• Says legal action by VOAN unnecessary
• Vehicle owners in Kaduna, Port Harcourt, Bauchi shun directive, Lagos records low turnout
Following the widespread outcry and threat of a lawsuit by Nigerians and the Vehicle Owners Association of Nigeria (VOAN) to challenge the decision by the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) to compel vehicle owners in the country to pay duties on uncustomised cars, the Customs Service on Monday beat a retreat, denying that its policy was targeted at car owners.
It also said that it never contemplated taking any measure to force compliance, adding that the policy was being “misconstrued, misinterpreted and has been blown out of proportion”.
The Customs Service was forced to backtrack on its policy even as car owners and dealers shunned its zonal offices in Port Harcourt, Kaduna and Bauchi, while the turnout was very low at its Lagos zonal office, where the NCS had directed car owners nationwide to pay their duties during the one-month grace period which came into effect on Monday.
The policy has been condemned by the Senate, which passed a resolution asking the NCS to suspend it, the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), civil society groups, and VOAN.
Despite the condemnation, NCS doubled-down on its directive by ordering car owners and dealers to comply, failing which their cars would be impounded. At best, it offered a 60 per cent rebate on cars bought before 2016.
Its refusal to suspend the policy, based on the Senate resolution, drew the wrath of the upper legislative chamber, which summoned the Comptroller-General of Customs, Col. Hameed Ali (rtd.) to appear in his uniform before the Senate on Wednesday.
However, speaking to THISDAY on the phone on Monday, the acting public relations officer of the NCS, Mr. Joseph Atta, regretted that the policy had been misconstrued, misinterpreted and blown out of proportion.
He also said that the threat by VOAN to take legal action against the Customs Service if it did not reverse the policy was uncalled for.
Attah stressed that at no time was the policy targeted at car owners.
However, this clarification by the Custom Service was conspicuously missing when it offered the 60 per cent rebate last week on cars bought before 2016.
According to Attah, there was nothing special about the policy to generate any kind of unnecessary hysteria from some quarters, adding that members of the Association of Motor Dealers of Nigeria (AMDON) were the ones who approached the NCS seeking to be allowed a period of grace to pay duties on uncustomised cars.
He stated that there was nothing new about the policy, except that motor dealers were asked to use the period to pay for unpaid duties on vehicles.
On compliance with the policy, for which the grace period commenced Monday, Attah asked for a few days to get feedback from the four zonal centres designated as duty collection centres.
The four zonal offices of the NCS are: Zone A Headquarters, No. 1 Harvey Road, Yaba, Lagos; Zone B Headquarters, Kabala Doki, Kaduna; Zone C Headquarters, Nigeria Ports Authority, Port Harcourt and Zone D Headquarters, Yelwa Tudu Road, Bauchi State.
Car Owners Ignore NCS
When THISDAY visited the Customs zonal office in Port Harcourt, one of the approved payment points for vehicle duties, car owners in the city and its environs gave the NCS the cold shoulder.
In fact, not a single motorist was found at its premises on Monday.
The few customs personnel seen in the premises were busy carrying out other functions. Neither the zonal PRO, Ken Olowo, nor the comptroller was at his desk.
However a member of staff of the NCS, who did not wish to be named, said he was aware that some persons had made enquiries about the payment of duties but none came to pay on Monday.
He blamed the situation on the “confusion” that trailed the intervention of the Senate.
He said he was certain that many Nigerians would have wished to pay the duty on their vehicles, but the stance of the Senate was a disincentive.
He said: “The action of the Senate asking the Customs to cancel the ultimatum is indirectly asking people not to pay duties on their vehicles.
“Besides, the Senate seems not to understand the law as it relates to the collection of duties. The law actually gives Customs up to seven years to still collect duties on any vehicle that may have escaped the payment of duties.
“Let us hope that our lawmakers would support us to encourage our people to pay duties. After all, Nigerians pay duties even in Cotonou (Benin Republic’s commercial capital) when they go to buy cars there but they prefer to smuggle the same car into Nigeria. This is not fair.”
He disclosed that even the President of the National Association of Car Dealers in Nigeria had even written to the Comptroller-General of Customs expressing the preparedness of its members to pay the necessary duties on vehicles imported into the country.
In Kaduna, it was no different as car owners and dealers in the state on Monday shunned the directive by the NCS.
When THISDAY visited the Zone B offices of the NCS in the Kabala Costain area of Kaduna Monday, no car owner or dealer came forward to pay duty.
Although the spokesman of the zone, Ado Idris, was not at his desk to respond to THISDAY’s enquiries, a senior Customs officer, who pleaded anonymity, explained that there were some slight changes to the directive.
According to him, the directive was no longer restricted to zonal customs offices.
He said car owners had been asked to report to any of the customs commands nearest to them.
“We have received directives that the various commands, especially in Zone B and D can collect the duties,” he said.
The Customs Command in Zone B include Kaduna/Katsina, Kano/Jigawa, Sokoto/Zamfara/Kebbi, Niger/Kwara/Kogi and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).
He revealed that nobody visited the Kaduna zonal office on the issue, adding that the rejection of the policy by the Senate might have been responsible for the attitude by car owners concerning the directive.
