For about three weeks running, the media have been awash with shocking revelations that are emanating from the current National Assembly’s investigations into the activities of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) between 2000 and 2009.
The probe has brought to the fore issues that have for long either been kept in abeyance, swept under the carpet or just ignored by those who should act on them.
So, when petitions started flying about shortly after the exit of Elder Jacob Gyang Buba (now Gbong Gwon Jos ) as the Customs Comptroller General, it was obvious that there was no way the National Assembly could continue to shy away from digging into the activities of this strategic agency.
It is on record that the first petition that arrived at the House of Representatives was somewhat anonymous in that, even though the authors are known to the lawmakers, their identities were shielded from the public. This group had alleged all manners misdemeanours against past leadership of the Nigeria Customs Service since 2004, cleverly leaving out the period between 1999 and March 2004 when Alhaji Aliyu Mustapha held sway as the Customs boss.
Consequently, when the House of Representatives was ready for the exercise, it mandated its committee on Customs to go beyond 2004 and extend its dragnet to cover activities of the service from 1999 to date. This specifically puts former Comptrollers General Mustapha, Buba and Alhaji Hamman Bello Ahmed ‘in the docks’.
Apart from the sundry allegations which border on abuse or outright neglect of due process in the award of contracts, there had been outright insinuations that the Nigeria Customs Service as an institution of the federal government of Nigeria is corrupt. There had also been pointed allegations that Customs officers are engaged in the daily activities of customs clearance.
Of course, the on-going probe has also once again, brought to the fore the agitation by some stakeholders that the Nigeria Customs Service should be granted autonomy and become self accounting.
And as it is common with probes, stories have been flying form the Reps sittings. Some have even quoted the law makers as being favourably disposed to certain submissions.
For instance, the lawmakers were quoted by a section of the media as having stumbled on the discovery that about 50 per cent of personnel of the Nigeria Customs Service are ‘ghosts workers’. The allegation which we are told has caught the fancy of the law makers was reportedly levelled by one Kola Shola who claimed to be representing a previously unknown organisation called Business Ventures Watch.
He pointedly alleged that the newly installed Gbong Gwon Jos, Da Jacob Gyang Buba lied about the staff strength of Customs. He alleged that Customs’ staff strength is only of 10,000 and not 20,000.
It is also instructive and disturbing that none of the ex-Comptrollers General has so far shown any serious commitment to the probe. The best that has happened so far from the league of ex- Customs bosses is what can best be described as a mere ‘courtesy visit’ by members of the Dr Bello Mohammed – led task force on Customs reforms.
Perhaps, Nigerians are obviously unenthusiastic about the efforts of the House committee on Customs because of how similar probes in the past have ended.
The only way that this probe would be seen to have yielded results is if it achieved the desire of most industry stakeholders who have expressed support for the call for autonomy for the Nigeria Customs Service. But more importantly it should achieve the second and perhaps more important desire; which is to amend the antiquated Customs and Excise Management Act (CEMA) of 1958.
Apart from these, the lawmakers will be seen to be a different breed if they are able to rise above sentiments, they should also avoid being used to settle old scores; especially going by the calibre of people who have so far gone to testify or present memorandum.
As timely and desirable as it is, it will however amount to a futile exercise and a waste of public funds, if the current efforts do not lead to a better Nigeria Customs Service.