Thursday, June 19, 2008

The new Customs Service

The Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) has, in recent weeks, witnessed two major changes. The first was the removal of Elder Jacob Gyang Buba as the Controller General of Customs and his replacement with Alhaji Hamman Bello Ahmed. Buba was removed in controversial circumstances following allegations that bordered on misappropriation and misapplication of funds. He is currently being probed by the House of Representatives for these and related allegations.

The second is the restructuring of the NCS into four departments, namely, Corporate Support Service, Strategic Research and Policy, Tariff and Trade and Enforcement, Investigation and Inspection. The restructuring followed government’s acceptance of the recommendation of the World Customs Organisation (WCO’s) strategic plan to review the structure put in place through the 2004 Presidential Committee on Customs.

To lend impetus to the restructuring, a new management team headed by the Controller General himself has been put in place, while eight Deputy Controllers General were retired. The overall objective is to see a new customs service that will readily meet the demands of the 21st Century.
We welcome these changes in so far as they will advance the fortunes of the NCS. The service, over the years, has been saddled with stories of corruption and sharp practices. The impression most members of the public have of the service is that of a money spinner whose fortunes are largely drained and appropriated by its officers and men.

However, the story was expected to change following the declarations and avowals made by the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo on anti-corruption. It was on the basis of the need to wean the service of its old ways that the then government set up the Presidential Committee on Customs. The structure put in place then by Buba and his team may have made its impact. But it would appear that it left a number of loopholes which still needed to be plugged. This, no doubt, has necessitated the recommendation of the WCO that the 2004 Presidential Committee on Customs be reviewed. The new customs under Alhaji Ahmed can be said to be the logical outcome of government’s acceptance of the WCO recommendation.

We wish the new customs boss and his management team well in their new assignment. They have a responsibility to succeed where their predecessors failed. The problem with most government departments is not really the absence of sound ideas to drive them but the lack of commitment on the part of those who should get those ideas to work.

There is no doubt that the Presidential committee which operated under Buba made some recognisable effort to re-position the customs service especially as it concerns contraband goods, but if the idea did not go far enough or bring about the much expected positive changes, that could be traced to the lapses in the system they operated. The new management under Ahmed should therefore learn from the mistakes of the past.

The new team should see the responsibility entrusted upon them as a historic one. Let us, for once, experience a new day in the service. They should therefore regard their assignment as a sacred duty to the nation. We expect them not to abdicate this responsibility. In an economy that is desperate for growth, a well managed customs service can deliver the much needed boost which Nigeria’s economy needs. The new management team should therefore strive to leave a legacy of hope on which a new customs service can be built.

While welcoming Alhaji Ahmed, we note with dissatisfaction the decision by government to sack his predecessor, Elder Buba. Going by what the public have been made to understand, Buba has charges of corruption levelled against him. But none of the allegations have been proved as yet. At best, they are sill at the level of investigation .

We therefore expect that Buba should be assumed to be innocent until the contrary is proved. Consequently, he should not have been sacked. But the pronouncement made about him carries a stigma which should have waited until he is found guilty. What Buba deserves at this stage should have been a suspension pending the conclusion of investigations. As it is now, the former Customs boss has been assumed to be guilty even before he is proved to be so. Such indecent haste should not be applied in public service or any human endeavour for that matter.