By Buba Gyang Sunday, December 16, 2007
Excerpts of an address delivered by Buba Gyang, controller-general of the Nigeria Customs Service at the Guild of Editors conference in Bauchi recently
The strategic role of the Nigeria Customs Service in the economic development of the country and its ongoing reforms and modernisation must have influenced the decision to invite me to speak on this topic. While acknowledging the fact that the wealth of a nation is the fountain from where it derives its strength, it is also obviously important to note that the image of the country has a lot to do with its role and influence in a globalised economy. The Nigeria Customs Service being one of the key agencies in the management of the fiscal policies of government must strategically, functionally, operationally and attitudinally reposition itself to play this vital role using internationally acceptable practices.
In re-branding Nigeria, the public sector reforms, which started from the last administration and are being vigorously pursued by the present administration are central to the subject under consideration. The Nigeria Customs Service which is one of the public sector agencies placed in the fore of these reforms makes the choice of the topic most pertinent. My understanding of this topic is simply to speak on how far the Service has gone in its various concerted efforts at evolving a fresh image for our country. This is a country , which has been branded as being very corrupt with very high cost of doing business. The Nigeria Customres Service as weall know is one of the public sector agencies that unfortunately wear this dirty toga of corruption - rightly or wrongly. To re-brand Nigeria therefore, the Nigeria Customs Service has a major role to play.
The over-a-century long history of the service has witnessed various reforms aimed at repositioning the Service in accordance with the dictates of any particular epoch. Thus, under the current wave of re-branding Nigeria, a reform committee charged with the responsibility of making an in-dept assessment of the Nigeria Customs Service to identify key factors militating against optimal performance in the Service and making recommendations that will further reposition the service for effective and efficient service delivery was set up during the last administration. Implementation of the accepted recommendations of the Committee led to the ongoing structural and operational reforms which are invariably translating into the modernisation of service operations.
While the service is still being headed by a comptroller-general, the previous six departments each of which was headed by deputy comptroller-general are now merged into three while the former six administrative zones headed by assistant comptroller-general have been reduced to four. In the same vein, the erstwhile 53 operational area commands headed by comptrollers have been merged and reduced to 26. In this connection, a sizable number of officers and men were retired as a result of the changes. Also in conformity with the ongoing reforms in the public sector, a further down-sizing and right-sizing was carried out in line with the new scheme of service. This is more so in view of the introduction of the much talked about Information Technology which is the trend worldwide.
Thus, with the new scheme of service, only the best will henceforth remain in the service. The implementation of this scheme alongside the general reforms in the public sector has seen many of our officers and men being painfully disengaged from the service. However, the scheme provides a wide room for officers and men who aspire to rise to the highest promotion level, to develop themselves academically and technically so as to remain relevant in the scheme of things. Presently, promotion progression terminates at the assistant comptroller-general level while the positions of both the comptroller-general and deputy comptroller-general which have never been promotional positions still remain by appointment at the discretion of the President. One of the objectives of the current exercise is to ensure high quality personnel/workforce and hence high quality service delivery. This objective is being pursued vigorously.
The strategic role of the Nigeria Customs Service in the economic development of the country, more than anything else, makes modernisation of customs operations uncompromisingly imperative. Thus, in aligning with the re-branding of Nigeria, we have taken many bold steps to keep pace with emerging and developing trends in international trade. Particular attention has, therefore, been focused on major areas such as data automation and computerisation of the service operations, electronic scanning system of examination of goods, destination inspection of all imports, inter-connectivity between customs and stakeholders, training and capacity building, concession of port facilities as well as reinvigorated anti-smuggling machinery. The general objectives of these reforms are geared towards the facilitation of legitimate trade in the country, ensuring credible economic growth and hence self actualisation.
Destination Inspection of Goods:
The destination inspection of imports now reverted to by the government is neither strange nor new to the Nigeria Customs Service. For the avoidance of doubt, the term 'Destination Inspection' in customs terminology is indeed a misnomer. The concept is only correct to the extent that the goods are no longer subject to pre-shipment inspection. Within the Nigeria Customs Service context, it is nothing but the handing back to the service its core duties that deal with assessment valuation, classification and origin. This has been the practice with all customs administrations the world over until the introduction of the Pre-Shipment Inspection Scheme. Even, during that regime, the service, despite being denied its core duties, was able to prove its competence as it challenged quite a number of large sums of additional revenue usually collected as underpayment on goods that already went through the pre-shipment Inspectors as well as seizures of banned goods, which such inspection was expected to prevent. In this regard, may I state categorically that the Nigeria Customs Service is alive and responsive to its statutory obligations at all times despite the fact that the scheme denied the service of developing capacity through training in those core areas.
