Allegations of fraud rock Customs e-auction … Nigerians demand suspension of exercise


Nigerians decry exclusion by Customs at e-auction

By Isaac Anumihe

there have been allegations and counter allegations from various interest groups and stakeholders across the country since the Hameed Ali led Customs service flaged off its first electronic auction to sell an estimated 2,000 vehicles seized at its various formation. The raging controversy trailing the auction was based on fears that it has been the veiled and shrouded in secrecy, prompting many to urge the Federal Government to suspend further auctions.

For most Nigerians, any process, that shut out the majority from participation cannot be accepted as transparent and should be suspended forthwith. Others have wondered why only Jaiz Bank, with limited branch network across the country can qualify for the auction, where over 23 more established banks were shut out for inexplicable reasons, a situation that raised strong suspicion that the auction was conducted to favour the North.

A stakeholder and the National Co-ordinator, Save Nigeria Freight Forwarders (SNFF), Mr. Patrick Osita Chukwu, said the process was not acceptable to Nigerians. According to him, the Federal Government should set up an auction commission that will privatise the auction sales so as to make the process transparent.

“In United States where auctions are being handled, every bank is acceptable by the government. So, nobody can tell us that only one bank qualified  for the  auction. That is not acceptable. The Federal Government should give a directive allowing approved Customs duty collecting banks to participate to allow more Nigerians to benefit from the auction,” he said.

“The process of this auction is not acceptable globally. The authorities would have set up an auction commission which would privatise the auction. The transparency, which the Federal Government wants to achieve through the process will be messed up at the end of the day.

“Let the Acting  President suspend the auction sales for now and bring all the parties together and let them harmonise the system to enable everybody participate. It is like a national cake. They want to use the auction to ‘pay’ those on top. Let them put a hold on this auction if they don’t want to cause disaffection in the country.

“Alternatively, the authorities should look for the owners of the seized cargoes with a view to making them pay for their cargoes. Remember, these cargoes are items that have been imported by some persons. Let them look for the owners through the manifest. The owners can come and pay for the items and take back their cargoes. Some people sold their houses while some deposited C of Os in the bank for loans to import some of those cargoes, but they ended up being held by Customs. What will be the fate of those who imported these cargoes? They lost their cargoes because of one mistake or the other. What happens to them?

“A situation where another person will pay N10 million for goods worth over N50 million is not acceptable. Why not look for the owner to pay that amount of money so that he will have something to pay to his bank in order to retain his house or property. Let them suspend the auction now. It is very fundamental,” he said.

A bidder, Mr. John  Badmus, who was shut out from the auction queried  why only a non-interest commercial bank emerged as the only institution used for the auction while the other 23 banks are still struggling with connectivity problem. Badmus, a freight forwarder, told Daily Sun that he suspects some foul play.

“I can’t understand why my bid was not taken because I tried for several hours and there was connectivity problem, even after Customs had assured that the system was hitch free,” he said.

Badmus called on the Federal Government to suspend the auction until all the grey areas are sorted out. He said it will be improper to deny Nigerians opportunity to bid for the cargoes. Another bidder who does not want his name in print, called for a probe of the current Customs auction.

However, another  freight forwarder, Mr. Olusegun Ologbese, interjected by saying that since the auction is a continuous exercise, the initial difficulty regarding the website will be freed up.

“I have not got the details of the auction. But I think I saw the CG talking on television. I am sure that there is no decision arrived at for that exercise that can be suspicious because I know the type of fellow the CG is. He is a man who will not want a reproach. Let us believe he would be thorough. Well, website is not friendly to everybody. So, if somebody does not get it today, he will get it tomorrow. It is a continuous exercise.”

One of the intending bidders and a maritime analyst, Mr Ismail Aniemu told Daily Sun that the idea is good because it is  one of the most transparent steps ever taken by this administration. According to him, it gives bidders  the confidence  that the winner of the items will  take delivery of them without favouritism or  godfatherism.

