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Arms Influx And Customs Utopian Investigations

Arms Influx And Customs Utopian Investigations

Comptroller-General of Customs, Col. Hameed Ali (retd)

By Oyeniyi Iwakun

The influx of arms totaling two thousand, six hundred and seventy one (2, 671) in eight months this year has generated more arguments than before.

The dust in the air has remained unsettled because of the fear of the recurrence of the past which has always been business as usual. There have been various reactions from different quarters with questions as to why customs and other enforcement agencies are yet to get to the root of the matter. Nigerians seems to be tired of the usual response “we are still investigating”.

While the interest of the masses on the outcome of the arms investigation is the revelation of those really behind the smuggling, the destination and the purpose, perhaps, the issue might be less worrisome if it were to be only related to some other contrabands including consumables like rice and second hand clothing or other issues that has no security consequence.

The sensitivity of the arms and other military gadgets seized by customs cannot be overemphasized because of its security threatening attributes in a troubled Nigeria. Hence, the request at various quarters for customs to be assiduous and transparent in handling the issue.

As part of efforts to ensure transparency in the investigation process and also to ameliorate the menace, the Nigerian House of Representative last month passed a resolution inviting the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) and the Directorate of State Security (DSS) to brief it on the comprehensive plans being taken to rid the country of the menace of arms proliferation.

Hon. Obinna Chidoka, while speaking at the plenary session reminded his colleagues that the customs might be ill-equipped and not motivated to handle the influx of small arms and light weapons into the country due to absence of scanners at the ports for effective security of containers in line with global best practices.

In tandem with the opinion of other stakeholders, Hon. Obinna’s argument connotes that in as much as Customs was ill-equipped; the success of the investigation could be dicey because there are more to the issue of illegal arms import than it appears. Arguably, the contributive factors of corruption, dishonesty, disloyalty, and unpatriotic attitude of Customs officers, and other ports operators cannot be isolated from the above.

Hon. Obinna cited an instance where in January; firearms shipment was intercepted by the customs and after being purportedly checked and certified, was freed to depart with its deadly cargo. The consignment in question had left the premises of the port before it was again tracked down after a tip-off.

Obinna said this gives credence to the argument that a syndicate was behind the influx of firearms had stepped up their nefarious trade reaching consequences for the country as firearms are in the life blood of organized crimes and criminality, this assertion was made earlier by the Customs boss, Col. Hameed Ali (Rtd) during the public display of the last set of arms seizures of 470 pump-action rifles.

This syndicate in the system which may not be without the blessings of some political, security and business bigwigs which becomes a major obstacle to the investigations (if any).

Another reason to doubt the veracity of the acclaimed ongoing investigation is the question mark put on it by the Port Police Commissioner, Mr. Celestine Okoye who accused the customs of sidelining the police on the entire investigative process.

The police boss opined that whenever such seizures are made, because of its sensitivity and security related nature, the Nigeria police force (NPF) primarily saddled with the responsibilities of law enforcement, protection of lives and properties of citizens should be allowed to take possession of the arms and conduct further investigation into it.

When quizzed further by MMS Plus, the CP explained that he attended Hameed Ali’s press briefing on the showcase of seized 470 rifles at Tin-Can port with the expectation of having the guns handed over to him but was shocked when things went the other way round.

“I went there hoping that the arms would be released to the police for further investigation but later discovered that reverse is the case. In fact, it was one of the journalists who interviewed me that informed me that the arms had been released to the DSS. I was even waiting that I will be called so that we can conduct further investigation but they did not, so we aren’t carried along at all.” He said

Mr. Celestine Okoye explained that normally when such seizures are made, the police are expected to take possession of the arms and not the DSS.
Recall that the Inspector of General of police (IGP) made similar allegation recently while speaking at the inauguration of the President Muhammadu Buhari housing estate at Badagry, that the police high command was keeping watch on the issue but the Customs high command was yet to inform the police force officially on it, noting that it bordered on national security. However, the police did not cite any section of the Nigerian constitution empowering it to take over such duties.

