Hameed Ali, the Comptroller General of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), must be on an ego trip. He is fighting an ego war with members of the Nigerian Senate. He sees them as a bunch of irritants who must be treated with utmost disdain. The retired army officer does not think he needs the Senate in the discharge of his duties. For him, they are interlopers whose meddlesomeness must be rebuffed and contained.
Ali is particularly incensed by the demand of the senate that he should wear the uniform of the NCS. The CG does not understand how this can be the business of the senate. He has since told the upper legislative chamber that he was not employed to wear uniform. He has argued that as a former army officer, who dressed in uniform throughout his years of service, he would not wear the uniform of another agency of government. This is gringo arrogance at its most banal.
Significantly, the senate has debunked Ali’s claims on uniform. They have drawn his attention to the fact that Halidu Hananiya, a retired major general of the Nigerian army, readily and happily wore the uniform of the Federal Road Safety Commission when he was its chief executive. Indeed, Ali’s disdainful displays are not lost on the senate. They are taking full notice of his lack of regard for the institution of the senate. And they are calling his bluff. That is why the senate is insisting that the CG must appear before it fully dressed in the uniform of the NCS. While Ali sees the order from the senate as a slight, the senate views his refusal to wear the uniform as an affront; a slap on the face of the upper chamber.
The senate has since bared its fangs. But Ali is responding with equal ferocity. Rather than write to the senate, as a sign of respect for the institution, he delegated one of his subordinates to do so on his behalf. He said he would not appear before the senate on the day they had chosen because the invitation clashed with the management meeting of the NCS. The man, certainly, does not reckon with the senate.
But the mindset that drives Ali’s action is a familiar one. It is in the mould of that of a typical member of the executive arm of government, who normally feels that the legislature is always in the habit of drawing the executive out for a drag-out fight.
No doubt, our polity is replete with a long history of executive-legislature brushes. The legislature is always driven by the feeling that members of the executive appear before it to derive legitimacy only to bolt away once they are cleared. The legislature has always been ill at ease with this set-up. Members of the executive, particularly ministers, are, more often than not, given to the feeling that the legislature is always trying to breathe down on them. That is why they do not like the legislature and its oversight functions. They feel that the oversight job is an avenue for the legislature to extort and make unnecessary demand of the executive. The result of all this is the antipathy that we witness from time to time between the executive and the legislature.
However, in the case of Hameed Ali and the Senate, the principal issue at stake is the uniform. Ali sees himself as a big man of sorts. He does not understand how a house made up of mostly “idle civilians” can dictate to him on the way he must dress to work. Ali’s refusal to subject himself to the dress code of the service may also have something to do with the manner of his appointment. As part of the messianic pretensions of his administration, President Buhari went out of his way to appoint an outsider, who has no training in customs and excise duties to head the NCS. As an outsider, who was appointed to superintend over the NCS, the assumption is that this Col. Ali is the best man for the job since no career customs officer was considered good enough for the rescue operation.
Given this background, Col. Ali was bound to see himself as a messiah in his own right. He must be seeing the people he met in the service as inconsequential backwoods men with whom he cannot operate at the same wavelength. Therefore, if Ali is necessarily superior to everybody in the service, why would he be expected to reduce himself to their level by appearing in uniform like the lesser mortals? This is the mindset that Ali is operating with. That is why he is ill at ease with the directive from the senate on uniform. The CG feels that the senate is tampering with his ego. He is resisting the seeming demystification.
Beyond the uniform, concerned Nigerians cannot but raise questions about the change Ali has brought to bear in the operations of the NCS since he assumed office. How has he been able to turn the service around for the better? So far, it has been business as usual even under the messianic Ali. Perhaps, the change the man wants to introduce is the one that is causing ripples. The CG wants his officers to convert our roads to highways of ambush where motorists will be stopped at will and asked to produce documents, showing that they have paid duty on their vehicles. The CG has given a grace period of about six weeks for vehicle owners to go and put their houses in order. The order from the customs boss appears to be omnibus. It is targeted at vehicles imported into the country from 2015 and below. It was silent on the fate of vehicles that have been in use in the country for six years or more. Before the blanket order, vehicles that have been in use for six years or above could move freely whether duty was paid on them or not. The Ali directive did not say anything on this category of vehicles.
Whatever may be the case, the senate has since asked the service under Ali to drop the plan. But the CG is clinging stubbornly to his position. He has dared the senate. In all of this, you can easily see the supremacy war that has always been fought between the executive and the legislature. While the NCS is insisting on having its way, the senate as representatives of the people says it is interested in how this policy will affect the ordinary Nigerian. In this matter, the NCS is being reminded of the fact that it violating the provisions of the act that set it up. By virtue of its statute, the NCS is supposed to restrict itself to a given number of kilometres from the ports. But it has chosen to make itself an omnibus outfit, combing from pillar to post in search of smuggled goods. The generality of Nigerians are not comfortable with the modus operandi of the NCS, particularly the new order on duty payment on imported vehicles. But the service under Ali is not listening. This has left many wondering whether the NCS exists for its own sake or in the service of the people.
The problem here is the arrogance of men in uniform. Nigerian roads have been badly abused by this breed. Officers and men of the NCS operate like gangsters on our highways. They do so not because they love their country. Many of them are there for purposes of self aggrandisement. They are largely driven by the urge to line their pockets.
When the road user does not worry about the activities of officers and men of the NCS, they have the police to contend with. Whereas the Inspector General of Police will claim that he has disbanded road blocks nationwide, the road blocks remain a feature of our roads. Policemen are all over the place, harassing and demanding all manner of vehicle papers from motorists. In the process, they extort money from road users. The authorities of the Nigeria Police are fully aware of this ugly trend. But they pretend not to know.
As if the menace of the police and the NCS is not enough, men of the Federal Road Safety Corps have joined in the extortion binge. They are as bad, if not worse than the police on the highway. The only difference is that they are not armed. The road user in Nigeria has all of these menaces to contend with. Is it not high time someone contained this naked thievery masked as national service? I think that is what the senate is trying to do. It should go the whole hog in this matter. It is our hope that this noble national assignment will be carried out to the letter.