Abdullahi Dikko Inde has garnered innumerable laurels since he assumed office as Comptroller-General of the Nigeria Customs Services. In this interview in his office, he tells the African Leadership Magazine team of Kingsley Okeke, Sam Hart, Ogbonnaya Alu and Angela Iyaji how he has transformed the Nigeria Customs Services Excerpts:
What was your mandate when you took over as Comptroller-General of Customs and how far have you gone in delivering on those Mandates?
The mandate of the Customs as you know is statutorily about Revenue Collection, Anti-Smuggling Drive and Trade Facilitation and I can assure you that there is nothing that we can achieve without a proper structure and as you are aware, the Nigeria Customs Service has passed through almost 30 years of Pre-Shipment Inspection which meant that the statutory responsibility of Customs Officers was taken away and contracted to private companies. So you had a situation where Customs Officials were redundant for 25-30 years which led to the abandonment of the core duties of the Customs and knowledge was at its lowest ebb. Upon assumption of office, we purposed in our heart that it was time for the Customs to go back to its original duty. Upon assumption of office, I requested to have a Deputy Comptroller-General – meaning a full department that will take care of capacity building. The request was graciously granted and we got started. As I speak to you, virtually everybody in the Nigeria Customs Service has gone back to school including myself because for 25-30 years, under the pre-shipment inspection regime, we were only domiciled in Nigeria. We knew nothing about what was happening in the world, we were only operating at the mercy of what the people gave to us. But upon assumption of office, I made it mandatory that everyone must go back to school. We approved courses, trainings, capacity building, workshops, seminars and all manners of re-education all over the world. It is not about the class room or what you are going to learn but about seeing the way others are doing their own customs duties. At the border, at the airports, at the seaports. So what we did was to devote the last quarter of 2009 up to the 2nd quarter of 2010 to manpower development and constant training and re-training. If you look at our revenue profile from that time, you will notice that that was the period it started rising leading to the high returns we had in 2011 and 2012. So we came back in June 2010 and I set out the 6-Point Agenda which we articulated as our guide and we took it point by point. What we do is to evaluate our performance as against our benchmark on the agenda and we are able to gauge our actual performance based on the goals we set for ourselves on that particular agenda. And now, I can assure you that we are even thinking of introducing a new Agenda because we have since surpassed the targets we set for ourselves when we formulated the 6-point agenda. I tell you with all confidence that out of a 19,000-strong workforce, as at today, 12,891 men and officers of the Nigeria Customs Service have attended one training course or another and till today, we are still going on courses. When I assumed office, I knew part of my job was to identify what will make me to deliver on the mandate that was handed down to me and we thank God that today, we have delivered and surpassed the mandate that was given to us.
When you assumed office, Revenue Generation was N30Billion and today we read that the revenue is now N100Billion per month. How were you able to achieve this feat?
It is part of our 6-point agenda. Imagine a situation where we reformed the activities of the service but the individuals that make up the service are left out of the reforms. It won’t work. They have to be motivated. Hitherto, we had a situation where an officer for almost 30 years has not attended a single training. That is number one. Secondly, you have a situation where an officer is generating a revenue of N30 Billion Naira Monthly and he is living below the poverty level. His take home pay cannot take him home and he is seeing the amount of money he is making for the Government. You will agree with me that such a scenario encourages corruption. If he finds out that there are loopholes he can exploit to enrich himself to the detriment of government, he will gladly take it because he feels shortchanged. Even if he observes mistakes and lapses from those who fixed the duties to be paid, he wouldn’t bother because he will say why should he bother making money for government when they are not looking after him. We reviewed the situation and I informed Mr. President that we need to do a reform. He said CG, what happened to all the reforms they have been doing in Customs? And I said there is still one more reform that has not been addressed. Which one he asked and I said the reform of the pockets of the officers and men of the Customs. There and then, he gave his approval for us to improve on the welfare of officers and men of the Nigeria Customs. The system is set up in such a way that our funding is dependent on 7% of what we were able to generate. Whatever we generate, 7% belongs to us. Now do the maths. When we came, it was N30Billion. If you take 7% out of 30Billion, what will you get? N2.1 Billion per month for the entire Customs Service in Nigeria. What we were basically doing was to pay salaries because by the time you finish paying the salaries of all the men, there will be nothing left for capital projects and the likes. Today, the officers are motivated and we are generating N100Billion Monthly. What do we get from that? N7Billion Naira Monthly. You see the difference? Now we can pay salaries and have left overs to embark on Capital Projects, purchase of vehicles and equipments for service delivery, training and retraining, etcetera. We were also able to look at other aspects of remuneration. Hotel allowance, night allowance, travel allowance, we made sure that these men had multiple ways of legitimately getting income in the course of their job and they became more motivated and the more motivated they became, the more revenue they generated and the more revenue they generated, the more money was available to us to remunerate them even further so it’s a circle that benefits everybody in the long run. I will tell you an interesting story. When we announced the salary increase, we were yet to implement it, just the announcement, the next month, we generated revenue of N45Billion! Motivation. Just the news they heard and they were motivated to increase generation by 50%. When they saw that it was actually real, that the salary that was promised them has been paid – I hear they call it Dikko Alert – they didn’t believe it. Some people called the account department to say that there has been a mistake, we have received money in our account that does not belong to us and we assured them that it belonged to them. We assured them that it was a new beginning and that if they did their part by ensuring high revenue inflow, they will get even more. The next month, we raised N55Billion. And it grew steadily. They were willing to go the extra mile. They patrolled areas they would have overlooked, searched suspicious vehicles they would have ignored, bought petrol with their own money to fuel patrol vans and pursued smugglers into dangerous areas that they would have ignored before. Now that they are motivated, they went the extra mile and everybody is the happier for it.
