Onyebuchi Ezigbo in Abuja
Former Vice President, Alahji Atiku Abubakar, wednesday revealed how he was booted out of his job at the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) over the controversial importation of 53 suit cases into the country in 1984 by a first class traditional ruler in the North.
Atiku, who was the Customs Officer in Charge of the Murtala Muhammed Airport when the suit cases were imported into the country, spoke on
his ordeal during the incident, saying the matter almost cost him his job in Customs.
Â According to Atiku, the Customs bureaucracy then wanted him fired for confirming a newspaper report about the importation of the suit cases, but that the then Minister of Finance, Dr. Onaolapo Soleye, saved his job.
Speaking at a night of tributes and inauguration of an education endowment fund in memory of the late former Managing Director of Daily Times, Dr. Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo, at the Shehu Yarâ€™Adua Centre in Abuja, the former vice president and chieftain of the All Progressives Congress (APC) said the then military governmentÂ prevented the Customs operatives from detaining the suitcases and drove it away in a military truck.
He said: â€œI was a young officer in 1984 in charge of Murtala Muhammed Airport while Ojo was a correspondent of The Guardian covering the airport. We got to know each other because apparently, there were some things we both believed in. Ojo was radical and I was radical, he believed in transparency and straight forwardness.
â€œThen this policy of change of the national currency came into effect by the military government. It was on a weekend when the issue of the 53 suit cases came up. I wasnâ€™t at the airport because it was a weekend and I was the officer in charge of the place and so, there were beat officers conducting the affair.
â€œThe plane landed on the VIP section and the ADC to the Head of the federal military government came in with a military truck and personnel and drove straight to the aircraft and offloaded those suit cases and did not allow the Custom officers to do their work, and drove away.
â€œAll the custom officers could do was to make an entry into what we called station dairy. If you are a policeman, custom or military man, you should know what a station diary means. It is a diary where we record all incidents as they happen,â€ he said
Atiku recalled the role of the late Ojo saying, â€œbecause he was such an investigative journalist, he got the report. He wasnâ€™t there and normally, a station dairy is not a public document, but our own document. Somehow, Ojo, because of his inquisitiveness, came to know of that entry and from the extract of that entry, he told the world about the improper importation of 53 suit cases.
â€œI resumed duty on Monday and was confronted with national headlines about the 53 suit cases and without clearing from my headquarters, I just confirmed that there was such an importation and that investigation was being conducted.
â€œI was summoned to the headquarters and queried why should I confirm the report, and I said I did because it happened, and I met it in the station dairy. I was threatened with expulsion or dismissal from service and I said I was ready if that was an offence.
â€œThe controversy raged on and the bureaucracy insisted that I should be fired and the then Minister of Finance who happened to be Dr. Soleye, said: â€˜What is Atikuâ€™s offence that you want him fired?â€™ As the minister, he over ruled the bureaucracy and I retained my job.â€
The former vice president said the Ojoâ€™s handling of the matter clearly showed the type of person that he was when it came to his work.
â€œHe was completely dedicated to investigating and writing the truth. No matter what you do or try to do, he will go ahead and write the truth.
Since that moment, we struck a very close relationship. When I had the opportunity to work with him again, I did not hesitate to give him an appointment as one of my Special Advisers.
â€œHe was one of the seven or eight PhD holders in my office and I recall my boss calling me one day and asking me, what is it you are doing with all these PhD holders and I said, Mr. President, I like to work with people that I will learn from. If I know that I am not going to learn from you, I will not hire you and work with you.
â€œTogether with the rest, they form the core of my office and of course, in our administration, he knew the impact of my office on our administration. That is a matter for historians to write.â€
Speaking on the reason for the endowment fund, he said: â€œEven if Ojo were to be alive today, he will be working for his family and trying to give the best education for his children. That is why I initiated this educational fund for his three kids.â€
Acording to him, â€œI want to appeal to all of you to think about these kids. We all knew that Ojo left nothing because he was not the kind of person who enjoyed keeping money or wanting money by all means. No matter how small, please contribute to this educational fund,â€ he said.