• Saraki, Hameed Ali meet behind closed doors
• Car duty payment policy being reviewed, says NCS boss
• To seek legal advice on wearing the uniform of his agency
Damilola Oyedele in Abuja
There were indications on Tuesday that the presidency waded in to avert a face-off between the Senate and the Comptroller General (CG) of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Col. Hameed Ali (rtd.), over the controversial ultimatum issued to car owners and dealers nationwide to pay the duties on their vehicles between March 13 and April 12, 2019, or risk having their cars impounded.
THISDAY gathered that on getting wind of the impasse that has ensued between the Senate and Ali over his refusal to honour its invitation, President Muhammadu Buhari cautioned all his appointees against causing disaffection between him as the head of the executive arm of government and the National Assembly.
Buhari, a source in the presidency revealed, has cautioned his appointees to avoid any confrontations with the legislature that would pit it against the executive.
In this regard, the president was said to have directed Ali to honour the Senate’s summons to prevent an escalation of the stand-off between both sides.
The Senate last week summoned Ali over his refusal to stay action on the policy and directed him to appear in the full uniform of his rank as the CG of the Customs Service Wednesday.
However, Ali wrote to the upper legislative body informing it that he would not be able to honour the summons, as he was due to attend a fortnightly meeting of the NCS management.
The letter, read at plenary on Tuesday morning, drew the ire of the senators who stated that by asking a subordinate officer, Assistant CG, to respond to its formal invitation and sign on his behalf, Ali had disrespected the institution.
It was the media reports of the looming face-off as it unfolded on Tuesday that prompted the presidency to immediately step into the matter.
THISDAY gathered that Senate President Bukola Saraki, who left plenary after presiding over the matter on the Customs boss, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Yakubu Dogara, met with the president Tuesday afternoon.
A source disclosed that the presidency informed Saraki that Ali would appear before the Senate and pleaded that he be given the opportunity to explain himself.
The source could not, however, confirm if Ali would appear on Wednesday or not, but disclosed that the presidency immediately reached out to Ali and cautioned him against worsening the executive/legislative relationship, which the president has been working to rebuild.
Saraki and Dogara returned to the National Assembly immediately after the meeting.
However, at 3.33 p.m., the Special Adviser to the President, National Assembly (Senate) Matters, Senator Ita Enang, delivered yet another letter from the Customs boss to the Senate President.
In the letter dated March 14, 2017, Ali disclosed that the controversial policy was being reviewed.
It read in part: “May I respectfully refer to your letter dated 9 March and inform Your Excellency that the decision on payment of customs duties by vehicle owners who do not have them as prescribed by law is currently being reviewed.
“The goal of the review is to take a broad additional input from the stakeholders and the public. I will welcome the opportunity to avail the Senate of our findings and the way forward on improving our capabilities to plug major drainages in the nation’s economy without adding to hardships and within our mandate.
“Regarding the wearing of uniform, I wish to advise that the Senate avails itself of the legal basis of its decision to compel me to wear uniform. I am similarly seeking legal advice on this issue, so that both the Senate and I will operate within the proper legal framework.”
While his earlier letter had claimed he had a management meeting, the second letter, which he personally signed, claimed that he would be unable to respond to the summons, because of a recent bereavement.
“I regret my inability to answer the Senate invitation owing to a recent bereavement. I will, however, make myself available whenever I am needed in the future. Please accept my highest esteem,” the CGC wrote.
Despite the second letter, Ali still turned up at the National Assembly Tuesday evening and went straight into a closed-door meeting with Saraki.
Clad in white traditional attire, he was accompanied by three aides.
The meeting was still ongoing as of 6.04pm.
Earlier at plenary, Ali’s letter signed on his behalf by Assistant CG, Azanema A., requesting a new date to appear in plenary had angered the senators.
Saraki informed the lawmakers that Ali had written the Senate regarding the summons and directed the Clerk of the Senate, Mr. Nelson Ayewo, to read the letter.
“I am directed to acknowledge the receipt of your letter no NASS/CS/8S/09/29 of 9th March 2017 on the above subject matter. I have been further directed to tell you that the date given to the Comptroller-General of the Nigerian Customs Service, Wednesday 15th March 2017, to brief the Senate in plenary on the retrospective duty payment of vehicles in Nigeria has coincided with the fortnightly meeting of the NCS management.
“The Comptroller-General is humbly requesting a new date from the distinguished Senate. As we await your favourable response, please be assured of our highest regards and also of the Comptroller-General of Customs,” the letter read.
Reacting, the lawmakers accused Ali of disrespecting the institution of the Senate by not bothering to take the trouble to respond to the formal invitation himself.
The Senate Leader, Senator Ahmed Lawan (Yobe North), said the CG should have written and signed the letter himself as a mark of respect to the Senate.
“I feel slighted and I am sure everybody feels the same,” Lawan said.
He, however, urged the Senate to extend the summons to tomorrow (Thursday).
“To show that we are different, let us take him on Thursday if he is saying he won’t be available tomorrow, two wrongs would not make a right.
“I know we feel hurt but whether it is live coverage or not, Nigerians have an interest in this and Nigerians will like to listen to the responses and explanations of the CG of Customs,” he said.
Senator James Manager (Delta South) disagreed that an extension should be granted, describing Ali’s request as “an insult of the highest order”.
“Great men have passed through this particular chamber and therefore when letters like these are coming from executive bodies, the Senate must take a very firm stand,” Manager said, arguing further that it might have been understandable if Ali had written the letter himself or bothered to establish contact with the President of the Senate through the Senate Committee on Customs.
“The integrity of this Senate is being tested. As we speak, there are so many products of this place who are listening and who are also itching for action. The Comptroller General must appear in uniform tomorrow (Wednesday) and anything short of that certainly is not acceptable to me, is not acceptable to all the senators and what is not acceptable to all the senators is not acceptable to all Nigerians,” Manager added.
Ruling on the matter, Saraki noted that while Lawan had spoken as “leaders are meant to speak”, the Senate would be guided by the general opinion and integrity of the institution.
“The position of the Senate is clear, he should appear tomorrow, in uniform, as directed by the earlier resolution and we are waiting to see him here tomorrow morning by 10:30 a.m.,” the Senate President ruled.
Briefing newsmen after plenary, Senate spokesman, Senator Sabi Abdullahi (Niger North), said the Senate would not back down on the demand that Ali appears in uniform, as his refusal to wear the uniform of his rank was a disservice to the men and officers who are making a career of the NCS.
“We are not questioning the prerogative of the president to appoint the head of the agency from outside, but we frown on the fact that his actions are demoralising the service.
“By not wearing the uniform, it is a disservice; people are there in uniform, but their head is not wearing his. If he knows he cannot wear a uniform twice, he should have declined the appointment,” Abdullahi said.
Abdullahi was alluding to Ali’s argument in the past that as a retired army officer, he should not be compelled to wear the uniform of another formation for the second time in his working life.