Comptroller-General of Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Abdullahi Dikko Inde, in this interview with ISAAC AIMURIE and JULIET ALOHAN, reveals how his administration has succeeded in restoring the integrity of the agency while increasing revenue collection, among other issues.
After three years on the saddle, how would you describe the Customs Service today and the one you met?
I inherited a Customs with officers who were disorderly, had low morale and poor attitude to work. It was like one found himself in the classroom of people who didn’t understand A or B and you had to teach them afresh how to do things correctly. We had to set out a programme with a holistic approach to the well-being of the service, its men and officers. We set out a seven-point agenda and gave capacity building priority. Before my appointment, there was no human resource department, but after my appointment, we requested from the Board of Customs a department that will take care of the development of human resources, and a Deputy Comptroller-General (DCG) was appointed to head it. Then, we contacted the World Customs Organisation (WCO) for help on training programmes, and we also got in touch with other Customs administrations like India, Canada and France for support and they gave us positive response. Today out of the 17,000 work force, I have been able to train 12,830 so far, and it is still ongoing. We have also looked into the issue of motivation in terms of salaries and allowances. Their salary was increased by 100 per cent to motivate them to do their job well. The indices of measuring the performance of the Service is revenue collection in terms of comparison with what we collected last year and what was collected the year before that, then you can easily identify whether we are doing well or not. When I assumed office, I inherited N30 billion monthly collection, then we moved to N42 billion, then to N52 billion and today we are talking about N100 billion monthly collection. So, the motivation has done the work. Other incentives like uniform and staff buses were also provided. We also now have a housing scheme for officers at all levels and the money is being deducted in small bits from their salaries. On security and border patrol, we acquired about 400 hilux jeeps equipped with communication gadgets, and purchased 5,000 AK47 rifles. But I don’t want trigger happy officers, so I have taken them into training at the military college in Basawa to learn the use of arms.
How did the service achieve accelerated revenue collection?
What helped in increasing revenue collection was the online based transaction, where at the comfort of your home or office you make declaration and payment to Customs through the internet, because we already have electronic copy of what you are going to declare, since we now get the manifest 21 days before the arrival of the ship. I have some young graduate officers who work on the internet 24 hours and any manifest sent from the shippers, before the ship arrives, these officers run through the manifest for profiling. And where need be they send alert to the Command where the cargo is landing to conduct a risk test on it. You know that before now the Customs Service was synonymous with corruption, so my goal was to cut off contact between the Customs officers and importers, so that from your house you can make your own declaration and it will enter into our system and we see it simultaneously. If it matches what is in our system, you are told to make payment, and when you make payment, and the payment is also seen electronically by the officer, who will then release the cargo online. If you look at this process from beginning to the end, the agent or importer has not seen a Customs officer and he will never see him, because, as he is releasing the cargo, the shipping company also sees that the cargo has been released, and at the exit gate when he is going out, the cargo will then be exited from the computer, indicating that the container has been exited out of the port and is no longer under the Customs or the port. So, that is the new system of things and we have been able to restore a high level of integrity. We still have some officers who are yet to accept the new system of things, but we know it is only a matter of time, because a majority of the officers have embraced the new order. There are some officers who mount road block at night demanding Custom duty from motorists and breaching the Service’s laid down rules. Recently five officers were caught on Lagos-Ibadan road who were paraded on television for demanding N150, 000 bribes from a motorist for Custom duty. Some people were criticising us for parading them on television, but I wanted to show to the world that they are not part of me, because I have told them that the people who they are supposed to arrest are the car dealers and not the innocent man who bought a car and is driving with his wife and children. I have told them that anybody caught arresting somebody with one car within the hinterland and not at the border crossing through the bush, that officer will serve punishment, up to dismissal.
How will the Single Window Platform impact on the operations of the service?
