Comptroller Victor David Dimka is not an ordinary Customs officer. As the Customs Area Controller (CAC), Seme Border, he has enormous roles and responsibilities on his shoulders. He is also the chairman of all the security agencies operating in the border. Seme Border is not just any other border station in the country or Customs formation in the NCS. It is not only the busiest border station in Nigeria but also in the West and Central Africa Sub-regions.
It is Dimka’s lot to ensure that the three statutory roles of NCS, namely anti-smuggling, revenue generation and trade facilitation are efectively handled. He seemed prepared for the task at hand with his training in several schools including the Nigeria Policies and Strategic Institute, Kuru, Jos, as well as his experience and exposure as the CAC, Federal Operation Unit (FOU), Zone A, Ikeja, Lagos and FOU, Zone C, Owerri, Imo State. He told John Iwori in an exclusive interview in his office that his quest to fulfil his mandate has cost him his social life. Excerpts
It is over six months you were posted to Seme Border, how is the experience compared with your previous stations in the Federal Operation Unit (FOU), Lagos and Owerri?
In looking at this, we should understand that Seme border is not only about revenue generation but also an enforcement station. In the Nigeria Customs Service, we are doing the two together. However, we have it at the back of our mind that we must be very careful in how we carry out our statutory roles and responsibilities. This is due to the fact that trade facilitation leads to good business. When I came in, I found so many things wrong. Nevertheless, that did not stop me from doing the needful.
I settled down and working together with my colleagues and other stakeholders, tried to proffer solutions. You and I know you cannot make any meaningful progress where there is no peace. Therefore, I set up a team to ensure that there is peace in the area. We went for the community leaders, youth leaders, and all other stakeholders. We made it clear on why we are in their communities. This is very vital so that our mission or objectives are not misconstrued by the border communities. Our interface with stakeholders including other government agencies is to ensure that we are on the same page in the task ahead. It is also meant to avoid us working at cross purposes.
We want to avert a situation where Customs will release and eventually another sister agency will say, do not release thereby delaying the release of the goods and causing a clog in the cargo clearance chain in the process. To ensure the speedy clearance of goods, all these things need to be tackled. We must ensure that all the imports that are coming into this country go through due process, including scanning. This means that the question of arms and ammunitions coming in can be tackled head-on. Sometimes, these things have to do with the job of other government agencies such as Quarantine, the National Agency for Foods, Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC), as well as the Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON).
However, all these depend on the kind of cargo involved. They carry out all the scanning and once it is done, they are put under one umbrella for examination. With that, we are able to bring everybody together and once we scan them and there is no problem, they can carry on. This is one of the reasons why we will continue to hold periodic meetings with all the stakeholders and find solutions to whatever problems we are having along the lines.
This has worked. So far so good! When any goods is coming in, even though there are challenges that are obvious such as the exchange rates and the unco-operative attitude in the Republic of Benin, we work round the clock and ensure that what is supposed to come to Nigeria comes while the ones that ought not to come in are disallowed. Officers and men of Customs have been sensitised on the need to suppress smuggling to the barest minimum and work in line with the dictates of their job, keeping in mind that they must collect revenue no matter how small, suppress smuggling to the maximum level and also be trade facilitators to genuine businesses.
You are known as somebody that is ruthless with smugglers in your previous postings. Why is it that any smuggler who dares you always has a sour story to tell?
I have principles and try by the grace of God to adhere strictly to them. Yes, it is one thing to stand for the truth always and work for your fatherland. It is a known fact that smuggling has done a very big blow to the economy of this country. For instance, allowing smuggled items to come into the country means that smugglers will not allow factories, industries and other local businesses to function well. Most of these local businesses and industries will go moribund if importers or smugglers have flooded the market with what they are trying to produce here in Nigeria. They won’t be able to compete with their foreign counterparts and when that happens, there will be mass unemployment since any industry not doing well will not be able to employ.
