Mr. Steve Okonmah is the Public Relations Officer (PRO) of Ports, Terminal Multi-services Limited (PTML) Command of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) and recently he was made the Chief Facilitator of Military Police and Paramilitary Public Relations Officers’ Forum (MILPOPPROF). In the spate of diverse opinions on the development in the Service, Okomah gives his take on the on-going reforms in the Service as it affects the Command.
What is the greatest hazard a Customs officer is confronted with?
You don’t know what it means to face smugglers every day, Customs lose personnel every day. An armed robber is someone who has a gun and goes to rob but a smuggler is someone with money who can probably import trucks of more sophisticated weapons, different guns and ammunitions, these are the people that Customs battle every day.
A smuggler is more deadly and dangerous than an armed robber, he will tell you that he can kill a Customs officer and use his money to close the case, he will give money to the same police that the same government empowered us together to silence the case. That is the people that Customs have to deal with everyday both on land and on our sea borders.
The former Comptroller General Customs (CGC) Dikko Abdullahi branded one of the boats here, the group of nine, in memory of nine Customs Officers who set off to work from their houses and never came back because they were murdered in cold blood. Dikko went as far as recognizing them, after all it happened before his time but he still gave honor to whom honor was due because these people died in active service, he bought a boat and named it, the group of nine. He put their names on it and immortalized them.
Officers in operation die every day, most of their deaths go unreported and often times, it is in the hands of smugglers. I always tell people that there is a problem in Customs; our PROs are not doing enough. What we need now is aggressive publicity because a lot of bad publicity is given to Customs, trying to destroy the Service, any time people want to get attention, they say Customs is corrupt, corrupt at what? Thank God the new Comptroller General Customs (CGC) Col. Hameed Ali (Rtd.) has seen for himself what is happening in customs.
Ali said his belief was that when we collect government money we sit down, we share the money and decide what goes to the government and keep the other half for ourselves. He has realized that it is receipts we are dealing with. Level nine Officers in the Nigerian Navy receives N400, 000 as monthly salary, a Comptroller in Customs takes N350, 000, how much is the Navy realizing for the government? Same thing in the Nigerian Police, as bad as what they claim to be receiving as salary is, it is higher than that of the Customs, Ali has checked these and other enforcement agents and discovered that Customs receives the lowest yet we collect billions in revenue.
We are close to Nigerian National Petroleum Commision (NNPC) in revenue generation for the nation and in the next two months, we might even collect more than NNPC. Some people who say they are our friends are the same people who go out to destroy us and say cargo clearance takes 70 signatures, all these are lies where will you put the signatures?
Congratulations on your new promotion as the chairman of Military Police and Paramilitary Public Relation Officers Fort (MILPOPPROF) throughout the federation.
Thank you, I am now their chairman but in military you don’t say chairman, so I am the Chief Facilitator.
How do you feel about this elevation?
I feel honored because as one of the founding fathers, I now have the full privilege as a leader to bring out the thoughts that lead to our starting this group. It was during the crisis between the military and the Police at Ojuelegba. The Ojuelegba war between the army and police gave birth to MILPOPPROF.
The office of the police was burnt down, that was when some of us conceived the idea that the best thing will be for us to form an alliance between the military police and paramilitary public relations officers to create a forum for interrelations and resolution of perceived conflict in the system through their PROs, and it has helped a lot because if we see an army man and a policeman arguing heatedly, all we just need do is to pick the phone, since we have the phone numbers of all the PROs, call the nearest army PRO and the nearest police PRO and as soon as they respond, we let them know what is happening, and before you know it, the dispute is resolved.
It has helped the system a lot. That is the vision that necessitated our coming together and I thank God that today we are really achieving that mission we had when we started off. By next year march this organization will be 10 years in existence. So I am highly honored and happy and I believe that I will make my own contribution at the long run.
How do you feel about the reforms going on in the service?
One thing is constant in life and that is change, there must be change. If you went through my write up in one of the media publications recently, I said officers, agent, shippers, all stakeholders, should give Col. Ali a chance to succeed. Let us not deceive ourselves we knew we had problems, we inside knew there was a problem. Three quarter of our problems are equally contributed by the press because if the Police Force wants to make a change now, the press will not speculate 100 names.
But the pressman will tell me that Ali’s birthday is next tomorrow because he wants advert. They hit up Customs every time, why is that every four years we must have problems, why is that every four years, before the end of the fourth year you start seeing the papers speculating about Customs with sensational headings like, 25 people struggling for CG post, why don’t they write about those struggling in Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) and other agencies that are struggling, why only Customs.
Some of our leaders dance into their hands , they think they are helping them but , no , if the man at the top reads in the papers that there is a speculation about his subordinate he is discouraged to work with such a subordinate. I am very convinced that some leaders pay pressmen to write about a particular person and the man will think he is been projected without recognizing the trap. But the question I am still going to ask my colleagues and friends in the press is, why heating up Customs every four years, why should they be subjected to bad press all the time.
On the question of change, one thing that is constant in life is change; if we don’t change we cannot improve.
Before now some officers will tell you he is posted directly to the gate from Abuja, but today discipline is gaining deep roots in Customs, the Customs Area Comptroller (CAC) is in charge of his command, if anything goes wrong he or she is held fully responsible, nobody will tell you now that I was posted directly from Abuja, this was indiscipline, so I think Ali started on a right note and unfortunately, the same press had wanted to finish him up.