Having increased the Salary and Welfare of your men, what steps did you take to block those areas from where they were making illicit money in time past to ensure that all moneys come into the federal Government coffers.
Thank you. Having properly remunerated them, we looked at the areas of revenue leakages. The major avenue we identified through which we can do that is to reduce contact with officers to the barest minimum. We worked out a scheme to reduce person-to-person contact, contact between Customs Officers and agents. What we did was to ask whoever wants to do business with the Customs to just get a computer with internet connection. We call it the Direct Traders Input. Instead of coming to the Customs to say that you want to clear a container thereby precipitating contact with Customs officials, you go to a registered company that handles such interface for the Nigeria Customs Service, these are companies we can guarantee that they know about our tariffs, rules and regulations, the company will receive your declaration from you and send it to us online and if there is any mistake or need for further clarification, we reply back online and you correct and send back to us. These portals are manned 24 hours so there is not contact between the importer and a Customs official except when it is absolutely necessary and even at that, it must go through layers of authority before money is discussed. If you look at it, you will agree that where there is no contact, there cannot be accusation of bribe demand or payment. We have now thrown the compliance to the stake-holders. Whoever wants to transact business with the Customs, ensure compliance and we will do it faster. It is when you want to start cutting corners that you get into trouble. On our own side as Customs officials, we have to ensure integrity. If you have nothing to do with anybody, allow him to go.
Recently, we read that you acquired an aircraft for surveillance and patrol. How well have you deployed this aircraft for the purpose it was meant for?
Currently, we are having a little challenge in the sense that we don’t have a hanger of our own but fair enough, Mr. President has approved that we get a Hanger at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport and our dearly beloved Minister of Finance has backed us up with the requisite funds and Members of the National Assembly have been gracious enough to approve the funding of the construction of the Hanger and I can tell you that the physical structure is about 90% complete awaiting installation of requisite equipments. At the moment, we are operating from Kaduna. There is a surface to earth visual equipment which is supposed to enable us see the aircraft on ground while it is patrolling our borders but we cannot access that yet because we lack the technical equipments to monitor the data. But I assure you that in the next couple of months, we will commission that Hanger and install all requisite equipments. What we rely on at the moment is photographs. We have six aircraft now. When our helicopters fly low around our borders, they take photographs and transmit to us to analyze and dispatch men wherever suspicious movements are observed. In some instances, we inform the military and they assist us with some of their men and we invade the locations. Most of the spectacular seizures you have read about came about as a result of the effort of these aircraft. When we complete our Hanger and move our surveillance headquarters to Abuja, we will do even more.
The Nigerian Customs is rated highly among World Custom Organisations, what did we do to earn such a high rating in a global body?
I learnt from the Japanese revolution in the early 1970s. they sent their people all round the world to go and acquire knowledge and return home and develop their knowledge into a local industry and that is exactly what I did here when I took over. Most of the softwares that we are using for our operations were studied by our people whom we sent out who then returned to develop the same software here and then domesticated it to suit our peculiar challenges. The ICT Department is located in this building. Right on top of me as we speak and that is where a lot of amazing things are emanating from. After this interview, I will take you to see our latest innovation, the Nigerian Trade Hub. It is second to none all over the world. It is highly interactive and easy to use. If you don’t know anything about import, just go to the website, upon the click of a mouse, it will guide you step by step until you complete all the processes up to the delivery of your cargo in Nigeria. I am proud to state that this wave-making innovative programme was developed by young officers of the Nigeria Customs Services. The word impossible does not exist in my dictionary. We will make mistakes, we will sit down and correct our mistakes and fine-tune it until we get the best. I am proud of my IT people and I will celebrate them wherever I go. The other day, we invited the Minister for Communication Technology. She was here and saw what these young officers were doing here and she marveled. You need to hear her comment on tape. You know they are into e-governance in her Ministry but what they saw here was something else.
