On Monday January 30, the Comptroller-General of the Nigerian Customs Service, NCS, Hameed Ali, gathered journalists in Lagos and announced that officers of the agency on “information patrol” intercepted 661 Pump Action handguns concealed inside a 40 foot container.
Reading from a prepared speech, Mr. Ali described the seizure as “the new normal” and a pointer to the determination of the customs to enforce all laws involved in the importation of goods.
However, senior customs officers working at the country’s ports have told PREMIUM TIMES, that far from Mr. Ali’s chest-thumping appraisal of the agency he heads, the rot in the customs has worsened or at best remained same since the retired army colonel was appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari.
Customs operations at the country’s ports remain riddled with corruption and inefficiency. Also, due to broken and non-existing equipment such as scanners required for examination of imported goods, officers deployed to man these equipment now waste away in redundancy, the sources, who pleaded not to be named for fear of victimization, said.
THE ARMS CONTAINER
Though Mr. Ali claimed that the team that apprehended the container conveying the handguns was tipped off, our sources said his claim couldn’t be further from the truth.
Our sources said the container was specifically targeted by Lagos Roving, as the team which intercepted the container is nicknamed, because the importers of the arms got greedy and avoided paying a mandatory bribe to the team that would have ensured that vehicle conveying them would not be stopped for checks on the road.
“Many containers with arms have left the port,” one the sources claimed.
“The name of the team is Lagos Roving, which is under Federal Operations Unit Zone A Ikeja. What the team does is, you as an agent you come and tell them that a container is leaving the port and for every 40 foot container you will pay N50,000, for 20 foot containers will pay N30,000.
“The container was caught because of greed. The agent tried to bypass them by not paying, thinking they will not stop him on the way. If he had paid nobody would have stopped him. Just imagine how many containers would have gone through because the agents paid,” he said.
But the spokesperson of the NCS, Joseph Attah insisted that the container was intercepted following “credible intelligence” from the customs intelligence network at the port.
“We have customs intelligence operatives in the port. We have informants around monitoring what is happening and once they suspect anything that could be wrong, they will give information to such a team to intercept that particular container,” Mr. Attah in a telephone interview.
“They went there on information patrol. Anything you said about bribe or no bribe, what I can repeat here is that they got intelligence that uncustomed goods were in this container, they went to that place and they intercepted the container.
“Talking about bribe, these officers could have accepted bribe and let the container go, but they refused to compromise. They insisted that the right thing should be done and that is why the nation is celebrating today.”
The entire process of clearing of the containers conveying the arms was enmeshed in fraud, one of our sources claimed.
He claimed that the documents used in clearing the container from the Lagos port was not genuine.
“The documents the importers tendered to the Lagos Roving team when the vehicle conveying the container was accosted were old documents used for the clearing of a similar consignment last year,” the source said.
Our sources also lamented that the customs authorities were more concerned with using the interception of the seized arms to burnish the agency’s public image. They claimed that the authorities were in haste to show the public that things were being done properly when actually the entire customs operation remains riddled with corruption, inefficiency and haphazardness.
According to them, customs authorities hastily declared two officers allegedly involved in the clearing of the container wanted without notifying them of the alleged breach.
Mr. Attah had told journalists that the officers declared wanted fled after the weapons were discovered.
“Immediately the weapons were uncovered, they took to their heels and that is why we are declaring them wanted. They were the ones that examined and checked the container at the Apapa port,” he said
But our sources claimed that the officers were never on the run. Both of them even reported for duty on the day they were declared wanted in the media.
“How do you declare someone who was in the office wanted? They had reported for duty. Nobody had informed them of anything. They actually read that they had been declared wanted and saw their photographs in the newspapers,” one of our sources claimed.
The source further explained that one of the customs officers, Odiba Haruna Inah, who was declared wanted had nothing to do with the clearing of the container.
About a year ago, he had signed the documents presented by the importers when they were stopped by the Lagos Roving team for another but similar consignment. Our sources said he was not in any way aware of the consignment loaded with arms.
When confronted about his claim that the officers initially fled, Mr. Attah said the officers were absent without leave (AWOL) but later reported and that investigation into how the container left the port undetected was on-going.
“You are talking about officers who have service numbers and rank. We have procedure for officers to travel, we have procedure for officers to absent themselves from duty. At anything when something like this happens and the service wants the presence of its officers and could not see them for two to three days, the service in line with the way we do our job could declare that officer AWOL.”
