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Buba, new Customs boss vows: We値l crush these men no matter where they hide

Posted by By Celestine Okafor Assistant Editor on 2004/08/01 | Views: 2606 |

Buba, new Customs boss vows: We値l crush these men no matter where they hide

THE appointment of Mr. Jacob Gyang Buba some four months ago as the Comptroller-General (CG) of Nigeria Custom Service (NCS) came with it some cheers and fears. The men and officers of the Service saw in him the coming of a man with whom you can always tell where you stand with. But for those with certain 壮keletons in their 祖upboards, there was genuine apprehension that with Buba, things were going to be done differently. He has lived up to both reputations.

THE appointment of Mr. Jacob Gyang Buba some four months ago as the Comptroller-General (CG) of Nigeria Custom Service (NCS) came with it some cheers and fears. The men and officers of the Service saw in him the coming of a man with whom you can always tell where you stand with. But for those with certain 壮keletons in their 祖upboards, there was genuine apprehension that with Buba, things were going to be done differently. He has lived up to both reputations.

Since taking over, there have been some radical decisions that shook the nation a great deal. Samplers? 75 officers suspended over their alleged shady deals in the release of seized goods at the Murtala Muhammed Airport; huge consignment of MTN recharge cards withheld, several seizures made, many factories sealed. Yet, he swears that he is determined to give whatever he has to win the war against corruption, just as he has promised not to blink until importers of items on the prohibition list are sanctioned, and smugglers dealt a mortal blow.

Getting this new CG of Customs to sit down for his first exhaustive interview since assuming duty was most tasking. Trying to get a chat in his office elicited some mischievous smiles from his aides who understand their boss daily schedules. It was no less stressful at his Abuja home. Thus, it was sigh of relief when the interview session that began close to midnight, Monday, July 26 ended in the early hours of the next day. In this first major newspaper interview since he took over, Buba was as forthright as he was outrightly assertive of what he intends to accomplish and how he will go about his job. He also explains why he has taken some crucial far-reaching decisions. Enjoy it.

How has the journey been since your appointment as the Comptroller-General of Nigeria Custom Service?

Honestly, it痴 been fulfilling as it痴 also been challenging. But thank God, we致e been trying to tinker the Service into our dream organisation. We致e recorded some modest achievements so far, but we are still determined to strive further in order to put things in the right perspective and move ahead.
What are these strange findings and/or realisations that have amazed you since you assumed duty in your new responsibility?

Actually, one has found out that officers and men of the Nigeria Customs Service have neglected their core responsibilities to the extent that we were losing grip of our work. We were not able to lead other stakeholders into conformity, into also playing their own roles to make for smooth operations in trade facilitation.

So, the big challenge now is to remind everybody and create more awareness of our primary duties and the procedures for handling all the issues and stick to them properly. The totality of it is that we want to take over our jobs and with all honestly discharge same with every sense of responsibility.

How has it been with the reforms that are intended to reposition the Service (NCS)?

Well, you池e aware of the fact that the reforms committee made various recommendations to Mr. President. And those recommendations that were approved for implementation, the committee was directed to implement. Since assuming office, I致e been working hand in hand with the committee and we致e been following all those approved recommendations to ensure that we put things into their proper positions.

Of recent, the committee decided to tour a number of Customs formations in order to come to terms with the realities on the ground, to talk to officers themselves about what the reforms are all about and see the true situation of things. These tours have made quite some revelations concerning things the committee was not aware of, particularly the welfare of members of the Service and the conditions under which they work. These have been truly revealing to members of the reform committee. On the whole, we致e been working very well with the committee and implementing those aspects as recommended.

What plans to you have to decongest the ports?

Frankly, there痴 no congestion except in Onne (Rivers State) which built over to Port Harcourt One port. But this arose from the fact that a lot of the importers assumed towards the end of last year that destination inspection was going to start in January. So, they did a lot of importation which did not go through the pre-shipment inspectors, and coupled with the fact that there were certain items that were placed under ban.

Therefore, there was some confusion but things are being straightened out.
About a fortnight ago, we visited both Onne and Port Harcourt One. The situation, I must say, is under control. Moreso, that the Nigeria Port Authority has provided more equipment to handle the movement of containers.

