e-Customs Will Revolutionise Trade In Nigeria – Attah

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 Joseph Attah, Deputy Comptroller of Customs (DC), who is the National Public Relations Officer for Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), in this interview with select journalists, explained the numerous benefits of the recently approved customs modernisation project and allays alleged fears about the scheme. ANDREW UTULU was there. Excerpts: 

 Sir, what informed your visit to Lagos and please, tell us what e-customs is all about? 

As the Customs National Public Relations Officer, it is my duty to step out from time to time to time. Go round and sensitise our stakeholders on the latest happenings in the customs, and especially when there are spectacular seizures and happenings that we need to elucidate.

Coming now to your question precisely on e-customs, it is part of the ongoing modernisation of the service. It is an end to end automation of custom processes and procedures. 

The World Customs Organisation (WCO) encourages every member state to seek collaboration and emerging technology in the process of modernising their operations. 

Accordingly, the Nigerian customs service has been seeking ways and partnering with crucial stakeholders, seeking collaboration with experts and emerging technology. 

So, e-customs as the name suggests is a complete automation of custom activities and operations, using emerging technologies that will ensure global best practices. 

It is a 20 year Public Private Partnership (PPP) programme that will be run by a consortium of firms who will fund the project to the tune of $3.1billion 

They will then gradually recoup their investment within the agreed period. 

The core component of e-customs includes; installation of non-intrusive equipment such as scanners on all our entry points, e-Ports, e-logistic monitoring, cargo tracking,that is everything concerning custom services will gradually migrate from manual process to electronic. 

Are you saying there will be no more agents? 

Agents will do their jobs, but the process from the beginning to the end is through automation. Gone will soon be the days of physical intervention and all sorts of vices, complaints and delays. 

Will that not hinder some people’s source of income? 

If hindering some people’s source of income means elimination of vices, corruption and delays in the system, then that is the way to go. 

You have to think more of the advantages. 

Trade will be facilitated, national security will be enhanced, because customs will now have data capacity to know what is coming in and going out. 

All those things people will want to hide and cut corners, bring in things that might compromise our national security will no longer be there because they will be easily fished out. 

Time will be saved during examination processes. It will be quick business, quick turnaround for genuine business people. 

The capacity of custom officers will be boosted; transparency and efficiency will also be entrenched. So, it is a win-win for those who genuinely love our country. 

What are the objectives for introducing e-Customs? 

 

The objective, first and foremost is to modernise customs. 

As I said earlier, the WCO which the Nigerian Customs Service is a member encourages every nation to modernize as it gives better opportunity to serve your people better, quicker, smoother, honestly and ultimately turning Nigeria into a preferred business destination. 

This is because all the encumbrances will be removed. Those who do proper documentation and appropriate payment of customs duty and taxes will no longer have problems. 

Since this a partnership thing, will the customs be fully involved in handling some of these equipment? 

From the beginning to the end, customs are the drivers and will continue to be the drivers of the process. 

e-customs is not going to be a child’s play, going by your explanations and lots of things will be put into it, people need to be trained. How prepared are you? 

I can assure you that the training, awareness and capacity building process have started two weeks ago from the headquarters and have gone to zones and commands. Even prior to them coming to install equipment, we have to be ready. 

What is your reaction to multiplicity of customs units? 

That is what I have heard some stakeholders complain about. Some of the numbers have been exaggerated. You will hear some people say 26, another 29, and before you know it they start counting every officer as a unit. 

The area Controller of a Command cannot do everything; he must have Deputy Controllers in charge of enforcement and other functions. Even the deputies also cannot do everything; there must be OCs (officer in charge) of some desks. 

I tell you this; those who complain about custom intervention and multiplicity of checks are those who do not comply with extant laws. 

You mean people who want to cut corners? 

Yes. If you do proper documentation, truthful declaration and appropriate payment of duty, what reason will a custom officer have to delay you? You will shout at him and talk with confidence and authority that you have done all necessary things. 

For an officer that likes his job, he dare not cause delay to a compliant trader. But in a situation where you declare 60 and upon physical examination we discover 95 or 130, there will be problem. 

A particular one I saw when the strike force addressed the media, a textile material was declared as machinery just because they want to avoid paying the appropriate duty amount. 

When such is discovered you do not expect the customs to allow it to go. The strike force also disclosed that their own intervention through alert within a period of three weeks, they generated over N350 million. That is what would have been lost into private pockets. 

Those who were affected will definitely not go home clapping for the customs. They will be angry. They are the ones who complain most, saying customs released cargoes and then comeback to seize; does it mean they do not trust themselves? 

I always say this: any organisation that does not have the capacity to check itself is doomed to fail. As a service, we have internal checks and the checks are working 

Everyone has to be checked to make sure they are doing their jobs well. So, it is through this intervention that investigation will commence and it will lead back to where it was released. Who was that custom officer that released it and why? Did he do the right thing? 

It is from there, he will be punished if found guilty. You cannot say because maybe you are lucky to find one custom officer who is not ready to play by the rules and he compromised; you leaving the port do not mean you are now free and another cannot arrest you on the highway. I am sure no well-meaning Nigerian will like to have customs service that has a corrupt person that cannot be punished. 

So, we punished officers that have not done their jobs well and the person who cuts corner will also get his own fair share of the punishment through seizures and maybe prosecution. 

If it is something that is just about loss of revenue, we give a demand notice for them to come and pay what they have dodged earlier, because it is through this revenue that government will get resources to build roads , hospitals, schools, etcetera. 

We really must commend you sir for all the efforts you are putting in trying to enlighten the public about what the customs stands for now. How come there is so much talk about rot and corruption in the customs sector? 

Well, I do not know what you mean by so much. So, much will mean that you have a statistics. I think that statement is not appropriate, unfair, and does not recognise the ongoing reform. 

I can tell you that like every other organisation, including your own media house, there are people who are not compliant to the rules. And the customs is not a collection of angels. Officers are Nigerians like you with individual differences. 

So, just like you have bad journalists, you may have a bad customs officer, politician, farmer, etc. so we have very few bad ones. But where we can beat our chest is that out of many organisations, customs is a frontline organization which takes pride in admitting that indeed there are few bad ones, we are dealing with them when caught. 

Customs will go to the extent of dismissing anyone found culpable and sometimes, depending on the gravity of the offence, we hand them over for prosecution. 

So, you can hardly make references to other organisations that do such. Of course we are largely automated, honesty is our watchword and we are driven by integrity. When you have a service that is driven by integrity, you are bold and not afraid to take tough decisions since the intention is national growth and prosperity. 

What are the new measures and ideas you are putting in place that the public can benefit from? 

The newest thing that is in place is the E-Customs that we talked about. 

Once it steps in, it takes care of virtually every issue because everything will be automated. All offences will be traceable. You can no longer deny any wrongdoing. 

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