Since its reintroduction, the Service accepts the success of destination inspection as very crucial to the re-branding of Nigeria project. Hence, various strategies have been mapped out and introduced to ensure a resounding success in guaranteeing legitimate trade facilitation using international best practices. Some of these include, erecting DTI cyber-cafes for use of traders/agents who are yet to automate their offices for online documentation, the simplification of Customs processes and procedures and introduction of fast track clearing as well as risk assessment and management techniques. We are not unmindful of risks associated with fast track clearing hence our determination to strengthen the risk management mechanism to cope with such risks. The newly instituted risk management team is working closely with the service providers who are also building their capacities for optimal performance while legitimate trade facilitation is a task that must be achieved. The service is conscious of issues that border on security. Consequently, we have decided to strike a functional balance between facilitation and security for maximum effect.
Still on the re-branding project, the government has concessioned out the nation's seaports to private operators. Most of these ports which were built for handling bulk cargo and transit shed system of the then international trading order, still maintain the status quo in spite of the shift to modern cargo containerisation system of trading. The concessioners have now opened up the ports for container traffic and created open stacking space as a result of the demolition of the obsolete transit sheds. The ports are strategically equipped to take in more cargo traffic thus eliminating the usual congestion of the past, while enhancing speedy clearance and movements of cargo within the spot. That is not to say that all is well now. In actual fact, the concessioners need to redouble their development pace in order to justify the confidence reposed in them.
ECOWAS Trade Liberalisation Scheme, ETLS:
This Scheme has collapsed all Customs barrier to legitimate regional trade in goods and services wholly or substantially produced within the sub-region. This is the exclusion of goods and services wholly or substantially produced in third world countries, the purpose is to address fundamental issues of developing the productive sector of the regional economies, employment and integration. After all, it is a well-known fact that with importation from third countries, we pay for the labour of the youths of those countries while ours languish in unemployment.
Notwithstanding the cancellation of the pre-shipment inspection scheme which was attributed to some of the smuggling activities of that time, as a result of some impatient traders who were cutting corners to avoid the cumbersome process of the scheme, we are not unmindful of some hardened smugglers who rather than take advantage of the reversal to destination inspection would prefer to take undue advantage of the extensively porous expanse of land that constitutes our borderlines to smuggle. Combating smuggling which is one of our main statutory duties is of utmost interest to us and we are determined to leave no stone unturned in ensuring unqualified success. Thus, our reinvigorated anti-smuggling onslaught is poised towards a total war on the suppression of smuggling activities by whatever medium of perpetration. With air surveillance being added to our anti-smuggling offensives, it is our resolve to ensure that any perpetrator of smuggling activities be made to realise how highly unprofitable and difficult the illegal business can be. Our records of interception of smugglers and their goods year-in-year- out is a clear evidence of our resolve on this matter. Apart from the ordinary goods, we are also not relenting in our secondary duty on security items such as arms and ammunition as well as dangerous drugs. Thus, seizures of such items are always promptly transferred to the concerned agency of government.
The Nigeria Customs Service is fully conscious of its responsibilities and will strive to remain an important player not only in the re-branding of Nigeria, but also in the world economic integration process. It is in view of this that we have not lost sight of the challenges associated with the need for expediting simplification of customs procedures, expansion of the introduced fast track clearance, improvement of the risk assessment and management techniques, further improvement and implementation of a software solution that will meet the requirements of a modern customs organisation, mobilisation for attitudinal change and advanced personnel skills development. While we are resolute on these challenges, it is, however, important to mention at this juncture that the responsibility of cargo clearance operation, albeit the implementation of import procedure in general, goes beyond the purview of the Nigeria Customs Service only. There are other stakeholders without whose cooperation, the attainment of the desired goal of re-branding Nigeria shall remain a dream rather than reality.
On the whole, nothing has challenged the integrity of the service more than the vexed question of corruption. It is very unfortunate that it has beclouded public appreciation of the successful performance of the service in many aspects. As you are well aware, we are faced with multi-dimensional attitudinal problems. It begins with us as officers, then the trading public, the licensed customs agents and other regulatory agencies in the trade facilitation business. Therefore, we must all brace-up for meaningful results in our efforts to facilitate international trade. With a positive change in attitude, compliance and automation of procedures, every tendency for corrupt practice will naturally be frustrated.