BY SOLOMON UCHE
When Hameed Ibrahim Ali (Rtd Col.) was named as the Comptroller General of the Nigeria Customs Service in August 2015, the news was accepted with a mix of apprehension and glee. He came to the office with what most people thought was his only asset, integrity, and was thought to be deficient on the technical know-how.
Not being a professional customs officer, pundits thought he may not have the grounding to understand the nuances of the service. Besides, it was thought that being an outsider, he might not enjoy the cooperation of men and women of the service.
These were valid concerns for stakeholders who wanted a more responsive and more efficient customs service that could facilitate the ease of doing business while also enhancing the revenue profile of the country.
After nearly four years in charge, Alli has not only changed the NCS to a major revenue earner for the country but had also converted most of his critics to admirers.
In 2017, less than two years after his appointment the NCS recorded its highest revenue collection ever of N1,012,259,006,779.74. The NCS crossed the trillion-naira threshold in a year when the Federal Government had set a target of N770 billion for it. It was also a huge lead from the N898,673,857,431.07 recorded in the previous year.
It was an incredible feat at a time the economy experienced a recession which resulted in a low volume of imports and restriction placed on 41 items from accessing Forex. But the spectacular performance was not a happenstance. It reflects the character and focus of Col. Ali which has made him an icon that he is today.
He obviously came to the office armed with a clear mandate from Mr. President to undertake reforms and re-structuring the service to enhance its capacity to generate more revenue. A huge mandate considering his professional experience was in the military, and NCS had garnered an uncanny reputation for revenue leakages.
Ali knew he could not succeed without the help of the management and staff of the NCS who carry out the day to day operations of the service. So, at the first meeting with the senior management staff of the Service, he pleaded with them not to see him as an outsider but as someone who had come to join hands with them to rebuild the institution.
“The mandate he has given me are three basic things: go to Customs, reform Customs, restructure Customs and increase the revenue generation, simple. I don’t think that is ambiguous, I don’t think that is cumbersome. It is precise and I believe that is what all of you are here to do,” he was quoted as telling the senior officers.
The approach has made it easier for him to execute his mandate successfully without any disrupting the system. According to NCS Public Relations Officer, Joseph Attah, Col. Ali undertook some strategic measures in terms of restructuring and repositioning the service for efficient service delivery which resulted in the huge upsurge in revenue collection.
Part of these measures includes strategic redeployment of officers and retraining of the operatives of the Customs Intelligence Unit to improve efficiency. He also created the Customs Police to serve as an internal mechanism to check and ensure discipline among its personnel. The Customs police were trained at the Nigeria military police school in Zaria, Kaduna State.
The Customs Police and the intelligent unit of the service have helped in no small measure to check smuggling, which had long been a challenge for the service and the menace seemed intractable. The strategies initiated under Col. Ali has brought a dramatic turn-around and substantially curtailed the activities of smugglers.
Col. Ali had provided a leadership model that teaches discipline and professionalism by the force of personal example. His work ethics are exemplary. He is one of the earliest to show up at the office and one of the last to leave. He is always a man at work and not one for the fanfare of office. And he makes similar demands from those who work with him. He had no doubt pushed many of the management and officers of the NCS beyond their best boundaries.
That was why he told some visiting lawmakers who expected to see him waiting to receive them when they came to the customs headquarters on oversight assignment that he could not leave his work to be waiting for them!
Since he assumed office, there have been less circumventing of due process in the activities of the service.
Customs car auctions have become more transparent and potential buyers need not know anyone at the service to benefit from the auctions. It is a far cry from what obtained in the past when unscrupulous officers management staff favour their clients. Now the process is done online and in a highly transparent manner. Many who have benefitted have publicly confirmed the transparency of the process.
Promotion and recruitment of personnel have similarly become more transparent and merit-based. These have further promoted professionalism in the NCS-a development that reflects on the operations of the service.
The Col. Ali example has amply demonstrated that given the right leadership and better support from Nigerians, NCS could play a more pivotal role in the security and economic well-being of the nation.
Of course, there are still challenges with smuggling and ease of doing business. The Customs has been criticized for incessant interception of goods cleared at the ports, something which is against international best practices. Critics have rightly argued that there is no reason why operatives of the Customs should be stopping containers on the way, particularly within few meters after the port gate for another round of checks.
In 2018, Rotimi Amaechi, minister of transportation, accused the NCS of frustrating the National Single Window (NSW) project meant to hasten cargo clearance process at the nation’s ports. The NSW is a platform meant to integrate all agencies involved in the clearance of cargoes at the ports with a view to ease the inspection, calculation, and payment of all import duties, levies and other charges.
Having achieved the mandate handed him by Mr. President, Col.Ali must now harken to frontally confront these challenges with the gusto his appointment has imposed on the service.
Uche writes from Lagos