Year of Boom Over, As Customs Smoke Out Smugglers

Hammed Ali, Comptroller General, Nigeria Customs Service: In support of The Action Of His Men

By Stephen Ubanna

Barely one year after Nigeria experienced a boom in the export of Agricultural products to the United States and the United Kingdom, there appears to be a lull as many exporters had been forced out of the business due to pecunia interests. .

This is evident going by the scanty number of Agricultural products export bound Containers that were shipped out from Tin-can Island port last month. The situation was so bad that maritime analysts fear that President Muhammadu Buhari hopes of boosting the yearly revenue of the government through non-oil exports would remain a mirage.

At Port and Cargo Handling Company , one of the terminal operators, at Tin-can Island port, officials confirmed that there is a big lull in export. They feared that situation may worsen in the months ahead as all government attention are focused on export .

A former Deputy Comptroller of Customs in-charge of Exports, Tin-can Island Command had said in 2016 that an average of 500 Agricultural products left the shores of Nigeria monthly. It was a period of boom where any type of product could be exported. This is because traders attention were focused on the International market to earn the much needed foreign exchange.

The Customs , the National Agency For Food and Drug Administration, NAFDAC, and Federal Inspection Agency, officials may have provided a soft landing for many of the exporters whose Agricultural products did not fall within the government approved ones.

The government had included the export of raw Yam on the list to boost the export market. Audu Ogbeh, former Chairman , Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, and now , Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development confirmed the export of three Container load of yam last June to the United States and the United Kingdom. The minister was optimistic that the inclusion of Yam among items to be exported would flood the International market with Nigeria Agricultural products. He got it wrong as the inclusion of Yam for exports has not made much impact.

A source informed the Magazine that whether Yam is exported or not to boost the country’s exportearnings, it is not noticeable on government revenue at the moment.

When The Magazine visited the Export Unit of Tin-can Island Command last July, it was a shadow of itself. Export documents were been sent to the Unit in trickles from Barshar Yusuf, the Comptroller of the Command.

Until the present lull in exports started, the export Unit was a bee heave of activities as exporters struggle to process their documents. Scores of people both local and abroad repeatedly, contacted the Customs daily including the Nigeria offices abroad on how to source for one Agricultural product or the other from Nigeria. The enquiries kept Nigeria officials at the foreign Embassies busy as they liaise with the Customs to provide the necessary assistance to the foreigners. All that may have become history.

Insiders believe that the lull in export would have been avoided if government officials, had not shown much interest to ascertain what is being exported through the nation’s seaports and Airports.

To many, the lull should be expected because of the acting President Yemi Osibanjo policy of food security for the country before it could contemplate of export of Agricultural produce. President Buhari , who is on medical vacation in the United Kingdom amay have seen reason with him as he is no longer all out to support non oil exports to boost the country’s revenue base.

A source informed the Magazine that there are about 20 different kinds of Agricultural products that had been approved by the government of Buhari for export which had been abused by exporters.

Only recently, Osibanjo commissioned a multi-billion rice mill in Kebbi state for de-stoning of rice to boost the country food supply. Nigeria is a major importer of rice from the United States, Brazil, India and Thailand which gulp billions of dollars annually.

Given the billions spent on rice imports, the Administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan had encouraged many rice importers, both local and foreign to establish rice farms in Nigeria. Some of them bought the idea and went into rice farming. One of such farms was established in Nasarawa state, in the north central region. There is hardly a state without an established rice farm today.

Despite the involvement of established Companies in the rice farming business, individuals have also gone into it as part of efforts to make Nigeria self sufficient in food production and take over the rice market in the West and Central African sub-region. Osibanjo is optimistic that Nigeria will get there in no distant time with the enabling environment which had been created by the government for rice farming to thrive. This is a warning to rice importers who patronise other ports in the West African sub-region to import rice which found their way into the Nigeria market through unapproved routes that the game is over.

While the government is putting all the necessary measures in place to sanitise the nation’s export market, Mohammed Garba, Comptroller Federal Operations Unit, FOU, Zone A, Ikeja, of the Nigeria Customs Service, NCS, appears to have found an answer to the rot at the ports in Lagos and the land border stations in the south west geopolitical region. Garba , who has shut the door against corrupt Customs officers and agents has deployed fierce looking officers to the re-invigorated roving team of the Command.

The team , which is now being headed by Charles Jack, a Chief Superintendent of Customs is regarded in agents’ circle as a ”mad dog” because of his insistence that the right thing must be done . Sources informed the Magazine that since he mounted the saddle, the Benue -born senior officer has moved in full swing with his men to sanitise the sea ports, airport and land border stations.

A forth night ago, the team had a rough battle with agents in its strive to clear the mess at the seaport, airport and land border station. Jack and his men had put on tough look in dealing with the dubious agents and their importer who are mostly Lebanese or Ibos has created fear among them.

Last week, one of the warehouses used in stocking second hand clothing was sealed by the team in Lagos. One of the suspects was said to have reached out to his contacts in the Presidency to intimidate the team but was disappointed. The suspect who had the mistaken impression that Jack, the head of the roving team would be hiding his identity from public view when he reached out to some top government functionaries was surprised when the tough talking officer showed him his name tag on his Uniform. It was then, it dawned on him that there must be a big masquerade beating the drum for the roving team.

Indeed, Hamid Ali, a retired Colonel and Comptroller General, NCS, is the big masquerade that is beating the drum for Garba’s men . TThe FOU, Zone A, Customs boss ,alluded much to this.

