Beyond the Customs, Passenger Drama at Abuja Airport

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From the criticisms that attended a recent incidence at the Abuja International Airport between a passenger, Mrs. Udensi Adaeze Nwagboliwe and operatives of the Nigerian Customs Service, it is high time the National Assembly looked at some of the laws guiding the operations of the border security agency, writes Shola Oyeyipo

With each passing day, it is becoming clearer that critics whose stand is that Nigeria is mortally backward are not just pulling the nation down, evidence abounds that some laws are extremely backward and can no longer make any meaningful impact on the overall development agenda, because some of them are either obnoxious, outdated or both.
Irritatingly, the operators of those laws have cleverly mastered the art of manipulating some aspects of such Nigerian laws to favour their cronies and punish perceived or real enemies.

The experience of one Mrs. Udensi Adaeze Nwagboliwe, a Nigerian banker, returning from London on October 18, 2019 through the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja with officers of the Nigerian Customs Service (NSC) over what according to her was a pair of trainers and one mini boy bag bought at duty free in Heathrow, will further open up how security operatives could be vindictive if they chose.

Apparently, there is a constitutional provision that stipulates that Nigerians are only entitled to N50, 000 worth of goods, when coming into the country, which was the position espoused by the duo of Ms. Essien and Mr. Tijani Abdulraham, who headed the Customs department at the Abuja Airport on that fateful day.

But how does anyone justify the fact that a Nigerian travelling out of the country is permitted to have up to $10, 000 (about N3.5m), but it becomes a crime for such a person to return with a pair of shoes valued at about $150 even when he returned a few days after?

Rather than sit in the chambers of the National Assembly and deliberate on inconsequential issues such as making a law to enable the federal lawmakers join in the celebration of the October 1 Independent Day, the Nigerian lawmakers and even the executive should reason that such laws do not add up, rather, the issues that could cause national embarrassment and promote corruption, should be addressed by the lawmakers.

The law might have been there a long time ago and well-intended, when it was made; but it no longer serves its purpose. For frequent travellers, it is obvious that there is a lacuna that must be addressed. It is though believed that if a frequent traveller had developed a good rapport with the Customs, irrespective of the value, obvious personal effects might not have caused the individual the kind of confrontation Mrs. Nwagboliwe had with them.

The two tough Customs officers, Essien and Abdulrahman insisted that what she had did not qualify as personal effects and took the pains to go online to get the actual price and calculated duty on it to be about N175, 000.
The scenario at the airport, which was captured in Nwagboliwe’s narration, had helped to point out the defect in the law the Customs officers were quick to put forward in their defence.

According to her, “Most shocking to me was that I was the only passenger on that flight BA 083 from London that was singled out for this treatment”, stressing that, “My question now is, what should Nigerians buy when they travel without any harassment back home?”

Though the argument of the border security agents was that everything above N50, 000 was considered luxury and dutiable, Nwagboliwe stated that, “I pointed out to her that someone who had shoes had just been released by the same Customs without any charge and to my shock she said that it is because he had put his feet in it already.

“I asked her that does it then mean that all I needed to do for these trainers not to be seized by Nigerian Customs was to simply remove it from the box and wear it and it ceases to be a luxury good, she said ‘yes’.

“I told her that does this not then show her that this law gives her considerable latitude to apply common sense when she sees Nigerians with just a pair of trainers and one mini boy bag? She refused to answer. I asked her to allow me put my feet in my trainers and if it’s not my size, apply duty and she refused.”

Nwagboliwe’s conclusion however remains a source of concern. If a Nigerian felt that bad, how would a foreigner have reacted if faced with similar circumstances and was unable to ‘bail’ him or herself out of it?
She said as apolitical as she was and having attended a federal school in the north, where she was a Senior Prefect/Head Girl, “I believe I was treated this way, because of my gender and tribe”, stressing that “I literally wept for my country Nigeria yesterday.”

Her conclusion was that “People like Abdulrahman and Essien are the very worst of the breed and have no reason to be found working in an airport like Abuja. He (Abdulrahman) is an embarrassment to the country.
“We must rise up and condemn this outrageous dimension by the Nigerian Customs. We must rise up against this tyranny as a people. Today, it is Adaeze. Tomorrow, it could be you”.

But a reliable source had an entirely different slant to the incidence. He hinted that the concerned person was a marked woman and was probably too western to part with her hard-earned resources and must therefore be shown the other side of the same law that could permit some to go and refuse others, if need be.

According to the source, whose claims could not be confirmed, the woman was a smuggler, who had perfected her ways of bypassing the Customs and that immediately they discovered, they had planned to lay ambush for her and she fell right inside, when confronted with a different set of officers other those, who would naturally indulge her.

But the Customs also responded in a statement signed by the Public Relations Officer, DC, Joseph Attah, the border security leadership and argued that the aggrieved lady “maliciously introduced gender, tribal and other unnecessary sentiments into what was simply a case of being told to pay duty as what was in her possession was far above the allowable value of N50, 000.00 and certainly beyond what normal discretion would allow.”

Attah said following routine search of Nwagboliwe’s luggage, a Louis Vuitton bag and shoe was discovered and knowing the luxury brand (Louis Vuitton), she was asked to produce the receipt which will be the basis for duty calculation or not. She could not produce the receipt of what she claimed she bought at the duty-free shop at the point of departure, saying the receipt was with her husband who did not travel with her.

He said after ascertaining the current worth of her items through the internet, which was put at N570,467.40, her appropriate duty assessment of N165, 692.25k was made and given to her to pay into federal government coffers and that because she was unable to pay immediately, a detention notice was given to her showing that the items will remain with the Nigerian Customs Service until she pays and brings evidence of payment before they will be released to her.
But the statement by the Customs raised some questions. First, who determines what it referred to as what ‘discretion would allow?’ This so-called discretion simply puts travellers at the mercy of these officers, who can be overzealous in the discharge of their duty.

There were two other faulty points Attah made in his reaction. While he was expressing displeasure at her decision to vent her anger on the social media, thereby putting the Service in bad light before Nigerians, he also alluded to the fact that the punishment meted out to the woman was discretional. He said she should have taken her complaint to a superior officer on duty as if the decision reached by the officers in charge could be reversed by their bosses.
Again, the NSC spokesperson also acknowledged that Nigerians are complaining about the N50, 000 ceiling placed on luxury goods allowable into the country.

“Instead of paying the assessed duty and pick up her items or request to see any superior officer should she have any reservation on the assessed value, she took to irresponsible use of the social media, drawing all sorts of conjectures, gender (even when the officer, Ms. Essien, who attended to her is a lady), tribe, etc. and even inciting the public against the Service.

“For the avoidance of doubt, we are aware that many Nigerians complain about the allowable amount of N50, 000.00, but until the law is changed, the Nigerian Customs Service will continue to enforce the extant law that says personal effects shall not exceed the value of N50, 000.00. Anything more than the approved value is considered Merchandise in Baggage and therefore liable for duty payment”, Attah reiterated.

That appears dutiful and good by every standard, but the Customs must not act as though it is oblivious of the nefarious activities of its men at the border posts too. The fact that they allegedly demand gratifications at both local and international airports should not be taken lightly.

The takeaway from this is that the Nigerian lawmakers in both chambers of the National Assembly should conduct a public hearing on Customs with the hope to identifying obsolete laws and replacing them with laws that would protect Nigeria’s integrity and allow international best practices at the country’s borders.