Even if you致e received some thumbs-up in your fight against corruption, what are your plans to ensure that you can still reduce corruption within considerably if it can稚 be eliminated completely?

No doubt, we want to go the whole hog. Like I said earlier, all aspects of our job that had hitherto been relegated to the background, all procedures that had been put aside, we値l now have to bring them back and ensure that the officers and men comply with the processes and all aspects of their job.

We are also talking with other stakeholders because we致e also said that no matter how much you reform the Customs, if the other stakeholders like the NPA, the shipping lines, the shipping agents, the clearing agents, the bankers and so on are now reformed also, then the results will not manifest positively. We池e sensitising and dialoguing with these other stakeholders to ensure that the response is total. But there are some aspects of these reforms that have to do with other stakeholders and government will have to step in.

I知 putting together, despite the discussions, what the Customs procedures amount to in the various ports and entry points that have to do with importations and exportations. I will make them available to these other stakeholders so that nobody claims ignorance of any part of our relationship with them, and our procedures to do with trade facilitation. By the time we池e through with this, we池e certain that we would have established a very good working relationship with every other agency or company so that the full facilitation of trade now takes place.

We致e also been discussing with Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN), to make sure that we acquaint them also of all the fiscal policies for compliance. We recognise that most members of the Manufacturers Association are into genuine production in their factories. We must also assist these productions run smoothly. In this regard, I致e directed that a special clearing line be dedicated to them so that as soon as their raw materials come in, we can release them based on payment of face value, then we could do a post-clearance audit. By the time we tidy up this agreement with the Manufacturers Association, these things will start running smoothly.

These are some of the things we are putting in place to ensure that we actually get back to the business of trade facilitation.
What is the fate of those 75 Customs officers who were recently suspended over their alleged involvement in the illegal release of some seized goods at the Murtala Mohammed Airport, Ikeja? And are we likely to see a repeat of such a knock?

Definitely, that will continue in earnest because after talking to the officers and making them aware of the mission and direction, after trying to make them come to terms with the aspirations of government in making them sensitive to the fact that our integrity is being questioned and we must live up to our responsibilities, if anybody thinks it is still business as usual, that person or such people will be in for a big and bitter surprise.

As for the officers we suspended, the investigations have been concluded. These officers have to come before the Service Disciplinary Committee. And like I said earlier, any of them that is found wanting will be sanctioned. These sanctions could mean termination of appointment or dismissal. If we have good reasons to do so, we will not shy away from it. We will also continue because we won稚 strike once and go to sleep. We池e going to certainly continue. So, officers are being called to live up to their responsibilities.

It is also known that some importers, especially in the textile sector, still go ahead to import some of the items on the prohibition list. Since you can稚 be at all the ports to monitor events therein, how do you ensure that some of these goods don稚 end up in the markets like we know they do till this moment?

You will appreciate that there has been this hue and cry about banning, banning, banning. But the intention of government is to make sure that the home industries are given an opportunity to grow.

We cannot now compete with these industrialised countries where they have been in this business for so many years that they have found the cheapest ways of production. We池e yet to get there, but if we just allow them to dump their goods and services on us, then we will never grow. Yes, the cost of production here is yet fairly high because our NEPA is still struggling to stand firmly, we池e still battling to make water available, as well as good roads and other things. All these have a bearing on the cost of production.

The economy of this country is the responsibility of everybody. Government has good intentions for banning some goods. Yet, some people don稚 appreciate that if we keep importing, you池e paying for labour of these other countries while we grapple with unemployment in our country. How do we address the question of unemployment if we don稚 begin to develop the economy and make sure that the private sector survives in order to do the employment?

Yes, smuggling and importation of these goods from abroad pay, but we池e not actually spreading wealth this way. Not even with the unemployment which also breeds insecurity. If these young men can find jobs, they won稚 be tempted to go into drugs, crime and other vices. So, we have to take a total look at the whole thing. Government meant well by banning those items on the prohibition list. The importers have to be wary of what they are into and not allow greed to blind them and determine the direction of flow.

It is a campaign that we have to carry out throughout the country. But if they dare us, we値l get them, no matter where they run to.
At the same time, the Customs Service has a duty anyway to enforce these fiscal policies of government. We are doing so within the limits of the resources and logistics available to us. We致e made several presentations to government. The Customs Reforms Committee has also appreciated the under-funding of Customs and has articulated that appropriately to the government.

