In this day and age of dwindling oil revenues, the importance of the Customs service as a revenue-earning agency cannot be underestimated.
True to his reputation as a no-nonsense helmsman, Col. Hameed Ali, the Comptroller-General of Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), has said in his maiden outing at the Apapa Area Command in Lagos that corrupt practices would no longer be tolerated from Customs officers or clearing agents. According to Ali, “The days of corruption are gone. Anybody caught shall not be left to go scot-free. I am a stickler for the enforcement of the law. There is need for law and order, and it is important to follow the rules as they are so that we all do not have problems.”
In this day and age of dwindling oil revenues, the importance of the Customs service as a revenue-earning agency cannot be underestimated. There is the need for the Customs to function properly for the nation to survive. Nobody in good conscience can support a corruption-ridden body, but it is a fact that corruption is not only restricted to the Customs. Corruption is everywhere in Nigeria, including the armed forces. We are uncomfortable with all the talk of fighting corruption only to just end up showcasing a number of show trials instead of undertaking a systemic tackling of the matter. This kind of grandstanding has not helped the country throughout her history.
It is obvious that Col. Ali is like fish out of water within the system he is charged to reform. He has not worked in the Customs, and it would indeed be well-nigh impossible for him to understand all the underpinnings. We do know that within the Customs system there exist honest officers who have refused to be soiled by corruption. There are top Customs officers who live decently in flats, and struggle from day-to-day to meet up with their responsibilities. So many comptrollers are clean living in poor quarters. We believe that these officers should have been encouraged to head the Customs so that they can sanitize the system from within.
Issues can then be addressed through more training and re-training. Capacity building will then be given the necessary pride of place.
The danger in Nigeria has always been with throwing the baby away with the bathwater. The officers who refused to be corrupt have ended up being tarred with the corrupt ones. This is not a good way to reward honest service. It has brewed fear in the system such that it can end up sabotaging the entire enterprise. The mandate to reform and restructure the service cannot be achieved magically
by military fiat. The great task of collecting revenue for the government is an art that cannot be gained through the command structure of the military.
Already the morale of the officers is at an alltime low. Fear rules the waves, and the detailed observations of examination and inspection are now observed in the breach. This is already affecting the economy badly. It is as though we are leaving the critical matters to address in the bid to be seen to be active along the wrong ways. Corruption can thrive only because issues like faulty scanners are not addressed. Customs duties and taxes need to be properly structured in order not to leave any loopholes. We believe that there are enough round pegs to be put in the round holes needed for the Customs to prosper. We do not need to transfer all our soldiers to the Customs offices for things to work here.
It is possible for the Customs to clear goods from the ports within 48 hours if properly schooled officers are placed in charge of the requisite duties. Countries like China are already easing export while Nigeria is left in the lurch. It is all so easy to get into Dubai and get out, exporting and importing at will, thereby making it the hub of the economy of much of the world. Other countries are putting forward incentives that make Nigeria lag behind.
There is no denying that Nigeria is an import- dependent country. The economy for now largely depends on imports, yet it is being made to be so cumbersome. The tragedy is that business leaders from China and India are now seeing even Niger and Chad as more amenable havens because the policies in Nigeria are not favourable to trade. Neighbouring countries like Benin, Togo and even Ghana are now seen as safe havens over Nigeria that advertises itself as the “Giant of Africa.”
It could even get worse if the government fails to address the clear and present danger now. The threat of jail terms for alleged corrupt officers does not address the real issues at stake. It amounts to embracing the accident and leaving the essence when Nigeria is seen as being more interested in jailing people than putting in place a check-proof system that nips corruption in the bud.