Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Customs: Between Legitimate ‘Lobbying’ and Organisational Efficiency

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Customs: Between Legitimate ‘Lobbying’ and Organisational Efficiency
Wale Adeniyi NCS

Customs: Between Legitimate ‘Lobbying’ and Organisational Efficiency

By Kabir Abdulsalam

In August this year, while browsing my phone for news updates, a headline caught my attention: ‘CG Lobbies Senate Committee for Job Slots Reserved for Border Communities.’ It got me thinking about the art of lobbying in the realm of public relations and how effective it can be in advocating for particular interests.

It reminded me of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS’) impressive transformation. Once mired in inefficiency and public distrust, the NCS is now renowned globally for its efficiency, transparency and integrity. This led me to ponder on the secret of their success. I remember from my university days that lobbying is an essential part of the democratic process, allowing groups to communicate their concerns to decision-makers and hoping for a positive feedback.
I also recalled how public relations’ roles can work in tandem with lobbying efforts, building relationships, conveying important messages and shaping public perception.

Similarly, at a two-day management retreat hosted by the Comptroller-General of the NCS, Bashir Adewale Adeniyi on the new Customs Act 2023, the then Chairman, Committee of Customs and Excise at the House of Representatives, Hon. Leke Abejide, revealed how legitimate lobbying helped to facilitate the passage of the bill. He commended Adeniyi and other members of the previous management for their efforts but regretted that Muhammadu Buhari declined his assent to the Customs’ Act 2003 three times.

The lawmaker said that with perseverance and determination and in collaboration with other stakeholders, they were able to weather the storm and delivered a brand-new Customs Act, the first of its kind in 63 years.

“This Act we are all celebrating today did not come that easy as the Bill was declined assent three times. It got to a point it became practically the only project I was doing as I was having meetings in the Ministry of Justice while also talking with the Ministry of Finance and the Nigeria Customs Service,” he said.

He noted that the new Customs Act offered new hope, opportunities and rapid career progression for the officers. He then congratulated Adeniyi, the Acting Customs Comptroller General for being the first beneficiary of the reformed service.

“The provisions of Section 14 (1) of the new Act are very instructive on professionalism, by providing appointment of a career officer from the Service to be head of management of the Service.
“I want to congratulate the newly appointed Acting Comptroller-General of Customs, Bashir Adewale Adeniyi (MFR), for being the first beneficiary of this career reform exercise.

In his remarks, Adeniyi said the Nigeria Customs Service Act, NCSA, 2023 was overdue after decades of implementing the defunct Customs and Excise Management Act Cap C45 LFN 2004 (CEMA)
“The CEMA was enacted 63 years ago and had remained in operation since then without any significant amendment notwithstanding the expansion in government, growth in population and challenges in the economy.

“Consequent upon this, several attempts were made in the past to cause amendments or the repeal of CEMA to no avail. The efforts were necessary because the provisions of CEMA had become obsolete and could no longer adequately meet the contemporary fiscal policies of the Government and the mandate of the Service”.

This situation, CG Adeniyi explained, propelled the National Assembly through a private member Bill to initiate the repeal and enactment of a new Nigeria Customs Service Bill which was passed by the Parliament and assented to by President Muhammadu Buhari before he left office.
Meanwhile, PRNigeria reports that the service had engaged the service of relevant stakeholders as lobbyists to support the bill which would address some of the defects in the CEMA and introduced innovative solutions in the implementation of the Act.

The NCS effectively used lobbying to garner support for its reforms, acquire crucial resources, and drive change. The Service recognised that it couldn’t achieve its goals single-handedly, so, the support of key stakeholders was sought and it was leveraged upon to get the new legislation over the line.

Understanding the Role of Lobbying in Public Relations Strategies
Lobbying, a significant tool in issues management, involves influencing legislative and regulatory decisions within the government. It serves as a potent force for shaping public policies and laws, a discipline closely intertwined with public relations.

‘Lobbying’ as a profession, requires well-planned and executed sustained efforts to attain specific objectives. Lobbyists are often hired by organisations to influence lawmakers, although this influence sometimes raises concerns due to the power they wield as well as the potential of bypassing the democratic process.
Lobbying can be done in a variety of ways, but it often involves meeting with officials, providing them with information and resources, and building relationships with them.

How Lobbying Works
The concept of lobbying started from American politics during the 1800s. The earliest form involved individuals meeting with politicians outside legislative chambers to persuade them and sway their votes.
For example, a business owner who is trying to get a wider road built for their business is a good analogy for how lobbying is practised.

The owner could not be there to present their case to politicians all the time, as a result of this; they will hire lobbyists to represent them regularly.

Lobbyists typically have a deep understanding of the political landscape and know how to navigate the government bureaucracy. They can use their knowledge and connections to help their clients achieve their goals.

Aside from this, a trade association might hire a lobbyist to advocate for legislation that would be beneficial to its members. So also a labour union might hire a lobbyist to fight for workers’ rights and benefits or a community group to advocate for improved infrastructure or services in their community.