In many cases, they even lay off their existing workers thereby worsening unemployment situation in the country. With that at the back of my mind, I try to ensure that whoever is smuggling, wherever you come from, whether I know you or not, I ensure that you are subjected to the same checks and treatment. This is very important due to the fact that if I were doing it with bias, people will say this man is favouring this person and that person. The same punishment prescribed in the laws of the land will go to everyone involved. That makes everybody to be so afraid of breaking the law because they know the consequences that will follow. Besides, as a person, I do not want to take no for an answer.
Whenever anyone comes before me, I ask questions. Did you commit the offence for which you were arrested and once the answer is yes, that is the end of the matter. No stories or tales by the moonlight. Telling lies that ‘I do not know the importer or licensed customs agent of this vehicle did not pay the appropriate customs duties or I did not know the papers were fake or the vehicle was smuggled into Nigeria’ does not hold water as far as I am concerned. The pertinent question is, did you go to any Customs office to get authentic information or verify the papers the importer or licensed customs agent gave to you.
Did you go to any Customs formation to find out the authenticity of the vehicle by using the serial number? Did you to find out if the duty on the vehicle was actually paid for? Simple things like that which is supposed to be done by citizens who are buying cars is enough to keep you from unnecessary hassles and trouble. We always advise those who buy vehicles to go to Customs Help Desk to find out. There is no way you will walk into any Customs Help Desk with your documents asking Customs to help you find out if the documents are genuine and you will not get help.
If you fail to carry out this simple task and you are arrested, you face the consequences. Sometimes, you may be innocent and we will give you the leverage of paying the penalty. Our advice to the public is that you should not buy any vehicle without verifying the papers they gave you. This is because a lot of people are into fake documentation business. It is not about Custom alone. A lot people are desperate. They are ready to do anything as long as they will make money. These are the deviants that are bent on beating every blockade to their nefarious activities.
How is your half-year report? How many seizures have you made? How many persons have you arrested, how many are in court and how many have been successfully prosecuted?
As at today, we are almost N5billion in terms of revenue generated. I cannot give you the exact figure because the month is ending today. We have to collate the figures. However, as at June, 2016, the revenue is over N4 billion and along the line, we made a lot of seizures. In January, we made over N40 billion. In February, we made over N55 billion. In March, we collected N60 billion; April N66 billion; May N98 billion; June N64 billion, and July N80 billion so far. On the number of persons arrested by my command, from January to June, we have 25 suspects. As a result of the fact that the offences they allegedly committed are within the bail category, most of them are on bail. Some of them have been charged to court.
And you are aware that the court processes are long and cumbersome but we are following them up as the various cases continue. The situation is not helped by the fact that it is rare to find a smuggler goes to court to say, yes I am guilty. That will mean an immediate sentence to jail. So even when everyone knows that this person is a confirmed smuggler, he will hire a lawyer and go to court to say he is not guilty. Our seizures within the same period include clothes, second hand goods, drugs, ammunition, used tyres, vehicles, and poultry products.
As at today, I think we have 398 seizures. As far as this command under my watch is concerned, it is not easy for any smuggler because we are always on top the game. However, there is always room for improvement and we will record more successes if the citizenry willingly join hands with Customs to fight smuggling. Remember, smugglers are not ghost or spirits. Where is the smuggling taking place? Who are the smugglers? Where are the routes they follow with heir smuggled goods? Are the residents of the border communities not living in the same apartment, house, building or area with the smugglers? Why are the citizens or people resident in the border communities or elsewhere not patriotic enough to say this person is doing illegal business? You know Customs has the right to go into any place and search for any contraband, even without a search warrant.
I have not seen anywhere someone will come up boldly and say I gave custom information and smugglers came to attack me. It has not happened and it will not happen because we are very professional in the discharge of our duties. Intelligence gathering is not magic. We need information from the people. It is one of the reasons why we have Intelligence Unit in Customs. So I’m calling on all Nigerians to come out and join hands with Customs and bring down smuggling to the barest level. The moment that is done, we will be better for it.