Ali during his press briefing at the Customs Training College said that his coming to Customs is not to sack anybody but to make those on ground to work better but less than three weeks after that statement, we see officers who were retired and as reported in some quarters forcefully, is that not a contradiction?
You have spoken from two sides of the mouth, when the CG took over leadership of the service the press wrote and said, he will kill, destroy, prosecute and he will fail. That was in all the papers but ordinarily, if we are to be honest to ourselves as journalists, because I am part of you, I will always say it, there are certain things you down play. It is better to say, ‘Ali sends warning signals and anybody found wanting will be disciplined.’ That summaries it.
Whatever thing that needs to be said, it becomes more matured, even if his speech is not being guided, as journalists you should moderate it to reduce tension in the Service. You also said that at the training college the man assured you he is not going to sack anybody, but there is what is called after thought.
I can bring out the letter of voluntary retirement here. It was not signed by you or by me it was signed by the people involved and what was their statement it reads, “having attained this heights we have decided to voluntarily resign to create more for others to come up,” so if they had said it like that, and it was reported like that in the social media, why should somebody now come back and say they were forced out , you now see that story as trying to attack the CG.
In view of the manner that the whole restructuring is going, is it not a bit high handed, does it show good management principles?
If you listened to what the CG said on the television recently, he said, in line with his three point agenda he is here to reform, restructure and get revenue. In line with that, some people may feel uncomfortable and decide to resign, did anyone of them say that they were given a dismissal letter, no. Perhaps one of their colleagues might have advised them to go, it is an advice, a signal, it is not documented, but they came out public and signed a document that states that they have voluntarily decided to go on their own why are they now saying Ali forced them to go, we have seen the evidence of what they wrote, let them show us the evidence of what the man wrote against them.
Go through the list of those people who have been asked to go, majority of them have less than three months to go, some six months maximum, but all that is being reported is that they have been sent away, but nobody is looking at that, I see the CG as a very intelligent man, on each page of the people retired are the record of their service number, the year they came into the service and the time when they are supposed to go. Was that not what Dikko has been doing too?
Look at the new Deputy Comptroller Generals (DCGs), the man is putting round pegs in round wholes, there is one clear attribute that you notice there, anybody that is intelligent in the activities of customs officers will notice one thing very fast. This man gives consideration to seniority. Watch the whole people he appointed as DCGs, they are all old Assistant Comptroller Generals (ACGs).
So what is new there, what is wrong with that, we are lamenting about unemployment, if you have been working as a government worker up to where you have less than a year to go and you are asked to go without a dismissal is it honorable, so that more people have the opportunity of coming on board. For me nobody has been dismissed.
Look at the appointment he is making for instance he is not appointing them based on familiarity or favoritism he putting them there based on what he knows they can do for example, we all know Pre-Arrival Assessment Report (PAAR) was established by Funsho Adekoge, that was one of the reasons he was posted out because the man has seen that ability, he called him to handle Information and Communication Technology (ICT), is that not a familiar terrain for him?
If someone like Umar Sanusi whom we know is sound in all ramifications of Customs operations is appointed to be the ACG headquarters , is Ali not putting the round pegs in the round wholes. Before now, you cannot talk to a one star officer with connections. I was aware of a scenario whereby someone from Abuja called a Deputy Comptroller and abused him that his son said he is not getting enough envelopes. All those things are no longer happening. Reshuffling has been done in PTML now and nobody is calling the CAC to say my son is in an uncomfortable post, please change him.
Do you not think it is too early to conclude on that?
No, I am trying to make a point, if it was before now things were different, I am saying this because I am a part of the system, on many occasions we will prepare a rooster, and afterwards it will not be made public.
We will receive more than 100 telephone calls, they will ask you why do you want to bring out rooster and who told you to reshuffle in the first place? It dies like that, tell me, if you instruct such a junior officer tomorrow will you expect him to obey you? No, but this man from the little time he has been here he has brought discipline. now I have sent out my subordinate here to tell all OCS that CAC has said anybody, that has been posted out of a particular seat and he is found there the OC will be held responsible. Has it ever happened, who is the CAC before now to bring out rooster? As he brings it out the next day, he will be transferred to Abuja, so to be honest to ourselves, so far Ali is taking the right steps, we that are inside know this, if we see the truth it is good to say it, before now discipline was gone in customs.
Everybody have now come down to their normal rank, before, you see officers with fake ranks everywhere, who will say it, are you going to say it when the people who are wearing the fake ranks are in the CGs Squad or team? The first thing the new CG has achieved is discipline in the Service, once you are disciplined, you will grow, so we are expecting our growth because we are now disciplined.
Is this not a repeat of the regime of one-time Sole Administrator of Customs, Major General Samuel Ango, who was eventually accused of being involved in corrupt practices?
I am not aware of him being involved in corruption throughout his stay in the Service because I served with him at the headquarters. Ango started the Chief Security officers’ (CSO) posting in the Service, he included it on the rooster and because two of us were posted there, we suggested that we should rotate it on monthly basis and he agreed. Osula Mohammed and I started it at the headquarters then and with time he recognized the importance of the office after some incidences that later occurred inrelation to the office, which made the post to hold till now.