* Why we seize goods on the highway- FOU Zone ‘A’ Boss, Ejibunu
* Their plan for Car marts
* “We have saboteurs in Customs”
The race for who succeeds Col. Hammed Ali(rtd) as the Controller General of Customs(CGC) has created internal rivalry, bad-blood and bitterness among the contenders who prefer covert operation for fear of reprisal and punitive action in the service.
Meanwhile, the Nigeria Customs Service(NCS) has explained why the Federal Operations Units(FOUs) patrol teams will continue to be stationed on the highways despite the growing condemnation of this seeming act of laying ambush for cargo legitimately released at the ports.
Spurred by the resolution of the National Assembly to stop the appointment of non-customs officer as the CGC in the ongoing amendment of the Customs and Excise Management Act(CEMA) and the fact that Col. Ali’s leadership tenure elapses next year, some senior officers in the service have since began to position themselves to succeed Ali.
Just last month, the House of Representatives passed a bill to ban the appointment of non- customs officers as Comptroller General. The Senate is expected to equally pass same without hitches because of the lobby group behind the quest for change. The bill makes it mandatory that only Customs officers can rise to become CGC.
Recall that the incumbent CGC is a retired military man, who was appointed by President Mohammadu Buhari in 2015. The CEMA is undergoing a major review in 63 years since it was first enacted and Buhari’s assent is almost sure because of the reforms expected in service.
MMS Plus gathered that some of the contenders have been involved in politics of undoing their perceived opponents, by laying land mines capable of reducing their chances in professional ratings. Some have been orchestrating their postings to gain advantage while some have refused to accept certain postings or transfers deemed detrimental to their target.
Surprisingly too, some as a strategy have chosen to running smear campaigns in the media against their opponent but the major determining factor on who emerges Ali’s successor will be who becomes the next President of Nigeria come next year and this explains why many of the contenders have party allegiance and deep support for presidential candidates of choice.
However,speaking in defense of the allegation that the Customs FOUs are operating illegally on the highway where they station themselves to intercept released cargo from the port, thereby questioning the integrity of the releasing officers in the port, the Acting Customs Area Controller(CAC), Federal Operations Unit(FoU) Zone ‘A’,Deputy Compt. Hassan Ejibunu said, “In customs, we have three layers of checks. And it is important we inundate the public with those three layers of checks. Those checks were designed in a way that even if you escape one you can’t escape the second and the third one.
“ What are those layers? Command level, where the delivery is made and on coming out, you have the Strike Force. It is a fact that some officers don’t carry out proper examination of consignments inside port before releasing and when they release, the Strike Force is there. If the Strike Force did not see the mistake, then FOU is there. This explains why we don’t observe the rule of 40 kilometers to the border as it were.
“Even in the hinterlands, you can find FOU there. We are not unaware that there are some people who are not given to doing their job professionally. We are not saying that those doing their job in the port are not doing it well, but there could be mistakes and therefore, we are there as FOU to see that such oversights are corrected. It is the same Customs, we are not against them,” he stated.
Compt. Ejibunu played a host to the members of the League of Maritime Editors and Publishers (LOMEP) last week, during which he warned Nigerians against patronizing foreign rice and revealed why the FOU patrol teams and the Special CG’s Strike Force will remain on highways. Excerpt:
On Foreign Rice
If you have been consuming foreign rice stop consuming it from today. Foreign rice is poison and I have my facts. I make bold to say it and let anybody come and controvert it. The only rice that is good and edible for our living is our own rice. Any other rice that is imported is poison. All the imported rice you see are poisoned. The countries that export them to Nigeria, do they eat the rice? They pack reserved bad rice from their silos and re-bag for Nigerians with chemicals for preservation. Let’s cast our minds back to ten and fifteen years, how many cases of cancer were reported then? Now, it is so prevalent. Do we have incidences of liver problem as we have it today? You just wake in the morning and discover that you have pains all over. The reason in most cases is the things we consume. So it is important we look inwards. It is a fight that no single agency can fight alone. We will need the media for this.
