By Stephen Ubanna
Hameed Ali, a retired Colonel and Comptroller General, Nigeria Customs Service, NCS, may be on his last lap of the Presidential mandate to restructure and reform the Customs. As a prelude to winding up his assignment, Ali has reconstituted the Comptroller General’s Compliance task force in a full-fledged team headed by A. Azarema, an Assistant Comptroller General, who before now was Comptroller in-charge of customs Permits and License at the Headquarters.
The team, according to Joseph Attah, a Deputy Comptroller and National Public Relations of the NCS, is divided into three , consisting of teams A, for the western states of Lagos, Ogun, Oyo, Ekiti, Ondo and Osun. The team B takes charge of the north comprising states in the north west, north east and north central while the team C has a mandate to cover the south eastern states of Imo, Abia, Eboyi, Anambra and Enugu. Also it has a mandate cover the south-south states of Rivers, Bayelsa, Akwa- Ibom, Cross river, Edo and Delta states.
Each of the teams, Attah disclosed is to be headed by an Assistant Comptroller of Customs. Many believe that the reconstitution of the Comptroller General’s task force is a ”vote of no confidence” on the Federal Operations Unit, which has four Commands spread across the country.
FOU spear heads the customs anti-smuggling war and monitoring of goods released from the ports and land borders to ensure Compliance. These, it has executed over the years and had made somemouth watery seizures. The latest seizure made by the Zone A Command were arms and fake Pharmaceutical products.
Moreso, between January and February,, 2017, the FOU, Zone A , headed by Comptroller Mahmudu Haruna saved the country over N60 billion on goods released from the ports and land borders in the south west for non compliance of government fiscal policy. The covers the western part of the country, Zone B, north west, Zone C, south east and Zone D, north east. Other Commands are making spectacular seizures as well.
Insiders told the Magazine that Ali has the intention of turning the reconstituted Comptroller General’s team a full- fledged Department but could not do it because he needed the approval of the Customs Board which is yet to be constituted.
Perhaps, to avoid being accused of taking advantage of his close relationship with President Muhammadu Buhari to do whatever he likes in Customs, he described the reconstituted Comptroller General’s task force as a team.
The thinking in several quarters is that the Customs boss ought to have strengthened the Federal Operations Unit across the country instead of reconstituting the Comptroller General team which had been constituted as a task force to operate alongside FOU personnel in their areas of operation. They feared that the anti-smuggling war across the country may nose dive because of the struggle for superiority between FOU personnel and the Compliance team.
But Attah, the Customs PRO, declared that there would not be any basis for struggle for supremacy between them , insisting that the” Compliance three team were created to complement the FOU, to vigorously crack down on all forms of smuggling activities nationwide, with particular focus on enforcement of non- importation of rice and vehicles through the land borders”.
The Federal government had banned the importation of rice and vehicles through the land border but the continued to flood the country through unapproved routes , given an insight that the FOU Commands saddled with the responsibility to crack down smugglers have failed in their duty.
Investigation by the Magazine shows that in spite of the close working relationship between the border station Commands and FOU personnel at the land borders, rice and vehicles were still being smuggled into the country.
A source told the Magazine that the smuggling of rice and vehicles was more pronounced in the north. It was learnt that most of the transit vehicles from the port of Cotonou in Republic of Benin to Niger and Chad were diverted through Maigatari border in Jigawa state into the Nigeria market for sale by auto dealers.
the seizure of 13 vehicles from a Senator’s house in Kano on information by the Comptroller General Task Force in the north may have strengthened the resolve of the Customs boss to turn it into a Department but changed his mind at the last minute to turn it into a team. The seized vehicles which was traced to Maigatari border was an indication that the Maigatari border was a major route through which vehicles are smuggled into the country .
As Maigatari is a major route for vehicle smugglers, Sokoto, Kebbi, Zamfara, Borno, Yobe, Kwara, Katsina , Cross river, Lagos, Ogun, Oyo and Ekiti border stations play a major role in the smuggling of both rice and vehicles into the country.
For now, Ali and Azarema are working round the clock to reconstitute the Comptroller Gneral’s task force into team in the various Zones, the Comptrollers of the FOU Command nationwide have read the riot act to their men to sit up. Haruna, the Comptroller of FOU, Zone A, has warned that he would not take any excuse for an answer that rice and vehicles are still being smuggled into the country through unapproved routes in the south west which is under its watch.
Before now, officials of the FOU were behaving as tin gods on the road. there had been reports that many of the enforcement Officers hobnob with smugglers in the Ogun and Oyo axis. Okechukwu Emmanuel, a Lagos based trader said the reconstitution of the Comptroller General task force into a team would force the FOU personnel to sit up and they would not want to be found wanting in the discharge of their duties.
besides, the reconstitution of the Comptroller General task force, Ali had promoted over 3,000 officers , harmonized the HND and University degree holders in career progression in the Service. At his prompting, the Service has aligned with the Nigeria Police force rank structure. This is a big relief for Officers and men of the Service who see their Contemporaries in the police going ahead of them in rank. With the alignment , the Customs personnel would be moving at the same speed with the police in rank.
Many Officers found wanting in the government anti-corruption policy have also be shown the way out from the Service as part of the restructuring and reform of the Customs by Ali. With what Ali has achieved in the last one year in the Service , which many consider as impressive, they however want Buhari to heed the call of the Bukola Saraki led Senate to replace him with a career Customs Officer to sustain the level of development achieved by the previous administration.