IWA: What is your assessment of your command’s first-quarter performance in 2021 since you started the year with it
as the Area Controller?
Comptroller Mohammed: I don’t like assessing myself or blowing my trumpet but I like it when the outcome of my actions speaks for me. If I tell you I have done very little or so much, it should be based on the results on the ground. On this note, I will want us to look at the results from different angles. On revenue generation, we have been able to collect N38,877,314,286.12 (millions). Comparatively, the figure for January to March 2021 is 69.4 percent higher than the N22,950,780,163.43 collected during the same period in 2020.
Like I said earlier, I prefer looking at outcomes, not just seeking to dwell on achievements. By my training, orientation, and as a matter of imbibed character, I like to improve on any achievements I meet on the ground. During my maiden interaction with the media, when I took over, I said I inherited a very organized command. This, therefore, places the need for deeper planning and proper re-organization, not just to sustain what one met on the ground but to improve on it. This improvement was deliberately pursued on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis because I kept my eyes on the goal of going higher in revenue collection, trade facilitation, suppression of smuggling, and maximizing benefits inherent in robust stakeholders’ engagement.
A breakdown of the 2021 monthly collections shows so far that N12,123,024,011.82 for January; N12,760,546,062.07 for
February and N13,984,744,212.23 for March . All three monthly collections for this year have so far surpassed those of the
first three months of 2020 with remarkable differences. Collections made in the first three months of last year were slightly
above N7 billion monthly for January, February, and March 2020.
By the directive of the Comptroller General of Customs, Col. Hameed Ali (retired), I read the Riot Act upon assumption of office that there will always be zero tolerance for smuggling and duty evasion. I had warned that the full weight of the law will be visited on perpetrators of such infractions through seizures and possible arrests of persons suspected to have committed such acts.
On anti-smuggling, within the first quarter, we recorded a total of 12 seizure with a cumulative duty paid value of N4,120,882,608.03. The seizures comprise 2 units of Used Mitsubishi buses; 210 bales of second-hand clothing; 1,435 pcs of used tires; used engine gearbox and auto spare parts;310 pallets of laser ketchup and 20 bales of fabrics.
A month-by-month breakdown of the seizures indicates that four seizures were made in January which includes 3 containers
and 2 suspects with duty paid value of N85,987,936.05. In February, the command made 3 seizures involving 4 containers
with total duty paid value of N45,527,836.00 while in March 2021 it made 5 seizures involving 7 containers with a duty paid value of N3,989,366,808.89.
Let me take you through some of our seizures for you to see the desperate moves by smugglers and how we are curbing their criminal acts through diligent physical examination. I have always emphasized due process and full adherence to the rule of law without compromise in favor of anyone.
We have a container that was declared to be carrying used flanges but on physical examination, what we found was beyond used flanges. The used flanges were only used to conceal cartons of retail vegetable oil.
The importation of vegetable oil is prohibited in this country. It is clearly stated in Article 4 of the import prohibition list that vegetable oil in kegs or retail packs is not allowed. It is only in bulk and must be through a certified importer who has been approved.
There are also soaps, along with vegetable oil. You can just imagine that vegetable oil is edible while the soap is not, but because of their nefarious nature and to deceive the customs and other agencies from properly doing their jobs, they have declared flanges. What we can see in the container are vegetable oil, cartons of Eva soap, and bags of rice.
Restating the command’s commitment to physical examination, the Comptroller said:“We will not relent on our effort to carry out a hundred percent physical examination. And if they move a step, we will move four steps ahead of them. I am advising citizens and every intending importer of prohibited items to stay away from Area II Command, Onne.
We will not allow any container to leave this port without proper examination. Ignorance of the law is not an excuse. And no matter the status of an individual, once you contravene the relevant laws governing the importation of goods into this country, the arms of the law will always catch up with that person and the appropriate sanction will be taken.
There is another 1 by 20 feet container declared to us as used auto spare parts. The Nigerian customs made the procedure of clearing imports very simple. That is why we said with relevant documents and proper declaration; an importer can finish and take delivery of his container within 48 hours but you have to declare what you have in your cargo before the arrival.
This man is carrying soap even though he knows such importation is not allowed into the country. So what he did was to make a false declaration that it was used auto spare parts.
