Anxiety over N300bn presidential deal on e-Customs project – The Sun Nigeria

Steve Agbota, [email protected]

The reported move by the presidency to concession the Nigeria Customs Service revenue collection to the private sector for 20 years, has unruffled some feathers in the Nigeria  Customs high command and they are now mobilising to challenge the initiative. The service believes the concession plan will hamper the development the country has recorded so far in the area of export and import trade.

A document sighted and obtained by our reporter titled, Re: Presidential Initiatives  on Customs  Modernisation: “E-Customs  Project”(Establishment  of  a Digital /Paperless  Customs  Administration) and other Matters,  indicated that the Presidency has approved the  engagement  of  a consortium comprising Bionica Technologies  West  Africa,  Bergan  Security  Consultants and Supplies,  Africa Finance Cooperation (AFC) and Huawei to establish a special  purpose  vehicle to  enter  into the 20-year  concession arrangement with the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS)  and the  Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission (ICRC).

However, the White Paper on E-Customs also indicated that the selection of this consortium has never been advertised and no tender was issued for the selection of the best companies. The process was never made transparent and the current contract holders were never given an opportunity to bid..

But amidst rising accusation of widespread corruption which often allows contraband items to cross the nation’s borders under the watchful eyes of the Nigeria Customs, the Service appears opposed to the planned privatization of customs revenue collection through the introduction of private consortium.

Perhaps it is only in Nigeria that manual inspection of cargoes still go on in all custom command as the Service has refused to utilise scanners procured with millions of dollars by the Federal Government to facilitate goods clearance at the ports. This resort to manual inspection has resulted to delays and high cost of transaction at the ports, thus leading to the diversion of cargoes to neighbouring countries ports..

But the question in the mind of most Nigerians today is why is the NCS rigidly opposed to the private sector involvement in Federal Government’s efforts to enhance efficiency in its operations even when several operations in the maritime industry have been concessioned.

For instance, the Nigerian Port terminal operation have been concessioned since 2006 and are on the verge of a second review to boost ports operation.

The concession of some of the terminals have brough huge investment into the sector and raise revenues for both concessionaires and the Federal Government and those seeking the involvement of the private sector into the NCS believe that it would also boost government revenue collection.

With recent introduction of the Finance Bill, the Federal Government is looking forward to making more money from all its revenue collection agencies including the customs and is therefore committed to exploring all avenues to realise this objective.

However, in order to stop the concession agreement, on October 10, 2019, Chairman of House Committee on Public Petitions, Jerry Alagbaoso, moved a motion that the deal should be investigated, saying 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.

According to him, “my motion is the need to investigate the curious concession proposed arrangement between the consortium Bionica Technologies West Africa Limited, who are the sponsors; Bergan Security Consultants and Supplies, who are co- sponsors ,African Finance Corporation, who are lead financiers and Huawei, Nigeria Customs Service and Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission(ICRC) for customs modernisation project.

“The House is aware that various customs modernisation projects in the past. For example in the 90s, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) for the installation of ASYCUDA++ and training of customs officers for three years.”

He said the House is also aware that the Federal Government agreed to engage former pre shipment companies for valuation and classification of goods, hence some service providers namely Webbfontaine,Cotecna, SGS and Globalscan were engaged for that purpose.

He explained: “This contract was to last for seven years, from 2005 to 2012 when the service providers handed over to Nigeria Customs Service. By 2011, one could say the positive effects of this included competent and committed workforce for Nigeria Customs Service, personnel understanding of the new process and benefits to stakeholders.

“It resulted to collection of proper revenue due, elimination of corruption and other benefits. The House notes that with these put in place, there exist a one stop shop which allows all trade transactions to be conducted through a single system domiciled with the customs.

“For example, all other government agencies like NAFDAC, SON and the rest have dissolved into a single platform with the Nigeria Customs Service. In 2011 there was an illegal concession between the Federal Ministry of Finance and a company with inadequate capital base called Single Window System and Technologies, signed in secrecy during the government transition period and this responsible House of Representatives had a public hearing and stopped it to save Nigeria billions of Naira Vide the votes of Wednesday, 13 July 2011.”

“In 2017 another move for customs modernisation was made by the Technical Committee on the Comprehensive Import Supervision Scheme, purported to be acting on behalf of the Federal Government called Adani Systems Nigeria Limited to modernise, maintain, develop the scanning of goods in the country in line with the pre shipment inspection act for a period of 25 years…”

“Again the attention of Controller General of Nigeria Customs Service was drawn to this and the concession was stopped. Curious that in September 2019, another concession, which will last for twenty years( that is the subject matter now) is being suggested to Nigeria Customs Service, Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission, Federal Ministry of Finance, Federal Ministry of Budget and Planning, Federal Ministry of Justice and this agreement is for pro-rata sharing of one percent Comprehensive Import Supervision Scheme and a $300million investment,” he explained.

He worried that billions of Naira will be frittered away from the account of the one percent Comprehensive Import Supervision Scheme with the Central Bank of Nigeria, regarding the cost of this latest customs modernisation by different parties involved.

He further worried that there is no difference in substance, scope and structure between the failed concession attempts of 2011, 2017 and this 2019.

Said he: “There is already a national single window platform in the Nigeria Customs Service and officers of the service are performing beyond expectations, collecting duties in billions of naira on daily basis. Convinced that the Federal Government is being misled by advise on this one percent Comprehensive Import Supervision Scheme, which has accumulated in billions of naira in the Central Bank of Nigeria.

“A motion for CBN to account for this money was moved in the 8th Assembly, the House therefore resolved to mandate the committee on finance, customs, public petitions, committee on agreements to expose the foreign and local collaborators involved in this project either as sponsors, co -sponsors, financiers and others.

“Mandate the CBN to account for the funds between 2012 and now and urge all parties involved to maintain status quo until the outcome of the public hearing and report back in three weeks

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