Which of your policies are you most proud of since you assumed office?
Integrity! As a Comptroller-General, there is one thing I believe. Anybody you see here irrespective of his rank and position are the same in my sight. Everybody here knows that you cannot approach me with any illegality. If I close from this office, no Customs Officer can approach me with any approval except on emergency. They know that you cannot come to my house and start trying to discuss any official matter clandestinely. No. let all official discussions be held in the office. As you can see, I am rarely alone here. I always have one officer or the other with me and I encourage them to sit in during my meetings. That way, you know I have nothing to hide and there is no room for you to broach any illegality with me. You can’t see me in camera. No. see me in front of my people and discuss whatever you want to discuss with me in their presence.
You were recently re-elected Chairman, West and Central African Region of the World Customs Organisation. How have you been able to synergize with heads of other African Customs organizations to share ideas with them?
You know initially, we had this language division between the Francophone Bloc and the Anglophone Bloc but one thing I have realized is that good leadership conquers all barriers. It is about performance. One thing we realized was that some of our smaller African neighbours had very minor challenges that by the grace of God, we had long overcome. We sourced for resource people who could reach them and understand what their needs were and how we could assist them and we have been assisting and it is doing the magic. Some of the needs are quite small. Some countries need a car or two for patrol, some cant afford to travel for International Customs meetings, some have derelict equipment and outdated modes of approaching problems. What we did was that with the support and permission of the Federal Government, we assisted them. A vehicle here, computers there, airfare here and everybody is happy. Now, at the borders, they allow us take charge because they know that we are their partners in progress and we treat them with respect so their men at the borders treat our men with that respect and allow them take the lead in joint operations. Hitherto, the greatest opposition we faced in whatever was been contested within the Customs family in Africa was Cameroun but with the work that we have done, Cameroun has submitted and they have conceded the leadership to Nigeria for as long as we wish to lead the West and Central African Bloc of the World Customs Organisation.
What are the challenges you are facing?
Again, I go back to the issue of integrity. We still have problems with some of our officers who are finding it difficult to accept the new order of reforms. They still believe that the new innovations we introduced which is mainly ICT based was introduced to ease them out because they believe in the old manual system and they have refused to learn the new computerized system. Another challenge we have is with the stakeholder. They still have problem with complying with the new order. They believe the only way they can make higher returns is by bribing unscrupulous Customs officials and cutting corners. If these two categories of people I mentioned can embrace the new order, we will go far. We were not naïve enough to believe that everyone will fall in line but as they come up with ways to beat the system, we too are coming up with advanced ways of stopping them. We are investing a lot in our men and officers and we expect honesty and integrity from them in reciprocity. Every revenue due to the Government must get to the government. Under the watch of Abdullahi Dikko Inde, every kobo due to the government from the Nigeria Customs Service will get to government and no about of sabotage will deter us.
Other than Ports Services and Border Policing, what are the other functions of the Nigeria Customs Services?
There is Trade Facilitation. This was the major reason why we automated the system to get this paperless transaction we are doing now. It is all to reduce the cost of doing business in Nigeria and avoid the importers transferiing the cost to consumers. When you bring in a Container up to 5 times and we ascertain that this importer has built integrity, we move you to fast track status such that your containers are given priority status. We have non-intrusive scanners which tell us the content of containers and when these containers have been moved to the importer’s warehouse, if there is need for further checks to verify a grey area, we conduct it there and that is part of our additional responsibility. Note also that no countries economy survives without the input of the Customs service because we are in the first line when it comes to import and export. When government wants to develop protectionist policies, the consult us and we tell them what is been highly imported so they can look at raising levies there and what is been hardly exported so they can provided incentives for international importers. Blocking prohibited goods are our duty and by so doing, we encourage local production. These and many more are some of the behind-the-scene services we render which help stimulate the economy.
President Goodluck Jonathan recently commissioned the Staff School in Gwagwalada. What influenced the building of that school?
I did tell you that on assumption of office, we laid a lot of emphasis on training. Counting the sost after a year, we saw that we had spent a monumental amount of money paying for training courses. We then decided to build our own school where we will invite these same instructors from abroad of which the cost to us will be their upkeep and they will inturn train our people in thousands at a time here in Nigeria. It saves cost, it saves man hours and it develops our own local capacity because as they are conducting these trainings locally, our own instructors are understudying them and learning. We have not ruled out foreign trainings, no. but what we did was to use this building to enable us capture a wider array of training needs without necessarily going abroad all the time.
Going forward, what should be expect from the Nigeria Customs Services under you?
Going forward, expect a higher level of compliance with the new reforms by stakeholders, men and officers of the Nigeria Customs, expect greater integrity in the way we do things and expect a more efficient, better educated, highly motivated, ICT Driven and highly competent workforce.