MMS Plus had this exclusive interview with Mr. Jerry Attah, The Public Relations Officer (PRO) of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Federal Operations Unit (FOU) Zone “A”, Ikeja with a view to appraising the activities of the command in the first half of the year, educate the public on how to collaborate with NCS in anti-smuggling fight.
How would you appraise the activities of your command for the past six months?
Thank you very much, we just passed half of the year and as you are aware, the Nigeria Customs Service (NSC), Federal Operations Unit Zone A, is the hub of anti-smuggling operations in the South-West zone arguably, the largest in the whole West Africa. Our responsibilities mainly are the suppression of smuggling, facilitation of legitimate trade, and then to ensure that all revenue leakages are blocked within our areas of jurisdiction which is the South West Zone.
From January to June 2017, we have recorded over 2.5 billion Naira in terms of Duty Paid Values (DPV) from seized goods and also revenues recovered from those that tried to beat the system through the seaports. In clearer terms, we have 1.5 billion Naira as DPV on various goods ranging from vegetable oil, foreign per-boiled rice, poultry products and other merchandize. Similarly, we also recovered over 1.2billion Naira from interventions (seaports, boarder stations) of goods that tried to beat the system through undervaluation and wrong declarations.
When we intercept, we raise debit notes (DN) for them and that is how we were able to make up to over 2.5billion Naira as DPV. Again, some of the intercepted products are two thousand (2000) cartons of Tramadol which is a very dangerous drug, and some energy booster drugs that were beyond National Agency for Food Drug and Control (NAFDAC)’ approved specifications and they have been handed over to NAFDAC. Within this period, we also seized over Three Hundred and Eighty Four (384) parcels of Indian hemp from various points and they were also handed over to the National Drug Laws Enforcement Agency (NDLEA). They are professionals, who will do the needful because they are the ones in charge of such hard drugs not customs. In the spirit of inter-agency relations, we transfer those seizures to the appropriate authorities.
The driver arrested in connection with the products handed over to NAFDAC had been released on bail because those drugs were inside the container and a driver could just drive without knowing the content of the container. Since the owner did not show up, we handed over the items to NAFDAC and that of Indian hemp was also handed over to NDLEA.
What are the procedures expected of your officers to follow for inspection of suspected container with contrabands or wrongly classified goods?
There are no laid down procedures in flagging down any vehicle or suspected vehicle that has contraband. According to section 147 of Customs & Excise Management Act, CEMA, it empowers the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) to patrol freely and go to warehouses or anywhere there are suspected smuggled items, anytime and any day. Let it be your own house. As far as we have information that they are domiciled in your house or premises, we have the legal backing to come and evacuate those contrabands without a warrant. We don’t need notice or search warrant like the police. This is what the law has provided for us.
So whenever we get relevant intelligence from other agencies we will swing into action, stop and take delivery of the containers. Upon arrival at our office, we will conduct physical examinations and whatever the examinations outcome is will determine the next line of action. Like the case I stated earlier, we never knew it contained Tramadol until a thorough examination was conducted. That is how it has been and that is the process.
Do you mean that your command can stop any vehicle and search whether you have intelligence information or not?
There is no how somebody will just stop a vehicle and search, like I told you, we work with information and information is power all over the world. We are not magicians and that is why we have the Customs Intelligence Unit (CIU), they are all over Nigeria working and providing intelligent information to us.
One thing we also consider is the lives of our citizens. We look at where the information is coming from, the location of the vehicle as at that time we received the information and If we go out at that moment to strike, what would be causalities involved? So we have to weigh all those variables and device the tactical options and strategies to execute the operations without itches.
Aside your warehouse, do you examine the contents of containers at the very spot where they are flagged down?
When you want to intercept a container you can’t stop it on the highway and open it there. It is not done anywhere globally. It is expected that you bring the container to the office. We have a warehouse where examination will be conducted. It is not a stop and search thing on the road. No matter the truck or container, we don’t stop and search them on the road. We will bring them to the warehouse in the presence of the driver or the owner in case the owner shows up. That is just how it is. Do you know what it takes to open a container and do physical examination? Where will you park the container in the first place? Where will you put the items and how will you know these are the items it is carrying?
What do you do in a situation where a suspected container doesn’t contain contrabands or illegal items as envisaged?
Yes! It happens; these are situations where you have false information and by the time you realize such, you don’t have any reason to delay the container. Just release the container to the owner and allow them go. It doesn’t take time and it is not in any way our fault because at times, you wouldn’t know which one is genuine and that is why you have to do your job thoroughly.
Are there no incentives or apologies, since his time and resources would have been wasted in the process?
What do you mean by incentive, you have information, for instance, that a truck is carrying arms and you stop the vehicles and discovered that there are no arms. Do you now apologize to the person that you got the information that he is carrying arms and now there is no arm? It is not about apology, you are doing your job.
Don’t you think it could be embarrassing?
It is not in any way an embarrassment. There is nothing beyond national security that is what you need to know. There is no form of embarrassment to an individual that is more than national security. That national security is our priority. No matter what, we have to put the interest of the nation first. The interest of the nation is beyond an individual’s interest.
Don’t you think such a person might not be patient next time having considered his previous experience in the hands of NCS officers?
Just as I told you, national interest first before individuals’ interest and mind you, we have not recorded this kind of incident you are talking about before. You are just saying in case it occurs but it hasn’t occurred before so let talk about reality because for you to bring a container it means you have good information. It is not just that you see a container and bring it, No! But I can tell you 99.9% of whatever they bring in, you must have something incriminating inside the container. I can assure you that.
Every day customs intercept contrabands, yet they flood our markets in Nigeria. How can citizens blow information to the customs without putting their lives in danger?
