Some of the seized 661 rifles in Lagos

The interception of a container load of 661 pump action rifles and furniture on the highway after it was released at Apapa port has raised concerns by stakeholders, who say the security of the country could be in danger with unscrupulous personnel at the nation’s seaport and porous border routes, writes Francis Ugwoke

This is not the best of times for the Apapa Command of Nigeria Customs Service (NCS). This is following the interception of a container loaded with arms that was released at the port. Operatives of the Federal Operation Unit (FOU) Ikeja had intercepted the container on the way to an unknown location at Mile 2, Apapa Expressway toward the end of January. The container had 49 boxes of 661 pump action rifles. Also discovered were bullet proof doors and other merchandise goods in the container. The importer had declared the items as furniture, which incidentally is under import prohibition. For the Customs, it was a big seizure, one of the reasons why the Comptroller General of the Customs, Rtd. Col. Hameed Ali, had to fly to Lagos to see things for himself.

Ali who was evidently shaken by the discovery told newsmen at a press conference that the container was cleared at the Apapa port with the aid of two officers, who are now being investigated. The arms, he said, originated from Turkey and routed through China before being smuggled into Nigeria. Apart from the two officers who had already been declared wanted, three suspects have been arrested over the seizure, including Mahmud Hassan, Oscar Okafor and Sadique Mustapha. The custom management had declared Abdullahi I, with service number 44483 ASC, and Odiba Haruna Inah, with service number 133386, wanted. The two were said to have fled after the interception of the container.

Ali said “these rifles are under absolute prohibition, therefore their importation was illegal. Such deadly contravention of the law is even more unacceptable considering the fragile security situation in some parts of the country.

“Already, three suspects have been arrested in connection with this illegal importation. Investigation has already commenced and I have directed that the dragnet should be wide enough to fish out all persons involved in the importation and clearing of the consignment. The customs officers involved in the clearance of this container are with the Comptroller, FOU Zone A Ikeja”.

Questions on Customs Examination

For observers, the interception of the container of arms has raised concerns as to how safe the country is with criminals bribing their way to bring in such amount of arms through the ports. There is also concern that such crime may certainly not be the first time. The concern is if such container can come in through the nation’s premier port and cleared, one can imagine how smugglers could be having their way using the porous border stations. Many are of the view that there is the possibility of such consignments being released in the past by unscrupulous officers with the importers not caught.

The question many also ask is: how come such consignment left the seaport without any officer detecting the content? Was the container not examined? If not, why should it be so? Sources said that the container may have been ‘flown out’ of the port by a mafia group, who have their men on the ground at the port level. Sources said a syndicate specialises in ‘flying’ contraband which cannot be cleared officially from the system. Yet, this was in the days when the seaports had not been concessioned. A source said the era of ‘flying’ container may have gone with the concessioning of the ports. This is with tightened security in the terminals. Incidentally, the seaport is under tight security 24/7, particularly inside the terminals and at the exit gate, a situation that makes it difficult for such ‘flying’ container to pass.

A Big Blow to Apapa Customs Command

As the Federal Operation Unit, Ikeja, celebrates the seizure of the container, it is indeed a big blow to the entire officers of the Apapa Command. The shame is from the top level management to the least officer in the Command. There is always the saying that when one finger touches oil, it affects all. This is exactly the case here. It does not matter that few unscrupulous officers aided the criminals. It is one incident that casts aspersion on the entire command. Incidentally, Apapa Command has over the years been rated high as a no-go area for fraudulent importers and customs agents. Few years ago, it was Tin Can Island port that was known as very notorious because it was used by those who had bad cases.

It was just few years ago that the controller posted to the Command started working on achieving sanity. Tin Can port was one place every ‘bad agent and importer’ used. The war against fraudulent practices was waged at the port by the former Controller, Alhaji Jibrin Zakare. The present Controller, Alhaji Yusuf Bashar, has also been involved in maintaining sanity at the port. The two mapped out strategies to check fraudulent importers and customs agents who champion every effort to clear bad goods. In the past few years and more, the Command has recorded seizures of a number of contraband that would have passed through the system undetected because of the crafty nature of the importers and their agents. Perhaps, the importer behind the arms import may have decided to use Apapa to avoid the kind of searchlight that is on Tin Can port now. However, with the latest discovery, bad importers are certainly going to retreat.

Corruption in the Ports

The seaport is one area many people have described as a corrupt zone. The reason is that there is hardly any importer that is ready to abide by trade regulations. Most of them are involved in cutting corners by using the customs agents who liaise with resident customs officers to have their way. Most times, the customs officials are handicapped because of the pressure on them to succumb to taking bribe from the importers through their customs agents. The situation is that customs officials, who are benefiting from this corrupt practices have found it difficult to penalise offenders. Even when they do, it is not enough to stop the importers. For instance, when an importer is nabbed for concealment, under-declaration and under-invoicing, it becomes a deal for some customs officials treating his document. How much DN that the importer gets depends on how he is able to settle. If his settlement is reasonable, he gets lower DN. This certainly encourages the same crime again and again. It is a known fact that prominent leaders of associations of customs agents have come out to admit how corrupt the system is.

Reaction from Stakeholders

The news about the interception of a container of arms was a big shock to many industry stakeholders. Many of them had also expressed surprise as to how such consignment could have passed through the port system undetected by all the agencies of government who are stationed there. Those who spoke to this writer said the interception shows how important the FOU of the Customs could be. Over the years, the unit has been criticised for intercepting containers that had already been cleared at the ports. But the Customs management has always defended their actions as a check on the activities of those at the port. Most times, the FOU uses informants, known as ‘kelebe’ to monitor clearance of most goods leaving the ports. The ‘kelebes’ could play double game. If they are identified and settled, they keep their mouths shut; if not, they will simply give information to the FOU who will pay them. One thing is certain about this. Sometimes, an importer, who commits minor offence such as low duty can settle his way when caught on the highway.

Even if it is contraband, he may still settle his way. This explains the presence of banned frozen food items and other goods in the market. Some of these goods are smuggled through the border routes. Some come through the seaports. It is alleged that some customs officers and other agencies of government at the border posts arrange with the smugglers on the safest time to smuggle. This perhaps explains why the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF) has called on the customs leadership to expand the scope of investigation on the seized arms. The Deputy National President Seaport (NAGAFF), Mr. Obums Anene, advised the customs to ensure that the scope of investigation on illegal imports should be expanded to include every stakeholder, including every carrier, representatives of the shipping operation, among others.

According to the association, it would amount to injustice to the customs officers, if investigation and action on illegal imports were limited to them only. He added that every person involved in physical examination and duly endorsed it should be investigated for not reporting. NAGAFF also called on the CG to reward the officers who made the discovery, adding that this will go a long way in encouraging them and others to do more. The freight forwarders also said the Customs management needs to improve on the intelligence gathering mechanism of the service. The group while expressing dismay over the failure of the importers to obey trade regulations advised that the infrastructure relating to tools for trade facilitation at the ports and border routes should be strengthened to check the importation of such illegal arms.