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New Customs Bill Raises Dust

16 Dec 2012

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National Assembly

A new bill which seeks to accord the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) power of autonomy is being opposed by ports industry stakeholders who argue that such powers would not be in the best interest of the country.  The stakeholders also argue that such autonomy does not exist anywhere in the world, including America and should not be granted by the National Assembly, reports Francis Ugwoke



The new bill  on Nigeria Customs Service (NCS)  now before the Senate  which seeks over-riding powers for the Service  is generating  ripples among stakeholders in the ports. Even as the Service insists that  there is no hidden agenda in the Bill, industry stakeholders say if passed into law,  it will make the  Customs    the most powerful government agency  in the country. The fear of industry stakeholders, including importers and  customs agents is that such powers  could be used  negatively.

They pointed to the  duty benchmark which was introduced by the Service early this year, adding that it took presidential and legislative orders to force customs leadership to withdraw the illegal policy. The stakeholders argued that granting Customs such powers  would be  to the detriment of the country. Those  who spoke to THISDAY said both the President and the Minister of Finance will directly or indirectly lose control of the Customs if the Bill is passed  into law. They argued that the  law  will be like  the CBN Act    in which  the apex bank  enjoys autonomy and nearly unanswerable to anybody.

Contending Issues  in the Bill
The Customs Bill  was  passed by the House of Representatives  in June last year. But what was passed by the House, sources said, is different from what is now before the Senate.  The provisions being contested by the interested stakeholders include  a clear case of autonomy being  canvassed  in the Bill for Customs.  It is being alleged that the  new Bill has removed the powers of the  Board members. The Manufacturers Association of Nigeria , Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON) and National Agency for Food, and Drug Administration Control (NAFDAC) are also  casualties of  the new Bill.   

In what is seen as a direct onslaught against these agencies, Section 41 of the  Bill  seeks to establish  laboratories in what is a clear  erosion of the statutory functions of  both NAFDAC and SON. It is also bad news for  freight forwarders who are referred to as merely representatives of the Customs in the Bill. The  Bill is said to have also  removed the powers of the President on the Customs leaving him only with  what is described  by experts  as “powers to prohibit coastline carriage of goods”, a term  which maritime experts say is ambiguous. Similarly, the Bill places the power to declare ‘Free  Trade Zone”  under the Comptroller-General of Customs instead of the President and  the Ministers. Under the present dispensation, the Minister of Finance as the Chairman of the Board of Customs controls the Customs. But the new Bill  before the Senate is said to have changed this in what appears a clear autonomy for the Customs. 

What Stakeholders Say
Following the moves  by the Customs to have the Bill passed,  the  President of  National Council for the  Managing Directors of Customs Agents (NCMDCA),  who is an expert on maritime  issues, Mr Lucky Amiwero,  said that there is more to  it than  Customs is asking  for.  Amiwero maintained that there is nowhere in the world, including America where the Customs is autonomous. Arguing that the Customs has remained implementing agency all over the world, he  maintained that Nigeria cannot be an exception.

Amiwero who spoke to THISDAY on phone  argued “In  over 70 countries, including America, there is nothing like Customs autonomy. In Ghana, you have the Commissioner-General, the Customs  is under the Commissioner-general, who is under the Minister. In South Africa , it is the same.  South Africa has a regulatory process where the Ministry  regulates everything. In America, there is a restrictive application in terms of proclamation  and implementation. In every job in America, the Treasury Secretary or the Homeland Secretary are incharge while the Customs implements. So if they are coming out with a new concept of autonomy, I don’t know where we are driving that  under international  best practices. I have  not seen a country where that is done.”

He argued that there are economic issues which decision must be left for the  President and the Ministry to  have over-riding powers. Amiwero  added,  “for instance, banned items must be from the Presidency, the President must  look at the situation, call various  groups and say what do we do. It is not customs that will do that. Some of these things are critical.  Where do  you have such process  in the world. You must say these things are working  somewhere as example. Why are they creating a new approach to a system that is not working anywhere in the world.  Are we going to manufacture something  new that is not relevant to  our society. We are import dominated  economy and export drive  in what government  is trying  to do  on non-oil export. But when you say you want customs autonomy, it means you want them to be incharge of import and export manufacturing and  it is not done anywhere in the world. I want you to check every other customs all over the world”.

What Customs Should Seek in New Bill
Amiwero said that the Customs Service  should aim at  having a  Bill that promotes trade and make things better for Nigerians. He  said that Customs for instance  should  concentrate on changing the old provisions  in the  Customs Act that  are impediments to trade.  “That  is what is done  in America. All the old laws are being amended to reflect present realities and to be in line with international trade concept”, he said. 

Amiwero  who said he has written to the  President,  the National Assembly and the Ministry of Finance to oppose the moves by the Customs, advised the Senate  Committee on Customs to consider the implication of granting  autonomy to the Customs to the country, adding  that the  idea is selfish  rather than  serving national interest.  “There is nowhere in the world where you remove the power of the President and the Minister  from controlling the customs. The presidential power is to proclaim  import and export. These areas are critical . Some Presidents delegate such powers to the Minister. In America, the  President takes a position and it is final. If you remove that power from the President, there is a lot of implication. That means the President  has no power to ban or unban anything”. He added that  the other issue is that the Customs cannot  go to the Federal Executive Council to  argue  on certain trade matters, adding that  this remains the Minister’s work.

Similarly, a maritime lawyer, Mr Kasarachi Opara maintains that the biggest  mistake the National Assembly will make is to grant  Customs autonomy in the new Bill, adding  that this has a lot of implication. He argued that this means leaving Nigerian trading public and indeed Nigerians as a whole at  the mercy of customsmen.  He said, “ the present customs is not ripe for such system. There is so much corruption in  customs, and according them outright autonomy without  strict supervision will worsen the  situation. If you know  what happens at  the ports, you will understand what I am saying. “

He accused the Customs of  being high-handed in their approach to generate revenue for the government. He accused the Customs of devising many ways  of over-tasking  importers  who have goods to clear at the ports.

Customs Defence:
The Public Relations Officer of Customs, Mr Joseph Attah was full of defence  of the Customs  Bill  now before the Senate. Attah  who spoke to THISDAY on phone maintained that the Service has no hidden agenda as far as the new Bill is concerned. He  said that the provisions of the new Bill are being  misinterpreted by  some people to sooth their  opposition. He maintained that what people  think is different from what the Bill seeks to achieve. He  argued that those  who think the Customs is seeking autonomy  are  not asking questions as to who appoints the Comptroller-General.  Attah equally argued that members of the legislature      are  experienced  enough to deal with the matter  diligently.

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