Customs will get rice importers to pay whatever they owed government –Hameed Ali

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Hameed Ali is the Comptroller-General of the Nigeria Customs Service. In this interview, he spoke on the corruption in the service, perceived mass sack of customs officers by his administration, his not wearing customs uniform, debtor rice importers among many other salient issues. Excerpt;

corruption in the Service

I will be forced to admit that there is no organization in this country today that will beat its chest and say there are no corrupt elements in it and so I will not also beat my chest and say there are no corrupt elements in customs.

But I want to say this and say it with all sense of responsibility, that in customs there are few corrupt elements. A lot of customs men and officers are not corrupt but what happens is that because in our activities to relate to the members of the public, if you get one bad egg, the news go round so fast and the impression today in Nigeria, I was telling my men, the conception is that we are all corrupt because of the activities of few bad eggs.

And I said that we must do some house cleansing, we must get rid of those bad eggs in order to straighten the customs. We have embarked on that; myself and my senior management have resolved that henceforth, the laws governing the conduct and operations of Nigeria Customs Service must be applied intoto. We are not going to shy away, we must make sure that where there is a breach by any of our personnel, we will come down very hard and I have underscored this point that the 27 years of my life in the military was law enforcement and by my background, I have also learned that you cannot stop but you can reduce offences to the barest minimum by making an example and creating deterrent.

If you don’t punish, obviously people will continue to commit such offence and many people will join but if you punish and punish punitively, the chances are that some will run away from those act and we have resolved that those few individuals that give you this impression that we are all corrupt, they have a choice either to stop or the law will come down heavily on them as soon as we are able to identify and catch any one of them.

And if you remember when I spoke with some of our partners, I restated this that the job of customs takes two to tango and in this case, our corruption is either you take money from somebody which is what you do if at all it happens. I said anybody who gives any of my men money in order to induce him to do something for him and we do catch both of them, we will make sure they are prosecuted and punished.

The law in customs provides for 5 years jail term without option, the law of the Federation of Nigeria provides for 10 years jail term without option and I will make sure that we push for the maximum punishment so that we can make example of anyone who does commits such act. So, that is that about corruption.

Mass sack of officers

You can’t sack everybody because we need people to work with. So, my job is not to sack, it is to make the system work. People can only decide if they want to leave because we are going to tighten the noose, the right thing must be done. May be some people will say the kitchen is too hot for them and they will opt out. We will be glad to say go. Those that will remain must be ready to work in accordance with the parameters that are set by our own laws.

So, the choice of whether to stay or to go is for that person or for that woman that is in customs today that says she cannot cope or he cannot cope. The option is their own, I am not in customs to sack people, I am in the customs to make sure that the people I met on ground, I turn them around for the better so that we can make progress and make the service a better place for all of us.

Wearing uniform

I do not see the difference it makes. The person who gave me the authority to say go and do this job did not say go and wear uniform. He said go and do this job and I am doing the job. I don’t have to wear uniform to do it. My colleagues here do not need to see me on uniform to say you are our leader. So, why does it bother anybody to say why are you not on uniform as long as the job is going to be done?

What you should be asking me is that you have a mandate; we want to see how you will change customs, we want you to carry out the mandate given to you by Mr. President. He has given me the task and I am sure I will deliver by the special grace of God.

Your comparison of Seme, Idiroko, Apapa and Tincan Island Ports

They are two different operational areas. These are land borders and then these are seaports. The type of job we do there is different from here. The enforcement there, the DCG Enforcement will tell you, we have to carry guns to fight smugglers. At the ports, you won’t see any officer with gun unless it becomes very necessary because here, we are simply facilitating trade making sure that people pay their dues and collect their goods.

But in the border stations, it differs. If you see men in camouflage, you won’t see them at the ports unless it becomes necessary but if you go to Idiroko and Seme borders, most of them are in camouflage because the job demands that.

So, to compare the two, I have told my men that we don’t have preference for any deployment. Every deployment is the same. Those in industrial commands who I think they are in-charge of excise duty which is very minimal are my officers and even the good officers and they will be treated based on our assessment of the job they do no ground not on the area that you serve because the days of collecting egunje is over.

So, there is no lucrative posting anymore, infact, if I am a customs officer, I will shy away from going to the ports because there will be temptation. I will rather to go where there will be no temptations so that I will not get into trouble because if you get into trouble, you are gone.

Rice debtors

I want to understand that you are talking about those that were importing with regards to not paying the correct duty, exceeding their quota where they have been allowed to bring in rice, they brought it over and above what is said. We are hell bent on that case, we are going to collect our money by the grace of God. There is no going back on that issue.

