Sunday, 31 January 2016

COLONEL HAMEED ALI’S FIGHT TO RID THE NIGERIA CUSTOMS OF CORRUPTION

The recent directive by the Comptroller-General (CG) of Customs, Colonel Hameed Ali, to all officers and men of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) to declare their assets within 14 days may have jolted some officers but it is not new. We are in the era of asset declaration as part of the fight against corruption. Men and officers of the Customs had been asked in the past to declare their assets in at least two occasions.
                                
The first was under A. A. Mustapha, who became the Customs Controller-General in 1999, while the second was around 2001/2002 under Magoro, who served as Sole Administrator of Customs. Therefore, there is nothing unusual if Customs officers and men were now required to declare their assets. The only difference is in the on-going anti-corruption war, which the Buhari administration is waging. That has raised the apprehension over what ordinarily is routine. People are afraid that anyone implicated to have corruptly enriched him or herself, will be in hot soup.

That explains why the Customs officers are running helter-skelter to meet the deadline. Ordinarily, assets declaration is required of every senior civil servant. But those who have skeletons in their cupboard have cause to be afraid. For instance, there are reports that some 4000 officers are to face demotion as a result of irregular self-promotion. As it were, only a retired military officer, who has no link with the Customs establishment, could deal with such irregularity.
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Reports say a circular, signed by the Comptroller-General and addressed to all deputy comptrollers-general, zonal coordinators and customs area controllers was in compliance with “the Bank Employees Declaration of Asset Act Cap B1 Laws of Nigeria, 2004.

Section 12 (1) specifically provides that the act shall apply to the comptroller-general, his deputy, assistant, chief collector, principal collector and other officers, staff or employee of the Nigeria Customs Service. The CG observed that many officers had not complied with the provisions of the act over the years.

Ali had earlier booted out some 35 top officers in one fell swoop, which did not come to Nigerians as a surprise. The NCS is known to be enmeshed in corruption involving some of its officers of all ranks. That perception has stuck in the psyche of Nigerians, who see Customs personnel as officers who are there to make money for themselves. The sanitisation should not be one of event but a continuous process to rid the service of bad eggs.

The unprecedented purge came soon after Col. Hameed Ali, a retired military officer, was appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari. The former Customs boss, Abdullahi Dikko, had stepped down after his tenure was not extended.

Ali, who seemingly has a strong anti-corruption disposition, was appointed to head the service. The purge could not have been possible if the Comptroller-General was from the ranks of the Customs. A Customs head would have papered over the issues to avoid stepping on toes.

Spokesman of the service, Wale Adeniyi, said the affected officers included five deputy comptrollers-general; three assistant comptrollers-general and several comptrollers serving in NCS headquarters, zonal offices and various area commands. The sack of all senior officers of a particular rank at the same time is unprecedented in the service.

Since assuming office, Col. Ali has been visiting different formations of the NCS. He has reportedly paid visit to the NCS formations in Lagos and its environs. While addressing men and officers of NCS in Sokoto/Zamfara/Kebbi Area Command, he warned that any customs officer caught involved in any corrupt practice risked 10 years in jail. He gave the same warning in Lagos.

According to Ali, the minimum jail term for corrupt officers is five years but he said he would make sure that any officer found to be corrupt gets the maximum jail term of 10 years to serve as deterrent to officers who believe they are in Customs to make money and not to earn money. He, however, acknowledged that there are good, incorruptible officers in the service, but a few bad eggs, who are giving the service bad name. He cautioned the officers to be disciplined and not to live above their means.

While advising the men and officers of NCS to make integrity, honesty and transparency their watchwords, he said, “Our work ethics must change to be in tune with the change mantra as championed by President Muhammadu Buhari; you should do this to minimize the chances of getting into trouble, except those who are criminally minded.”

Ali promised to fulfill the mission given to him by President Buhari. He said his mandate is to reform the service, raise revenue and improve welfare of the personnel. He warned against unnecessary delays of documents except in cases where fault were found in wrong declaration.

It is heartening that, probably, for the first time, someone has taken a bold step to sanitise the Customs that is widely regarded as corrupt. Col. Ali knows that corruption is a major problem in the NCS. His aim, obviously, should be to cleanse the house.

All the problems associated with clearing of goods are systemic. For instance, it is inconceivable that elsewhere goods are cleared within 48 hours. The Cotonou Port next door targets 24 hours. But in Nigeria, it takes weeks to clear cargo. This has denied Nigeria huge revenue as many importers divert their goods to Cotonou, where they pay less for quick turnaround.

Sometimes, the delays are deliberate, designed to extort money from importers. Several attempts have been made in the past to reduce the turnaround time in Nigerian ports to no avail. Col. Ali has the onerous duty to fast-track the process of cargo clearance. Even where there is false declaration, there should be laid down procedures for handling it promptly.

Delaying cargo at the ports causes congestion, which has worsened in recent times.
As it were, Ali’s style of administration may have confounded many in the service. It is advisable that the CG should not be too vocal but do the job silently. Action they say speaks louder than words. There is no doubt that a reformed Customs Service would boost revenue from that sector and burnish Nigeria’s image. (Source: Guardian)