“Nobody has come here today following the directive and the one-month grace period which commences today (Monday).
“To make it easier, a new directive was issued, asking car owners and dealers to visit any of the Customs commands to make their payments.
“I believe that the rejection of the policy by the Senate may have been responsible for this.
“But you know the NCS only implements government policies, so we are waiting to see how everything will work out,” he said.
Expressing their opposition to the policy, some car dealers and owners said the policy would create confusion and tension among the populace.
In an interview, Mohammed Aliyu, a lawyer, said the policy was anti-people and would not succeed.
He said: “Nigerians are currently facing a lot of hardship as a result of the poor economy, they are already angry with this government but the government does not seem to understand that people are not happy with it and wants to add to their burden.
“If they come out with a timeline and say for instance, from May or June, anyone who buys a car must produce a valid customs duty payment, that is okay.
“But you cannot just wake up and issue a blanket directive on all vehicle owners.
“This will also provide an opportunity for corrupt Customs officers to extort money from poor Nigerians and at the end of the day, the purpose will be defeated.”
Also, major car dealers at the Mogadishu area and NDA junction in Kaduna called for a modification of the policy and the timeframe.
Explaining why they did not go to the Customs office as directed, they argued that the Senate had kicked against the policy and they were waiting for the matter to be resolved.
They, however, added that leaders of the car dealers association in the state would be meeting with the zonal Customs officials on the way forward.
Though the state chairman of the Car Dealers Association, Alhaji Ahmed Na-Brazil, confirmed that the association would be meeting with the Customs Service, he declined to comment on the issues that will be tabled until after the meeting.
He said every effort was being made to reach a common ground, stressing that “until we meet and discuss the issue, I cannot make any categorical statement on the matter”.
In Bauch also, vehicle owners did not comply with the policy, as the Bauchi zonal office of the Customs Service was empty.
Efforts by THISDAY to speak to the zonal comptroller on the issue proved abortive, as he was out of town.
THISDAY, however, was referred to the area command responsible for the collection of duties.
At the Customs area command, THISDAY was informed that its PRO, Mr. Samuel Gulak, had been transferred out of the command and no officer was ready to volunteer any information.
Also, a senior officer of the Customs Service, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said: “Nobody will talk to you here about this policy because we have been directed not to talk to the press on this issue.
“But even though some few vehicle owners were here this morning to pay the duties on their cars, we are still waiting for directives from our headquarters in Abuja to start accepting the appropriate duties from them. So we are yet to fully commence this policy.
“The Bauchi Area Command which is responsible for generating revenue for the service is the designated place where vehicle owners and car dealers are expected to pay the duties on their vehicles.”
Low Turnout in Lagos
Of the four zonal offices initially designated by NCS for the collection of car duties, only the Lagos zone recorded a low turnout on Monday.
When THISDAY visited the designated centres for the payment of duties at the Zone A Headquarters, No. 1 Harvey Road, Yaba, and the Federal Operating Unit (FOU), Ikeja, Lagos, a few vehicle owners and car dealers were seen making enquiries.
Between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m., less than 12 persons comprising vehicle owners, car dealers and customs agents came to make enquiries at the office of the Deputy Comptroller of Customs, Revenue, Zone A Headquarters, who is in charge of the exercise.
This was just as a group, the Coalition of Maritime Professionals (CMP), petitioned the National Assembly over the recent grace period of one month given by the Comptroller-General of the NCS to all motorists to proceed to their zonal offices to verify the genuineness of their customs papers, describing it as insensitive and misguided.
Coordinator of the group, Mazi Charles Obi, in the petition, called on the legislature to call the CGC to order and stop him from putting Nigerian car owners through the trauma of moving from one Customs zonal office to the other in the name of cross checking their papers.
Meanwhile, a Customs officer in plain clothes who was attending to those present in Zone A, explained that vehicle owners or dealers were expected to write an application letter to the Assistant Comptroller General (ACG)/Zonal Coordinator and submit it along with proof of ownership and a photocopy of their car registration.
He handed out a sample of the application letter and pasted same on the notice board.
Explaining further, he said: “When you have a registered car, it will not be like you have a car in Cotonou and bring the document to Nigeria for verification.
“If the car is registered in Nigeria and there is proof, the NCS will give you an assessment letter. A dealer can come here and pretend they have cars in Nigeria that they want to verify, whereas the cars are yet to reach Nigeria or the car may have even been seized by the Customs Service.
“So vehicle owners are to present their car documents for verification and advice on what amount of duty to pay.”
The official, who preferred not to be named, said the NCS would ensure that all outstanding duties are paid to the government.
According to him, “There is nowhere in the world where you can defeat the government. It is only in Nigeria that people like to get away with everything.
“In Benin Republic where they import the vehicles from, you dare not drive a car without paying duty.
“A lot of people claim to have paid their duties but most of the documents were forged. In Nigeria, forgery is a crime.
“Just imagine what our senators are saying. They have destroyed this country; it is by the grace of God that you and I are surviving.”
A vehicle owner, who said he lost his documents in a fire accident and asked if he could use his car’s Chasis number for verification, was asked to go and pay the duty afresh.