16 December 2012

Nigeria: New Customs Bill Raises Dust

A new bill which seeks to accord the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) power of autonomy is being opposed by ports industry stakeholders who argue that such powers would not be in the best interest of the country. The stakeholders also argue that such autonomy does not exist anywhere in the world, including America and should not be granted by the National Assembly, reports Francis Ugwoke

The new bill on Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) now before the Senate which seeks over-riding powers for the Service is generating ripples among stakeholders in the ports. Even as the Service insists that there is no hidden agenda in the Bill, industry stakeholders say if passed into law, it will make the Customs the most powerful government agency in the country. The fear of industry stakeholders, including importers and customs agents is that such powers could be used negatively. They pointed to the duty benchmark which was introduced by the Service early this year, adding that it took presidential and legislative orders to force customs leadership to withdraw the illegal policy. The stakeholders argued that granting Customs such powers would be to the detriment of the country. Those who spoke to THISDAY said both the President and the Minister of Finance will directly or indirectly lose control of the Customs if the Bill is passed into law. They argued that the law will be like the CBN Act in which the apex bank enjoys autonomy and nearly unanswerable to anybody.

Contending Issues in the Bill

The Customs Bill was passed by the House of Representatives in June last year. But what was passed by the House, sources said, is different from what is now before the Senate. The provisions being contested by the interested stakeholders include a clear case of autonomy being canvassed in the Bill for Customs. It is being alleged that the new Bill has removed the powers of the Board members. The Manufacturers Association of Nigeria , Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON) and National Agency for Food, and Drug Administration Control (NAFDAC) are also casualties of the new Bill. In what is seen as a direct onslaught against these agencies, Section 41 of the Bill seeks to establish laboratories in what is a clear erosion of the statutory functions of both NAFDAC and SON. It is also bad news for freight forwarders who are referred to as merely representatives of the Customs in the Bill. The Bill is said to have also removed the powers of the President on the Customs leaving him only with what is described by experts as "powers to prohibit coastline carriage of goods", a term which maritime experts say is ambiguous. Similarly, the Bill places the power to declare 'Free Trade Zone" under the Comptroller-General of Customs instead of the President and the Ministers. Under the present dispensation, the Minister of Finance as the Chairman of the Board of Customs controls the Customs. But the new Bill before the Senate is said to have changed this in what appears a clear autonomy for the Customs.

What Stakeholders Say

Following the moves by the Customs to have the Bill passed, the President of National Council for the Managing Directors of Customs Agents (NCMDCA), who is an expert on maritime issues, Mr Lucky Amiwero, said that there is more to it than Customs is asking for. Amiwero maintained that there is nowhere in the world, including America where the Customs is autonomous. Arguing that the Customs has remained implementing agency all over the world, he maintained that Nigeria cannot be an exception.

Amiwero who spoke to THISDAY on phone argued "In over 70 countries, including America, there is nothing like Customs autonomy. In Ghana, you have the Commissioner-General, the Customs is under the Commissioner-general, who is under the Minister. In South Africa , it is the same. South Africa has a regulatory process where the Ministry regulates everything. In America, there is a restrictive application in terms of proclamation and implementation. In every job in America, the Treasury Secretary or the Homeland Secretary are incharge while the Customs implements. So if they are coming out with a new concept of autonomy, I don't know where we are driving that under international best practices. I have not seen a country where that is done."

He argued that there are economic issues which decision must be left for the President and the Ministry to have over-riding powers. Amiwero added, "for instance, banned items must be from the Presidency, the President must look at the situation, call various groups and say what do we do. It is not customs that will do that. Some of these things are critical. Where do you have such process in the world. You must say these things are working somewhere as example. Why are they creating a new approach to a system that is not working anywhere in the world. Are we going to manufacture something new that is not relevant to our society. We are import dominated economy and export drive in what government is trying to do on non-oil export. But when you say you want customs autonomy, it means you want them to be incharge of import and export manufacturing and it is not done anywhere in the world. I want you to check every other customs all over the world".

What Customs Should Seek in New Bill

Amiwero said that the Customs Service should aim at having a Bill that promotes trade and make things better for Nigerians. He said that Customs for instance should concentrate on changing the old provisions in the Customs Act that are impediments to trade. "That is what is done in America. All the old laws are being amended to reflect present realities and to be in line with international trade concept", he said.

Amiwero who said he has written to the President, the National Assembly and the Ministry of Finance to oppose the moves by the Customs, advised the Senate Committee on Customs to consider the implication of granting autonomy to the Customs to the country, adding that the idea is selfish rather than serving national interest. "There is nowhere in the world where you remove the power of the President and the Minister from controlling the customs. The presidential power is to proclaim import and export. These areas are critical . Some Presidents delegate such powers to the Minister. In America, the President takes a position and it is final. If you remove that power from the President, there is a lot of implication. That means the President has no power to ban or unban anything". He added that the other issue is that the Customs cannot go to the Federal Executive Council to argue on certain trade matters, adding that this remains the Minister's work.

Similarly, a maritime lawyer, Mr Kasarachi Opara maintains that the biggest mistake the National Assembly will make is to grant Customs autonomy in the new Bill, adding that this has a lot of implication. He argued that this means leaving Nigerian trading public and indeed Nigerians as a whole at the mercy of customsmen. He said, " the present customs is not ripe for such system. There is so much corruption in customs, and according them outright autonomy without strict supervision will worsen the situation. If you know what happens at the ports, you will understand what I am saying. "

He accused the Customs of being high-handed in their approach to generate revenue for the government. He accused the Customs of devising many ways of over-tasking importers who have goods to clear at the ports.

Customs Defence:

The Public Relations Officer of Customs, Mr Joseph Attah was full of defence of the Customs Bill now before the Senate. Attah who spoke to THISDAY on phone maintained that the Service has no hidden agenda as far as the new Bill is concerned. He said that the provisions of the new Bill are being misinterpreted by some people to sooth their opposition. He maintained that what people think is different from what the Bill seeks to achieve. He argued that those who think the Customs is seeking autonomy are not asking questions as to who appoints the Comptroller-General. Attah equally argued that members of the legislature are experienced enough to deal with the matter diligently.

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