It must be stated right away that there is nothing wrong with the idea of resorting to e-auction in the disposal of goods seized by the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS). It is also not a novel one as the idea had been mooted in the past. However, the idea did not see the light of the day until those who mooted the idea were no more calling the shots.
It was meant to curb some of the ills associated with the traditional method of disposing cargo intercepted by the officers and men of the NCS. It was believed that with e-auction, there will be transparency, openness and accountability as the identities of the beneficiaries, how much they paid and the nature of their cargo will be open to public scrutiny.
Against the backdrop of the intended benefits of e-auction, not a few have wondered why many people especially stakeholders in the maritime industry have kicked against it.
Opposition to e-auction has continued to swell. At the last count, retired NCS officials, auctioneers, importers, civil servants, freight forwarders, and licensed customs agents have openly expressed their opposition to it. The opposition is not limited to the NCS. It is within and outside the service. They have not ceased to use every avenue to pick holes in the exercise.
From the positions of these stakeholders, it is crystal clear that the Comptroller General of Customs, Colonel Ibrahim Hameed Ali (retired) has a case to answer. In fact, as far as the introduction and implementation of the e-auction is concerned, there is a case against Ali.
While the critics within the NCS cannot openly express their minds on the e-auction, for fear of victimisation, this is not the case with those outside the service.
For instance, a retired Comptroller of Customs, Mr. Ralph Nwadike has called for the suspension of the exercise. Describing it as an â€œact of impunityâ€, he pointed out that there is a pending court case on the matter.
THISDAY had reported that the Nigerian Association of Auctioneers (NAA) had dragged the NCS and Ali before a Federal High Court, Abuja over the introduction and implementation of e-auction.
In an originating summons, the auctioneers had prayed the court to declare that by virtue of its incorporation, registration and accreditation pursuant to the relevant laws of the federation, an auction sale cannot be conducted by a committee appointed by the NCS.
Giving an insight into case, the legal adviser of NAA, Mr. Wale Yusuf said the lawyer to NCS had filed a motion of adjournment at the last court sitting and the matter had been adjourned to September.
Nwadike, who served as Area Controller, Kirikiri Lighter Terminal Command, Apapa before his retirement, said since the matter was had gone to court, Customs had no right to commence the auction of seized goods.
His words: â€œThe auctioneers are in court over the matter and the Customs is trying to defy the court. I have always wondered when government agencies will stop all this impunity. They should obey the court order and go and trash the case out. Even if Customs say they have a rule, they should go to the court and prove it to the auctioneers that they can do it their own way and prove the law that gave them the power and not acting with impunity and defiling the court regulations.
â€œThat is the essence of democracy and rule of law. If somebody takes you to court even if you feel you are right, go to court and prove to him that you are right so that there will be calm in the society. When the Customs boss was asked to wear uniform, he went to court to say that he was not going to wear uniform. Then the Attorney-General said the Senate could not rule on the matter because it was still in court so why is it that the CG on one platform hides behind the court and on another platform, he defies the court?
â€œAll these acts of impunity that government agencies are bringing up is part of the problem in the country.Â Since government registers auctioneers and some people are saying we have right not to use them, why is government registering them? If you make the auctioneers believe that the court has no power to control any agency, then you are only saying that there is anarchy in the societyâ€.
Apparently not satisfied with the exercise, the retired Customs Chief enjoined NCS to liaise and work more closely with the auctioneers to make the process more transparent.
Again, civil servants in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) have called on the NCS to suspend its ongoing e-auction following difficulties and inability of many of them to access the e-auction platform.
They said the suspension would enable the Federal Inland Revenue service (FIRS) to integrate the Joint Tax Board (JTB) Tax Identification Number (TIN) in the system.
A cross section of the workers told journalists that the JTB TIN, which was mostly used by civil servants, was not being accepted by the NCS e-auction platform.
They argued that this makes it difficult for JTB TIN users to participate in the excise.
â€œThere is need to suspend the ongoing exercise to enable FIRS to integrate JTB TIN into Customs e-auction platform to give all Nigerians equal opportunity,â€ they said.
But is the Customs High Command ready to listen? Is Ali ready to listen to the voice of reason? Is he ready to go back to the drawing board to address all the issues raised by those kicking against it? Against the backdrop of the fact that Ali is learning on the job since he is not a Customs Officer, is he ready to work with critical stakeholders to address the ills associated with the introduction of the e-auction by the NCS? The answers to these and many more questions lie in the bowels of time.