Sunday, May 29

Disquiet As Customs Officers Extort Motorists On Highways

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Concerns are mounting among motorists across the country over rising cases of extortion and harassment by operatives of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) at various checkpoints on highways in the pretext of examining the vehicle duty payment papers of motorists.

A cross section of the affected motorists spoke to Daily Trust about their ordeals in the hands of these Customs operatives across some major highways described as the more notorious spots for the illegal activities.

Some of the persons spoken to for this story recounted how they were forced to part with between N10,000 to as high as N150,000 to Customs operatives patrolling the highways, without any receipt or payment evidence.

One of the places notorious for such operations include the ever-busy Naval Base area of the Abuja-Lokoja Highway in Kogi State, around the Ibilor area in Edo State and along the Okene-Edo-Ekiti route, which connects the north to the south.

The Jos-Abuja highway, specifically around the Riyom-Kuru and forest axis is also another black spot identified by motorists.

Joshua Olokun who was delivering a Toyota Camry for a client from Lagos was accosted at the Ibilor Customs checkpoint and in spite of having the duty payment papers and all other permits complete, the Customs operatives insisted he had to part with N50,000 as ‘fuel money’.

“It was a sad experience for me because the car was duly cleared at the Lagos ports with the owner spending over N400,000 on duty payment already,” said Olokun.

At the Lokoja spot, Bassey Okon had his own experience with Customs this year. “I was accosted just by the Lokoja Naval Base and the operatives demanded for my Custom Duty papers, I presented a photocopy of it but the demanded for the originals. My vehicle is over seven years old but they said the payment was not completed.”

Comptroller General of Customs, Col. Hameed Ibrahim Ali (rtd)

Okon said he was surprised that having used his vehicle for such a period, the operatives threatened to seize the vehicle for incomplete duty payment.

“When the threats persisted and I have spent over 30 minutes, one of the operatives took me by the side and said I should go to their zonal office and pay the right duty but for them to allow me to go with the vehicle, I must pay N150,000,” he said.

After a long wait, he had to go to Lokoja town to make a withdrawal of N150,000 to the operatives, which was not receipted for, before he left the spot.

At the Riyom-Kuru axis in Plateau State, the corruption and extortion is glaring as the Customs operatives have reportedly turned driving on the road a nightmare for motorists and commuters.

A cross section of motorists said they are often intimidated and harassed by the Customs men who hide under the excuse of checking smuggling and vehicle duty, to perpetrate their illegalities.

Checks by our reporter indicate that the officers are members of the Federal Operations Office in Bauchi and may actually be on illegal duty along the road.

Motorists said they are made to pay between N50,000 to above N100,000 to escape arrest on unverified claims that the Customs papers of their vehicles are fake without any verifiable or transparent means to convince the vehicle owners that indeed their documents are fake.

Upon accosting a vehicle, the officers will retrieve the vehicle Custom papers (no matter the age of the car), pretend to be calling a “Control Centre” before finally declaring the papers as fake. Thereafter a fee is negotiated for the release of the vehicle.

The motorists are made to ride on a ‘dedicated’ motorbike stationed at the checkpoint and driven to a ‘dedicated’ POS where the amount agreed is withdrawn and handed over to the officers.

“I was also a victim as I had to pay N130,000 to be allowed to go or risk my vehicle being seized because they said my vehicle has incomplete duty papers. They also said I cannot be guaranteed anything if another patrol team stops me on the way; because no evidence was issued for payment.

“But I bought the vehicle in Abuja from Customs accredited car stand and was given duty papers that had stamps and signature of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS),” said Oboro Okoh, a motorist recently stopped at the Forest axis near Jos on the Lafia-Akwanga-Kuru-Jos highway.

Apart from the illegalities, there are security concerns as the Riyom-Kuru axis of the highway is notorious and a hotbed for incessant ethno-religious crises on the Plateau.

“The long delays in the so-called document checks expose the travellers to possible attacks by criminals and other brigands who could take advantage of the situation to attack innocent motorists,” said Abdullahi, a motorist along the route.

“The particular spot where the checkpoint is domiciled had in the past witnessed killings of at least 30 persons prompting the security agencies to ban hawking and loitering by locals around the area.”

The motorists appealed to the CGC, Col. Hameed Ali (rtd) to rein in the fraudulent operatives who are out to destroy the little gains he has made in terms of checking corruption in the Service.

What the law says

Section 158 of the Customs and Excise Management Act (CEMA) gives Customs officers the ‘Power to patrol freely’. Section 149 also empowers a Customs officer to stop and search vehicles on suspicion that the duty is not paid or the vehicle is carrying goods whose duty have not been paid.

“No officer or police officer shall be liable to any prosecution or action at law on account of any stoppage or search in accordance with the provisions of this section,” it said.

According to the Common External Tariff (CET) the duty payment template of Customs, a Fully Built Unit (FBU) of a vehicle will have 35 per cent Import Duty (ID) paid at the port of entry or at the land borders and 7.5% Value Added Tax (VAT); used vehicles with petrol engine also attract 35% Import Duty (ID) and 7.5% VAT.

However, checks by this paper, show that monies being collected from Customs operatives at the various patrol points are outside the jurisdiction of the CEMA and are clearly acts of corruption, achieved through intimidation and harassment of unsuspecting motorists.

As a motorist, Danjuma Onah, puts, “How can you stop me and after you certified that my new vehicle has been duly cleared from the ports, they still demand that I buy fuel for them to aid their patrol? They forced me to part with N20,000 at the Ekiti and I cannot be happy about that.”

Customs in 2020, said it generated over N1 trillion ‘legal’ revenue and keeps about five percent as collection cost and operational expenses; it can run its fuel from that and more, showing clearly that the ‘un-receipted money’ its operatives get at patrol points are for private pockets.

Patrol legal, show proof of extortion, Customs tell motorists

When contacted, the Customs Public Relations Officer (CPRO), Deputy Comptroller Joseph Attah, said there was no directive that Customs patrol officers are restricted only to 40 kilometres from the borders. He said the directive was only on checkpoint and that it is being obeyed. Attah added that a checkpoint is to be 40km radius of the border.

“There is a difference between checkpoint and patrol. If anything is happening somewhere, a patrol team could go there and check and come back and does not need to stay for long,” he said.

On the extortion allegation, the CPRO said such acts were illegal. “People should not just make a blanket allegation. If anybody has any evidence of such operation, the right thing to do is to report the case officially and tell us the reasons. If it is true, it can be punished. If it is also true that the vehicle owner is not in order, the person can also be dealt with.”

Attah said if a customs duty is fake or incomplete, the penalty was that the vehicle would be seized and a demand notice would be raised to recover the remaining amount involved.

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