The President has promised that something positive would come out of it. The signs are glaringly indicative that the President will soon make funds available for us to be able to contain this menace of smuggling. In a short while, we hope that Nigerians will see a difference in this fight against smuggling. We also want to be able to ensure that the new Nigeria Customs Service is friendlier to the public without overlooking or compromising any aspect of their duties.

What impact will this prohibition have on Customs expected revenue target and by implication revenue generation for the nation?
Honestly, when you come up with a policy, something else suffers. Yes, it will have a big impact because so many trade items are now on the prohibition list.

It痴 already affecting revenue generation. But if this affects revenue generation and we池e able to contain smuggling for the home industries to grow, then there are not much tears to waste. You will note that in these advanced countries, a lot of the Customs revenues come from excise duties. The more excise duties you collect is a mark of development because it means you have many industries and so many items are on the excise list.

That is a mark of development. We池e import dependent. So, a lot of our revenue come from import duty which is not a good sign of development, but lack of it. Therefore, the ban will affect duty, it is already affecting it but you find also that our seizure figures are on the increase. We hope it will translate into establishment of home industries and the expansion of the economy.

One undeniable fact is that we still have some imported items in our markets. How do you ensure that your officers and men are not tempted and are not compromised?

The message I send to these importers is very clear: they (importers) must know that anybody and everybody who is found guilty of contravention of any aspect of our laws faces the law squarely. I致e addressed my officers to the fact that I don稚 want a situation where we seize items and just abandon them like that without bringing the guilty persons to book. The importers, their agents are definitely going to face sanctions when we catch them. If we are sanctioning our own officers, we will stop at nothing to sanction anybody else.

What痴 the true position of the MTN recharge cards that Customs seized sometime ago?

Customs at no time seized MTN recharge cards. What we found out was that MTN was not paying duties. Because of the urgency of the need to develop the telecommunications industry, Customs extended this hand of friendship by allowing MTN in particular to carry their imports on a pre-release basis. It requires them to pay up their duties within two weeks of the release of their goods. But we now found out that they were abusing that privilege. They were in arrears of duty almost to the tune of about N3 billion. So, I had to order our men to stop granting them the pre-release privilege until they pay up the backlog of their duties. And I also said even if they pay up, we have no reason to grant them that privilege anyway because there is nothing perishable about their imports.

The granting of pre-release is for items that are perishable- vaccines, human remains and such things. There is nothing perishable about these their cards. The public should ask: why MTN alone? Econet (Vmobile) imports, Globacom does and they are not complaining. There are a lot of other telecommunication companies too and they are not complaining either. I had a meeting with MTN in my office.

This issue was addressed and I told them point blank: I am withdrawing that privilege. I expect them to pay up and if they don稚, we will not release their imports. That does not amount to seizure. Now, my relationship with MTN is: you bring in your goods, we assess their duty. Afterall, all their imports are subject to pre-shipment inspection. They already know what duty they are supposed to pay before the goods arrive. Pay up and take your goods! The faster you pay, the faster we release. We have no quarrel with MTN. The ball is in their court to comply with the import regulation. That痴 all.

Customs retirees are among those crying over the non-payment of their pensions and other entitlements. Why is this so? Why must we owe people who served the nation well?

There are various steps. In the first place, there are various documents that any officer who is retired has to submit to the establishment office, the Customs pensions office who will now process and send these files to the Customs/Immigration and Prisons pensions office in Gwagwalada (Abuja).

It is that pensions office that has the responsibility to pay the pensions. Before my appointment (as CG), I was representing Customs on the pensions board and I know the problems of the board. Funding is the problem. Otherwise, go and check anywhere, CIPPO (Customs, Immigration and Prisons Pensions Office) is the best pensions office in the country. I say this with pride. Of course, I know all the achievements they have made because we created zones and they have offices in these zones across the country. Every year, we do verification to ensure that pensioners are paid and that we池e paying those who are still alive. We receive complaints from the zones so that pensioners don稚 have to come to Gwagwalada to get their pensions. They collect them in the zones closest to them.

