By Uche Nnadozie
When the Nigeria Customs Service late last year announced as part of measures geared towards preventing revenue loss through land border shipments of vehicles especially, I was elated and supported same. Part of the new initiative was the lid placed on land importation of vehicles. Another which was jointly championed by the ministry of finance and Customs is the Vehicle Identification Number, VIN. The long and short of the VIN idea was to have all vehicles entering Nigeria to possess that number as a prerequisite to getting formally registered with the relevant authorities. Thus, meant that with the VIN, we have a central data base as a country for all vehicles. Then also, Customs can be sure to have collected all relevant duties on every vehicle in Nigeria. Consequently VIN is to serve as a security cum revenue maximization masterstroke.
At the time, I understood this to mean that the scheme was to begin with new imports. That is cars yet to be registered so that we can draw a marker and make progress thence. Surely Customs have a problem or two manning our borders. Not necessarily because of a thousand and one unaccounted entry points but the pervasive corruption bedeviling the system. Truth is told, probably, more than 80 percent of the smuggled vehicles through land borders into Nigeria pass through Customs officially recognised posts. They collect bribe and allow the vehicles to pass “officially”. It’s a cartel. The police, Federal Road Safety Commission, FRSC, Immigration and sometimes the nation’s Armed Forces are in cahoots with Customs to pervert the law.
Also, I had thought that even if old or already registered vehicles were to be involved in the new scheme then Customs had to engineer an elaborate mechanism to accommodate this category of vehicle owners. For example, although it feels better to draw a marker, however, for older vehicles to be considered then longer period of time should be given to enable seamless integration. For example, there is no need to railroad every car owner to first go and validate their customs papers. If in the process it is confirmed that the car’s customs papers are fake or undervalued then, owners will proceed to pay Customs duty at that point. That is cruel because if Customs accept their own failure by issuing fake Custom papers, why Nigerians should be made to pay for the Service’s incompetence and connivance to dupe the government is shocking.
Col. Hameed Ali wants Nigerians to visit about five or so federal operations office to authenticate their papers or pay the accruing duty within a month or face prosecution and seizure of your vehicle. Customs themselves concede that about 70 per cent of vehicles in Nigeria did not pay appropriate duties or were simply smuggled. In Lagos for example, Customs want citizens to head to their office in Yaba to authenticate or pay for duties. That same office will cater for most of the South West. How is that going to work? And to think about the kind of sleaze that will follow this exercise is mindboggling. Customs officers will become lords and masters. They will collect bribe. They will still issue dud custom papers. The logistical nightmare alone is deafening.
How possible is it for car owners in Lagos and Ogun states to troop into Yaba to validate their customs papers. At some time, people will be asked to come along with their cars. Who will manage the traffic? Who will attend to people? How many are they? I would have thought that should government insist on older vehicles getting authenticated, it should be done with some decorum without necessarily undermining national peace. I had thought that Customs should post their officials to every vehicle particulars registration point. As people come to renew their papers, customs will check details of the papers to ascertain payment of duty. If proven not to have paid, the citizen will now be issued with bill to pay. If you don’t pay you can’t renew your vehicles particulars. This will stem panic, restore confidence in the government and solve same problem albeit gradually. While at the same time, new registration must come with the VIN, otherwise no registration is possible.
Furthermore, when this kind of problem presents itself, an agency like NCS must offer incentives. Incentives for this kind of scheme humanise the project, especially for those who through no fault of theirs got illegal papers. Something like asking people to pay 50 per cent of what the duty should have been will spur citizens to embrace the new scheme. If you do this, plus the easy way to validate or pay as espoused above; then citizens will buy into the project without much squabble. As it stands, this new policy will not work as it has been patterned. There will be skirmishes and there will be court cases. This is authoritarian to its extreme for Customs to want us to validate within a month, in one place or face prosecution. That is not the language to be used in an economy in recession. An economy struggling to breathe and a people already flabbergasted.
Customs must rescind their unworkable decision. They can begin the scheme with new imports while fine turning how to get registered vehicles to comply. That could take years and they have to accept that as reality. In the meantime, I call on the National Assembly and the Acting President to intervene and stop Ali and the Customs from this madness of a policy or at least humanise it. Government cannot afford any crisis at this time. You can imagine asking buses, including Lagos Danfos or NUPENG’s tanker drivers to go and validate their custom papers. There will be bedlam. It is better to avoid this. Folks who thought this up should wear their thinking cap once more; there is work still to be done.