Yes! There are phone numbers on NCS website to call. It is one body if you have any information and you communicate to those numbers they will relate with the nearest command depending on the location. And it also depends on the scenario involved. Thank God whistle blowing is paying but you don’t blow whistle to witch hunt anybody. You talked about innocent citizens. For instance, you go to Alaba International Market as a person and saw a place where they sell second hand clothings (okrika) which is contraband and you now inform us about what you saw. Before we go there, there are strategies and measures that should be put in place to execute those things. You won’t because you want to make seizure waste lives. A life of any individual is not worth wasting. If you have relevant and genuine information, we will surely develop strategies and get rid of the contrabands. Like I told you, we are also meant to protect lives but not to kill them. We have to get tactical operations to execute it without losing a life.
When seizures are made, what does the law say about what to do with them?
When we stop vehicles on the road, we put them under detention. That is the first step and when they are under detention, it gives you room to do your physical examination. When you realize that the items it is carrying are prohibited, you can now seize them which means you convert it from detention to seizures and when they are converted to seizures they become the property of the federal government NOT the NCS or Compt. Hameed Ibrahim Ali. Again, all the items would be taken to court of competent jurisdiction for condemnation, when those items are condemned by the court that is when we now dispose them depending on the nature of the items. For instance, the issues of poultry products, you know how perishable it is. Once we intercept poultry product, it doesn’t have to go into detention, it is outright seizure and what happens destruction. We have a burial ground in our workshop here. So, we bury them right away.
Rice are consumable items, if you remember recently, about 42,000 bags were distributed to IDPs in Borno, North- East . Over 3000 bags came from our own unit. Of course, these were the decisions of federal government because we have a presidential committee on IDPs and the Controller General of Customs (CGC) is a member. These are people who bring modalities on how to dispose those items like rice, vegetable oil. In fact, the seized second hand clothings and spaghettis were taken and distributed to the IDPs. That is just the process; it is not consumed by any customs officer or individual.
Like the issue of vehicles, you are aware that the e-auction platform has been on. Those vehicles you see NCS auctioning are not my car. They are the cars seized from different people who contravene the laws and they have gone through the process of condemnation and they are finally forfeited for the FG. Government doesn’t want to keep them wasted they want to generate revenue, that is the essence of the ongoing e-auction platform. I think as at last week, they had realized about 42 million naira from the sales of these auctioned vehicles.
What can drivers do to be sure that their container isn’t carrying or concealed with contrabands?
Some of them know, but they venture into it because of their own personal gain. When you ask them, they will say “my own is to drive and collect money I am not the owner.
Does it mean that a driver can carry something incriminating and say he is just to drive?
Let us take for example, you are to carry poultry products (maybe turkey), which everybody knows is a contraband, what do you want to say? Is it not up to you?.
But you said earlier that some of them might not even know what is contained in the container?
I am talking about container issues.
What about if it is in a container?
Hardly will you see. In fact, we have never encountered poultry products in a container. They come through the land borders.
Aside poultry products, what about other contrabands? I know Turkey might not be the only contraband in Nigeria.
Well, the last time we sized a container with second hand clothings (okrika) from the ports., the driver on sighting the officers jumped down and ran away. The best we could do was to bring the container to the warehouse and do examination and that was when we knew that it was used clothings. In that kind of situation, it means the driver knew what was inside the container and that was why he ran away. As professionals, you bring such consignment to the office for examination.
We must also understand that smuggling is a global phenomenon. It is something that cannot be eradicated entirely. It can only be reduced to the barest minimum. Today, drugs are still entering U.S and Mexico. There was a video I watched recently where onions were used in concealing cocaine to the United Kingdom but on a very good day when you see them you will think they are onions. That is to tell that it’s a global thing. That is why you still find used clothes (second hand clothing) in our markets. Besides, we have to look at how porous our borders are. So, we are doing our best to be sure that we deliver what we are assigned to do. We took an oath of office to protect national interest, generate revenue and also to suppress smuggling and that is what we are doing basically.
When you arrest the drivers are they not penalized?
Of course, they are penalized. Why do you arrest them in the first place? The most unfortunate thing is that most of those drivers run away when they see customs because they know what they are carrying and those who don’t know would stop. When you take their statements, you will discover that they know nothing about what they are carrying. Since, the driver is not a murder, you cannot take him anywhere. That is why there is law for administrative bail so that such person(s) can be released on bail but whenever he is needed, himself or the owner of the container will respond and when nobody responds, the time elapses and it becomes outright seizure
Just as I have said, ignorance is not an excuse in the law; we have also been soliciting the assistance of the public and also the media to help us in the fight against smuggling. It is a war that can be won if all hands are on deck. It is not something that customs, NDLEA or NAFDAC alone can do. I implore all importers to be compliant. If they are compliant nobody will embarrass them anywhere and there would not be any need for road blocks.
Recently, the CGC ordered the dismantling of road blocks at illegal checkpoints, will it not affect your activities?
We are talking about ease of doing business. What he said was in conformity with the policy of the government. To achieve seamless way of doing business, there must not be multiple checkpoints on the way.
If you are going to Seme now, they have only two checkpoints. That doesn’t mean that you won’t be seeing patrol teams but they can mount road blocks within 24hrs if they have information and if they don’t, there is no reason to do so. If you come to Idiroko, Ogun axis, there are two checkpoints and they are approved by the FG but you will still see patrol teams, surveillance and roving teams, roving around when they have any information.
Of a truth, it won’t have any negative impact on our activities but make us sit up. It is a challenge for us to work harder. We have to be mobile and up and increase our intelligence sharing with our neighbouring countries and the general public