“AWOL here simply means absent without leave and especially at a point where there have been security breaches. The service will quickly alert all our commands and our stakeholders that this officers need to report immediately and that was what we did. I’m happy to tell you that those officers have reported and investigations is on-going.
Mr. Attah’s claim that the officers were declared AWOL raises more questions, as under the Nigerian civil service rule, public officials, including customs officers, can only be declared AWOL if they abandon their duty posts for up to 21 working days or 30 calendar days.
The NCS declared the officers wanted and released their pictures to the media less than 24 hours after it announced the seizure of the arms-conveying container.
On the authenticity of the documents presented by the importers of the arms, Mr. Attah said all documents involved in the clearing of the container are being reviewed as part of an on-going investigation and he cannot comment until the investigation is completed.
SHAMBOLIC INSPECTION OF CONTAINERS
None of the scanners in the country’s four commercial ports – Tin Can, Apapa, Onne, and PTML Terminal – are functional, the customs sources said. Each port has at least five terminals and each terminal is expected to have a scanner, they said.
With the absence of scanners, officers are required to do random physical inspection of containers.
Describing how the system of inspection of containers at the ports aids corruption, one official explained that, customs officers are expected to pay for the labour to bring out the goods from containers marked for inspection from their pockets, after the terminal operators bring down the containers to be inspected.
They claimed that importers who could afford to pay top bribe are given the all clear without any form of checks on their goods.
They said the porous inspection at the port has made it more than easy for contrabands and dangerous weapons like the pump action rifles to escape detection at the ports.
“Steel doors, for instance, are heavy, so you check a few, say three or four in containers out of 20. He might have ten of those containers he will drop two for examination and the remaining eight you declared that you have seen them. That is the standard practice. You only tell the agent what he could give you (bribe) and you write that you have examined all, especially for people that bring in heavy goods like tiles and WC (water closets),” another official stated.
The sources further explained that officers are only able to physically examine all containers carrying items like cars because there are usually spaces in the container they can fit into to carry out proper inspections.
If the inspection of imported consignment at the ports is lax, inspection at the land borders barely exists, the sources said.
“Unlike the ports where little examinations are done, on the road (land border) there is virtually no examination as each person only relies on what the importer tells him.”
It is not only customs officials who have complained about the unabated corruption and inefficiency at the ports, at least one presidential adviser has also publicly raised similar observations.
Bemoaning the level of corruption in some government agencies, the Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, PACAC, Itse Sagay, lambasted the Nigeria Customs Service for being a festering sour of corruption.
Mr. Sagay said nothing has changed in the customs since the inauguration of current administration in May 2015, reiterating the claim of our sources. He pointed out that in Tin Can Island Port, for instance, customs officials now charge fees to physically examine goods following the breakdown of the scanner.
He said the PACAC drew the attention of the Comptroller General to other instances of brazen corruption in the agency during a recent visit.
While admitting that the customs lacked basic equipment such as scanners to effectively inspect imported containers, its spokesperson said the authorities of the agency are working to make those equipment available.
“Customs as a service is desirous of cutting-edge technology that can help us do our job efficiently. Unfortunately we lack these functional scanners; most of the scanners today are not functioning. That put pressure on the way we are examining goods,” he said.
“The service has been making the case for scanners and the government is looking into that to ensure that in no distant time functional scanners are made available at out ports.”
Mr. Attah, however, said the all officers deployed to inspect containers at the port have been mandated to carry out 100 per cent physical inspection of containers. He also said it is not true that containers are randomly inspected.
“That is why the comptroller general has directed at all containers should undergo 100 per cent examination.”
He also explained that under a fast track arrangement, “Containers from known manufacturers are taken directly to their premises where they will be examined there.”
Mr. Attah, then denied that officers pay for the labour involved in inspection of containers.
“The function of bringing down containers and positioning them for inspection is that of the terminal operator,” he said.
But one of our sources said Mr. Attah was not being truthful.
“There is no way 100 per cent examination can be carried out,” the source said. “In a situation where an importer has about 20 containers of the same item, only about 3 or 4 are dropped for examination. The rest are not examined,” the source insisted.
Our sources further disclosed how the entire customs operation is set up to encourage corruption at every stage and how each unit is mandated to pass a cut of the kickback collected to one directly above it.
“Under Federal Operation Units, there is comptroller, which is the head of the unit, there are different teams appointed by the controller to man each checkpoint. For instance, the controller of the FOU, Ikeja, will appoint an OCs (Officer-in-Charge) for Gbaji, Agbara and other checkpoints in his jurisdiction.