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However, it is important to note that lobbying is not always seen in a positive light in Nigeria. Some people believe that lobbying is a form of corruption and that it gives undue influence to special interests.
Despite the controversy surrounding it, lobbying is a common practice in the country and it plays an important role in shaping public policy.

Types of Lobbying Techniques
Lobbying takes various forms, with direct and grassroots lobbying being the most common. Direct lobbying involves direct communication with lawmakers, while grassroots lobbying aims to influence public opinion, encouraging citizens to contact their elected representatives to support specific legislation.
Direct lobbying involves written and personal forms, utilising statistical data, letters, and meetings with decision-makers. On the other hand, indirect lobbying involves shaping public opinion through environmental authorities, experts and financial tactics.

Role of PR in Lobbying Efforts
Public relations professionals play a vital role in lobbying by building relationships with key stakeholders such as government officials, lawmakers and media outlets. They are essential in developing clear, persuasive messages tailored to specific audiences.

Moreover, PR practitioners can also manage the public’s perception via lobbying campaigns to address concerns, respond to media inquiries, and highlight campaign successes. Understanding the role of lobbying within public relations strategies helps highlight its significant impact on government decisions and the development of public policies.

These relationships are essential for ensuring that the lobbying campaign’s messages are heard and considered by the right people.

Other Case Studies

The NCS, as a government agency, is responsible for the regulation and control of imports and exports. It plays a vital role in the Nigerian economy, generating billions of Naira in revenue each year. However, the NCS has also been criticised for its inefficiency in these mandates and abuse of power by the personnel.
Under the leadership of Adeniyi, the NCS has embarked on several reforms and initiatives aimed at improving its efficiency and effectiveness.

Lobbying has played a key role in these efforts, helping to build support for the NCS’s agenda among key stakeholders, including the government, businesses, and the general public.

Deserving Appointments and Concerns

In the past, CGC were appointed outside the service which raised concerns. Notably, the tenure of the immediate past CG, Hameed Ali, a retired military officer appointed by former President Buhari, created significant unease due to his refusal to wear the Customs regalia, symbolising the service.
Another important deviation from the norm was the appointment of Shehu Ahmadu Musa in 1978, transitioning from the Ministry of Health, a move that echoed outside the career trajectory of the NCS.

Strategy and Message
In response to these historical deviations, a transformative strategy was implemented through the Customs Act. The Act stipulated a fundamental change in the appointment criteria for the CG position. The new regulation directed that the President would appoint the CG from within the career-serving officers of the NCS, ensuring the candidate holds a rank not lower than that of an Assistant Comptroller General (ACG).

Outcome
Adeniyi emerged as a central figure in this narrative. Immediately after his appointment as the acting CG of Customs, his professional colleagues in Public Relations practice, media and other stakeholders engaged in a protracted lobbying strategy. Through subtle advocacy to position Adeniyi effectively within the framework of the Act.

His sterling leadership qualities and active engagements with other key players and monumental accomplishments within few months provided the testament that eventually paid off in the confirmation of his appointment as the 14th indigenous Comptroller General of the Customs and the 31st since the establishment of the NCS in 1891.

His appointment marked the first career-serving officer benefitting directly from the altered Act. This historical change heralded not just the appointment of a new leader but signified the onset of a transformation in the appointment procedures, advocating for internal career progression and expertise within the NCS.

Unutilised Appropriation for Training School
Despite the allocation of N14.2 billion in the 2023 budget for the construction of a specialised Nigerian Customs Academy/Training School, the funds have yet to be disbursed, stalling the realisation of this crucial facility for the Service’s personnel development.

Strategy and Message
Amidst this budgetary impasse, the NCS undertook significant efforts to reinforce its training and development initiatives. The graduation of 50 officers from the Customs Command and Staff College in Gwagwalada marked a crucial step.

Leveraging this event, the service strategically engaged in indirect lobbying. The graduation ceremonies served as platforms to establish connections with key decision-making stakeholders, aiming to communicate the urgent need for an enhanced training school.

The proactive lobbying efforts bore fruit when Senator Umar Shehu Buba and a group of sixteen other senators sponsored a motion urging the Federal Government to utilise the earmarked N14.2 billion for the construction of the Nigerian Customs Academy/Training School in Bauchi.
The motion emphasised the critical role the Academy would play in providing essential professional training aligned with international standards and eradicating unprofessional conduct within this revenue-generating agency.

This motion received overwhelming support at the plenary, reflecting unanimous agreement among lawmakers regarding the necessity and urgency of establishing this capacity enhancement institution for the Service.

The unified call for the utilisation of the earmarked funds emphasised the critical importance of advancing training facilities for the service’s personnel, marking the imperative role of the Academy in professionalising the customs operations.
This narrative sums up the delay in fund utilisation for the Customs Academy, the lobbying strategies implemented, and the consequential motion adopted by the Senate highlighting the necessity and support for establishing a robust training institution for the Service.

Kabir Abdulsalam is a senior Staff Writer with Spokesperson’s digest

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