Leke Baiyewu and Ifeanyi Onuba, Abuja
The Comptroller General of Nigeria Customs Service, Col. Hameed Ali (retd.), has dropped his earlier plan not to honour the summons of the Senate.
A reliable source close to the leadership of the Senate told one of our correspondents on Tuesday that Ali was advised to honour the Senate invitation in order to avert a clash between the Legislature and the Executive.
Ali had told the Senate, in a letter, that he would not appear before the lawmakers on Wednesday (today) as his summons to the chamber coincided with the routine management meeting of the NCS.
The Customs boss requested the upper chamber of the National Assembly to fix another date for his appearance.
Ali’s letter, which was signed by an Assistant Comptroller General, Azarema Abdulkadir, was read to lawmakers at the plenary on Tuesday.
The Senate had, on Thursday, asked the Customs boss to appear before it “unfailingly” on Wednesday, stating that Ali would not be admitted into the chamber if he failed to appear in the uniform of the service showing his rank as the DG.
A source told The PUNCH that the Customs boss was advised by the Special Adviser to the President on National Assembly Matters, Senate, Ita Enang, to meet with Senate President Bukola Saraki ahead of his appearance before the Senate on Wednesday (today).
On Tuesday evening, Ali arrived at the National Assembly complex at 5.30pm.
He first had a short meeting with the Majority Leader, Senator Ahmad Lawan, before moving to Saraki’s office, where they had a closed-door meeting.
Security operatives shielded the Customs boss from journalists when he was approached for comments after the meeting.
He left the National Assembly at 6.45pm.
The letter was dated March 14, 2017, and was delivered to Saraki after the plenary.
According to the source, the Customs DG disregarded his first letter to the Senate, in which he informed the Senate of his intention not to appear before the lawmakers on Wednesday.
“He wrote a second letter after the Presidency’s intervention.
‘‘There are more chances now that he will answer the Senate’s summons tomorrow. People are now seeking soft landing for him,” the source said.
Unlike the first letter which was signed by an Assistant Comptroller General, Ali personally signed the second letter.
In the second letter, the Customs DG made no reference to the first letter.
The second letter read, “May I respectfully refer to your letter dated 9 March and inform Your Excellency that the decision on payment of Customs duties by vehicle owners, who do not have them as prescribed by law, is currently being reviewed. The goal of the review is to take a broad additional input from the stakeholders and the public. I will welcome the opportunity to avail the Senate of our findings.
“Regarding the wearing of uniform, I wish to advise that the Senate avails itself of the legal basis of its decision to compel me to wear uniform.
“I am similarly taking legal advice on this issue so that both the Senate and I will operate within the proper legal framework.”
Senators berate Ali over planned boycott of invitation
Earlier on Tuesday, the Senate had insisted that Ali, who had informed the lawmakers that he would not be able to appear before them, must show up before the legislators on Wednesday (today) as requested.
The lawmakers, who took turns to condemn the service for defying an order stopping it from implementing its new duty on old vehicles, resolved to “invite the Comptroller General of Customs to appear in plenary and in uniform.”
Senate President Bukola Saraki, who presided over the Tuesday plenary, directed the Clerk to the Senate, to whom Ali’s letter was addressed, to read it to lawmakers at the session.
The letter titled ‘Re:Invitation to brief the Senate,’ read, “I am directed to acknowledge the receipt of your letter (with Reference Number NASS/CS/8S/R/09/29) of 9th March, 2017, on the above subject matter.
“I am further directed to inform you that the date given to the Comptroller General of the Nigeria Customs Service –Wednesday, 15th March, 2017 – to brief the Senate in plenary on the retrospective duty payment on vehicles in Nigeria has coincided with the fortnight meeting of the NCS management.
“Consequently, the Comptroller General is humbly requesting a new date from the distinguished Senate.
“As we await your favourable response, please be assured of the highest regards and esteem of the Comptroller General of Customs.”
While the Majority Leader, Senator Ahmad Lawan, pleaded for a soft landing for the Customs boss, other lawmakers disagreed.
The aggrieved senators, who pointed out that the Customs’ management was not superior to the federal legislature, criticised Ali’s failure to personally sign the letter.
Lawan stated, “First, the excuse for not appearing tomorrow is because it coincided with routine fortnightly meeting of the management of the Nigeria Customs Service. My opinion is that that does not take precedence over the invitation by the Senate.
