to tell you what we are going to do because it is too early to do that. The truth of the matter is that we believe that with e-payment the issues you are talking about will be eliminated. Look at it this way, why would bank ‘A’ send me a document and receipt that they have collected ‘X’ amount of money from importer ‘A’. If by the time reconciliation is being done, you now realize that the ‘X’ amount of money is not there, it is between that bank and the regulator which is the Central Bank of Nigeria. It is no longer Customs problem
Are your officers fully prepared for e-payment?
I think my officers are prepared; they are prepared in the sense that before the commencement of the e-payment they got adequate information, at least one month notice before the scheme started, and I had also informed them of this. You see, preparation to a large extent has to do with customs procedure. Once you are aware of customs procedures, you do not have a problem. E-payment is just a change in payment technique .Before e-payment under the same ASYCUDA system, we importers who know fully well that their consignments are coming to this port would prepare their declaration knowing that they have form ‘M’ , their invoices, and the RAR. Based on this, they prepare their declaration, they go to the bank and they pay their duty and then come with receipts to Customs. But now, the procedure is very simple. We just do data capture for you, so that you do not come and complain that it was the Custom officer that computed wrong figures. You do your declaration and you bring a signed copy to Customs. Based on this, what Customs will do is to run what you have done through our system, if you are to go for physical examination, the system will indicate and after this, an assessment will be generated. It is based on that assessment that you now go to the bank and pay. This process eliminates the time that you would have wasted in going to the bank twice. If you come and you do not need to do examination at the terminal, right there and then, the front desk officers will release your cargo for you. So we want a situation where going to the bank will be reduced to once and that is exactly what the difference is So to the custom officer, it is just a change in name and a slight change in role
What is your assessment of the activities of the scanning service providers here?
I suppose you are referring to Global Scan, the company is the service provider meant for this terminal and to the best of my knowledge, they are doing what they should do. Although they complain that they do not have enough volumes compared to the volumes they observed in and around the premises here.
For us we do not have any problem with that. So we believe that they are doing their work, and we are doing ours.
Why would the service provider be complaining? Is it because most of these RAR do not pass through them?
The issue is very straight forward; there is need for enlightenment; enlightenment of importers and their agents using this facility.
These importers are aware when they get to their banks at the form ‘M’ stage that Tin-Can Island for purposes of customs duty is different from PTML and the importer is also aware of their tool code and they are able to tell the bank that my RAR is going to PTML and our is 01TG. So if you tell your bank 01TG automatically your bank knows that their documentation would go from their bank to Global Scan. But if you tell them Tin-Can Island port, they will send their documentation to Cotecna because Cotecna covers Tin-Can Island port. So there is need for that kind of enlightenment to take place. Very soon, we are going to have a stakeholders’ forum that will involve the banks, the service providers, importers, the clearing agents, the operators, Customs and all other agencies of the government that are here in this port. We will sit down and look at the grey areas, we will find out what the problems are and find solutions to them and we are going to have this meeting on a quarterly basis, when this is done regularly, we will be able to solve our problems.
Do these scanning service providers have a right to change what ever assessment customs has done?
I will not go into that, but my answer to that would come in two ways: the service providers are employed to give the services which they are giving to Nigerians to day. You remember that before now, these service providers were inspection agents resident abroad. Before your cargoes come to Nigeria they are inspected by these agents They must have gained experience during the pre-shipment inspection era and they must have a database which they are using at home for us in Nigeria. We are also told that the RAR which is the document they generate and passed on to us for use in treating cargo, is advisory. Advisory in the sense that it helps us to say this is cargo ‘X’ coming from country ‘B’, shipper ‘C’ with the consignee ‘D’. They gave all the necessary details, how much they believe is the value. They do not go into duty at all, but in the process of doing their job; they also do some form of classification. Up to that point, whatever is generated is just to advise customs. The onus lies with customs to say this is right or wrong, that is why we are able to generate demand notices after these documents have been given to us.
You have been in the saddle for about 100 days; can you tell us your experience and how do hope to enhance revenue generation?
One hundred days in office, you make it look like political thing. Well for me, I was not going to count 100 days. However, I know one thing for sure, when I came in here on the 15th of March, 2009, I decided to be publicity shy , I decided to stay out of media because I told myself I needed to carry out an internal study, I needed to know my product; if you are talking marketing. If you do not know your product, you cannot market to anybody. You must know what you are trying to sell so that if there is any objection from your prospective clients, you will be able to know what to do and be able to attend to these objections. So I chose to stay away to get more acquainted, it is not as if I am new in the system, but for the first time, I am given the mantle of leadership. Like you know, before now, I was in the background; I have always been at the background where you just contribute your own quota and wait for jobs to come out, credit in this case is not your business. So for the first time, I have this mantle of leadership and I felt that to be able to do it right and well I need to know my product, I need to know my officers ,I need to know what they do, how they do it. I needed to know more about the Command. In terms of our area of coverage, I needed to interact with the agents and I also heard of the complaints of people about this command where somebody will tell you that there is short collection all the time, that there were ‘Machine Outside’ issues and stuffs like that . So, I felt that if I came in March and by end of March, I start talking to you, what will I be telling you, I will have absolutely nothing to tell you So I chose to know my environment first. Good a thing, if you look at my chart, I met revenue at about N1.9billion. At the end of March, we were able to move it to N2.2billion, in April, we were able to move to N2.26billion and by May we had hit N2.5billion and that is pointing to something and I started applying some measures to ensure that I stay afloat. So, I know the problems of the command
What are the major challenges that you have had to grapple with since you assumed duty in this command?
Nigerians do not want to pay taxes and charges to government. I have had to talk to people and they ask why should pay tax , they give various reasons why they should not pay tax. You see that is not my responsibility, my job is to come here and ensure that all dues are collected, but in trying to do that you need to counsel some people. The case of Lagos is a classical example of what our taxes are doing because part of what you pay here goes to Lagos; the VAT money still comes back Lagos. We try to counsel them to make them to know that there is no negotiation for duty payment. One issue I had before now was that some deliberately paid less duty than what they should pay and I will not allow that to happen while I am here.