I don’t care who is involved, what is very clear is that there is duty that is due to Nigeria and we have to get that money. The court case will be pursued and make sure, we are already making sure that we follow step by step every process that will make us get these people to pay and we are not only going to stop at that, we are going to do a lot of findings, a lot of due diligence to see so many who have found their way through and have exploited leverage given to them have done so many unwholesome thing.

We will visit them and make sure because some of those money because those are some of the leakages that denied us meeting our targets. We go after that, we look for our money because it belongs to you and I. So, there is no wish wash there. My coming has not stopped anything, infact, it has re-invigorated the situation. It is not a thing we will want to do on the pages of newspapers. We want when we have achieved it, then you should know and I am sure very soon, you will know where we are.

Sports

I am not an athlete per se but I am a lover of sports because I believe sports keep you healthy. When I was in Government House in Kaduna, I introduced sports. Those of you who probably had an idea when I was there, every Thursday of the week, we do sports. When I started, my Directors, my Permanent Secretaries and commissioners were complaining bitterly but I bet you, after a month, their wives who interacted with my wife told my wife that she should thank me for introducing the sports because their husbands are now stronger and more alert now.

So, I got encouraged from there and where I found myself, I try to encourage people to embrace sports. For the sports we have re-introduced in customs, we continue strongly and firmly observing wherever we are by the grace of God.

Barrack accommodation

I told you I have listened to my officers, I have seen their working environment, I have gone round everywhere. I told them my own concern about these things. Their welfare is paramount in my mind, there is no doubt about it. There is no way you can push people to do the things you want them to do and you don’t give them the wherewithal to do it and I am sure good accommodation is one of those welfare scheme that you will give them. Every servicemen will want to have a decent accommodation for himself and his family, a good working environment so that he can perform better and I have resolved along with my management that we will make this a priority as long as we can.

So, very soon, if we are able to raise money, I am sure you will see us launching projects that will be to the benefit of the servicemen and I.

Collaboration with other sister agencies

Probably, you are pre-empting me but let me help you to say, we have already come up with a programme that we will be meeting with all the paramilitary organizations just like I have met with all the stakeholders here in Lagos. I will be meeting with the police, the Army. Already we have a very good working relationship, very good support from the military.

Anytime we are going for a raid of smugglers, we always call for a back up and they are always willing to assist us. It is a good relationship and we want to cement it further. We will be going round to talk to others and we will create a committee, a standing committee that will be a joint task force so that at any given time we need a back up, we don’t need to resort to the Chief of Army Staff. We can simply call on the committee or call the task force and say this is what we want, this is the assignment we have, how can you send people to assist us?

So, that will be the duty of that task force, 24 hours they will be there for us because I must tell you, fighting smugglers is not an easy task. Our borders are so porous, along the borders, we can block other places but you can’t block everywhere. So, we have to act on intelligence, we have to act on information and if we do get, we have amass the type of force we require because these guys are as dangerous as any Boko Haram you can think of and that is why if you see some of our arsenals, it involves armoured vehicles because we have lost so many people in fighting smugglers.

So, we will certainly strengthen that relationship, we will make it stronger so that our job will be made easier.

Interception of containers on the highways by Customs

In the customs we have the Federal Operations Unit whose job is to make sure that they police the customs itself and that was exactly what I did when I was in the military. I was in the Military Police to make sure that the men in the Army conforms with the law and because we know that there are some leakages and that was why we created that organization.

They act on information, we have an intelligence unit that gives information and they get information that some containers have been released without paying proper duty and they set off and go after that container and if you leave here, if you go to Federal Operations Unit, you will see a lot of cars and a lot containers there that had been seized, that had no paper at all, but they found themselves on their way out of the ports with the connivance of our own men because none should leave the ports without customs officers releasing it.

And that is what makes it bad for us at the helm of affairs because if we undermine that, then there is problem. So, going after containers and arresting them on the highway is on a tip off and in 99% of the cases, we found out that the guys did not have the papers because have not cleared those containers legitimately.

So, we will continue to do that because that is the internal part of our job and now I have given an instruction that if we arrest anything in the hinterland, that either came through the borders or through the ports, we will not only stop at the importer, we trace it to the desk where this came from and that officer who is involved will be charged and punished seriously. That way, we will begin to block all these leakages because in the past we have been left to grapple with only the agents or maybe the drivers who were asked to go and drop, you don’t see the agent and you don’t find even the importer. They abandon the container.

This time around, we trace that container because we are computerizing, we know where the container was lowered and who is on duty when the container left the port and our officer will be punished and punished seriously.

So, we will continue to police ourselves because we are the only ones who are given the power to police ourselves. The police will not understand if the importer or the agent shows any fake paper, he will not differentiate which paper is genuine for clearance and which one is not. We are the only ones charged with that responsibility and we are the only ones that have that specialty and legal authorization to do that and we will continue to do it.