“For the first time in the history of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), there is an attempt to increase the degree of transparency in the auction sales of condemned items. When I said condemned I mean items that have gone through the court process and the court has approved the sale. So, it makes it very possible for only identifiable persons,  traceable persons, existing persons, not phoney names, not fabricated names, not a state where we have to suspect that not the same person who seized the items will now issue auction paper to non-existing persons and give to themselves. This makes it possible that every item that is purchased we know that it is Mr. A that purchased it. His identity is verifiable, traceable, without any form of godfatherism or  favouritism. In fact, this is a groundbreaking transparent method,” he noted.

On July 3, 2017, the NCS  inaugurated the e-auction platform aimed at giving all Nigerians equal opportunities to partake in bidding for seized vehicles with a view to  increasing  Customs’ revenue.

But few days after the Comptroller General of NCS,  Colonel Hameed Ali (retd), got widespread commendation from Nigerians for instituting what would be the first ever electronic auction for the Customs, the Service is again in the eye of the storm following what many described as a controversial award of successful bids to 43 bidders out of thousands of people that applied in the auction.

Customs spokesman, Mr. Joseph Attah, aggravated the matter when he said that only Jaiz Bank, Nigeria’s leading non-interest commercial bank, has the only active portal for the transaction while the other 23 banks were said to  be having interswitch challenges.

Attah also confirmed that at  the first day of the launch, there were technical challenges with the e-auction platform but stated that those challenges  have already been resolved while potential  bidders can register smoothly without hitches.

“The first 48 hours expired at 12noon on Wednesday (July 5, 2017) and 43 persons won the bidding including a journalist. So you can see this platform is working. For now, it is only Jaiz Bank that is on the platform.  Other designated banks are having interswitch issues and they will soon be on board as soon as they ratify the issues.

“I understand that today (July 6, 2017) one bank will soon be on board. For those trying to register, they should go to the designated bank area on the platform, click on the Jaiz Bank and print out the page from their system and go to the bank to pay.

“This means the person has activated with Jaiz Bank and the bank can key you into the bank system to enable you pay the N1,000 administrative fee, which will be transferred to your e-wallet,’’ he said.

The statement added that the portal has been fully networked to designated banks to ensure that money accruing from the auction gets to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Treasury Single Account (TSA) for transparency and accountability.

The conditions for the e-auction qualification include that applicants must have a valid Tax Identification Nnumber (TIN) issued by Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) with an active e-mail account and shall pay a non-refundable fee of N1,000 as administrative charge. An item is auctioned “as is” as such request for replacement or refund shall not be entertained. The successful bidder shall make payment within five working days and failure to pay within the stipulated timeframe, the items revert to the second highest bidder.

However, despite assurances by the spokesman, the challenges continued in the second round of the auction, which took place on Monday, July 10, 2017. This has prompted Attah to explain that three Customs duty collecting banks were not only carried along, they  were properly trained to participate in the bidding process.

“When the platform was developed, it was subjected to user-acceptability test with all the banks, including the CBN. Throughout this period, no bank indicated any problem with the platform,” he said.

According to Attah, following the official launch of the bidding platform, https.app.trade.gov.ng/eauction, it was discovered that only Jaiz Bank was ready and active on the platform.

To this  end, NCS immediately wrote to all the designated banks requesting  them to integrate with the e-auction application for the recharging of e-wallet.

So, on Wednesday (July 12, 2017), the NCS sent another letter to CBN to confirm the readiness of all the commercial banks under its supervision to perform their roles to ensure the success of the project. NCS was told that other banks were making efforts to sort out technical problem on their platforms to enable them hook up to the bidding system.

Attah said the first round featured 282 registered bidders.  While a total of 268 bidders were enabled, 245 of them generated e-wallet assessment.

“The maiden round, which lasted for 48 hours, had vehicles of different makes, categories and models. It featured 282 registered bidders. A total of 268 bidders were enabled while 245 of them generated e-wallets assessment. Sixty-eight people were able to recharge their e-wallets with  N1,000 before bidding,” he said.

Attah added that those who were unable to utilise their recharged e-wallets before 48 hours of the first batch elapsed can use it to bid in the second round. He said the identified challenges encountered in the first batch would be addressed by the ICT unit of the Customs.

He expressed hope that more commercial banks will come on board to ease access  for payments unlike the first round when it was only Jaiz Bank that had a functional portal.

 

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