Single Window Platform is just like what we are doing here - we are on a round table communicating, that is the simplest analogy to it. Now Customs has a manifest, it has the declaration, the computers and a robust system that will accommodate millions of manifests. Now, you want NAFDAC (National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control), NDLEA (National Drug Law Enforcement Agency and SON (Standard Organisation of Nigeria) to come to the port and operate, and at any given time, if there is an inspection, everybody will come and want to examine that container even though it does not concern them. That is the major cause of delay of cargo at the port. But with the Single Window, everyone can now see what is being done simultaneously. And if a particular container is slated for drug examination, it will be NDLEA and NAFDAC that will go for the examination, so that, at a particular time, we release cargo simultaneously and if you don’t have any business with the container, there is no reason for you to be there. Customs can now easily release any cargo that does not need the inspection of any of these agencies, to facilitate trade, and nobody will accuse Customs of releasing a cargo without their inspection because all of them see it on the automated system where we communicate. It is the best way to facilitate trade.
The new Customs Act currently before the National Assembly has been criticised by stakeholders who feel it will vest the Customs with too much power; what’s your reaction to this?
I don’t believe so; how? A Customs officers always has some powers to do what he is supposed to do as a Customs officer. His statutory responsibility is to collect revenue, suppress smuggling and facilitate trade. But what you must understand is that the issue of electronic based operations is not being backed by the law; this has to be put into the new law. The punishment for an offender is no longer the £1 or £2. The law is 54 years old; it has to be reviewed, but nobody like changes. So the issue is not about powers; it is about the changes that are coming. We are not operating at the level of the best international practices because we are operating with an obsolete law. The revised Kyoto Convention shows how trade is to be done all over the world, but we are not operating at that level; so we have to change the law. If we accede to the revised Kyoto Convention, definitely the law must change. The minister of Finance is the chairman of the Customs Board and everyone knows she is an international, highly professional, no-nonsense figure. She is highly appreciative and on the telephone she will tell you what to do because she believes we know what we are doing.
What of allegation that it will impede on the powers of the president?
Who appoints the Comptroller-General? It’s Mr. President. So if the CG gets powers more than the president, then one day on the telephone he will simply say, ‘Please CG, go home, I don’t need your services anymore.’ So, if Mr. President appoints me how can I get powers more than him; is it not funny? As the Comptroller-General, I am under the Board of Customs and the minister of finance is the Chairman of the Board, and she is answerable to the president. So whatever decision I am going to take has to go through the Board and the minister is standing for Mr. President. So, nothing has changed and nothing can be changed.
There are allegations that Nigeria- bound cargoes are routed to neighbouring African countries and smuggled into the country because of Nigeria’s tedious import policy?
That is the thinking of those schools of thought that do not have the interest of Nigeria at heart. Now you bring in Nigeria-bound cargo to, maybe, Cotonou, you are taking it on transit. Cotonou realises that you are a Nigerian bringing in your cargo to their country because you don’t want to take it to Nigeria and pay duty. Then you pay them duty. Today Cotonou roads are 100 times better than those in Nigeria because Nigerians are contributing to their economy; what are we talking about? The danger in what they are doing is that when you bring in a cargo meant for Nigeria to another country and pay them duty and you want to smuggle it into Nigeria, there is no way you will bring it in 100 per cent - some of it must be missing. It also means you have no faith in your country, but you are contributing to the development of another country. And there is no way they can accept you there; they are only interested in what you have to give. It’s a shame on those Nigerians who do not have the interest of this country at heart. What is the problem here that we cannot address. If ports are not conducive, the stakeholders should make useful suggestions and contributions for us to confront the problem. I am the first CG who went to the trade fair in Lagos and addressed over 1,000 importers, to get to know what their problems are so that we can find a way to resolve them. Even at that, Cotonou ports are not better than Nigeria’s. We all must confront this problem head-on.
On your mandate to facilitate trade, would you say you are satisfied with the volume of economic activities within the sub-region, because there have been complaints of massive road blocks between Nigeria and neighbouring countries?
I must say that it is just of late as we are facing security challenges that the issue of multiple road blocks came up. I don’t blame the security agencies; I blame the situation that we are in, and I sincerely apologise for that, but we have to secure our borders and nation. God forbid, if there is any lapse, let it not come through the road where we are visibly seen. On the volume of trade, yes I am satisfied; things are coming in and those not under suspicion are having their free movement, but others have to be checked and they have to bear with us because the circumstance on ground calls for what we are doing now.