Nigeria companies will begin to thrive very well and we will begin to be proud of Nigeria made goods. We will also no longer see the need to rush to the Republic of Benin for goods. This is due to the fact that we can produce original items if there is an enabling environment and government begins to plan dramatically for specific goods not to come for a specific period of time. That will be better than the present situation where we are gradually becoming a dumping ground for virtually everything that is substandard.
In typical day, how is it like in Seme Border said to be one of the busiest in Africa?
It is the busiest border in the West and Central Africa Sub Region. There is no doubt about that. A typical day in my office in Seme Border is like work, work, and work. You do not have time for yourself. You do have time to close. You have to ensure that you do not allow foreigners to come into the country with any cargo without proper documentations. The men and officers are always on their toes.
They live for today not for tomorrow. Their lives are always at risk. Smugglers and other criminals can strike at any time. You can never say what is happening everywhere in the Republic of Benin end of the border not to talk of the Nigeria end. This is due to the fact that whatever happens at the Republic of Benin end of the border will always have a ripple effect on what happens in the Nigeria end and vice versa. For you to deliver, your eyes and ears must be open. We must ensure people on the wanted list of government do not pass through the border. We are always up and doing. We cannot find arms and ammunition coming into this place and fold our hands. All consignments must go through strict scrutiny, no matter what it takes.
In other words, as you look out for contrabands, you are also looking out for people who are on the government wanted list?
Yes! We do that because we are not only dealing with Nigerians alone. We are also dealing with the nationals of other countries. That is the reason for the synergy among the security agencies and the government agencies as well as the existing cordial relationship between the ones in Nigeria and their counterparts in the Republic of Benin. We share information. This is because when you have the Republic of Benin very peaceful and crime free, you won’t have to deal with issues in Nigeria and vice versa. I strongly believe that if both sides are peaceful, we will not have problems. Remember, we are all member states of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) so if I’m happy here, they should also be happy there.
Does it mean that you do not have time to relax?
That is the truth. I have no time to relax. In fact, I have no social life. I come in here to work. I hardly sleep. If I go to bed by 2 am and that does not mean I will be sleeping because I know I could be watching through cameras. The phones are always open in case I have an important issue to call officers to move in and the lead agencies at the border as the chairman of all security agencies in border, I may also have to reach out to other security agencies. All these do not give me the privilege of having a social life. But I enjoy the job. So it is not a problem at all. My men and officers have also taken a cue. Everybody is working together as a team. This has helped tremendously in achieving our objectives.
What informed the recent collaboration between the Nigeria Customs Service and the Nigerian Army?
When we have problem, we cannot just fold our hands and watch helplessly. That’s why sometimes, we decide to call in the Army as one of the sister agencies to give us backing. You know with the training of the Army, they know what they are supposed to do when they see people carrying dangerous weapons. In our own case and the Police, if they are not carrying dangerous weapons we treat them with civility and ease. This is because we do not want to waste lives. At times, we just blow whistle to scare them away. However, sometimes criminals believe that when they bring in dangerous weapons, they can just bring in anything they like and that is when we have to prove to them that it is not so by collaborating with the Nigerian Army when occasions demand.
Can one say that your childhood and training prepared you for the job?
To an extent it is true that my training, experience and exposure in previous postings prepared me for my present assignment. Nevertheless, I must point out right away that at times, it is not only about training and experience. This is due to the fact that if you continue to train somebody and he does not have that commitment to work for his fatherland, he will not be able to deliver on his assignment. I am committed to my assignment and I love what I am doing. This is because it is a job I do with passion. If you are born, you might decide to be weak or strong.
It is a choice you have to make. It is a thing of the mind. I am working for my fatherland. I have no other country I can call my own except Nigeria. Smuggling is a global thing but as a country and as a people, we must show the commitment to tackle it head-on and reduce it to the barest minimum. Otherwise, smuggling activities will continue to undermine the economic policies of the government. Smugglers have been warned again and again that they must stop smuggling and look legitimate means of livelihood.