Comptroller-General of Customs, Col. Hamid Ali (retd)
…House insists on public hearing, orders probe of CISS
By Eguono Odjegba
Barely two months after opening up the operations of the Nigeria Customs Service to the military and other para military agencies, there are strong indications that President Muhammadu Buhari has ordered the concession of Customs critical operations under the Presidential Initiative on Customs Modernization E-Customs Project, Establishment of a Digital/Paperless Customs Administration.
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Investigation by Sunday Vanguard shows the Presidency’s wish to have the deal concluded by the end of this month.
The development came as the House of Representatives voted to put on hold the concession until a public hearing is done.
The House has, however, sought to probe the matter while mandating the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, to account for the funds that accrued from the one percent Comprehensive Import Supervision Scheme, CISS, collected by the NCS on behalf of government and believed to have run into billions of naira since 2012.
It was learnt that four companies, namely Bionica Technologies West Africa Ltd, lead sponsor, Bergman Security Consultant & Supplies Ltd, co-sponsor, Africa Finance Corporation, lead financier, and Huawei, lead technical service provider, have emerged as beneficiaries of the concession.
But some stakeholders claimed that the process was neither advertised for public tender nor publicly bided for.
The House of Reps is, therefore, insisted that there must be a public bid and selection process to guarantee international best practices.
The development has apparently drawn mixed reactions from stakeholders.
While some argue that the companies allegedly selected may not have the requisite project management experience to handle huge and sensitive projects like operating critical components of the NCS operations, others said the project merely seeks to duplicate existing and functional Customs IT infrastructure and manpower capacities.
Some stakeholders even suggest that the elements proposed are already in place and functioning, having been concluded since 2012 with continuous capacity upgrade currently being exported to some countries through the recommendation of the World Customs Organisation, WCO.
Meanwhile, some stakeholders gave thumbs up for government for initiating the project provided the process is kept open to allow for inputs.
In a letter to the Minister of Finance, Budget & Planning by President Muhammadu Buhari, titled, ‘Re: Presidential Initiative On Customs Modernisation: E-Customs Project (Establishment Of A Digital/Paperless Customs Administration) And Other Matters’, according to sources, the President had listed Bionica Technologies West Africa Ltd (lead sponsor), Bergman Security Consultant & Supplies Ltd (co-sponsor), Africa Finance Corporation (lead financier) and Huawei (lead technical service provider) as beneficiaries of the concession.
The letter, dated September 17, 2019, it was learnt, directed the Minister of Finance and her Justice counterpart to finalize the Concession Agreement between ICRC, NCS and the SPV not later than October 31, 2019; while further directing the Minister of Finance to provide monthly project implementation updates and advise on an appropriate date to flag-off the proposed Customs Modernisation project, not later than November 30, 2019.
But a letter by the House of Reps Joint Committee on Finance, Customs & Public Petition to the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, dated October 30, 2019 under the title, ‘Suspension Of Proposed Concession Arrangement For Customs Modernisation Project’, asked the nation’s chief law officer to stay action on the proposal while the House concludes its investigations.
The letter, signed by the Chairman, Customs, Hon. Yuguda Hassan Kila, and Chairman Finance, Hon. James Abiodun Faleke, reads in part: “The House of Representatives, on Thursday, 10th October, 2019, at plenary, passed Resolution number HR 132/10/2019 mandating a Joint Committee on Finance, Customs and Public Petitions to investigate the ‘Proposed Concession Arrangement Between The Consortium (Bionica Technologies West Africa Ltd (Lead Sponsor), Bergman Security Consultant & Supplies Ltd (Co-Sponsor), Africa Finance Corporation (Lead Financier) And Huawei (Lead Technical Service Provider) To Establish A Project Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) To Enter A 20-Year Concession Arrangement With NCS And ICRC For The Customs Modernisation Project (Establishment Of Digital/Paperless Customs Administration), and Directed The Ministers Of Justice And Of Finance & Budget To Finalize The Concession Agreement For The Customs Modernisation Project.
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“Pursuant to Section 88 (1) and (a) and (b) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) which confers on the National Assembly power to conduct investigations, the Joint Committee urges the different parties involved to maintain the status-quo-ante pending the outcome of the investigation”.
