The much-touted anti-smuggling war of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) has been described as a scam allegedly contrived and sustained over the years to enrich favoured persons within and outside the Service, even as the nation suffers terribly from revenue leakages and security threats from the unfettered importation and exportation of approved trade and prohibited items.
A freight forwarding veteran, Mr. Godfrey Chukwuemeka Nwosu, stated unequivocally in Lagos on Wednesday last week, that “the Nigeria Customs anti-smuggling war is a scam that has over years been bleeding the nation and innocent traders and their agents mercilessly, while enriching a circle of Customs personnel and their cohorts”.
Nwosu, who is the Secretary of the Tin Can Island Port Chapter, National Association of Government Approval Freight Fowarders (NAGAFF), alleged that the operatives of the Federal Operations Unit (FOU) under the respective zones of the NCS, as well as those in the Comptroller-General of Customs (CGC) Strike Force were merely out to harass and extort money from traders and their agents.
Describing the FOU and the CGC Strike Force as mere instruments of oppression and extortion, Nwosu compared both bodies to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria Police Force (NPF).
“We are appreciative that SARS in the face of the enthusiastic #EndSARS social media campaign, the squad has been undergoing reforms to check the excesses of the operatives,” he said.
According to him, the NAGAFF Tin-Can Chapter intends to spearhead similar campaigns, #EndFOU, #EndCGCStrikeForce, with the aim of instigating reforms to curb the high-handedness and exploitative tendencies of the operatives.
He said that the recourse to the impending #EndFOU, #EndCGCStrikeForce campaigs will help check the frequent losses of lives from gunshots at scenes of FOU checkpoints, during market raids by the operatives, and during high speed chases by FOU operatives after suspected smugglers and gunfights between both groups.
In his words: “We can’t continue to record avoidable deaths, all because splinter FOUs mount checkpoints and raid markets to intercept consignments and extort money from traders or their agents for goods that were duly cleared and released from the seaports, airports or land border stations.
“We are crying bitterly about the agonies that traders, particularly importers, and their agents are regularly subjected to along the highways by multiple FOU units intercepting cargoes and seizing these and taking them away to their operational headquarters where the cargo owner or the representative is unable to meet up with the terms of their extortion. At the headquarters, the extortion rates are so much higher and you end up paying out so much if you are desirous of retrieving your goods that were impounded not because of any legitimate infraction, but simply to intimidate and extort you.”
Nwosu accused the FOUs and the CGC Strike Force of allegedly conspiring in regularly organising press conferences to announce and display alleged smuggled goods purportedly “seized by “eagle-eyed and gallant officers from economic saboteurs”, events which, according to him, are stage-managed and the same goods recycled to hoodwink members of the public gullible enough to be hoodwinked.
In the words of the NAGAFF Tin-Can Chapter Secretary: “The FOU has been split into three subunits. They have Checkpoints FOU. They have Patrols FOU. Same unit of Customs! And somebody is somewhere defending it? Somebody would be there to tell you that they have recorded so much , and they will stage manage seizures and call the press to say, ‘We caught container-load of this, we caught container-load of that.’
“One seizure they would flash it on the media; on the news more than three times. People are not keen on taking notice of it. Strike Force will come and tell you ‘this rice, this okrika was caught’. Tomorrow, FOU will come and splash the same same seizures as its achievement in this system!”
Urging the CGC, Colonel Hamed Ibrahim Ali (rtd), and his management team to harmonise the operations and manage the human resources of the Service effectively through a more strategic deployment of its personnel for efficiency, Nwosu told the Customs top brass to deploy the FOU to be part of the cargo clearing and delivery system at the ports, if it does not trust in the capacity of resident officers at the land border posts, seaports or airports to execute their briefs in the system, rather than, according to him, the prevailing situation of FOU operatives haunting the highways and engaging in extortion and pretending to be checking non-existing anomalies in cargoes in transit to warehouses or markets.
Addressing the Customs chief directly, Nwosu told Ali thus: “CGC, move promptly to stop the FOU nuisance along inner city roads and the highways. It’s your Service you know how you manage it. I’d you feel so comfortable with the operations of FOU, let him send them to the ports to become resident officers. It is abhorrent that cargo duly released by Releasing Officer at an Area Command under the watchful eyes of an experienced Controller will leave the port, enter the road for delivery and be intercepted again. Who is fooling who here? In the process of such intercepts, many lives have been lost and many limbs maimed by gunshots. Today, you hear Customs killed somebody in Idiroko! Tomorrow, you hear smugglers killed Customs! Some other day, the story is that stray bullets from Customs hit an innocent person nearby. Why? It is because you have split your FOU into several other operations.”