This school of thought seems to believe that illegal arms proliferation goes beyond mere customs seizures and the usual acclamation of dismissal or punishment of the guilty customs officers via the NCS internal mechanisms.

Nigerians aren’t mute at raising questions on daily basis ditto the supposed destination of the said arms before interception and where it was coming from. Why do customs find it easy to showcase seizures but finds it extremely difficult to parade suspects arrested in connection with it or even mention their names? Are these seizures made for self glorification and to bamboozle the public with the impression that customs is working? Why are the police and other concerned government security agencies not allowed to conduct further investigations on the matter? Is there truly an inter-agency collaboration as claimed by the customs? Should the investigation end at charging customs officers who were found guilty of compromise and few others to court without probing further the source and intention of the smugglers? How many importers, shippers and even terminal operators who had direct or indirect involvement have been arrested or prosecuted? Shouldn’t Nigerians be kept abreast as these issues are treated? It should be noted that it is not enough to cure a disease without identifying its cause so as to forestall future reoccurrence. Prevention is said to be better than cure.

In earlier reaction to questions bordering on the reasons why customs hadn’t concluded investigations on most of the seized arms, Col. Hameed Ali said customs only conduct preliminary investigations and hand over to the DSS for further investigations but later alleged at the showcase of the four hundred and seventy (470) rifles that some Nigerians were behind the illegal importation which suggests a possible clue to the origin of the arms.

The CGC went further by stating that the last 470 rifles were imported by Great James and Oil Gas Limited with vessel tagged MV Arkas Africa owned by Hull Blyth. He explained that the seizure was narrowed to one container no: CMA189817/8 after the terminal operator was quarantined where the examination revealed 470 pump action as against elbow plumbing plastic on its bill of lading.

It became more worrisome when the same customs still claim not to know those behind the act but would conduct further investigation and would still say such would be handled by the DSS. This confusion and contradiction account for loss of confidence in the customs and the so called investigation that looks utopian.

The Customs National Public Relations Officer, Mr. Joseph Attah while reacting to questions from MMS Plus on how far customs have gone with the investigations on the recent arms seizures, said investigation was ongoing and would not be made public until concluded. According to him, investigation had been concluded on the previous seizures, and those found wanting had been charged to court.

“Investigation is ongoing, the first case is in the court and the media had been reporting it. When we dismissed five people, it was made public. When we promoted eight officers responsible for the seizures, it was made public. We handed over to SSS and when they finished their investigations it was made public. The case had been in court but the court had been adjourning it. It is not correct to say nothing has been done.

“We held a meeting with the Turkish Ambassador in Nigeria, and we announced that President Muhammadu Buhari in company of the CGC would be visiting the Turkish government to address the same issue.” He said.

Joseph Attah also debunked reports making rounds on the media on a new list of dismissed, demoted and retired customs officers who were found guilty of one offence or the other.

“It is not true. Just take a look at the report, was there any heading? It is an old report. Why will someone just write as if they are looking for something to talk about? If you check the report very well, you will see that it is stated at the end that it is a “monthly order”. If it is a “monthly order” why are you writing out of nothing? The monthly order is meant for the internal consumption of Customs and it is what the media had already reported in the past sometimes two three years back” Attah said

The Customs PRO however declined commenting on the allegations of sideline by the western port police commissioner.

However, the truth is that the exit of the trucks carrying rifles from the port may not have been possible if the agencies saddled with the examination of the goods hadn’t worked in connivance with the releasing officers. It is obvious that there is compromise somewhere. The releasing officer is always between the rank of Deputy Comptroller or Assistant Comptroller and as such there is no way these releasing officers and the officer in charge of the gate could claim ignorance of the sordid incident because, at the gate, containers are always re-opened after examination. Somebody must have negotiated the release with above officers and such a person must either be acting on behalf of himself or someone. So, what is difficult in tracking them down?

All the security agents, including the Customs are culpable. Again, it is untenable that the Customs examiners failed to detect the arms in the container due to faulty scanners in that Customs had long abandoned the use of scanners for 100% physical examinations.

 

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