Indeed, a major seizure that had been made by the team in the recent time was a lexus jeep of a travelling big fish. The journey was terminated by Jack’s men because the man could not produce the necessary Customs papers. He had protested that he bought the jeep from COSCHARIS but that was how far he could go. As at last Friday, the jeep was still under the Command Custody.

An elated Garba disclosed that between Wednesday ,August 2, and Thursday, August 3, 2017, the roving team and the Comptroller General Compliance team, armed with adequate information had ”trailed and evacuated 37 assorted vehicles smuggled into the country through unapproved routes. They include eight Lexus Jeep, 12 Land Cruser Jeep, 17 Toyota Hilux manufactured between 202009and 2016. The Duty Paid Value, DPV, of the assorted vehicles is put at N1.4 billion.

Critics had accused the two teams of witch -hunting but Jerome Attah, an Assistant Superintendent of Customs and the Command Image maker disagreed. Attah said the two teams are acting within the mandate given to them by the Management to clear the rot at the port and ensure that that Vehicles plying the area within its control had the necessary Customs papers to confirm payment of duty.

The good news about the roving team, in particular, is that that they are not going after small fry smugglers but the big fishes who had the money to spend to smuggle big Vehicles and truck load of rice through unappoved routes.

The team may have given a reprieve to these set of smugglers who could only smuggle a bag of rice at a ago. The FOU, Zone A, Customs boss confirmed that the roving team had seized 12,o81 bags parboiled rice which DPV was put at about N149 million. This is in addition to 156 other seizures, 40 vehicles and 11 means of Conveyance, including bales of used Clothing, Indian Hemp and tyres.

Analysts describe the two teams, roving and the Comptroller General task force as inseparable. It is not surprising why the teams are achieving results .

Worried by the use of brutal force by smugglers to confront his men, Garba has warned that those who use violence as instrument of intimidation to frustrate the Customs personnel not to do their job would be disappointed as the ”NCS operatives will not hesitate to use appropriate force to deal with any threat that is intended to obstruct performance of statutory function”.

The Customs boss said the seizure of vehicles and rice smuggled through unapproved routes into the country would not stop because government policies prohibiting the importation of vehicles and rice through the land borders had not been reviewed.

The activities of Jack and his men in the roving team may have created fear in the mind of agents at the seaport, airport and land border stations in the south west that the leadership of the agents a are making desperate efforts to penetrate the ranks of FOU Command for closer working relationship.

Bonniface Anniebonam, the founder of National Approved Freight Forwarders, NAGAFF, led the pack when he visited the Command Management team last Tuesday. Many see the visit as a fence mending to turn a new leaf by the agents. But Garba , made it clear , that the only way they could stop having problem with his men is to ”ensure that their importers make genuine declaration”, but they claimed that they are not privy to what is being imported except the clearing document which is handed over to them by the importer, an indication that Containers which circumvent the law could still be impounded. He has matched his words with action going by the directive to Jack and his men to”work towards crippling smugglers and getting them out of the illegitimate business. The team had latched on the Comptroller’s directive to impound of recent six, ”40” Containers carrying different goods ranging from used tyres,, used tubes, iron folding chairs, , wooding Cabinets, Nati cheese, Chocolate water biscuits, packages of theatre seats, mould plastics to wooden chair legs. The items were imported in Commercial quantities. The Duty paid on the Containerised cargoes was put at about N450 million while the DPV of the goods, as assessed by the Valuation Department was put at N1.6 billion. . The teams have not allowed any of their suspects to escape. This is evident going by the arrest of 17 of them.

Of the 17 suspects, seven who were said be carrying general goods, had beennfirmed released on bail and another four who were involved in vehicle imports also granted bail. This bring the total number of suspects granted bail to 11. Despite granting bail to some of the suspects, six of them who had case to answer are still in detention pending the determination of their case in Court.

Officials of the Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents, ANLCA, Murtala Mohammed International Airport, MMIA, chapter took their turn to visit Garba and his management team last Friday to rub minds on how to bring the situation under control before they are pushed out of their business.

Jack and his men had beamed their search light at the airport , considered as a haven of fraud for agents. Past and present Comptrollers of the MMIA Command had fought toclear the rot at the airport but to no avail.

Charles Edike, a one-time Comptroller of the MMIA command and now an Assistant Comptroller General, had worked closely with the then Comptroller of FOU, Zone A, Isah Nuhu to sanitise the airport of the clearing mess but were frustrated by the syndicate. Edike had uncovered over 1,400 unpaid airway bills , but the importers had taken delivery of their goods from the National Cargo Handling Company , NAHCO and SAHCO with the active connivance of Customs personnel.

It is not surprising why Jack and Comptroller General Copliance team have positioned their men at strategic locations along the airport road to monitor the movement of cargoes in and out of the airport. This has paid off as some released cargoes have been impounded for circumventing the government fiscal policy. Those who the visit of ANLCA officials would slow down the roving team personnel may have to do a rethink. This is because Jack has no room for compromise as he has flung his door open to the public to avoid being accused of holding secret discussion with any importer or agent that .

Agents who spoke to the Magazine said it would be a matter of time before they penetrate the ranks of the roving team and Hamid Ali Compliance team. They noted that they had dealt with tougher Customs officers in the past and still triumphed as they became the ones asking for gratification. ne.

They had claimed that some of them even advised them to be doing bad jobs which would end up in their table to facilitate the release. Already,agents have resorted to blackmail to paint the FOU, Zone A, personnel bad, but that may not dampen the enthusiasm of the officers to do their job, an official remarked.

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