After what appeared like an endless wait leading to insinuations that it may have been swept under the carpet,
the House of Representatives committee on the Nigeria Customs Service woke from its slumber and announced that the much-expected probe will now commence on April 22, 2009.
In announcing the date, the committee’s chairman, Honourable Yakubu Dogara had insinuated that it was not getting sufficient cooperation from some serving and retired Comptrollers General of Customs. The lawmaker had cause to threaten that the committee would invoke relevant sections of the law on anyone who refused to show up.
The stage for the urge to probe Customs was set last year shortly after the exit of Elder Jacob Gyang Buba (now Gbon Gwom Jos, Plateau state) as the Comptroller General. It first started when an anonymous group sent a petition to the National Assembly; precisely, the House of Representatives alleging all manners of misdemeanours against past leadership of the Nigeria Customs Service since 2004.
The first petition opened the floodgate to many others that came and which the lawmakers claimed necessitated their decision to beam their searchlight on the very strategic government agency called the Nigeria Customs Service.
If the House of Representatives caries out the probe, it will be the first time that Customs would be subjected to the rigours of open legislative scrutiny.
The closeness that the Nigeria Customs Service has ever been to being probed was the creation of a presidential committee to restructure the service in December 2003. 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 appraising the state of infrastructures, equipment and the basis for the yearly revenue target that the service is given.
However, while the originators of 2008 petitions requested for a time- specific (2004 to 2009) probe, the lawmakers have decided to take it a step further by extending their drag-net to 1999 when Alhaji Ahmed Mustapha emerged as the customs boss.
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 invited the Comptrollers General who presided over the affairs of Nigeria Customs Service since 2000. They are: Alhaji Ahmed Aliyu Mustapha, Jacob Gyang Bubs and Hamman 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 dusts and pitched personalities against one another. Months after, no one (except may be members of the probe panel themselves) has an inkling of the committee’s findings.
Outcome of the two probes mentioned above are yet to be seen, even as we are awaiting 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 for their actions or inactions while in office, we urge that the impending probe of the Nigeria Customs Service should not be an exercise to witch- hunt or an effort that is aimed at settling old scores.
We hasten to advice that the National Assembly should 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. This possibility has become more pronounced recently and also because feelers from the legislature lend credence to the possibility of the House of Representatives sub- committee on Customs not being completely altruistic in its search for a better Customs through the instrumentality of probe.
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 Nigeria Customs Service has had to ‘down size’ and ‘rank size’ its personnel owing largely to the policy of the then- federal government makes the service to be highly susceptible to attacks from within and outside. Similarly, the service has had to relieve some senior and management personnel of their appointment.
The above points to the fact that there are more personnel with pockets of discontentment outside than there are within the service. 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.
We are not in any way discountenancing the allegations contained in the petitions as they could not have come out of nothing; they are indeed borne out of the perception of some interested persons and bodies.
It is our hope that the impending probe which starts this week will lead to a better and more professionalized Nigeria Customs Service. It must not be turned into an avenue for self-service and above all, the outcome must be made public.