Now, we have some good locally produced rice such as Coscharis rice, Abakalike rice, we have rice from Kebbi and many others. No one has come out to say these brands of rice are bad. In fact, they are improving on their quality daily. You can’t eat Nigerian rice now and complain of stone. Meanwhile, look at the advantage in terms of employment, exchange rate stability, and more. So, if we do not patronize them how can they sustain their productive activities? The end result is retrenchment and unemployment. We don’t want this. This is why we are poised to fight smugglers and enemies of the policy. But we can’t win the war without the media.
You have advised us to stop the consumption of foreign rice, and enumerated a number of local rice, but can you guarantee the availability of local rice?
It is gradual process because you will agree with me that there is an increase in the quantity and quality of local rice in the market now. However, I agree with you that the available quantity of local rice in the market does not match the demand but it is getting better by the day.
I have always maintained that any country that refuses to consume what it produces is in trouble. And we can only be free from colonisation when we adopt the attitude of consuming our local products. Therefore, let’s say no to imperialism. Remember, when we had local textile companies all over servicing demands but suddenly, they all died off. Today, I know of someone who produces local service shoes. I have one in my house and it has served me for four years. The belt I wear now is locally made and it is good. Our appetite for foreign made goods is crazy! Some Nigerians make goods and brand them “Made in Italy” so that it can be attractive. Go to Aba in Abia State, there is virtually nothing they produce in Italy that can’t be produced in Aba. But we don’t encourage them. I have my local tailor here, why do I have to travel abroad to make clothes? There is no country in the world that is more fashionable than Nigeria! The white respect our dress and fashion but we look down on ourselves. We need to cultivate patriotism.
You have been in the saddle now for nine months, can you tell us the peculiar challenge you have in your enforcement duties?
We have challenges in different forms. Even from within there are challenges, not to talk of external ones. The external ones, includes recurring attacks on our officers and men on duty. The thinking of the assailants is to continue to depopulate us and with time we will allow them to rest.
Just two weeks ago, one of my officers was matcheted by smugglers but he is alive. They collected his rifle but we have recovered it. The exhibit they stole, we got one back. And what was the reason? The same rice we are talking about. When I assumed duty here I visited stakeholders and gave them government message of compliance to policies and the need for collaboration to end smuggling on the routes. That was the first challenge actually. From within, however, we have saboteurs, I agree. There is no organisation that does not have them. It is not peculiar to us. There are people within who do not share the same target or mission. So, where you have a case like this you have to deal with it before you can have your bearing. How did we manage this? We ensured that they were posted out if the command. Anybody whose interest is antithetical to our mission has to give way.
Are there other punitive actions meted out to saboteurs order than posting them out?
Posting them out infers discipline. When they are posted out, the service puts them on watch list which entails monitoring them and any further action might attract reading out their dossiers.
How do you protect the officers whose lives are endangered on duty?
Let me use this opportunity to thank the Comptroller General of Customs for his magnanimity. It has never happened in the history of this command. The support I have gotten from the CGC has never been given to anybody. Within a space of four months, I was given 21 vehicles. They first gave me 16, after about a month, they added 5 and just last week, they brought another 2. And I already had an ambulance because they know we have always had attacks. We used it to save the life of our officer who was matcheted. They also gave us helmets and bullet proof and provided arms and ammunition to guard ourselves. One of our rules of engagement is that when you are under attack you are to fire from nicker to below. The reason is that government needs the assailant alive to explain why he attacked the officers and name possible sponsors. But if he is killed at once, he would have died with the useful information that could help the course of investigation. I have maintained that I need to see the corpse of the people my officers killed since I assumed office but I can show you the grave of the officers I lost to them since I came here in September, 2021. So far, I have lost about four officers from September to date in questionable circumstances it is best described as gruesome murder in questionable circumstances because they attacked my officers unprovoked.
Is your command not exploring synergy and collaboration with the Army and other security agencies to curtail the rate of attacks and casualty?
