Over the years, concerned stakeholders in the maritime industry have kept calling attention of the government to the corruption in the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), this context refers to serving customs officers owning clearing licenses, this unwholesome practice among senior serving customs officers have freight forwarders crying out at any available opportunity. But so far, with little or no evidence of the accusation, no officer has been indicted for practicing freight forwarding.
According to the various freight forwarding associations under the aegis of the Council of Registered Freight Forwarders of Nigeria (CRFFN), customs officers are successfully involved in the business of freight forwarding with no one checking their excesses. The group has thus called upon the new CGC Hammeed Ibrahin Ali to look into this unfortunate trend as a matter of urgency.
According to Chief Osita Okereke, President of the Importers Association of Nigeria (IMAN) who claimed that he has hard fact at his disposal to indict the culprits in the Customs, said, “it is offensive and criminal for serving customs officers to own clearing licenses and involve themselves in the business of freight forwarding, as a direct link can be established between officers owning clearing licenses and the volume of contraband or illegal goods that get through our borders.”
Without mincing words, Okereke opined, “Customs officers issue clearing licenses to themselves, yet they don’t want to come under the regulation of the freight forwarding body. Since they’re the ones who issue clearing licenses and also inspect goods, most of their activities go unchecked, which poses a lot of security and health risks to people.”
Similarly, another industry practitioner who pleaded anonymity said that he personally knew many serving officers by name, who were doubling as agents and officers. He asked rhetorically, “If the goods of a customs officer arrive at the port, is it you or me that will go and inspect it? Of course, it is the officers themselves that inspects their own cargoes.”
He insisted that he had very solid evidence to prove his case, but was only waiting for the right time.
“You have to tread carefully, remember we’re talking about senior officers with influence and the resources. They’ve made so much money and you think you can just go against them and they’ll fold their hands looking at you?”
He further said that he was keeping the facts close to his chest and would not share it with the press yet. “Let me tell you, if I give you hard facts of what I know and you go ahead and publish it, you may land yourself in trouble. The problem runs deep. You cannot handle it or face the consequences. Maybe now that we have a serious president, things can begin to change. But like I said, let’s all tread carefully.
“These people we are talking about are not dummies, mind you. They have been doing this for years and their clearing agencies are not registered under their real names. They have people fronting for them, In fact, the issue is so rampant that many people say that there are more customs officers involved in clearing business than genuine agents, since they (customs) are the ones who issue the licenses in the first place. ” he said.
Furthermore, Okereke alleged that customs officers are mainly responsible for the influx of arms into the country. He questioned the route through which terrorists elements in the North-East get supply of their weapons, asserting that his Association had attempted in the past to partner the Federal Government on the influx of arms and ammunition into the country, but that the immediate past CGC, Inde Dikko Abdullahi had frustrated that effort..
“We are in support of 100% tracking of containers to be introduced by the Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC) and we would love to be part and parcel of examination because I can tell you that 80% of customs officers are clearing agents.” He added that if a thorough examination was conducted by the relevant authorities, the fact would come out that most of the clearing licenses outside today are actually in the hands of officers.
Aside from carrying out shoddy inspections of cargoes belonging to customs officers, Okereke also stated that the government over the years has been shortchanged by these unscrupulous officers in the area of remitting revenue accruing to the government. The assumption is that when customs officers who are involved in clearing business bring in their goods and containers, because they know themselves, they bypass many of the levies and duties, granting unnecessary waivers to their colleagues because the person inspecting and approving the documents is also their friend and would get his kickback.
Another stakeholder, Chief Ezeobi Adolphus, said the system can be beaten. “Not everyone can be compromised,” he insisted. “Remember what Late Prof. Dora Akunyuli did in NAFDAC. She fought the cabal, risking her life. Ali is a retired Colonel; he should be able to leave a positive landmark in the customs service. He is an old man, what more should he be looking for but to retire in peace?”
However, only time will tell if the old officer in the person of Hammeed Ali still has it in him to go against a corrupt system like the Customs with the objective of reforming it, without getting compromised in the process.
Said Okereke, “You know why corruption in Customs has been to high heavens? It is because they know themselves and know what to do, and how to cut corners. But with Col. Ali around now, it will no longer be business as usual. He will sanitize the system as we are now calling him to look into this issue of officers operating clearing licenses at the detriment of the country.”
The history of Nigeria is replete with men and women who are placed at the helm of affairs of government organization, with much hope placed on them, only to fall prey to the very thing they were mandated to checkmate.
To refresh our minds, in the National Assembly during the last administration, Hon. Farouk Lawan was perceived as a ‘clean’ member of the House, believed by many to be above board in the issue of graft, Hon. Lawan was even nicknamed ‘Mr. Integrity’, until details of his shady dealings was exposed before a stunned nation. Let us not also forget the Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Ibrahim Lamorde, who is presently under investigation by the Senate for corrupt activities.
Also, we must remember former Inspector general of Police (IGP) Tafa Balogun, mandated to create an effective policing system in the country, who was later himself found to be grossly corrupt. The list goes on, across various sectors and parastatals of the Nigerian economy.
According to an industry practitioner who spoke on the basis of anonymity, a system like the Customs Service can compromise anyone, no matter how well-intended the person may start out.
He said, “We are talking about an office that affords you the privilege of handling billions of dollars in foreign exchange. There are many loopholes in the system where you could capitalize on and become rich over night without anyone knowing. To be able to resist so much money passing through your office daily, would take more than an ordinary man.
“It is practices like this, that have made many customs officers very rich. In fact, there were earlier reports that President Muhammadu Buhari, before making the choice to appoint Col. Ali as CGC, was shocked at the extent of material wealth that many customs officers had in their position.” He added.
However, with much expectations placed on the shoulders of Hammeed Ali, it should be noted that he is not the young army officer he was over two decades ago, when he was the Military Administrator of Kaduna. And he is just one man thrown into a pack of a corrupt and highly technical organization like the Nigeria Customs Service.
So the question on the lips of many is simple: What can one man do? Beyond the sensational media reports highlighting the disciplinarian tendencies of the new CGC, can he really cause a change in the NCS?
There has been a clamour in some quarters that Customs licenses should be issued to individuals. In as much as this might seem like a likely solution, the point remains that the licenses are issued to corporate companies that do not have the customs officer in question on its board of trustees, so they can equally front individuals to get these licenses on their behalf. The result will be creating a vicious circle.
If the government is sincere in fighting corruption, there are systems that can be set up to check the activities of corrupt officers, that is why we have the anti graft agencies. Let the government empower them and appoint credible people to do the job as they should because nobody is above the law.