Now, towards the end of last year and as a result of the Custom reforms also, so many officers were retired. We had many discussions with the chairman of this pensions board and we gave him a list of the officers who had been retired even before their files were processed. I know that he has made various presentations to government for increased funding to contain this sudden surge of retirees and until these funds are made available, there is hardly anything they can do.

As you know, to pay gratuities and pensions requires a big chunk of money. So, we expect that the retirees must have submitted the required documents to the Customs pensions office and at various intervals, the Assistant Comptroller-General in charge of finance, admin and technical services visits this office to ensure that files are not unduly delayed. So far, most of these files for the officers who have submitted the required documents are with CIPPO. It is the responsibility of CIPPO to now pay. But I致e told you the problems that CIPPO is encountering too.

However, there are some other benefits that are paid within the Nigeria Customs Service. We have to pay retirees the repatriation allowance. All of those that applied had been paid. One peculiar thing is that you値l be surprised that officers who were retired in December, some that got retired in March and we池e now in July, a lot of them are just applying. Yet, they complain that their outstanding benefits have not been paid. We also have an insurance scheme and all of them who were retired would have sent their files to our underwriters, NICON through the insurance brokers. They are processing these and they have released funds for some of them and we paid them. Immediately we get the cheques, we pay.
There is the National Housing Fund also that is administered by the Federal Mortgage Bank.

We致e encountered so much delays particularly with the Housing Fund because they have not been forthcoming as we would have expected. They also confessed to the fact that we have met every requirement of theirs. We池e up-to-date with payment. Every record has been made available to them. We壇 held many meetings with them, even before my present appointment and we池e not in arrears of anything. I don稚 know what their procedures are, but it痴 been difficult to get the needed response. They just gave us a few cheques about two months ago. But we池e putting pressure on them

Frankly speaking, we hold our retirees in very high esteem because quite a great deal of them served the Service and the nation well. Therefore, they deserve the best treatment. But they also have to appreciate that we have to contain with NICON, we have to contain with the Federal Mortgage Bank, we have to contain with CIPPO. So, it is not anything within the Custom administration. It痴 no deliberate delay by us. It can稚 be.
It痴 not enough to order your men to be at their best. How do you lift their morale, especially knowing that the problem with Nigerians is not so much whether they know their jobs, but how well they are motivated?

Well, just after my appointment, I had several meetings with the presidential implementation committee on Customs reforms and I made a case that though so many officers had been retired, we also have a huge number of other officers who over the years received various awards and commendations for diligence, for probity, for hard work. And it痴 just congratulatory letters and award certificates given to them. So, why don稚 we boost their morale by uplifting them a rank higher? The committee accepted that and implemented it. Immediately after that, we致e just concluded the normal promotion tests and the promotions office is collating this. As soon as the results are out, we値l release them accordingly. These are the issues within our powers to do.

To boost the morale of officers further, we have to look at their welfare. We池e talking about the conditions of service. Customs should be measuring with other players in the economic circle like the NNPC, the banks and so on. But you find that our salaries are tied down to the normal civil service procedures or categorisation. It痴 not encouraging enough. We致e made a case for better remuneration, better conditions of service and better funding for the activities of the Service.

You see, you池e asking an officer to leave his house and go chase the smugglers all over the place. Even at the ports, you have to ensure that people are not evading duties. These are duties that expose an officer to a lot of corruption. We should not help create that corrupt environment and throw the officer into it. If I知 transferring an officer, I should be able to pay him his transport allowance and provide accommodation for him. Now, we cannot do this.

If we池e promoting an officer, we should be able to pay his allowances immediately. If an officer goes on patrol, for example, we should be able to pay him his duty tour allowance. If he goes on investigation, pay him his duty tour and transport allowances so that he has the money to lodge in the hotel and do his investigation so that he痴 not thrown open to temptation. These are the issues we池e trying to address and we spelt them out to them. And luckily like I said, the president is looking into them. We believe that soon, the morale of the officers will be further boosted through these welfare packages- accommodation, promotion, enhanced salaries and allowances plus the provision of the tools to work.

At the borders, we don稚 have accommodation so that our officers have to rent houses built by people including smugglers. In this case, it takes courage to arrest your landlord. You don稚 even have vehicles to operate. The other day, the Minister (of State for Finance, Mrs. Nenadi Usman) was shocked to see us using these manual typewriters, very old ones at that, not even the more modern electronic type.