We are in a strategic relationship with the military along the same axis. We have 242 Battalion and I 90 Battalion at Owode. They are 24/7 with my team. But in smuggling, you can’t see it all. And as a result of increase in smuggling of fuel lately, I created Anti-Bunkering Unit. They have been coming with seizures on daily basis. Few days ago we intercepted fuel packaged in a sack. Imagine how ingenious they are! One sack takes about four Jerricans of 25 litres which is about hundred litres. So you can see that it is not a thing we can do alone and that explain why we need the collaboration of other agencies when planning for onslaught. There are circumstances that will require joint operation. Now, because of our experience where a government agency wanted to capsize our boat in defense of smugglers on water, we want to synergize with our marine unit. I have spoken with the controller in charge. In fighting smuggling, you can’t win the war immediately; it takes a gradual process.
We notice that your officers are still stationed in the road to check good cleared from the port, does that not amount to working against officers at the ports?
Yes. We are on the road but not against anybody. This is where we need the cooperation of the media to correct some impression out there. The freight agents claim we are not supposed to be on the road. Who says? It is on record that all the arms seized on the road were done through intelligence by Federal Operations. They were intercepted on the road not inside the ports.
You have just acknowledged the fact that some customs officers may not have done their job of examination and release well, but then the question is, how much of punishment is meted out to them? Again, are you aware that at bonded terminals certain amount of money are set aside for FOUs so that they don’t intercept the released cargo on the highway? Is that part of your duty, I mean to generate revenue that way? I don’t know if you have records of such complaints and what have you done to stop it because they smear your image.
Good questions. One,when we intercept such released cargo, we intervene and summon the releasing officers here to come and explain why and then we report to Abuja. In fact, a few days ago some people were de-ranked because of things like this. Some were equally dismissed. So in terms of punitive actions, the headquarters does not spare anybody except it did not get to them and it is not possible because we relate with the headquarters and we provide them with all the details they need.
On the issue of money you talked about, that is part of the unprofessional practice we are talking about. They kill the system because of greed. Nobody mandated them to raise any fund for the FOU. We are an enforcement arm of the service. You have just mentioned it now and we are not part of what they are doing there As an interventionist unit, our duty is to ensure that government revenue is not lost. Also, unwholesome items must not be imported, if we get it our duty is to act immediately. On intervention, we look at the tariff, what is this person supposed to pay, what has he declared,did he declare correctly? If he did, CEMA is there to tell us what to do. And if he did not declare correctly, at this point, we know what to do.
The land borders have been reopened, what impact does it have on your operation? Again, what is the focus of FoU on car marts and import of cars through the land borders?
Vehicle importation is still restricted to the seaports. And why is it that Nigerians will go through Cotonou and pay all that needs to be paid there but insist on not paying anything to Nigerian government? So, if you evade the payment of duty today, tomorrow you can’t run away.
While I was in Abuja as Commander, CG Strike Force, Headquarters, all the seizures you saw there, I made those seizures. One day, I went to inside Army Barracks, and I intercepted 22 brand new Hilux. They are there in Karo. Synergy with the Army made it possible. I do this anywhere I get to. I met the Brigade of Guards, I met him the person in Abacha Barrack. As at that time, do you know what they do? These smugglers felt that Customs cannot enter Army Barracks, so they used the barracks as parking, hiding and washing place. There were about four car wash inside that Cantonment, so I monitored them. I went there at noon on a weekend and in one fell swoop, I intercepted 22 Hilux vehicles.
Again, inside some exotic houses in Abuja, I went and seized four new Prado Jeeps. Their owners started crying but I demanded for the duty payment. I raided car marts and got a bullet proof car that was cleared using Corolla 2010. I am telling you all this, to let you know that we that we are not sleeping; we know all that happen.
Back here in Lagos, at Idiroko, Oyo area, I have set up a team looking out for vehicles coming in. Vehicles don’t access the country much from Lagos axis again. They come in from up North. And those ones that will come here legally and legitimately, go through the ports. In the Lagos border axis, what we have as challenge here are rice and fuel. Fuel is export but rice is import through the borders.
People see it as their business. That is why I said we need your cooperation to fight this menace.
As for the land borders, it is important we sensitize the border community, which we have done. I was at Idiroko two weeks ago. I told them that reopening of border does not presuppose re-opening of bad business. It is for legitimate trade.
I met with the stakeholders, freight agents and traditional rulers and left them with a stern warning that if we get information of any unwholesome trade, we will intercept them and prosecute them.