The Comptroller General (CG) of the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS), Col. Hameed Ali (rtd.), on Wednesday failed to appear before the Senate over the contentious ultimatum issued to car owners and dealers nationwide to pay duties on their vehicles between March 13 and April 12, 2019, or risk having their cars impounded.
This is just as the Customs Service caved in to pressure and suspended the policy, confirming THISDAY’s exclusive report on Tuesday that the NCS had beaten a retreat on its ultimatum to car owners and dealers in the country.
Ali’s failure to appear led the Senate to pass a resolution compelling him to appear Thursday at 10 a.m., failing which a warrant would be issued for his arrest.
Senate spokesperson, Senator Sabi Abdullahi (Niger North), shortly after plenary on Wednesday, told newsmen that a warrant of arrest would be issued against Ali if he fails to honour the summons Thursday.
“If he does not appear, that is when a warrant of arrest would be invoked. We would not condone anybody challenging the integrity of the institution,” he said, adding that the CG must appear in his Customs uniform.
Ali, in a letter to Senate President Bukola Saraki, cited recent bereavement as reason for his absence, contradicting his excuse in an earlier letter to the Senate, when he said he would not be able to honour the summons due to a fortnightly meeting of the NCS management that he had to attend.
The letter was read on the floor of the Senate, in addition to a statement issued by the NCS on Wednesday, where the agency cited “unnecessary tension” caused by the policy as reason for its reversal.
The statement signed by the acting Public Relations Officer of the NCS, Mr. Joseph Attah, said: “Following the unnecessary tension generated as a result of misconception and misrepresentation of the Nigeria Customs Service’s planned motor duty payment, the leadership of the National Assembly and the Comptroller-General of Customs, Col. Hameed Ali (Rtd), met with a view to resolving the impasse.
“They both agreed that the proposed motor duty payment, though in line with the provision of Customs and Excise Management Act (CEMA) Cap C.45, LFN 2004 should be put on hold, while the Senate Committee on Customs & Excise interfaces with the NCS for further discussions.”
However, the choice of words in the letter and Ali’s refusal to appear despite the insistence of the Senate drew the ire of the lawmakers.
Senator Kabiru Marafa (Zamfara Central) observed that while he was not against any truce, he would stand against any person or agency that attempts to rubbish the National Assembly.
Reiterating that the duty payment verification policy was an unfair one, the lawmaker also cited the ban on rice importation as another policy that was not well thought out and ended up inflicting avoidable hardship on Nigerians.
“Government is not just about making money, it is also about the welfare of the people,” he said.
Senator George Sekibo (Rivers East) said Ali’s refusal to appear was an affront to the Senate, adding that the constitution already prescribes the punishment for such impudence.
Citing Sections 88 and 89 of the constitution, Sekibo moved a motion with a prayer that the Senate should compel Ali to appear Thursday.
While reading the motion for its secondment, the use of the word “invite” instead of “compel” by Saraki elicited shouts of “no” from the senators.
Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu, who seconded the motion, emphasised that the matter was not about the Customs CG, or the Senate, but about Nigerians.
“The duty of paying customs duty is to the importer, not to the end user,” Ekweremadu said.
Saraki then put the motion to vote and it was unanimously passed.
According to the Senate President, “This action that we have taken, in my view, would have been easily avoided if these institutions begin to respect the constitution we are all sworn by and its processes and procedures.
“Nobody is above the law and we must ensure that nobody is above the law. We hope that the CG, Customs will make himself available at 10 a.m. tomorrow and make his case.”
Saraki had earlier informed the lawmakers that he received a letter from Ali after plenary on Tuesday and also met with Ali behind closed doors.
The meeting was facilitated by the Special Adviser to the President on National Assembly Matters (Senate), Senator Ita Enang, following the attempt by the presidency to avert the stand-off between the Senate and the Customs CG.
But as the Senate was passing its motion compelling Ali to appear Thursday, it caved in to pressure and suspended the contentious one-month grace period it gave for motor vehicle owners and dealers to pay the duties on uncustomised vehicles.
The ultimatum, which drew flak from several quarters, including the Senate which urged the NCS to suspend the exercise, was an advisory that it initially refused to heed.
The NCS instead stubbornly expanded the payment points while granting a 60 per cent rebate across board on vehicles bought or imported before 2016.
A statement on Wednesday by Customs spokesman, Attah, said the NCS was suspending the ultimatum following the “unnecessary tension generated as a result of misconception and misrepresentation of the Nigeria Customs Service”.
The statement, which was a rehash of Ali’s letter to the Senate, added: “While payment of duty on vehicles or indeed any dutiable imported item remains a civic responsibility of every patriotic Nigerian, NCS management has directed that the exercise be put on hold while expressing readiness to engage the Senate Committee on further discussions to bring them on board to understand the importance of the exercise to national security and economy.”
Despite the suspension of the policy, the Association of Motor Dealers of Nigeria (AMDON) said implementing the exercise as enunciated by the NCS would serve the interest of its members better and save them from unnecessary detentions by the law enforcement agencies, harassment and losses.
Addressing journalists in Abuja on Wednesday, the National President of AMDON, Prince Ajibola Adedoyin, said the NCS was collaborating with the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), Vehicle Inspection Office (VIO), Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) and the Nigeria Police Force on Vehicle Identification Numbers (VINs), a move, he said, that would eventually block the registration of all undutied vehicles in the near future.
“As motor dealers who are always at the receiving end when vehicles we sell get impounded by Customs and the negative consequences on our members, we approached the management of NCS in January 2017 and pleaded for a grace period with some rebate so as so to allow our members to clear all the uncustomised vehicles at their car stands before the new system commences.
“Meanwhile, AMDON is working on automation of all members to eventually interface with the NCS, so that potential vehicle buyers will have the opportunity to verify the authenticity of duty payments before purchasing cars, which will be through AMDON automated verification stickers that come with all the relevant information embedded in the RFID of the sticker,” he said.
He added that the Customs CG was gracious in approving the one-month period and the 60 per cent rebate across board for vehicles imported in 2015 downwards for AMDON members to regularise the documentation on them.
“The NCS felt such opportunity should not be limited to only motor dealers but vehicle owners who may wish to take this opportunity that was made specifically for motor dealers,” he said, urging AMDON members to make maximum use of the opportunity.