AEO: Can Nigeria Customs Service truly find an honest man?

Hammed Ali, Comptroller General of Nigeria Customs Service

By Gboyega Oni

Nigeria Customs Service is seeking an honest man in the manner of Diogenes, a Greek philosopher, who, in the streets of Athens in the day time, was carrying a lantern and when he was asked what he was looking for, he simply answered,”I am looking for an honest man.”

Diogenes, who was born in Crete, was captured on a voyage by pirates. He was an upright, honest man. When he was asked of his trade, he replied that he knew no trade but that of governing men and that he should be sold to a man who needed a master. He was sold to a wealthy man who took him to Corinth to tutor his children. And he became famous.

In Lagos, on Monday, October 31, the Nigeria Customs began the Diogene’s search for an honest man among hundreds of its stakeholders who it will enlist for its newly embraced cargo clearance tool called the Authorized Economic Operator (AEO) introduced by the World Customs Organisation (WCO) to facilitate a safer and secured cargo globally.

What is AEO? It is a party that is involved in the international movement of goods, in whatever functions, that has been approved by or on behalf of, a national customs administration as complying with the World Customs Organisation (WCO) or equivalent supply chain security standards.

AEO includes international manufacturers, importer, exporter, brokers, carriers, consolidators, intermediaries, ports, airports, terminal operators, warehouses and distributors.

AEO is the lantern; can it shine enough to fish out an honest man from the sea of many corrupt but a few upright stakeholders? On that Monday, the Service enlightened its stakeholders on the rational behind the AEO introduction and what they stand to benefit and what the nation will gain.

Comptroller Musa Jibril, Customs Area Controller of Apapa Customs, in whose command the enlightenment took place, while welcoming participants, said that AEO is a new cargo tool that would replace the exiting one, fast-track. He noted that AEO is faster than fast-track but it comes with a lot of integrity and trust on the part of an AEO. “It is integrity-proven,” he said.

While enlightening the participants, Deputy Comptroller General of Customs, Dr. Patience Iferi, said it is imperative for Nigeria to embrace the use of AEO to be in line with the global community, which she said necessitated the enlightenment. Iferi, who is the head of Strategic Research and Policy, said that the increase in the volume of cargo globally, increase in security threat to the international movement of goods and the changing trends in the supply chain have compelled customs administrations globally to review the role of customs in international trade.

According to her, Nigeria as a big economy in Africa should not be left out as countries like Uganda whose economies are not big like Nigeria have since embraced the use of AEO. Speaking further, she said AEO constitutes a yardstick that encourages mutual recognition of trading partners and so forms one of the sets of acceptable standards developed by WCO to avoid duplication of requirements for cargo clearance. It also provides a collaboration using three pillars – customs to customs, customs to business and customs to government.

For any of the listed elements to be inducted as AEO, which is internet based, Iferi said that such a person must meet the following requirements: being an economic operator and part of the supply chain; record of compliance with customs legislation and taxation rules including no record of serious criminal offenses relating to economic activity; no tax arrears; operating in the country for the past three years, with clean track records; must have proper internal control of all imports, exports and movement of the goods, and others.

The DCG, corroborating the host, Comptroller Jibril, said AEO is designed by WCO to quicken cargo clearance faster and safer and is integrity-proven and transparency, saying that any importer or other operator that will be listed as an AEO, besides fulfilling all the requirements, must come with clean with hands and be ready to follow the laid down requirements. She added that a list of the AEO beneficiaries containing their data shall be periodically evaluated and published for the purpose of integrity so as to saving the nation embracement of unwanted cargo and as well boosting her revenue generation.

On the benefits of being an accredited AEO, she said the project provides various opportunities and benefits apart from upgrading and expanding their knowledge and territorial confines of the beneficiaries. Other major benefits are timely release of cargo, financial warranty, recognition by customs, pre-arrival release of cargo, safety of cargo and improved revenue generation for government. “It (AEO) is one of the mechanisms by the government to block unwanted goods and revenue leakage,” she said.

The DCG noted that data of the listed AEOs shall be placed on the internet to acquint the world with necessary information about the Nigerian beneficiaries and cargo they handle and ports where such cargo is processed. “We are not looking for those who do not comply after documentation. Any AEO found wanting will have their licenses seized in event of infractions and be charged to court,” she said, calling on would-be AEO to display high level of integrity. She added that the policy is being introduced by government to compliment the ease of doing business policy in the country.

“If everybody who is on board gets documented, it will encourage trade facilitation,” said Iferi, asking the participants if AEO is practicable in Nigeria, which they replied yes but with some reservations made by some stakeholders who spoke.

Dr. Kayode Farinto, a licensed customs broker and Publicity Secretary, Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), asked if there is a legal backing for the project, which, he said, is very important as regards punishment in case an AEO gets caught in any infraction. He equally asked if there is any punishment for customs officers who in the course of discharging tamper with cargo document for their selfish interest. According to him, it would be very difficult to punish any AEO once there is no legal backing.

He said for the project to succeed, there is a need for all stakeholders including customs to comply with the rules of the game, charging the Service to carry all other government agencies particularly the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) along to avoid a situation whereby a cargo released under AEO is stopped by SON on the road for not complying with its regulations.

Responding, DCG Iferi said that the Nigeria Customs Service is working on legal backing for it, saying that customs could not being an impediment to the programme. According to her, “there is something in the pipeline; you have to sensitize people. I do not see customs being the one projecting the programme and still being the one scuttling it. It has the backing of government. We are working on some legal backing for the programme as we are also improving on the standard of our ICT.”

To other stakeholders the project is a laudable one but implementation is the problem as the Service had introduced many similar programmes like this but abandoned midway. They wondered why customs does not have reliable data on its stakeholders, which, they said, could have helped the Service at a time like this when it embarks on AEO.

To a seasoned licensed customs broker and former Chairman, Governing Board of Council for the Regulation of Freight Forwarding in Nigeria (CRFFN), Otunba Hakeem Olanrewaju, AEO is a welcome development but charity must begin at home. He emphasized the need for Nigerians to be the sole beneficiaries of the AEO as against fast-track which harbors foreigners are beneficiaries whose interest is to make money not security and safety of Nigeria. He said in other sane climes like USA, foreigners cannot enter their seaports because of security as against Nigeria where every Tom, Dick and Harry enters our ports.

Speaking further, Olanrewaju hinged the success of AEO on operational cargo scanning machines, saying with the all the scanners already dilapidated, AEO project would not work. He challenged the customs to fix all the scanner before the project commences fully.

Emphasizing the issue of integrity, Olanrewaju advised the Nigeria Customs Service to resuscitate the training of customs licensed agents it used to do in the past believing that such training would help to keep agents in tandem with new developments in customs operations.

“AEOs should be Nigerians alone who can protect interest, security and integrity of Nigeria, not foreigners who messed up the fast-track project. Let us begin the charity at home,” he submitted.

Speaking again, Comptroller Musa Jibril called for discipline and all participants in cargo supply chain should exhibit high level of compliance as there will not be multiplicity of efforts in cargo clearance and in shortest time, customs releases cargo and government revenues pick up. “No matter how laudable the project is, if we do not comply and show trust, it will amount to a waste of time and effort,” so submitted Comptroller Jibril.

With the pregnant submission of Comptroller Jibril and reclusive attitude of Nigerians to payment of taxes and declaration of profit which is one of the long list of requirements for AEO, can Nigeria Customs truly find an honest man for AEO? Time will tell.

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