Comptroller-General, Nigeria Custome Service Hammed Alli
BY Yaya Sanni
For obvious reasons, one cannot expect an administration that came in the heat of the sustained crash in crude oil price and the attendant dip in revenue to adopt the strategy of business as usual.
This was the scenario when President Muhammadu Buhari received the staff of office on May 29, 2015.
Expectations were high, but the state of the nation’s finances was pathetic. Suddenly, it was no longer safe to rely on oil revenue, which has since become unpredictable and unreliable to run the state economy unlike what obtained in the past. Meanwhile, electoral promises plus the rising expectations of the Nigerian people needed to be met.
But economic watchers are of the opinion that the impact of the oil price shock on Nigeria merely shows that a lot is wrong with the way we did things in the past. To say the least, everybody is concerned. Economic affairs commentators therefore conclude that for a country with favourable economic fundamentals to be so vulnerable at a period of oil market debacle smacks of lethargy on the part of those elected to get things done, especially in the recent past.
Last week, I read with interest, the first in the series of articles, which the Minister of Finance, Mrs. Kemi Adeosun had promised to write. The article and some of the comments that followed it on the social media confirmed the observation of some of us who have been watching the Nigerian situation for a long time.
We seem to all agree that Nigeria is something of a conundrum. This is because the macro picture has always appeared compelling – large population, oil reserves, mineral reserves, endless tracts of arable land, and land and sea borders for regional domination.
To free the system from its porous nature, which largely accentuated the scale of corruption and the attendant dip in revenue accruable to government, I agree with the minister that the most basic systems and controls over the management of our resources are in dire need of strengthening.
Like Mrs. Adeosun rightly put it, Nigerians voted for change and to attain that change there is a need to do things differently, in the recognition that doing what we have always done will only result in more of the same.
Repositioning Revenue Agencies
For those of us who have consistently raised the point concerning the urgency of the need to reposition the nation’s revenue agencies, the current oil price shock could have been taken care of by the previous administrations if these agencies had undergone the needed restructuring and retooling.
So when we heard that the Finance Minister was spearheading the repositioning of the various revenue agencies for optimal performance, the question that came to mind was how serious is this administration in carrying out these plans to the letter. If we agree with the Minister that growing the economy at a rate that will address the employment needs of our huge population requires a fundamental change in how government collects its revenues and spends, then we should all bother to take an inventory of the tools and equipment needed by these agencies of government to discharge their duties efficiently.
We have also been watching the body language of key officials of this administration which suggests that the period of diagnosis of the economic problems is over, signaling the beginning of implementation of programmes to make the economy bounce back. It may not be far-fetched to assume that this belief largely explains a cocktail of efforts put in place so far. This, according to media reports, include the widening of tax net, the ongoing guided war against corruption and a robust programme of equipment modernisation, regular training and competitive remuneration of personnel of some of the key revenue agencies.
It is however hoped that the current administration will stay focus and ensure reorientation of its officials saddled with the responsibility of implementing some of these laudable decisions.
One can observe that the Federal Government is ready to invest in the Nigerian Customs in order to improve the agency’s revenue generation. I have no doubt this investment will significantly enhance the capacity of the Customs to rake in more revenue but what Nigerians want to know is the actual amount this investment will gulp at the end of the day.
What we read in the newspapers was the promise made by the minister to extend the investment to the area of training of Customs personnel for performance effectiveness, which will deliver the much needed enhancement in wages and the general welfare and remuneration of the personnel.
No doubt, the commitment made by the minister to buy scanners for Customs use during last week’s inspection, will sufficiently improve the capacity of the agency to outsmart smugglers and other perpetrators of economic sabotage, the minister should speak elaborately on in depth training programmes for the Customs officials who will handle these sophisticated equipment.
As a stakeholder in the Nigerian project, I will be interested in seeing investment being made on sensitisation programmes. This is because we all realise the fact that unless the Nigerian people are carried along, the planned investment in equipment and training will be like a drop in the ocean.
I believe there is need to pass the message that it is a collective effort to police our borders as we are all cheating ourselves when we try to cut corners or turn a blind eye when we see others doing it. There is a public collective responsibility to shun smuggled goods from across the borders.
In spite of these operational challenges, there is no doubt that the current administration’s focus on anti-corruption and transparency is rubbing positively on the activities of the Customs service. As all the revenue drainpipes are being taken care of, it is natural for the various formations of the agency to post higher returns.
And this lends credence to the assertion that there is no organisation, which cannot record a breakthrough as long as there is purposeful leadership to lead the way.
Reports of improved performance of customs from certain formations are already giving Nigerians cause to cheer. If for instance, the Seme Command of Nigeria Customs Service could sustain the tempo of increased performance recorded in February, then the federal government can be positive about its drive to make non-oil sector the cash cow of this administration.
It was said to have generated N1.07 billion revenue in February as against N899.8 million generated in the corresponding period in 2015.
And as the Minister recently put it, in a country as big as Nigeria where a large percentage of our needs are imported, there is no reason why the Customs should not raise its revenue significantly.
And one is not surprised that the current administration is bent on improving the capacity of the Customs service because of the consensus on the need to take our focus away from oil (which has proved to be unsustainable in the present dispensation) and focus on other revenue generating sectors.
Fact-finding, a continuous exercise
As far as some of us are concerned, the fact-finding mission of the Minister of Finance should not be restricted to the Customs formation alone. I strongly believe that other revenue generating agencies should be visited in order to make them productive and efficient.
While I agree with the Minister that the establishment of various Boards and Parastatals to undertake the operational and revenue generating business of government was a well-intentioned attempt to provide separation from policy makers, the fact remains that as the economy has grown, so too has the revenue earned in these agencies and their financial autonomy has grown in a manner that no longer fully serves the public interest.
Quite a number of the people also support the idea that port charges, maritime charges, airport landing fees, visa charges, passport charges, telecoms licence fees, among many others, must be tracked and accounted for.
It is when all these issues are appropriately tackled that the various revenue generating agencies will perform optimally to the betterment of the Nigerian economy.
–Sanni, a public affairs commentator, wrote from Abuja.