Customs, Still on the Rampage

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Despite the seeming efforts to sanitise the activities of the Nigerian Customs Service, auto dealers and commuters in the country complain that many officials of the agency have continued with the illicit extortion of dealers and car owners and the seizure of vehicles, writes Chinedu Eze in this investigative report

Alleged extortion, forced seizure of vehicles on the highways on illicit grounds and harassment of motorists by officials of Nigeria Customs and Excise have exacerbated in the last two years, contrary to expectations.

It is believed that the new management in Customs would rein in the excesses of the organisation known over the years, but some of the officials have allegedly adopted a nefarious means of making money by using arbitrary

criteria to seize vehicles imported by auto dealers and also stopping motorists who drive new vehicles on the highway forcing them to part with money or seizing their

vehicles.

Travelers are the ones who are suffering the high handedness of Customs officials on the highways. Some of the motorists who spoke to THISDAY said to confirm the authenticity of their documents they took them to Customs office after they purchased their vehicles and the officials confirmed that the documents were okay, “but when you are traveling they will stop you on the way and tell you that your papers are not right. They will give you a bill there and then. Of course, the bill will not be anything less than N3 million.

“Then they can ask you to settle when you plead and plead with them. My customer had parted with N500, 000. He was going to Ibadan from Lagos when they stopped him. He didn’t have money. It was his wife who does electronic banking that used her phone to transfer that money to the account given to them by the Customs people,” a car dealer narrated to THISDAY

The source said the most notorious areas are Benin, Ijebu Ode, Ibadan and Lokoja in addition to many other places in the Southern part of the country.

“If you don’t part with money they will seize your car and it will take about a month before you will get it back. Any relatively new car from 2010 is not safe from them. Between Benin and Ijebu Ode there are about 10

Customs check points answering different names, as coming from different commands. They collect

minimum of N500, 000. Most often they demand millions. Most people who own new cars don’t put them on the highway any more. Those who are not flying travel

with commercial vehicles because of the menace of Customs officials on the roads,” the source said.

However, THISDAY learnt that this reprehensible activities are giving the Comptroller

General of Nigerian Customs, Colonel Hameed Ibrahim Ali (rtd) sleepless nights and he had sent the word round that anyone who is able to bring evidence of the

actions of these Customs officials would be doing the

organisation a favour, as those involved in the extortion would not only be sacked but they would also be

prosecuted.

Automotive policy

In accordance with new regulations, importation of a new

vehicle attracts 35 per cent duties and 35 per cent levy. This was to encourage local manufacturing of vehicles against importation. But car dealers said that besides Innoson, there is no other company that is doing any kind of vehicle manufacturing in Nigeria now.

The 35 per cent for duties and 35 per cent for levy means that if you buy a vehicle for $100, 000 you pay $70,000 for clearing it. After the dealer has paid this amount of money, calculated on the cost of the vehicle, a dealer is free to take his vehicle to his shop and sell. But despite the fact that there is evidence of the cost of every vehicle brand on the Internet, Customs officials are alleged to have their own vehicle prices which are computer generated and which they call benchmark.

Unfortunately for vehicle dealers and those who buy new cars, there is no defined criteria that guides Customs benchmark; it is computer generated at their whim and despite the fact that you can verify how much a car is bought from the suppliers and manufacturers on websites, Customs still stick to their computer generated prices, which are usually far higher than the actual prices

the vehicles were purchased.

This means that even if you buy a vehicle for $100, 000 and calculated your 35 per cent duty and 35 per cent levy on that cost, which is $70,000, some Customs officials will stop you on the way and tell you that the car you bought for $100, 000 is $170,000, according to computer generated prices, so the duty and levy you have paid are below what you ought to pay. These payments run into

millions of Naira.

Exploitation

THISDAY learnt that these Customs officials will force you to negotiate and if you fail to pay the amount they asked you to pay, they will seize the vehicle and it

would take you at least three weeks to get it back. This

would also cost you about N4 million, which would include the extra money you ought to pay on their

arbitrarily generated vehicle price and the cost of visiting

relevant Customs offices and personnel that would give you approval to take back your vehicle after the new payment.

Indifference

As revenue generating agency, which is aggressively striving to meet target set for it by government, there is strong suspicion that Customs management is indifferent to the arbitrary price benchmark, which its officials generate as cost of vehicles, but some of these officials are using it to make huge monies for themselves.