And the law allows us, even warehouse, we are the only ones in this country, that if we attempt to find a warehouse where illegal things were stored, we can go and cordon it and break into it and search it without a warrant. The law has given us, police cannot do that without a warrant but the customs, the law has given us that privilege.

So, it is not only stopping the vehicle on the road, even in your own house if we suspect that there are goods that you smuggled and put them in your house, we will ransack the house and collect the goods and arrest you straight forward. We are the only ones that have that mandate.

Threatening of Officers

We are threatening them, we are not threatening anybody. We are only restating the position of law and the position of leadership. We are reminding them of the things that needed to be taken.

If in the past for some reasons they were not done, this time around, we will apply them. So, there is nothing wrong in reminding some body that this is the rule. So, what we are doing, we are behaving like preachers, we are telling them, please conform with the law. It is not threat, it is a fact. If you want to remain in the service, do the correct thing and you will have no problem at all.

I don’t see how I will pose a problem in our generating revenue because we have discovered, I must confess this that most of the time that we fail to meet our target, it is because of loopholes such as this.

I give an example, we arrested about 400 vehicles, brand new jeeps last week in Benin, these jeeps were not parachuted into Nigeria, it must have come in either through the borders or the seaports and who is in-charge? Our men. So, if these thing will happen, you want us to go and pat our officers on the back and say well done, you are doing well, it is impossible for them rise to the occasion if you don’t read riot act for them that the change has come, you cannot continue business as usual because if you do it, there are consequences and that is what we are doing.

And for me, that will only enhance and block the leakages and our revenues will rise instead of going down. That is my conviction.

Scanners

You are right. Our scanners are dead and this is one of the reasons I am here to see it for myself and to ascertain their conditions. Scanners enhance our jobs, it helps to facilitate trade because they come into the country, we scan them, we are sure what is inside the containers. We examine the goods quickly and you get the money and you go for another container.

Unfortunately, they are broken down but we are going to take a holistic step to make sure that we restore these scanners to work as quickly as possible because we know how important they are to our own operations.

So, I am very sure that very soon, you will see those scanners, those that can be put back to duty, we put them back. Those that we cannot put back to use, we will see what to do with them so that so that clearing operation will be easier for everybody.

Your Mandate

I am sure Mr. President, when he gave me those mandates, he didn’t say go and sack anybody. He said go and restructure, reform and raise revenue. To set record straight, restructuring does not mean sending people away, reforming don’t mean sending people away. Reforms are making sure that both attitudinal and the way we do things.

We probably have developed the habit of not coming to work on time, we begin to come to work on time. We have developed the habit of assisting agents falsify documents, we will stop that. There are some units that need to be strengthened as part of the restructuring. There are some courses that we probably have to introduce to enhance the performance of our people and structures.

There are some organizations as part of the restructuring, they need to be strengthened further, they need to be given more manpower, they need to be empowered to be able to do their job as part of restructuring.

So, restructuring really does not mean doing away with our men. No! What it means is fine tuning what we have so that it can perform better and that is what we intend to do. So, that will not scare my men, I am sure they understand where we are coming from and very confident that they will give us the cooperation that is required.

Promotion

If you have been around where I addressed my men, I will never end any address without telling them because we have come to realize that there are so many anomalies in their promotions, postings and re-positngs and we will set up a committee to review the whole thing. Where people have not been promoted for no fault of theirs, we will address it. Where people have been promoted based on godfatherism, we review it. Where people have refused to attend courses because they feel they are sitting on a desk where they make some egunje, we know what to do with them.

So, these issues, I have told you there are so many internal things that I don’t need to come out here and start reading them but we are taking note of all these things and I along with my management have resolved to address these things to make sure that there is equity and justice and fairness in the service by the grace of God.

I will also want to say that I have told them that any officer that excel in the performance of his duty, we find a way of rewarding him just like any officer that decides deliberately to digress and do the wrong thing, we punish him equally so also the ones that become so committed and perform excellently well, we identify him and commend him and in the long run, we reward him in accordance with the law that govern us.

I have said it earlier, that honestly, as part of my visit, I have met with virtually all stakeholders that we work together NPA, SON, MAN, NIMASA. We have visited all these people and all we want, we get it for us to create the synergy, the bond that will help us work hand in hand.

We know NPA, for instance is our landlord at the port, we cannot do without them, so we must find a way of working with them so that we enhance our performance. That is the essence of the visit and I took it upon myself to visit them in their offices and pleaded with them, please come along so that we can join hand and work for the progress of this country and we have gotten that support from all of them and they assure us. Very soon you will see a very cordial working relationship between us and these agencies and so, we are all working for the same goal, to make Nigeria a better place and we are being paid by the same person. I assure you, things will change for the better.

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