Since 1999, Nigerian's National Assembly (NASS) has made remarkable efforts in sponsoring and passing bills that have encouraged the development trends of the country in many ways. Among the about fifteen bills that have been passed by NASS in the last thirteen years of our new democracy, over 75 per cent have the capacity of adding value to economic growth and development if fully implemented. This number is a minute quantity when compared with a deluge of other obnoxious bills which died along the line. The various creations of government where pockets of difficulties still emerge are those areas that have been the creations of our long military leadership such as Privatization issues and the various other infrastructure segments like NITEL, NEPA among others.
There are strong indications that NASS has been battling to restructure these areas and give them the kind of framework that will encourage fiscal advantage to the Federal Government. This is why the various other bills which are gradually finding their ways into the National Assembly, but are devoid of the intimate development agenda of the government, are obviously finding it difficult to survive , even though they may be scaling through the various initial stages of the legislative process.
One of such several obnoxious bills that do not possess the value-addition which the NASS has been calling for is this one that has to do with the new ambition of the Customs and Excise to become Nigeria's de facto Ministry of Finance.
Seeking lordship over the country's only domestic revenue source, the Customs have sponsored a bill which is now at its second reading, asking NASS to expand its royalties and make it the administrator and manager of all our international trade activities, spanning duty valuation , payment, collection, security and even other international trade regulations such as commodity product testing, import prohibition and waivers. Customs now have a bill which is seeking an Act to repeal the customs and Excise Management Act, CAP C45, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria,2004 and other Customs and Excise Laws, to establish the Nigeria Customs Service, reform the administration and management of Customs and Excise in Nigeria and for other related matters.
Although this bill is already in its second reading, many Nigerians may see it as a product of a restive institution that may have been beclouded by its own lofty ambitions and poor sense of economic and administrative judgement. A closer look at the bill prompts one to ask questions bordering on proper understanding of the structures of any nascent economy that is bound to deliver. For instance, the bill is asking that a new Nigeria Customs Service be given wider powers that will make the Federal Ministry of Finance subservient to it . In other words, the Customs Service is indirectly asking for autonomy so that it can carry out its activities without recourse to the ministry or even government.
Apparently, the Customs Service are admiring the new powers of the CBN where the Ministry of finance, NASS and even the presidency hardly influence their affairs any longer. But unlike the CBN, the Customs is a much more collection of several issues of national interest than revenue collection, which is why it will be very difficult for it to earn full autonomy. Its primary function hovers more on trade surveillance than financial control and management.
In the part three of the bill which is titled, establishment of the Nigerian Customs Service, Functions and Powers, the paramilitary outfit wants NASS to agree that ;
-The Customs Service shall maintain a laboratory to conduct scientific testing and analysis of samples and in the event that such laboratory does not have the resources or personnel to conduct testing and analysis for particular purposes, the Customs Service may utilize the services of a Government or commercial laboratory
* The Customs Service may, from time to time, employ consultants to provide services and advise on the adoption of new customs control measures, and for other purposes, provided that a consultant shall not be authorised to carry out customs control measures
* The use of mandatory preshipment or post-shipment inspection services for customs purpose is prohibited
* Any existing mandatory pre-shipment or post-shipment inspection services used by the Customs Services or the Government in connection with the classification and valuation of goods or other customs control matters shall be terminated not later than December 2012.
These are the worrisome demands and prayer of the customs which the bill has been made to deliver. The fears are not that this will erode the functions of SON and NAFDAC, but that the Customs do not really have the skills to do this and will take a lot of cost to acquire it. Reading through this bill, many Nigerians would want to know what Customs want to achieve if they do not want to collaborate with SON and NAFDAC. What is it that the Customs would want to test that NAFDAC and SON cannot carry out? Why would Customs want to waste more money on such areas when there are more capable government agencies that are already on the ground? Many have been asking why the bill should be allowed to drive to this stage considering the antecedents of the Customs as an institution and the sensitivity of the functions it has been mandated to do.
The growing spate of domestic revenue through the existing procedure for import duty collection and inspection is one development that has been seen as comfortable complement to the oil sector revenue. For a long time now, Nigeria's revenue generation history from duty collection and other import related collections has been credited to the measures through which agencies other than customs play a huge part using international evaluation standards.
These agencies which had functioned as either pre-shipment or post-shipment firms have been largely responsible for the increasing level of revenue to government. Results of Customs activities across the country still put in doubt the ability of the institution to rise to the challenge that tries to eliminate malpractices. Under an institution of that manner where avarice has been largely reported and patronised, it will seem curious for a country like Nigeria to take some steps backwords to offer such a dose of empowerment to it . This is also why NASS must take this bill with a pinch of salt.This bill does not amount to an invitation to retrogression alone, but a deliberate effort to impoverish the country at the time many developing nations are seeking for more growth in their domestic revenue sources, using time-tested processes.
Nigerians in authority and the NASS alike are still grappling with the current powers of the CBN in the face of the autonomy granted it by the Federal Government. Much as that of the CBN could be relevant granting the country's experience during the Abacha saga, but there are still the contents of that autonomy that also seems to have been constituting some hic-ups to certain development. Obviously, the contents of the Customs Service as an institution and the record it has on the ground would not favour what it is currently asking for.
In fact, it is embarrassing that the Customs Service would summon courage to ask that it be made autonomous at a time when it has exhibited a very low level of competence in handling some of the functions that have been entrusted to it . The funny thing is that, the more the Government tries to empower the customs for better job, the more disastrous its records appear.
Whatever anyone may say of the NASS and its fledgling performance so far, the quality of bills that have been passed since 1999 is an eloquent testimony of its level of patriotism, especially in the areas of economic development. There are strong indications that this Bill may go down in history as the most ambitious and obnoxious bill that has found its way, by any means, to the floor of the National Assembly. Its final story will further reshape the nature of our democracy.