The House of Representatives decision followed a motion moved by Hon. Jerry Alagbaoso, informing the House of the move to concession Customs to what he described as foreign interests.
The House motion also asked for the report of the CBN on how the funds that accrued to CISS was spent.
Alagbaoso, who is also the Chairman of the House Committee on Public Petitions, had said, “There are some foreign companies who are very eager to sponsor, finance and provide technical services to what they call the Modernisation of Customs without recourse to the National Assembly”.
He argued that the NCS had attained World Customs modernization standards, beginning since 1990s when the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, UNCTAD, started the installation of ASYCUDA++ and training of Customs officers.
According to him, the modernization process continued when the Federal Government engaged former pre-shipment companies, namely Cotecna, SGS and Globalscan, to further train Customs personnel on valuation and classification of goods with Webb Fontaine providing Customs modernization infrastructure base.
The lawmaker, representing Orlu Senatorial Zone, Imo State, said he was convinced that the Federal Government was being misled, noting that the NCS had all it takes to continue to efficiently and professionally deliver on its mandate.
Alagbaoso explained that there was nothing more those scrambling to run the Customs will add.
He said, “By 2011, one could say the positive effects of this included competent and committed workforce for Nigeria Customs Service, personnel understanding of the new processes and benefits to stakeholders.
“For example, all other government agencies like NAFDAC, SON and the rest have dissolved into a single platform with the Nigeria Customs Service.”
He proposed an inquiry into the report of the state of the CISS fund, being the outcome of a motion, for CBN to account for this money by the 8th Assembly where the House resolved to mandate the Committee on Finance, Customs, Public Petitions to expose the foreign and local agencies involved in this project either as sponsors, co sponsors and financiers.
Reacting, immediate past President of the National Association of Govt. Approved Freight Forwarders, NAGAFF, Chief Eugene Nweke, said the current government inherited a functional and properly integrated Customs Service running with up to date IT infrastructure with adequate and competent manpower professionals.
“I have written to President Muhammadu Buhari on this matter. Dikko (immediate past Customs Comptroller General) left a Customs Service that was upwardly mobile and about the foremost Customs Service globally, with the most advanced and up-to-date modern information technology.
“Have you forgotten that the World Customs Organisation, WCO, gave the NCS an award for having the most developed IT capacities and professional manpower?”, he asked rhetorically
Also reacting, a retired Comptroller of Customs, Mr. Anslem Nwadike, said although he had not seen the details of the proposed modernization, he did not see any value it would add to the system.
He said, “If it is modernization issues, why the secrecy? Making it secret tells you that such effort has no value to add to the system. I feel like I should weep for this country”.
However, Dr. Oluwasegun Musa, a Lagos based transport planner, security expert and maritime player, supported the planned concession but urged government to make the process open and allow for informed inputs.
“I have been promoting the privatisation of the Nigeria Customs Service for a long time through various engagements. We cannot grow and develop our economy as a country with the way the Customs is being run”, he said.
“So, basically, I support the ongoing modernization; that should be the first phase.
It should be followed by privatisation of the revenue and information components of the service.
“Nobody is supervising the Customs Service, the services are outdated and corrupt; it should be modernized. Then Customs can retain its enforcement and security operations.
“But government should ensure that the process is transparent and allow stakeholders to make informed inputs”.
The Customs Service has, for many years, survived moves to unbundle and dismember it. It will be recalled that in 2011, there was a concession move between the Federal Ministry of Finance and Single Window System and Technologies, a local company, which was stopped by the 7th House of Representatives vide the House votes of Wednesday, July 13, 2011.
In 2017, another move to concession Customs to Adani Systems Nigeria Limited and spearheaded by the Technical Committee on the Comprehensive Import Supervision Scheme, was also thwarted.
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There is already a national single window platform in the Nigeria Customs Service and officers of the Service, according to analysts, are performing beyond expectations.
Stakeholders are in agreement that, since 2012 when the pre-shipment inspection agents which provided the various Customs modernization training and processes including scanning handed over to the Customs Service, operations have been efficient resulting in improved revenue collection and trade facilitation.
Last year, the Customs’ revenue hit over N1trillion.
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