A car dealer who spoke to THISDAY said that some of the brazen Customs officials would stop vehicles on the highway and extort huge monies from their owners; they would raid car shops and using their own computer generated prices as benchmark, charge the car dealer extra millions of naira as official cost of duty and levy or “the dealer will settle the people and this will cost less and

they will boldly give you account number. Our enquiries

reveal that almost all they account numbers they give are accounts of Bureau de Change.

“Very serious car dealers have stopped their work. There are no service centres and no more importation by many of these businessmen because they cannot cope with

the harsh environment. Example, Toyota Prado is about $30, 000 to $33, 000, including cost and freight and depending on the facilities in the vehicle, but Customs use $58,000 to calculate duties and levy,” a car dealer told THISDAY.

Customs management

But a Customs official who spoke to THISDAY on the condition of anonymity confirmed the obnoxious activities of some of the Customs officials, but said the

management of Customs is desperately looking for them and anyone that is caught would not only be expelled but would also be persecuted.

“Customs management is aware of all these but they are waiting for the person they will catch. If those who pay the money to these officials can get the teller of the

payments to the authority, it will be instant dismissal for

those involved and possible persecution. The Comptroller General is a no-nonsense man. They are doing this with impunity.

“Tell those people (vehicle owners arrested on the highway and car dealers) to get three or four bank accounts those Customs officials give and use them to write a petition to the Comptroller General and also send it to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC),” the Customs official advised.

It is even believed by the car dealers who spoke to THISDAY that there is tacit support these Customs officials are getting from “high quarters” because there

are different groups of these Customs officials “who come

at different intervals and the management of Customs cannot say that they are not aware that these things have been going on. The ones who arrived recently from other parts of the country are laws unto themselves.

“Customs is all about money. No matter the document you give them as evidence that you followed due process to clear your vehicles, they just want more money. The

more money we are talking about is not small money. It is

about N2 million; otherwise they will take your car and it will take you about three weeks to get it back. You will be forced to shuttle from one of their offices to another and

this will cost you extra N2 million.

Regular requirements

“All over the world there are regular requirements needed for you to clear a vehicle and these include the chassis or vehicle identification number, but in Nigeria Customs will give you computer generated papers, which is called Customs C number. If you dare lose this paper it will be assumed that you did not pay anything to them. They do not have the data system where the payment is reflected; they do not have your payment number, which they can use to recall your payment. But other agencies have evidence of such payment beyond the issuance of a document,” a car dealer told THISDAY.

He said that this explains why there are not too many cars on the Nigerian highways. According to him, many Nigerians who would otherwise travel with their cars now prefer to travel by air, charter vehicles or use commercial

buses.

“This has affected us so much. You can go and check this out yourself. Many well-known car dealers who you know in the past, most of them have closed shops. Also, many of those artisans who work for us, from electricians,

mechanics, painters, panel beaters and even shops that we

patronise for spares, many are now out of business. In fact, over 15,000 people have lost their jobs because many car shops nationwide have closed their businesses and this will increase crime in the society because many of them are youths who do not have jobs now,” the source said.

Executive order

Recently as part of the ease of doing business policy, the federal government ordered Customs to leave the highways but sooner was the directive given than the number of Customs officials multiplied on the highways, thus repudiating the directive. This, many say, is a direct affront to the federal government that issued that directive.

Car dealers who spoke to THISDAY expressed shock in the way the Customs officials who literally raid the dealers’ shops and the highways defied the rules, as if

“they know that no authority can do anything to them. The impunity is too much,” the car dealer quipped.

The Customs official who spoke to THISDAY also lamented about this defiance, which “makes some of us feel that they are above the law, but I know and I am

convinced that anyone caught by the Comptroller General will pay dearly for it.”

The car dealers are of the view that many more of their members would close shop and thousands of people who are engaged in one way or another in the auto industry will also lose their jobs, “and you can agree with me that this won’t be good for this country now.”

The car dealers have urged the federal government to ensure that Customs officials are removed from the highways. They urged also that government should remove the 35 per cent levy charged on imported new vehicles, saying that people should be guided properly because “this policy has given Customs officials an

opportunity for extortion. Government needs to look at this in order to stem the thousands of people who are losing their jobs on a daily basis, especially as Nigeria is not yet ripe to manufacture vehicles in such commercial quantity to meet local demand.”