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Ivie Omoregie: The Personal Items Importation Penalty

Ivie Omoregie: The Personal Items Importation Penalty


A few weeks ago, my friend, Jessica, was detained at the airport upon arrival from Dubai for close to 2 hours. Jessica had been away for 2 months for medical reasons and had extra baggage when landing. She always has an airport protocol officer meet her in the arrivals hall to assist with the stress that sometimes seems inevitable with landing at Lagos State International Airport.

From what she recounted, everything was going smoothly – the airline staff were fantastic, immigration was easy and her baggage came out immediately. She was feeling like a boss.

Upon attempting to exit the baggage reclaim hall, Jessica and her protocol were accustomed by the Nigerian Customs Service. Her baggage was thoroughly ransacked, at one point, she thought they were searching for drugs.

Jessica was speechless. She was asked to open all her suitcases and justify why she had a brand-new designer bag as well as some other brand-new items in her possession. She specifically remembered a particular customs lady officer aggressively saying “this is brand new, see the tag, she has brand new clothes.” She had been shopping in Zara and H&M.

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Poor Jessica had been unaware of the fact that in the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as of January 2021, imported personal items valued at more than N50,000 (equivalent to approximately $100) would attract customs interrogation and customs duty.

Let’s discuss the laws regulating customs duty assess on passenger baggage and the penalty for having in one’s possession, unused personal effects, passenger property and gifts exceeding N50,000.

Official Statement – Customs Public Relations Officer, Joseph Attah

In an official statement released October 2019, Joseph Attah can be quoted as saying:

“For the avoidance of doubt, we are aware that many Nigerians complain about the allowable amount of N50,000, but until the law is changed, Nigeria Customs Service will continue to enforce the extant law that says personal effects shall not exceed the value of N50,000. Anything more than the approved value is considered merchandise in baggage, and therefore liable for duty payment…”

From this official statement, we can see that Joseph Attah is referencing the law and inferring that there needs to be a change of law for this issue to be addressed.

Governing Law

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Normally, when writing legal articles, the starting point will always be to critically assess the enabling laws and or case laws governing the matter in contention.

The enabling law governing the Nigerian Customs Services is the Customs and Excise Management Act, unfortunately, I was unable to find the exact section of this Act where it discusses the fact that unused personal effects and property of a passenger exceeding N50,000 attracting import duty.

What the Customs and Excise Management Act says is that the “Board may give directions as to the procedure to be followed by any person leaving any customs post, customs airport or any other customs area within its control going ashore or disembarking from or going on board any ship or aircraft which has arrived in Nigeria or is about to depart therefrom and as to the procedure to be followed by any person entering or leaving any customs port, customs airport or any other customs area within the control of the Board.”

From the above section, it is clear to see that the procedure to be followed at the airport is at the discretion of the “board”, thus contrary to the official statement released by Joseph Attah, any amendment to the N50,000 allowable allowances for unused personal items is not a legislative matter but a simple Board matter.

“Concession to Passengers” Customs and Excise Notice No. 55, 2004

Amongst other things, the Customs and Excise Notice, no. 55, 2004, states the following:

  1. Upon entry into Nigeria, passengers cannot leave the customs area until their baggage are cleared by customs officials;
  2. Passengers are required to declare any currency in excess of $10,000.
  3. The following are exempt from import duty:
    • Personal and household effects belonging to and accompanying the passenger to the extent permitted by the board.
    • Unused personal items not exceeding N50,000 (excluding jewellery, photographic equipment, electronic and other luxury goods);
    • Personal and household effects of a non-Nigerian citizen.
    • Personal and household effects of a citizen who has been resident outside Nigeria for a period exceeding 9 months.

Personal effects have been given the interpretation of new or used clothing, children’s bicycles, toys, jewellery, tools and instruments provided the quantity is reasonable. From the wording of the notice, it is implied that the cost of an individual’s unused personal item should not exceed N50,000. The notice mentions an exemption for luxury goods, however, further clarification on what the board considers to be “luxury goods” is not provided.

What does a “loophole” mean in law?

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A loophole is an instance where either there is an ambiguity in the applicable law or the law is vague and not properly defined. Legal loopholes mean that although a law does exist to govern the matter in contention, it is easily manipulated as it is vague.

Personally, I must stress that the law, or in this case Customs Management Board notice, regulating customs’ assessment on passenger baggage and the penalty for having, in one’s possession, unused personal effects worth more than N50,000 was enacted in 2004. As of the time this notice was published, a dollar was N140, thus N50,000 was roughly $357.

Secondly, from the wording of the notice, the N50,000 threshold is applicable to individual items, thus, a suitcase of brand-new personal low value clothing should not be applicable to any import duty.

The Customs and Excise Notice no. 55, 2004 does not specify exactly how the applicable duty will be calculated. In reality, this tends to be highly negotiable and premised on what the customs believe the “offending” passenger is able to pay.

The notice is silent with regard to “luxury goods.” Usually, this should include a designer hand bag, however, without specific clarifications, this is speculative.

Lastly, there has been a lot of contention on this issue and some might argue that this board notice seems to be a loophole being used to frustrate the lives of people who are likely dealing with a lot by virtue of locality.

In short, this notice is now outdated and should be readdressed in light of the current value of the naira. Jessica paid the “assessed” duty to the tune of N150,000; she had no choice as the customs officers were already threatening her with seizure of the entirety of her possession. Following this incident., she deleted her airport protocols number.

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