“Smugglers will then approach the OCs and tell them they have contraband to import into the country. There is often a fixed amount for specific kind of goods and quantity. For instance, smugglers may be charged a bribe of N100,000 for a truck filled with rice. The OC will takes his own share and pass what is left to the controller,” one of our sources explained.
The source added that “the comptroller will remove his share, and he will go to Abuja and give any of the 16 assistant comptroller generals (ACG) supervising his share, and from there the ACG the will go to one of the six deputy Comptroller general (DCG) his share. The six DCG, having taken their cut will then pass what is left to the comptroller general.”
He alleged that that was the norm and was known to virtually all customs officials.
PREMIUM TIMES could not independently confirm this allegation of multi-layered bribery as described above, and the sources later explained Mr. Ali had be cut off from the scheme.
“The Nigerian Customs Service does not pretend to say that we consist of angels and saints,” said Mr. Attah.
“We agree that there could be very few officers who will compromise and who will try and do things that will put some question mark on our integrity and that is why there is need to have different layers of security checks, call it police the police, if you like,” he added.
“CLUELESS” COMPTROLLER GENERAL
When separately asked about measures being taken by Mr. Ali, a supposedly no-nonsense outsider appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari to clean up and reform the operations of the customs, to dismantle the agency’s entrenched web of kickbacks and bribery, our sources gave a unanimous response: Mr. Ali is clueless of the rot happening under his nose.
In fact, they claimed, the rot has become even more infested under Mr. Ali, as kickbacks that used to given to previous comptroller generals are now appropriated by the six DCGs.
They claimed that Mr. Ali is so clueless that he does not see even the corruption in his own office. Under Mr. Ali, the comptroller general’s task force, which is responsible for stopping contraband on highways, has become one of the most corrupt units in the customs, a source said.
“There is a CG Task Force, who are on the express roads. It was originally headed by DCG enforcement,” the source said.
“Mr. Ali did not know about this task force for months after he resumed office, but when he found out about its existence, he disbanded it. But later he resurrected it and place them under the supervision of his principal staff officer (PSO), one Colonel Buhari.”
The CG Task Force makes returns to the PSO, he alleged.
Mr. Attah confirmed that on resumption of office, Mr. Ali truly disbanded the CG Task Force. He said the comptroller-general reconstituted it to make it more efficient.
“We have the Federal Operation Unit and we have the compliance team, which is the one you are talking about. When he (Mr. Ali) came in, there was a particular team that was there. Like you rightly observed, he dropped that team and kind of reintegrated it and brought up a team that will be able to deliver. So this team was set up under the leadership of an assistant comptroller not the PSO as you said. And it is part of the complimentary anti-smuggling roles of each command.”
Our sources said it is not true that the team is under the supervision of an assistant comptroller.
“Not true. The team that patrols the express is called CGC task force which is directly under the CG’S office,” one of them said.
A COMMENDATION FOR MR. ALI
Our sources, however, said the only notable reform that should be credited to Mr. Ali is the cleaning up of the indiscipline in the ranking system of the customs.
“In August, it will be two years, when he came in. He said he will restructure, reform and increase revenue. But what he has done so far was to reform the ranking system; and he has demoted officers who were wearing ranks they were not entitled to.”
Our sources explained that customs officers are divided into three cadres: Custom Assistant (CA), which is the cadre for people with secondary school leaving certificates; the inspectorate cadre, for people with Ordinary National Diploma or equivalent; and the inspectorate cadre for people with Higher National Diploma or Bachelor’s degree. They claim that the previous Comptroller Generals were in the habit of promoting people far beyond their qualification and without the necessary documentations.
“For instance, some who were supposed to be chief inspector of customs, the equivalent of a staff sergeant in the army, were wearing the rank of an assistant comptroller, which is the equivalent of a colonel. These people were given offices and the benefits that come with their ranks. Even senior officers went to pay homage to their juniors because they have been put there by the power that be.”
“Hameed Ali has demoted all those who were promoted beyond their cadre. This has caused many officers to stop wearing their ranks and now dress in mufti after they were demoted.”
Mr. Attah described the confusion in the ranking as a “mix up” which was quickly resolved by Mr. Ali and that everything is back to normal.
Our sources, however, pleaded that the Comptroller-General extends his reform to improve the welfare of workers and address the demoralising situation where officers stay on a particular rank for close to a decade without promotion.
“Customs officers are the least paid of all revenue generating agencies in the country. Let me tell you the truth. Any customs officers you see living large, the money you see him spending are proceeds of bribes and not from what he earns legitimately. That is bitter truth,” a source said.