Towards the end of last year, an anonymous group sent a petition to the National Assembly; precisely, the House of Representatives alleging all manners misdemeanours against past leadership of the Nigeria Customs Service since 2004.
After that petition, a couple of others have also been received by the legislature. One thing is central to all the petitions – the petitioners want the lawmakers to replicate what they had already done with some government agencies; that is to conduct a public hearing into the activities of this very strategic revenue earning agency.
If it is carried out, it will be the first time that Customs would be subjected to the rigours of open legislative scrutiny.
The closest that the Nigeria Customs Service has been to being probed was the creation in December 2003 of a presidential committee to restructure the service. The panel which was headed by the then – minister of state for finance, Mrs Esther Nenadi Usman was tasked with the responsibility of examining the structure and operations of the service and also appraise the state of infrastructures, equipment and the basis for the yearly revenue target that the service is given.
When suddenly, some individuals and persons started calling for probe and when it was confirmed that the National Assembly has indeed received and commenced preliminary work on the “mother of all probes”, it became obvious that there may not have been smoke without fire.
However, while the petitioners are lobbying for time – specific (2004 to 2009) probe, the lawmakers have decided to take it a step further by extending their drag-net to 2000 when Alhaji Ahmed Mustapha was in charge.
Of course, the move to probe Customs has already been endorsed by the House of Representatives which has mandated its committee on the Customs to carry out the assignment.
Based on this, the committee has already notified the Comptrollers General who presided over the affairs of Nigeria Customs Service since 2000. They are: Alhaji Ahmed Aliyu Mustapha, Jacob Gyang Bubs and Haman Bello Ahmed.
While we are not opposed to the lawmakers’ constitutional right to dig into activities of government agencies through the instrumentality of a public hearing or probe, we however call for restrain in the exercise, to avoid the pitfalls of embarking on a probe for untoward reasons.
Our concern is premised on the effects and outcome of similar probes in the immediate past. For instance, the controversy, allegations and counter allegations over the celebrated power sector probe almost became a national embarrassment as concerned individuals traded blames and allegations; all bordering on graft.
Similarly, the recent transport sector probe by the Senate threw up a lot of dust and pitched personalities against one another.
The outcome of the two probes mentioned above are yet to be seen, even as we are waiting the commencement of yet another one in the name of Customs probe.
As much as we support any genuine attempt to make past leaders to be accountable to the people, we urge that the impending probe of the customs should not be an exercise to witch hunt or aimed at settling old scores.
The National Assembly should also not allow itself to be dragged into any attempt by serving or former officers to either get at their colleagues or get at the Service. We stress this because feelers that are coming from the legislature indicate that the possibility of the House of Representatives sub- committee on Customs may not be completely altruistic.
In one breadth, the committee’s secretary was reported to have said that the need to probe the Customs arose out of the lawmakers’ desire to assist the service to perform better, while in another, he confirmed that the committee had received petitions, but refused to agree that allegations that were levelled against past the service necessitated the probe.
The fact that most government agencies; including Customs are due for investigations and the fact that, many of them have had to shed employees as a result of government’s down sizing and right sizing policy have made them highly susceptible to attacks form within and outside.
In the case of Customs, the rank sizing exercise of 2006, the retirement of senior and management personnel last year to pave way for the appointment of a new Comptroller General have both paved way for assault on the service. If it must go ahead with the probe, then the National Assembly should be altruistic, nationalistic and avoid being used.
Sesan Onileimo (FNIS)