He has forgotten that his container would still be subjected to physical examination. During the examination, not one single auto spare part was found inside the container. Article 16 of the Import Prohibition List clearly states that no soap or detergent should be imported into Nigeria.
All these government policies are made to sustain and encourage our local industries and manufacturers so
that they can be produced locally. This can be gotten within the country. Why do we not patronize our soap and detergent instead of insisting on boosting the economy of other countries?
This container has equally been seized and is still under investigation. By the time the investigation is concluded, the agent and importer will be charged to a competent court of law where appropriate action and sanction will be taken against them, no matter the status of an individual.
And no cargo is exempted from physical examination unless they are diplomatic cargoes or they belong to the President and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Therefore, any citizen or foreigner that intends to import anything into Nigeria, know that the Nigeria Customs Service officers and men are waiting for you.
As I have always said, ignorance of the law is not an excuse. Every intended importer or exporter in this country must ask questions from any customs command before setting out.
Certain items are prohibited from entering into Nigeria, some are dutiable and even the dutiable items are further classified into different rates of duty. Some pay 30% ,20%, some 10% and some pay 5%.
The issue here is that every intending importer must acquaint himself with the import prohibition list which is divided into
two — We have trade and absolute prohibition.
Items prohibited from entering Nigeria should not by any way be disguised as another and imported into the country. Though
some of our unpatriotic citizens think they are smart by concealing these items through false declarations and covering them with other items to claim that it is not what they are carrying.
As you can see from my background here, this container was declared to us as used spare parts, and usually when you
make your declaration you are allowed to go and pay a duty of what is declared and then you come for physical examination.
On physical examination, we only found a motor vehicle fan. The whole container is filled with 50kg bags of rice which was concealed by the fans. So you can see this is a smart way of deceiving customs and other security agencies in bringing in prohibited items into the country.
The container has been seized. It is under investigation and we will get to the importer through his agent, and the appropriate action and sanction will be taken against that importer in a competent court of law. Also along with the rice are used tires.
Article 18 of the import prohibition list clearly states that the importation of used pneumatic tires is prohibited into the country.
The annoying thing is that when you find 100 pieces of tires in a container, each tire is pregnant with about four or more
tires stuffed inside. That is to say that each tire is carrying four to five other units of tires squeezed into it. If you count 100
unit of tires, by the time you do proper physical counting you will end up with 400 units or more.
Most of the used tires are expired tires. Many vehicles and the weather we have in this country cannot take these used tires. That is why many times a passenger or private vehicle tires will just burst during motion and God forbid if it is at a high speed,
we know what can happen; like the vehicle somersaulting which could lead to injuries or even death.
So the importation of used tires is equally prohibited. Those who are hell-bent on deceiving security agencies and breaking the law will always conceal it under the guise of another name.
Many containers have been tracked down and seized as a result of intelligence and proper examination and we will continue to do it. It will not stop at just losing cargo or consignment, that particular importer and agent will be prosecuted
Only diplomatic cargoes are exempted from a physical examination. So no container comes in and out of Onne Port without undergoing 100% physical examination. We have been doing it and we will only continue to intensify our efforts in doing it. This is just one of what we have been able to achieve during the first quarter of the year. We can move round to see others seized containers as a result of the importation of prohibited items.
For export, our command processed 207,749.614 metric tonnes of cargoes with a free on board value of $70,838,025.68 comprising cashew nuts, ginger, hibiscus flower, sesame seeds, zircon sand, palm kernel, tiger nuts, and many more.
The tempo of the actions will be sustained and improved upon as the year progresses because there are constant reminders and checks on my officers to bring out the best in them for maximum results in the national interest.
I must also commend them because whatever you see this command achieve, is a fallout of teamwork. I am only the head of the team giving direction and leading the way. I am not doing it alone. We achieved this together and will keep doing more.
IWA: Can you tell us the strategies deployed in achieving these results?
Comptroller: Upon resumption in August 2020, I applied what I call the three Ls principle- Look, Learn and Listen. This helped me to understand my work and operational environment better.
I also deployed the team spirit strategy where everyone sees themselves as part of a whole with constant reminders that we all must play our parts for the overall success of the team.
Using the analogy of a football team, every player is reminded of the sensitivity of their roles towards our common goal and keeping their eyes and senses on the ball throughout the play. We play vigorously to win.
