Ndubuisi Francis in Abuja, Ernest Chinwo in Port Harcourt, Eromosele Abiodun in Lagos, Segun Awofadeji in Bauchi and John Shiklam in Kaduna
Following the widespread outcry and threat of a lawsuit by Nigerians and the Vehicle Owners Association of Nigeria (VOAN) to challenge the decision by the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) to compel vehicle owners in the country to pay duties on uncustomised cars, the Customs Service on Monday beat a retreat, denying that its policy was targeted at car owners.
It also said that it never contemplated taking any measure to force compliance, adding that the policy was being “misconstrued, misinterpreted and has been blown out of proportion”.
The Customs Service was forced to backtrack on its policy even as car owners and dealers shunned its zonal offices in Port Harcourt, Kaduna and Bauchi, while the turnout was very low at its Lagos zonal office, where the NCS had directed car owners nationwide to pay their duties during the one-month grace period which came into effect on Monday.
The policy has been condemned by the Senate, which passed a resolution asking the NCS to suspend it, the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), civil society groups, and VOAN.
Despite the condemnation, NCS doubled-down on its directive by ordering car owners and dealers to comply, failing which their cars would be impounded. At best, it offered a 60 per cent rebate on cars bought before 2016.
Its refusal to suspend the policy, based on the Senate resolution, drew the wrath of the upper legislative chamber, which summoned the Comptroller-General of Customs, Col. Hameed Ali (rtd.) to appear in his uniform before the Senate on Wednesday.
However, speaking to THISDAY on the phone on Monday, the acting public relations officer of the NCS, Mr. Joseph Atta, regretted that the policy had been misconstrued, misinterpreted and blown out of proportion.
He also said that the threat by VOAN to take legal action against the Customs Service if it did not reverse the policy was uncalled for.
Attah stressed that at no time was the policy targeted at car owners.
However, this clarification by the Custom Service was conspicuously missing when it offered the 60 per cent rebate last week on cars bought before 2016.
According to Attah, there was nothing special about the policy to generate any kind of unnecessary hysteria from some quarters, adding that members of the Association of Motor Dealers of Nigeria (AMDON) were the ones who approached the NCS seeking to be allowed a period of grace to pay duties on uncustomised cars.
He stated that there was nothing new about the policy, except that motor dealers were asked to use the period to pay for unpaid duties on vehicles.
On compliance with the policy, for which the grace period commenced Monday, Attah asked for a few days to get feedback from the four zonal centres designated as duty collection centres.
The four zonal offices of the NCS are: Zone A Headquarters, No. 1 Harvey Road, Yaba, Lagos; Zone B Headquarters, Kabala Doki, Kaduna; Zone C Headquarters, Nigeria Ports Authority, Port Harcourt and Zone D Headquarters, Yelwa Tudu Road, Bauchi State.
Car Owners Ignore NCS
When THISDAY visited the Customs zonal office in Port Harcourt, one of the approved payment points for vehicle duties, car owners in the city and its environs gave the NCS the cold shoulder.
In fact, not a single motorist was found at its premises on Monday.
The few customs personnel seen in the premises were busy carrying out other functions. Neither the zonal PRO, Ken Olowo, nor the comptroller was at his desk.
However a member of staff of the NCS, who did not wish to be named, said he was aware that some persons had made enquiries about the payment of duties but none came to pay on Monday.
He blamed the situation on the “confusion” that trailed the intervention of the Senate.
He said he was certain that many Nigerians would have wished to pay the duty on their vehicles, but the stance of the Senate was a disincentive.
He said: “The action of the Senate asking the Customs to cancel the ultimatum is indirectly asking people not to pay duties on their vehicles.
“Besides, the Senate seems not to understand the law as it relates to the collection of duties. The law actually gives Customs up to seven years to still collect duties on any vehicle that may have escaped the payment of duties.
“Let us hope that our lawmakers would support us to encourage our people to pay duties. After all, Nigerians pay duties even in Cotonou (Benin Republic’s commercial capital) when they go to buy cars there but they prefer to smuggle the same car into Nigeria. This is not fair.”
He disclosed that even the President of the National Association of Car Dealers in Nigeria had even written to the Comptroller-General of Customs expressing the preparedness of its members to pay the necessary duties on vehicles imported into the country.
In Kaduna, it was no different as car owners and dealers in the state on Monday shunned the directive by the NCS.
When THISDAY visited the Zone B offices of the NCS in the Kabala Costain area of Kaduna Monday, no car owner or dealer came forward to pay duty.
Although the spokesman of the zone, Ado Idris, was not at his desk to respond to THISDAY’s enquiries, a senior Customs officer, who pleaded anonymity, explained that there were some slight changes to the directive.
According to him, the directive was no longer restricted to zonal customs offices.
He said car owners had been asked to report to any of the customs commands nearest to them.
“We have received directives that the various commands, especially in Zone B and D can collect the duties,” he said.