There is yet no agreement as to when the Nigeria Customs Service was actually ‘born’. Some have argued that the
history of the Service started in 1891 when one Mr T.A Wall was appointed as director in charge of the department of Customs and Excise. Others have also argued that Nigeria Customs Service as an agency of the Federal Republic of Nigeria can not be said to have existed until1964 when a Nigerian (Mr Ayodele Diyan) was appointed as head of the Nigeria Customs Service.
Suffice it to state that since Mr Diyan’s appointment, there had been: Mr Henry Duke (1967 to 1975), Alhaji Shehu Musa (1975 to 1977) and Chief Oyebode Oyeleye (1977 to 1981); after which the mantle fell on Alhaji Abubakar Musa to pilot the affairs of Customs. Since then, Dr Bello Haliru Mohammed, Brigadier Samuel Ango, Alhaji Hammed Aliyu Mustapha, Mr Jacob Gyang Buba, Alhaji Hamman Bello Hammed have all had the privilege of presiding over affairs of this strategic agency of the Federal Government. The incumbent chief executive is Dr Bernard Shaw Nwadialo.
In the history of the Service, it has been tossed at different times) under the ministry of internal affairs and the ministry of finance. The public service reforms of 1986 which gave birth to Decree 14 of January of that year also created the Customs, Immigration and Prisons Service board as the supervisor agency to which Customs reported. But, by 1992, the Decree 45 came on into being and gave birth to a distinct board of Customs and Excise under the ministry of finance. Since then, the Service has remained under the ministry of finance; with the minister of finance as the chairman of Customs board.
Similarly, the functions of the Service (as enshrined in the Customs and Excise Management Act, 2004 have always hovered around import duty collection, collection of excise duty, enforcement of fiscal policies of government, checkmating smuggling, valuation of imported goods etc. It is also expected to perform some social security functions such as: forestalling illegal importation of arms and ammunitions, stopping importation of unwholesome products, among others.
In recent times, there had been calls for the creation of an autonomous Nigeria Customs Service. The calls have become more stringent since it became public knowledge that the National Assembly is on the verge of either conducting a public hearing on the Service or about to commence a probe into activities of the service.
In the vanguard of the call is a frontline freight forwarding group; the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF) which has already submitted a voluminous memorandum to the House of Representatives sub-committee on Customs.
In the widely publicised memorandum, NAGAFF had posited that an autonomous Nigeria Customs Service will engender professionalism, improve service delivery, reduce operational bureaucracy, ensure capacity building in the service, ensure that more funding is provided for the service, engender genuine trade facilitation, ensure adequate border security and harmonise promotion , staff progression and welfare issues, among other things.
While we acknowledge the arguments of those who have been
championing the call for autonomy for the Nigeria Customs Service, we equally urge caution and appeal for a clear understanding of the issues that are winding around the neck of the Nigeria Customs Service at the moment.
Before the call for autonomy, attention should be drawn to the need for pending issues to be addressed. Top among these issues are the allegations of fraud which form the basis for the petitions that were sent by some aggrieved staff and former staff to the House of Representatives, allegation of abuses in the promotion exercise which has allegedly placed some officers above their ranks and made them superiors to their mates and seniors.
Besides this, we do not see any conviction in the argument that Customs will need to be autonomous before it can perform its statutory duties effectively. We do not think that the Service is negatively affected or burdened bureaucratically by being under the finance ministry. Rather, the Service has drawn benefits from the political advantage of being under a strategic finance ministry.
Autonomy for Nigeria Customs Service can only create a false pretence of being independent of a ministry; it does not translate to total autonomy, because it will still have to report to the Presidency. Come to think of it, apart from the Bureau of Public Enterprises which is under the Presidency, which agency performs the kind of critical functions that the Customs performs?
As a paramilitary organisation, the Nigeria Customs Service can not be different from others which are presently under a supervising ministry.
We are strongly opposed to giving autonomy to the Customs; rather, the service should be made to be more self accounting. In other words, it does not have to run cap in hand to the supervisory ministry of finance for all its approvals. Rather than been given autonomy, more funding should be approved. A step in this direction can be an increase in the current ‘cost of collection’ percentage which the Service collects and which it uses to fund its over heads and recurrent expenditure.
The responsibilities of the Nigeria Customs Service are too enormous to be confined to the Presidency where there is a legion of other pressing issues to be attended to. The Service requires a supervisory organ that has sufficient knowledge, technocracy and time to handle which the finance ministry possesses.
The call for autonomy is coming at a very wrong time; the issue of probe can not be swept under the carpet for autonomy, neither can the petitions be swept under the carpet.
Sesan Onileimo (FNIS)