Before you pay for that vehicle…

Some friends had an unfortunate incident on a road trip out of Lagos. They were stopped by officers of the Nigerian Customs Service who demanded to see their papers. To the shock of my friends, on presentation of the vehicles particulars, the Customs officers declared the clearance documents for the vehicle to be fake and that the car was to be seized and impounded.

Their intention was to seize the car and leave the passengers and their load stranded in the middle of nowhere. Naturally, my friends were less than enthusiastic about this and after hours of arguing and phone calls, they were finally allowed to leave with their vehicle with a warning that they should rectify their clearance papers.

The powers and duties of Nigerian Customs Service officials are provided for under the Customs and Excise Management Act. The Act gives Customs officials wide powers with respect to the management, collection and enforcement of duties of customs and excise. Section 8 of the Act actually provides that all Custom Officers shall have the same powers, authorities and privileges as are given by law to police officers.

Therefore, Customs officers have the power to conduct searches of vehicles where they have “reasonable” suspicions and demand to inspect vehicle particulars. The law also gives them the right to seize and impound vehicles without proper clearance documents.

However, how does a vehicle owner determine whether he has valid customs clearance papers?

For the average Nigerian who buys his car from car dealers in the country, the assumption is that the car was brought into the country legally and the clearance documents issued by Customs given by the car dealer are genuine. Unfortunately, there is no way to confirm this without going to the nearest Customs office.

And that involves the risk (if you go there with the vehicle) of the vehicle being seized and probably auctioned off by the Customs office if the documents are not found to be valid.

This system needs to be changed. There ought to be an easier way one can confirm the genuineness of one’s vehicles clearance papers supposedly issued by Customs. You can verify your vehicles insurance policy using the Nigerian Insurance Industry Database online so it stands to reason that one should be able to verify ones vehicle clearance just as easily, especially in this modern age of technology.

As stated earlier, if you go with the vehicle to the customs office to verify its clearance papers, you run the risk of it being seized and impounded if the papers are found to be invalid or improperly registered. Under the Customs and Excise Management Act, a vehicle which has been seized by the Nigerian Customs Service for whatever reason and no written notice of claim has been given

by the owner or any requirement has not been complied with within a month from when the vehicle was seized, that vehicle will be deemed condemned and forfeited. This means if you have not rectified or given good reason why your vehicle is not liable to be seized within a month of the seizure, Customs will treat the vehicle as forfeited and may get rid of it by selling it, usually at a ridiculously cheap price.

And if you manage to rectify whatever default that led to your vehicle being seized, you will still be required to make a payment before your vehicle is released. How is this fair to the owner who had no hand in importing the vehicle?

There is also the possibility that Custom officers may abuse the powers granted them. What is to stop an officer declaring your vehicles clearance documents fake just so it can be impounded and sold to a friend for huge difference in value? There is no way for you to disprove the allegation that the documents are fake except going to the Customs office.

And even if you prove that there is nothing wrong with the vehicles paperwork, you still have to pay to have your vehicle released. Someone once had to fork out almost N160,000 to have her vehicle released by Customs after proving that her documents were in order.

It is therefore advisable, before making your next car purchase and to avoid nasty surprises, to take the time to confirm that the car you wish to buy was properly cleared by Customs and proper documents were issued.

We can only hope that someday soon the Nigerian Customs Service will provide a portal for simple verification of the clearance status of vehicles in Nigeria for vehicle owners.

For more information on the Nigerian Customs Service and locations of Customs office closest to you, you may go to their official website at