The Sun News

Customs, market raids and city checkpoints

On Wednesday, the Nigerian Customs Services (NCS) was on the spot. Following the action of the Federal Operations Unit (FOU) of the Customs in Ogun State that day, the anger of traders and businessmen/women boiled over. The aggrieved traders blocked the Lagos-Abeokuta Expressway and paralysed vehicular activities for over eight hours.

The traders had accused Customs  of storming the Sango Ota Motor Park at midnight and breaking into over 60 shops, from where about 18, 000 bags of rice and kegs of groundnut oil, estimated at N378 million, were carted away. The Customs did not deny carrying out the raid, but said its personnel only took away 1, 870 bags of rice and 43 kegs of groundnut oil. And it justified this, insisting that the seized items were smuggled into the country.

In the past, there were also protests against the Customs for raiding markets and seizing goods therein. It happened in Lagos a few months ago, when men from the Customs visited Iddo Railway Terminus, raided shops and seized rice that filled about six trailers. There was also an outcry last December, following multiple checkpoints on the Benin-Onitsha Expressway, wherein customs officers searched vehicles, seized travellers’ rice as well as impounded vehicles.

We have heard the Customs say the law empowers it to seize smuggled goods or contrabands.  Also, the Customs has argued that it has the power to mount checkpoints on the road and conduct searches, with the view to seizing contraband. Yes, the Customs has a duty to perform, but there are rules governing their actions, which are sometimes violated by its officers without anybody giving a damn. In Sango Ota, for instance, the Customs was accused of raiding shops in the night when owners of the shops had gone home. The traders have also accused those who carried out the raid of stealing money left in the shops. The pertinent question is: If the Customs must raid markets, which I do not support, why should it be done in the night? There should be human face in the enforcement of the law, which is possible when professionalism is brought to bear in the discharge of duty.

To be sure, professionalism demands that such raids be done in the day, not in the dead of the night,  when the principle of evidence will be established. Professionalism also demands that there should be inventory of things so seized, which must be documented and transparently done. This is necessary to avoid a situation where things are seized and they end up somewhere other than the Customs warehouses. Were this done in the Sango Ota case, the controversy as to total bags of rice taken away would not have arisen. Besides, I also think that if markets must be raided, the Customs should do this in collaboration with the police. This is so because, even as the Customs has the right to seize contrabands, it is the duty of the police to ensure internal security. Raiding of markets has more to do with internal security than stoppage of smuggling.

In any case, raiding markets by the Customs, to seize contrabands, is an admission of failure. The Customs are at the ports (airports and seaports) and land borders, from where goods are imported or smuggled into the country. If contrabands pass through these points into the country, it is a sign of dereliction of duty on the part of the Customs. And when such good pass the borders, it is, to say the least, funny that the Customs make a show of raiding markets, when actually it should hide its face in shame.  The Customs authorities should look at itself, with the view to doing a purge. It should strive to ensure that its personnel do their jobs and not get involved in sharp practices. The consensus is that the Customs is reeking of corruption, owing to activities of its personnel. Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun, alluded to this recently.

For the avoidance of doubt, there is a general belief that Customs officers collude with unscrupulous importers, at the ports and land borders, to brings in contrabands. Such items come in and are cleared by the Customs.  A few weeks ago, the Customs celebrated the interception of 661 rifles in Lagos. In fact, the Customs Comptroller General, Hameed Ali, was so proud of himself and the supposed feat that he addressed a press conference, announcing the interception of the guns, himself. I guess the Customs expected applause from Nigerians for such “accomplishment,” when the reality is that it failed in its duty, as regards the imported guns.

Yes, the truth is that the guns were imported through the port. They were cleared by Customs. The containers bearing the arms left the port, having been cleared by the Customs and was heading for the warehouse of the importer before the interception on the road. Were the Customs officers alive to their duties, such prohibited items could not have left the port.  Unfortunately, Customs officers, who knew the content of the container, looked the other way. The container was not inspected, as we have been told, and actually left the port. Well, we heard that some of the officers involved have been arrested. Nigerians are waiting for the outcome of investigations and possible action against them. When nothing comes out of the investigation, such rot will continue in the Customs.

Just as I have issues with the raiding of markets, so also do I fault the mounting of Customs checkpoints inside the city. In December, former governor of Anambra State, Mr. Peter Obi, raised the alarm over the multiple Customs checkpoints between Edo State and Onitsha, in Anambra. At the checkpoints, Customs officers searched vehicles and seized rice from travellers. This raised questions as to why Customs should do that when the law actually said checkpoints should be mounted 40 kilometres to the borders. Pray, are checkpoints from Edo to Onitsha  within 40 kilometres to the border?

My message for the Customs is this: Actions that contradict Customs extant law do  not say much about it.  Multiple checkpoints outside the stipulated distance to the border cannot give the service any good name. No doubt, some of these checkpoints are illegal, but if the authorities do not act, unscrupulous elements within the Customs would keep having a field day, while the Customs, as an institution, will carry the bad name. The former Comptroller General of Customs, Abubakar Inde Dikko, did make effort to stop illegal checkpoints. The police have effectively controlled the mounting of checkpoints. The onus is, therefore, on Colonel Ali to bring about discipline within the Customs by curtailing the excesses of his men as well as reducing corruption. This is, if he is not the one encouraging them to act the way they are.

If nothing is done, one will not be surprised when officers start visiting people’s homes to inspect pots of soup and cooked rice, in search of smuggled rice. This may sound funny, but the reality is that when people who have been given a responsibility are doing whatever they like, in the name of the law, everything is possible. If markets are raided, to seize foreign rice, multiple checkpoints mounted outside the border area, to seize smuggled rice, and the Customs says they are normal, the day women’s cooking pots are checked, the Customs will expect our commendation.  By that time, it will be too late for us to stop one of the actions, which make Nigeria a laughing stock among comity of nations.

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