Another thing we do here is effective communication. During meetings with senior officers, they are always charged to keep up their supervisory roles while we share information and review strategies.
I allow for two-way communication. They hear from me and I hear from them. One cannot overemphasize the importance of feedback. It has helped us a great deal in analyzing and reviewing our strategies.
I not only convince them into my vision and mission. In many cases, we conceptualize together from scratch and this makes implementation easier and more effective.
We also do what we call, a monthly parade where I address all the personnel. I let them know that our call for compliance starts with us, I am happy to inform you that my officers are compliant with rules and they have joined me in setting the highest example of zero compromises.
While we communicate amongst ourselves as a team of customs officers, I keep up to speed with port users who have dealings with customs. I met and have improved on seamless channels of communication with terminal operators, importers, exporters, licensed customs agents, freight forwarders, and sister government agencies.
They are part of our operations and therefore have a place in our success or failure. The entire port is like the human body with different organs. Every organ has roles it plays for overall wellbeing. This is exactly how everyone is in our operations.
If the proper examination is not done smuggling could happen, if valuation officers fail or compromise, revenue may be lost. No one is unimportant in our entire chain of duties. We are doing well but I believe there are rooms for improvement in revenue collection, anti-smuggling, trade facilitation, and robust stakeholders’ engagements.
Every likely or identified area of government revenue leakages should be blocked for us to sustain the tempo of maximum collections. We owe Nigeria a duty to make smuggling of prohibited items impossible through this command. Our ability to detect attempts at duty evasion and issuing demand notices to collect complete revenue from importers and their agents will be improved upon relying on technology and hands-on experience.
Duty evaders should steer clear from this area command as they are likely to be arrested with their wares seized by the extant provision of the Customs and Excise Management Act (CEMA). While we await the deployment of scanners to aid our job, the due diligence employed in physical examinations to achieve outstanding results will be sustained and improved upon.
I hereby urge importers, exporters, licensed customs agents, and freight forwarders interfacing with customs in Onne Port to see compliance as a key to unlock the many benefits derivable from their trade, investments, and professions
IWA: Let’s look deeply at trade facilitation. How is it like in your command?
Comptroller: As a matter of personal principle, which I have also passed down the line, delaying any transaction is delaying trade and government income.
We try to ensure that documents are treated with good speed without compromising government revenue and national security.
We are ready at all times to deliver speedily but when a transaction or declaration is not flawless, we must do due diligence to extract what I call hidden revenue in entries made.
We don’t allow anyone to stampede us on the altar of trade facilitation and speedy clearance when declarations made are not accurate or truthful in the first place. We have used demand notices to recover shortfalls in revenue and our advice to Importers and agents is that they should be compliant and sincere in their declarations to enjoy the benefits of trade facilitation.
People who comply have reasons to be happy with themselves because it saves their time and money. Compliant importers andagents make more profits. Those who try not to comply waste time, get DN and pay penalties in some cases.
IWA: What are the implications for compromise on the part of customs officers and port users?
Comptroller: They are far-reaching if allowed to fester. On our part as customs officers, we are tax collectors, security personnel, and trade facilitators rolled in one. At a time our government is looking at expanding non-oil sources of national revenue, customs is looked upon as a key player. Compromising means losing revenue and we don’t want it to happen.
We as security officers work to prevent the influx of harmful and dangerous goods into the country. Some of these things are on absolute prohibition lists like arms, ammunition, and drugs. We prevent such things from being smuggled in as a way of enhancing national security.
IWA: What is the place of modernization in your operations?
Comptroller: Thanks so much for this question. Let me start by telling you that we have officers who have undergone various levels of training on ICT/modernization. Our Customs Processing Centre is an all-hands-on-deck room where transactions are processed using modernization tools to achieve productive results on trade matters.
Profiling and maximal use of modern tools for trade in the customs zone is an ongoing process. Our officers are ready to key into the e-customs program which is an end-to-end process that fully automates all customs operations. Our command is not left behind in all of this.
IWA: Not much has been said about the community. What is your relationship with them?
Comptroller: Very commendable. These monarchs, chiefs, youth leaders, and entire members of our host community have been supportive and cooperating. They are part of community relations. We identify with them and show solidarity
whenever the need arises. The community radiates love and hospitality for all, I definitely must commend our host communities, they are part of our success story.
Area II, Onne, Rivers State.