CGC, Inde Dikko Abdullahi and NAGAFF Founder, Dr Boniface Aniebonam
An invasion of the headquarters of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders by a senior female Customs Controller with armed soldiers has now become a subject of controversy with aggrieved clearing agents calling on relevant authorities to intervene in what they described as continued brutalisation of customs agents in the ports, reports Francis Ugwoke
Officials of Nigeria Customs Service and freight forwarders, otherwise known as customs agents, have always been best of friends. They have so much in common. They are involved in revenue generation for the Federal Government. On annual basis, the two rake in hundreds of billions of naira to the government. This year, government is expecting N1trillion from the Customs as revenue generation from payment of import duties alone. The customs agents contribute their own quota in the realisation of this target. Apart from paying duties for their clients, they can influence their importers to shun fraudulent practices that can lead to loss of revenue by government. For this important role, the two have become very close. As both the customs and freight forwarders play patriotic roles, so also there are some of them who have capacity for fraudulent practices. When an importer under-values his goods or commits other trade crimes, he uses a customs agent to reach out to the equally unscrupulous customs officer who will provide a safe passage for his client, the importer. This is a deal that enriches both the customs officers involved and agents. This explains the wonderful relationship existing between some customsmen and some freight forwarders. None can do without the other. But this relationship was soiled recently when a Deputy Comptroller of Customs in Tin Can Island Port, Mrs Jayne Shoboiki, allegedly led some armed soldiers for an attack on the secretariat of the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF). The attack which has been condemned by industry stakeholders and civil society organisations as “uncivil, barbaric and a replica of the days of the military junta” was about two weeks ago. Since then, the customs chief and the association have been at war.
Mrs. Shoboiki had on August 1 led some soldiers to the headquarters of the association located at No 2 A Maybin Street, Apapa, at about 2pm, according to an eyewitness account. There are two accounts to the number of soldiers that took part in that attack. While officials of NAGAFF claimed the soldiers were 13, a source close to the Customs said the soldiers were two, and probably the personal aides to the husband of the customs deputy controller. The deputy controller, it was gathered, had gone to the association to confront the founder of the association, Dr Boniface Aniebonam, who is also the National Chairman of New Nigerian Peoples Party (NNPP) over undisclosed grievances. Aniebonam was, however, not on seat when the customs officer and the soldiers arrived. But his aides, including his Personal Secretary, Mr. Lucky Enuma, were said to have been harassed as is common in any military encounter.
In a letter to the Inspector General of Police, Aniebonam’s lawyer, Mr Larry Okonkwo, claimed that the soldiers on the order of the Deputy Controller had threatened that they would “maim and kill any person who tried to resist their invasion”. He added, “the office and entire NAGAFF headquarters were thrown into palpable fear and trepidation. They disrupted and disorganised the office of the founder and entire NAGAFF head office thereby throwing down the computer systems in the office.
“They asked about the whereabouts of the President of the association and other national officers and were informed that they were not available. At this juncture, the army personnel picked up Mr. Lucky Enuma, a secretary, and shoved him outside the office and threatened to take him to their base if they could not see the top officials of NAGAFF”. An eye witness account said the soldiers had invaded the association headoffice in a white coloured Toyota Hilux Pick Up with registration number EM 165 GGE, while the Controller was in another car, a black Lexus GX 470 jeep, with registration number BU 300 RBC.
Sources close to the Customs Command said the Deputy Controller was aggrieved following a petition against her by the association. The petition which was said to have been fired by Messrs Uche Nwabude, Mr. Godfrey Nwosu and Mr. Pius Ogudu accused the controller of using her position as wife of a serving major general to harass and intimidate freight forwarders. Efforts to reach Mrs. Shoboiki to give her own account were not successful, but sources close to her said that she was at the NAGAFF headquarters on a fact-findingmission. The source said that the Controller who was head of the Customs Investigation Unit (CIU) had incurred the wrath of the petitioners when she discovered that they were allegedly involved in the importation of used tyres as truck tyres which attract low duties. Used tyres are contraband and liable to seizure under the new import guidelines. This could not be confirmed as the embattled Deputy Controller could not speak to THISDAY when our correspondent called her on Wednesday.
The Customs Controller, Tin Can Island Port, Mr Nuhu, when contacted on the issue simply referred our correspondent to the Public Relations Officer, Mr. Chris Osunkwo, who was unavailable as at the time of filing this report. A top official of the command said as far he was concerned, the action of the Deputy Controller was personal as senior Customs officers cannot be using soldiers to handle a trade-related matter. “Even if those being confronted are smugglers, the service has a fully anti-smuggling unit that can be deployed in such cases”, the officer said.
Following the incident, the association has petitioned the Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Abubakar, the Comptroller-General of Customs, Inde Dikko Abdullahi, the National Human Rights Commission and the Chief of Army Staff, General Azubuike Ihejirika. The IGP, Abubakar had in a letter signed by the DCP Murtala Mani directed the Commissioner of Police, Lagos Command, to investigate all the allegations raised by Aniebonam and Mrs Shoboike, and ensure that there is no breach of public peace. The command has invited both Mrs. Shoboiki and Aniebonam who are said to have made useful statements to the police.
Reactions from Stakeholders
Maritime industry stakeholders who spoke to THISDAY on the face-off between the customs chief and NAGAFF condemned the action of the former. A maritime lawyer who pleaded anonymity said Mrs. Shoboiki did not need to visit NAGAFF with soldiers on the claim that she was investigating any case. According to the lawyer, the controller could have gone to the NAGAFF office with other customsmen instead as is the case in every civil case. He said the action was meant to intimidate the association and its founder. “No matter what was the case, the association does not breed outlaws who will resist customs’ visit for investigation purposes, so the customs woman did not require soldiers to carry out her official assignment,” he said.
A member of Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agent (ANLCA), Mr. John Okonedo, said what the customswoman did was a clear show of indiscipline, adding that in a disciplined society, she would be called to order by her superiors. Okonedo said that even if she had a genuine reason for visiting NAGAFF village, the fact that she used soldiers had spoiled her case. “What she did was barbaric and it was clear she was doing so because she had access to soldiers as a wife of a serving general.
The customs authorities should be able to caution this woman because she will soon drag the image of the service, including the army to the mud,” he said. Other freight forwarders who spoke to THISDAY recalled similar attacks in the past involving officials of Tin Can Island Customs Command against agents, and concluded it was time for the Comptroller-General to call his officers to order to avoid continued harassment of members of the freight forwarding profession.