“Second, the letter was signed by someone else, not the CG. My opinion is: a letter coming to the Senate from the Customs, especially when an invitation was written to the Customs CG to appear here; he should have taken personal interest in writing and signing it; that would have given my judgment some sense of respect for the institution, not for us.”
Lawan, while pleading that the lawmakers postpone Ali’s appearance to Thursday, hinted that the part of the grievances against the postponement was that the Senate plenary would be aired live on Wednesday.
The Majority Leader said, “Mr. President, distinguished colleagues, I feel slighted and I am sure everybody feels the same. However, let me add that this Senate should, if possible, oblige the request for the extension, to show that we are different. “Let’s take him on Thursday, if he is saying he can’t be available tomorrow. Two wrongs will not make a right. I know we feel hurt but distinguished colleagues, whether it is live coverage or not, Nigerians have interest in this and Nigerians will like to listen to the responses and explanations of the CG of Customs.”
In his submission, Senator James Manager, described the Senate as an institution built over the years.
“The integrity of this Senate is being tested. When letters like this are coming from executive bodies, the Senate must take a very firm stand.
“I disagree with my leader, Senator Ahmad Lawan, with the greatest possible respect. If the CG had written (the letter and it) was signed by him and, then, going further, if he had established personal contact with the President of the Senate through the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Customs, then, that would have been understandable.
“But, the man asked somebody else to sign this letter to the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. This is very significant.
“This is an arm of government. Although the House of Representatives is there, this is the highest lawmaking body of this country and somebody like the CG (will be) writing a letter signed by somebody else, saying ‘I am directed’ to the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Certainly, this is not a matter of two wrongs not making a right.
“The Comptroller General of Customs must appear tomorrow.”
Saraki, after asking if there was any lawmaker against what Lawan and Manager said, and none differed, stated that Ali must appear in uniform before the lawmakers on Wednesday as earlier requested by the legislature.
He said, “I don’t think there is the need for us to prolong this issue and the position of the Senate is clear: he should appear tomorrow as directed and in uniform as in the earlier resolution. And we are waiting to see him here tomorrow by 10.30am.”
After the plenary, the Chairman, Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Senator Sabi Abdullahi, while briefing journalists, however, described the reason cited by Ali for his impending non-appearance as an insult to the Senate.
“This is an insult to the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the Senate is not taking it lightly,” Abdullahi said.
The Senate’s spokesman noted that Nigerians must stand up for “situations like this” as the issue for which Ali was summoned was “not only dear to Nigerians but it is something we consider very critical.”
Abdullahi said in part, “We are saying that Nigerians must not be taken for granted. What we are saying here is that the Nigeria Customs Service is being run in a manner it wants Nigerians to pay for its inefficiencies.
“The law setting it up is clear on what it should do. And nobody is telling us about the measures put in place to deal with those who are responsible for the leakages and misstep that have taken place, leading to wrong importation and payment of duty.
“Tomorrow, we have a date with the Comptroller General and may God spare our lives till tomorrow.
“It is not about Ali, it is about the rule of law; it is about ensuring that the right thing is done; it is about defending the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria at all times.
Ali had on March 9, 2017, through a circular, issued a one-month ultimatum – from March 13 to April 12, 2017 – for owners of all vehicles within the country, whose correct customs duties had not been fully paid, to do so.
But last Tuesday, the upper chamber of the National Assembly rejected the policy, stating that the NCS had no legal backing to implement such a directive.
The next day, the service defied the directive from the Senate, insisting that the one-month ultimatum for owners of such vehicles to pay the appropriate duties remained sacrosanct.
Consequently, the Senate summoned Ali to appear before it and explain the policy.
Ali’ll do the appropriate thing –Customs
When contacted on Tuesday to find out if Ali would honour the Senate’s invitation in view of the insistence of the lawmakers that the Customs CG must appear before them on Wednesday, the Acting Public Relations Officer, NCS, Joseph Attah, simply said the CG would do the right thing.
“He would do the appropriate thing. The CG would do the appropriate thing,” Attah said without being specific.
When pressed to confirm if doing “the appropriate thing” means that the CG would appear before the Senate as directed, Attah stated, “I have the confidence that the CGC will do the appropriate thing.” (Punchng.com)