By Remi Adebayo
President Bola Ahmed Tinubu recently thumbed down the practice of servicing Nigeria’s humongous loans with huge national revenue.
The President’s description of that practice as destructive is indeed apt considering Nigeria’s rising population and comparable resources needed to cater for the citizens.
Available records indicate that Nigeria’s foreign and domestic liabilities were in excess of US$100 billion as of 2022; a burden which experts have blamed on successive governments, especially the immediate past administration.
“Can we continue to service external debts with 90% of our revenue? It is a path to destruction. It is not sustainable. We must make the very difficult changes that are necessary for our country to get up from slumber and be respected among the great nations of the world,” the President told lawyers while declaring open the annual conference of the Nigerian Bar Association in Abuja.
Although the president is under pressure to allow massive food importation as a short- term measure to arrest rising cost of living, the porous nature of Nigeria’s borders dictates otherwise. Taking such route will amount to reversing the gains made in curbing insurgency and cross-border banditry especially along Nigeria’s border up North.
This is where the e-Customs Project conceived but later stalemated under the former President Muhammadu Buhari should be re-examined to help boost the operations of the Nigeria Customs Service, NCS, for improved efficiency, block loopholes and increase revenue accruing to government.
The NCS Modernization Project, otherwise called e-Customs Project was given anticipatory approval by President Buhari on September 17, 2019 and subsequently stamped by the Federal Executive Council as a Public Private Partnership model in September 2020.
The project was conceived in 2015 to address the challenges of dysfunctional scanners and other gadgets, tax evasion, lack of monitoring system, smuggling of goods across the borders, inflow of banned items, lack of transparency and cumbersome functions of the Customs Service.
It is untidy and smacks of high handedness that the Buhari Administration will override its first approval without cancelling a previous approval by the President-in-Council.
It is on record that Messrs E-customs HC Project Limited and Bionica Technologies (West Africa) Limited, the original concessionaires, have jointly challenged the alleged unlawful and fraudulent replacement of their names in the concession agreement earlier approval by President Buhari and ratified by FEC on 2 September, 2020.
The firm had raised the alarm of “a sinister plot” to scheme it out as the approved concessionaire and replace it will an unknown entity registered at the Corporate Affairs Commission on 5 April, 2022, almost two years when the project was first ratified by the Federal Executive Council!
It is inconceivable that the nation’s highest decision-making body which in September 2020 approved a 20-year Public Private Partnership – PPP concession, valued at $3.1billion to Messrs E. Customs HC Project Limited as initial concessionaire, will allow a few selfish government officials to convince it in approving an illegal concession. How does a company benefit from a process in which it didn’t participate?
It is disconcerting that less than five weeks to the end of the Buhari Administration, the Federal Executive Counting did close its eyes to a valid court order and allowed itself to be misguided.
The willingness to side-track due process and best practice methods by top officials of the Buhari administration on the e-Customs project through a second and hurried FEC approval was nothing but a desperate bid to empower cronies of retiring President Buhari before the end of his administration. With the recourse to litigation by the parties involved in the project, it is now coming to light that President Buhari may have been misled to override an earlier approval granted by the FEC, where he presided on 2 September, 2020.
While government officials can be parochial in their actions, majority of Nigerians are waiting to reap the benefits promised by the project, especially full automation of Nigeria Custom’s business processes and procedures through the development and implementation of a robust and secure ICT platform, implementation of modern customs border stations, airports and marine posts as well as revenue enhancement.
President Tinubu, now wooing international investments from across the globe, must show more than a passing interest in the e-Customs Project where Nigeria stands to reap huge revenue. More importantly, Nigeria cannot be a laughing stock among international investors!
*Adebayo is ED, Accountable Leadership for Better Nigeria Initiative.