We have to keep pace with the world because every business has gone electronic. We do not want to be left behind. So, we want to make these things available for our staff to work with. We must not forget capacity building, training and re-training of our personnel to ensure that they cope with the modern trend of doing things. These are all the things we池e looking into in order to create a conducive atmosphere for the officers to operate in so that we can justifiably sanction those that run foul of the law.

However, all we致e said is no excuse for the corruption that is going on now. Just that like we fight corruption without reservation, we will also have to be humane enough, we have to morally and deliberately create the type of environment that will discourage corruption. But like I said, it痴 no excuse for any officer to do anything funny. Of course, they all know that we池e willing and ready at all times to wield the big stick on anyone or persons who may compromise his or their responsibilities. We will remain intolerable of any antics by anybody to do anything not in tandem with our duties and expectations.

The Nigeria Customs Service has received a lot of criticisms over the years because of how porous our borders have been, knowing that it is from these borders that goods are smuggled into Nigeria, plus other unholy acts. Why is this so, and what plans do you have to change this trend?
Honestly, there is still smuggling going on, no doubt about that. You can see smuggled goods in our markets but you also have to appreciate that a lot of those banned goods were just placed on the prohibition list and you still have remnants of the old stock on the shelves. You also have some that are coming in through unapproved routes.


I have always said that the effectiveness of the Nigeria Customs Service in the combat against smuggling is related to the logistics available. If we don稚 have enough vehicles, how do we tackle these smugglers? If we don稚 have boats, there is nothing we can do because we can稚 swim across to go and arrest smugglers who are on the sea.

You see, I致e often said that this talk about smugglers preferring other ports of neighbouring countries because they are user-friendly, is false. Our ports are user-friendly. The truth about it is that they go there (because) they realise we池e not effectively on water and they discharge their cargo on water and bring them in by boats into various points, just to evade duties.

That痴 the major reason. The fact is that our neighbouring countries are not respecting the international norms of trade. Sometime ago, you will recall that Mr. President had cause to close our border with Benin Republic because they池e not keeping to these international norms of trade.
The practice is that any goods that are in transit to another country, the Customs of the country of discharge has the responsibility to escort these goods to the nearest border of the country of destination and hand over to the Customs there.

Our neighbours don稚 do this. But Nigeria does this. We (Customs) escort a lot of goods to Niger Republic, to Chad Republic in particular and other countries who use our borders as transit points. But when there are goods in transit to Nigeria and discharging at the neighbouring ports, they don稚 respect this norm by escorting these goods and handing over to us. Some of the goods are not actually in transit to Nigeria.

They are destined for these neighbouring ports, after which they are smuggled into our country. Some of the goods are destined for Nigeria but they discharge there. There is no country that should allow the discharge of goods not destined for their own countries. They are either destined for your own country, or are discharging there in transit. That痴 why I explained earlier that if they are in transit, you escort them; if they are destined for your own country, it痴 for your country痴 own consumption. But you find that most of the discharges of cargoes in these neighbouring ports are destined for Nigeria.

These are some of things that the President has been talking about. I was in his entourage a few months ago where he spoke to the Nigerian business community in Cotonou in the presence of president of the Republic of Benin. He told them in unmistakable terms that we should not allow our country to be used as a dumping ground for goods just to unduly evade duties. We must develop trade to do with goods that are produced within the sub-region. Afterall, the governments of the sub-region have put in place ECOWAS trade liberalisation scheme where goods produced within the sub-region can cross borders without duties.

This is to help develop industrialisation. In fact, the goods range from agricultural products to manufacturing goods. Therefore, we have no reason not to want to develop our own countries. We should look at government policy and appreciate the fact that we must develop and not just serve as a dumping ground for foreign goods.

Away from Customs, as the president of the Nigeria Basketball Federation (NBBF), how far do you see the Nigerian female team going at the Olympics?

I have high hopes that we could walk our way into the medal zone. I get regular reports from their camp in Germany and I speak regularly with the coach and the association痴 secretary. There痴 great enthusiasm and the coach is quite hope with the team he痴 tinkering. With prayers, we won稚 let our fans and nation down.

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