Friday, May 22, 2009

Auditor-General’s report on Customs

The Auditor General for the Federation has released a damning report, which has uncovered massive fraud in the operations of the Nigerian Customs Service. Testifying before the House Committee on Customs and Excise, the AGF, Mr. Robert Ejenavi, catalogued the sharp practices uncovered in the department. He listed under-assessment of duties, transfer of funds without authority, over-payment of telephone bills by the management, delay in remittance of revenue by banks, abuse of orders on waiver, concessions and exemptions and non-remittance of government revenues to relevant government accounts as some of the sharp practices in the Customs Department.

The AGF further accused the department of non-release of payment vouchers for audit inspection, non-return of personnel/cash advances and uncertified capital payments. The audit report said the NCS could not explain the disappearance of customs equipment, including arms, ammunition, seized vehicles and goods, even as the department purchased fake bullet-proof jackets, among other sharp practices. Some aspects of the report captured outright stealing of government property, including cases of disappearance of anti-smuggling patrol vehicles and the carting away by retiring officers of seven new Toyota Hilux vehicles estimated at N52 million.

The AGF also told the House that some 18 vehicles worth about N350 million reportedly acquired for use at the air-wing Kaduna were not sighted during the audit checks.

The details of Ejenavi’s audit report are similar to the one issued by the former Acting AGF, Mr. Vincent Azie, for 2001 on various sectors of government business. The Azie report came out with a damning verdict of “lack of financial discipline” in the system as it uncovered over-invoicing, non-retirement of cash advances, lack of audit inspection, payment for jobs not done, double debiting, contract inflation, lack of receipts to back-up purchases made, flagrant violation of financial regulations, and release of money without approving authority.

Surprisingly, successive governments in the country have treated AGF reports with contempt. The Obasanjo administration did not only throw out the 2001 audit report, the author, Azie, was ridiculed at the Federal Executive Council meeting and subsequently removed from office on the flimsy excuse that his six months of acting in that capacity had expired. Last year, the Senate Committee on Public Accounts had accused the executive arm of deliberately working to frustrate the statutory functions of the office of the AGF when it made an attempt to expunge the N1 billion voted for the AGF’s office from the 2008 Appropriation Act.

It has always been a harvest of scams in the NCS. Last June, it was reported that N287 million got missing from the revenue generated by the service. In November, it was again reported that the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission had commenced investigation into a N2.5 billion case of fraud in the NCS. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission had also arrested two customs officials in connection with a N3 billion rice duty scam slammed against the Vaswani Brothers. Another report said that the agency failed to remit about N13 billion to the Federation Account.

No doubt, the AGF Office has discharged its constitutional responsibility by presenting the report to the National Assembly. The report reflects a total breakdown of the General Order, which guides civil service operations. It also captures the inherent weakness in the anti-graft institutions.

The Office should be empowered to carry out periodic, independent and objective appraisals of government agencies and departments. Indeed, if the Office is properly funded, its anti-corruption role will curb the culture of rampant looting of the till.

The National Assembly should prescribe sanctions against individuals and firms the report found to have engaged in embezzlement and financial malpractices. The relevant agencies, especially the EFCC, should not ignore the latest AGF report. It should move immediately to arrest and prosecute all indicted officials. The FG should take immediate steps to improve the integrity of public expenditure.