"We cannot undermine national security and loss of government revenue in an attempt to implement ease of doing business"
The Area Controller in charge of the Federal Operations Unit (FOU) Zone 'A' of the Nigeria Customs Service, Comptroller Muhammed Uba in this interview with Shipping Position Daily correspondent Dapo Olawuni, talked about plans by the Customs to curtail smuggling activities, especially in the yuletide season. "An average smuggler is ready to die because of N25,000" As the year is coming to an end, snuggling activities increase, how prepared are you?
Customs operations is not new to us, since we are part of the society and the society is changing, both traders and smugglers may devise a new method with a view to getting away with what they want. We are always ahead of them because we also look at our track records and history; what happened last year in times like this, we just redouble our efforts, widen our scope of activities, widen our scope for information and knowledge, we move farther than where we have been moving, in view of the fact that people just like the government have plans from January to December, as the year is drawing to an end, as somebody who has a target, he may probably realise that he has not achieved what he intends achieving. Such persons may decide to go the crookest way. It is for this reason that we redouble our efforts, all the flash points known to us, we make sure that such places are reinforced.
Where we do not even think smugglers would take, we do not leave such soft target areas, we make sure that officers are on standby to make sure that government money is not lost by virtue of the fact that we are not there. This is why we keep calling on patriotic and even revenue and economic informants, whatever may be your intentions as an informant, whether you are patriotic, you have interest in the development of Nigeria, if you come to us with information, we would go into investigations. Also, if you are an economic informant that would not release information unless you are paid, give us, there is a government policy on this, although it takes a long process because it has to be approved, but at our own local level, we initiate, because if we decide to follow the bureaucratic process, the information would be belated, what we don't want to happen would happen and along this line, we pay you, even if we don't have the money, we can reach an agreement to pay installmentally, this has been yielding results.
Sometimes, the information might be false, but this does not mean we would not listen, we are also cautious that they don't harm lurking officers. Like you know, the basic customs operations, fundamentally, revenue generation and anti-smuggling, if you translate it, these roles are community service, there is no country that can root out smuggling entirely, we can only do our best to make sure that it is brought to the barest minimum. Everyone inside the ports are important to us and that is why sometimes we call a meeting of the stakeholders, all security agencies and even the truck drivers and loaders, they are as important as every other person.
So, we are not going to be remarkably different, we are just going to improve, we get information, we have logistics and we are not unaware that times like this, activities increase and people take life like a do or die affair.
We still see your officers stopping containers on the highway and there are allegations of money exchanging hands
We don't just go on the roads and start picking containers; we work with intelligence and information. On the average, I am sure that not less than 500 containers are released from Tin Can or Apapa port, but hardly would you find 10 of these containers here and I don’t think this will affect ease of doing business, in our quest to facilitate ease of doing business; we cannot undermine national security or loss of government revenue.Even in your own house, so long as we have these suspicion and reasonable information that you carry goods that government money have not been adequately collected or that the goods were smuggled, Section 158 of the Custom and Excise law allows us to patrol freely anywhere, section 147 permits Customs to break into anywhere, even your private homes and warehouse and make sure the goods are evacuated. So, we do not go on the highways to stop containers, we move based on information. At point of examination of cargo at the seaport, somebody might be a labourer, unknown to you but he has given us information, the 661 pump action riffles seized earlier this year was based in information. If we are chasing a smuggler and the environment is hostile, we would allow you to go to an area where the casualty would be minimised because no matter what we intercept, when a human life is lost, the story changes.On the high handedness of officers that you talked about, it is part of the human factor, dealing with human beings is very difficult, we call parades and have meetings, we advise them not to do this or that, but some of them, the moment they leave here, they become warlords and kings. Some of the smugglers use charms to overpower your officers; how do intend to manage this? I don't believe in juju (charms). It is for anybody who believes in it, for me, I am a scientist, unfortunately even if it is true, magic is not recognized in law. If the smugglers are doing magic, I believe even among the officers there might be some magicians, if we find any, we might send them where those magician smugglers are so that they can help us.
What has happened to the vehicles that were intercepted and displayed by the CGC here recently?
The vehicles are still there at the training college, government process is so bureaucratic, there is a grace period of time after which they would auction the vehicles, vehicles of such value, the amount of money is so much, the Customs headquarters must have reported to the federal government, whatever is coming out from there we don't know, but what I know is that the vehicles are still here. But for the ones we seized here recently, if the owners have evidence of duty payment, we would release it to them, it is not our intention to just seize people’s vehicles, if they lose their capital, from where are we going to get revenue.For big vehicles of that nature and for a very long time, nobody has shown up to come and claim them; definitely you know that something is wrong somewhere because nobody would allow such amount of money to lie idle.
What synergy do you have with other security agencies in terms of smuggling?
We have always been partnering with security agencies to combat smuggling, if my phone was here now, I would just call either the Brigadier General or the GOC himself and I would also call the Commissioner of Police in any of the states under my jurisdiction and they would respond, we always have meetings with them, we exchange ideas and we interact. For instance, the police know all the flashpoints in their areas of jurisdiction, so if there are certain places that we want to go, we don't go alone with the Customs officers, we go with the military, the police and the DSS. We partner because all security agencies have one objective; which is security.
What is your relationship with border community?
It is continuous enlightenment and education, they believe that what they are doing is right, they have been doing it for long, they don't understand how government works, they don't even understand the behavior of government. In the border community there is what we call customs-community relationship, we speak with even their traditional rulers, exchanging ideas. The challenges we are having is because of their ignorance, the moment you want to go and seize goods, the whole community would rise against you, they see us as enemy, people still have misconception that whenever customs seize goods, they share it among themselves. When I inquired how much the drivers are paid, I was told it is N25,000, and I begin to imagine that because of N25,000, somebody is ready to die, this is ignorance and madness. The new means we have defined now is that we allow them to get the rice to final destination then we move in and clamp on them.
Some of the Customs laws are not being implemented to the fullest, for instance, section 77 of the CEMA says that if you send a message to a person that wants to smuggle, even if the message does not get to the person and you intended to aid the smuggling by that person, you would go for two years imprisonment.