With series of seizures recorded by the federal operations unit (FOU) of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), including beaming a searchlight on importers who under-declare or under-value imports at the ports and border stations in recent times, smugglers of trade goods may be forced to choose between trade compliance or continue to suffer losses associated with seizure, reports Francis Ugwoke
For smugglers of trade goods, this is not the best of times. It has indeed been a bleak Christmas. This is following series of seizures recorded by the Federal Operations Unit (FOU) of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) in their clampdown on economic saboteurs. Particularly in pains are the rice merchants who in recent times have chosen the unapproved routes, through the border stations to bring in their consignments into the country. Genuine importers of rice who come through the approved routes of seaports and pay duties on the consignments have had to lament before resigning to fate. But they can now heave a sigh of relief with the recent successes recorded by the FOU in battling smugglers of rice. Many of them have had their cargoes seized. One incident is the seizure of a ship load of rice at the border routes of Seme Badagry, an onslaught that may have dealt a big blow on the owners of the N51million single rice consignment.
Others affected in the efforts to suppress smuggling include smugglers of vehicles, poultry products and general goods seized by the Customs in Lagos trade zone. Standing trial as a result of the various smuggling crimes are 254 suspects in the net of the Customs in FOU.
A Swoop on Rice Smugglers
Since importers of rice cried out to the Federal Government and the Customs that the activities of smugglers of the grains were crippling their business, the anti-smuggling units of the Customs have known rest, a senior official of the Customs who did not want to be quoted told THISDAY. At the FOU, Ikeja, the Controller, Mr Dan Ugo told THISDAY that the Command has intercepted several trucks loaded with rice being brought into the country by smugglers. The recent of such incidents was the arrest of a barge load of rice which were being brought into the country through Seme-Badagry waters. The rice consignment was coming from the neighbouring port of Cotonou which has been known as a haven for some Nigerian importers who do not wish to pay duties on their goods. Ugo told THISDAY that the smugglers of the consignment with a Duty Paid Value (DPV) of N51million had done everything to evade arrest with series of cover-ups but for theeagle eyes of a combined team of officers. He explained that the Unit kept a close watch on the Badagry-Seme water ways believing that smugglers were going to fall into their traps until that fateful day.
The biggest rice seizure was made up of 7, 269 bags of rice, which is calculated to be exactly 13 trailers of consignment. He said that with this, other smugglers of the items will have a second thought on taking more risk bringing in rice into the country through unapproved routes. He also added that with such seizure, the FOU has put the importer of the consignment out of business. Before the ship arrest, the Command had also intercepted a truck along Shaki Igbokwe Road, Oyo State, with 155 bags of parboiled rice and 25 litres of vegetable oil.
Other Trade Goods
Apart from the rice products, other items that have been seized from smugglers in recent time include 431 vehicles, seven containers, general goods which number was put at 2,459. The Duty Paid Value of the vehicles and other general goods was put at N999,495,288, from January to November this year. For the poultry products, it was gathered that at least 16,391 cartons with Duty Paid Value of N65,276,180 were seized.
Arms to Battle Smuggling
As at the time of filing this report, 254 suspects have either been convicted or standing trial for various offences of smuggling. The Officer incharge of Legal Seat, Mr. Nicholas Danladi Piyidat of FOU, told THISDAY that out of this number, there have been six convictions so far, adding that other suspects are standing trial in court. On the state of preparedness to fight smuggling, the Controller, said that the Command has everything it takes, including human and materials to make smuggling a nightmare for those who chose to do so. He told THISDAY, “ we have what it takes to fight smuggling. Every officer undergoes series of training and this helps us to ensure that the time they go to the field, they do their jobs. And beyond that, we have never had it so good in terms of the system, the tools, the vehicles, arms and ammunition, patrol flying boats, helicopters, the new aircraft acquired for air surveillance. So we don’t have any excuse any more and it is impacting on what we are doing. That is why we have results”, he said.
Ugo added that the customs management, particularly the Comptroller-General of Customs, Inde Dikko Abdullahi, has been very supportive to ensure that the war against smuggling is won by the customs. “There have been a good package from the CGC and the management team to ensure that the officers get what they want to do their job”. He disclosed that unlike before when officers had to sleep on the corridors of the officers after being transferred to the Command was over. There are provisions for officers who die on active service, including a scholarship for the children, a permanent home for the officer anywhere of the choice of the family and other packages. In terms of arms and ammunition, he said, “ the new AK47 arms which we have is really giving officers encouragement to go and do their jobs. We have over 80 vehicles in this Command alone for patrol and this makes the job easier for us”, he said.
A team of six officers of the Command were among those who received various awards from the Comptroller-General during a recent Annual Conference held in Katsina.
Increase in Level of Compliance
The Controller told THISDAY that the war against smuggling is having serious effect. He said that the Unit has made it difficult for the smugglers to have their way all the time, particularly those who smuggle through the seaports and other approved routes. He described under-declaration and concealment, including falsification of value of imports as also another form of smuggling. Ugo said that the Command on noticing this had adopted the measure of tracing the importers to force them to pay the appropriate duties if they leave the ports or border stations undetected. “If you bring in an item that is worth 500,000 and you declare it to be 200,000, you are smuggling by the fact that you are under-declaring the quantity or value… so again, smuggling comes from various perspectives, but we are at least on top of our game”.
When asked on whether the war is forcing importers to do the right thing instead of smuggling, he said “it is like a pendulum, as you push them hard, you also increase the level of compliance , like the last seizure we made on rice, we have put them out of business. So it is bad business.. “
He added, “ the level of compliance is really increasing. For instance, what we do as far as Lagos ports are concerned is that anything that slips through them in the ports and we lay our hands on, if it is dutiable and appropriate duty is not paid, we keep these things there, write back to the mother port and ensure that appropriate duty is collected. Since we started that, they have realised there is no wisdom in doing that because by the time they are caught, it takes like 4 – 5 days to pay appropriately, and what you pay for the trucking here, you wish you never try to cut corners. So, with these implications of those activities, the level of compliance is really increasing. Because we have ASYCUDA system here we can monitor live transactions from these ports. So the fear of FOU drives people to try to be compliant, because of the attendant implications, because it will hit more on their pockets”, he said.