The Disagreement between the Senate and the Nigeria Customs Service over Protocol and Etiquette


By Bola A. Akinterinwa

Protocol and etiquette are two important dynamics for interpreting and controlling the attitudinal disposition of state actors and human beings in international relations. One Yoruba proverbial saying has it that ‘it is how you are perceived that you will be related with.’ This saying is valid at the level of the Yoruba people but not necessarily so in international law and relations for reasons that are not far-fetched: state attitude is well regulated, but most unfortunately, government agents operate on the basis of their own-made laws, and by so doing, make a mockery of the whole people on whose behalf they purport to act.

Protocol, as explained by the Bolytag Centre for International Diplomacy and Strategic Studies (BOCIDASS), Yaba, Lagos ‘is about the regulation of the conduct and management of government activities and relations, while etiquette deals with how the individuals charged with the responsibilities, are required to handle the governmental and inter-governmental affairs.’ As the BOCIDASS has also observed, ‘in contemporary Nigeria, public officials, especially governors, commissioners, Ministers, etc, are unnecessarily embarrassed in the public because of little or no regard for official protocol and etiquette.’ In fact, it is misunderstood.

The disagreement between the Senate and the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) is not about not having regard for protocol and etiquette, but about the misunderstanding of it, especially by allowing selfish interest to define when to apply protocol and etiquette in official relationships. Put differently, the principal agents of both the Senate (Dino Melaye) and the NCS (Colonel Hameed Ali (retd.) have regard for protocol and etiquette and that is why they disagree on it. Their regard for protocol and etiquette is not even little but great to the extent of misinterpretation of its definienda and modalities of application.

On Monday, January 29, 2018 the Chairman of the Senate Ad Hoc Committee on “Economic Waste in the Nigeria Customs Service,” Senator Dino Melaye, drew attention of the Senate to the manner of reception of the Senate delegation (comprising Samuel Anyanwu (Imo East), Gilbert Nnaji (Enugu East), Hamman Isah Misau (Bauchi Central) and Babajide Omoworare (Osun East) which he led to the national headquarters of the NCS in Abuja, Zone 3. The Comptroller General of the NCS, Colonel Hameed Ali (retd) did not receive the delegation at the point of entry. As reportedly put, Senator Melaye complained that his delegation was not officially received at the premises of the NCS. In the words of Melaye, ‘Mr. CG, rather than meeting us here at the conference room by way of courtesy, you are supposed to have met us at the ground floor on arrival into the premises. That has been the practice of statutory bodies headed by Chief Executive Officers like you. ‘

More important, Senator Melaye also has it that ‘relevant Senate committees have over the years been accorded this by bosses of Immigration Service, Prison Service, and others, making us to wonder why it is not so here under your leadership.’ And perhaps most importantly, ‘on account of this observation,’ he wants ‘the Customs management to know that the presence of this committee before it implies that the Senate itself is before it to put things in order as regards the economic waste taking place in the Customs Service requiring the seriousness it deserves from you and the entire management.’

The reaction of the NCS Comptroller General is also interesting: ‘we have our own protocol as regards receiving visitors like you. I don’t need to come downstairs to receive you just as the Senate or House of Representatives has never come out to receive us anytime we visit the National Assembly.’ Consequently, in the eyes of Colonel Hameed Alli, ‘there is no breach of protocol for not coming down to welcome you (Melaye committee) since appropriate officers have been assigned to do so. Our protocol is our protocol and should be allowed to be. In fact, by way of etiquette, it is the committee that is supposed to come to my (CG’s) office first on arrival and not just come straight to the conference room.’

Several protocolar issues are raised in both the observations of Senator Melaye and Colonel Ali. The issues are so critical to the extent that there is now a very thin line between individual government agency protocol and etiquette, on the one hand, and standard state official protocol, on the other hand.

Why is there conflict of interest in the state or government protocol, on the one hand, and the special protocol established by its agencies? What is protocol and etiquette in international diplomatic practice? In which way is the protocol as established by the NCS different or superior to standard, national and international protocolar practice? Are the issues more about protocol or more about competing individual ego and institutional self-esteem?

The Issues

The first issue is about how a visitor should be received in a government institution. As noted above, Senator Melaye said his delegation was received at the conference room rather than at the ground floor of the premises as it is the practice with the other statutory bodies headed by Chief Executive Officers like Colonel Ali. Why is the protocol of the NCS different if the practice in other sister agencies is to receive important visitors on the ground floor? It is important to differentiate between private and official visitors at this juncture. The Visitors to the Customs headquarters are members of a Senate Committee set up to investigate some allegations in the Service. The visit was therefore official and institutional.

In general diplomatic practice, the argument of Senator Melaye is therefore correct and valid for various reasons of security and civility. Plenipotentiaries of developed countries invite guests to their offices and residences. They welcome them and also accompany them to the point of their departing vehicles. During national anniversaries, all ambassadors and other guests are received at the point of arrival to the venue of ceremonies by their chief hosts. The chief hosts also stay until the time of final departure of their guests. Consequently, the attitude of the NCS boss cannot but raise two other critical issues: seniority of status at the individual and institutional levels, on the one hand, and quality of relationship between the Senate and the NCS, on the other hand.

The question of seniority is critical because, in the way a junior officer cannot court-martial his superior officer in the military, a junior Foreign Service Officer cannot also talk to his superior but can only talk with him. A Third Secretary cannot find a seat where a Counsellor is seating. Like water always finds its own level, every Foreign Service Officer must always find his or her level in all official meetings. In fact, it is in attempt to deal with the challenges of states’ insistence on sovereign equality that an agreement was reached to have a standard official protocol and etiquette for state behaviour in international relations. For instance, there is a way of writing note verbales in international diplomatic relations because no state wants to accept sub-servience to another state, particularly in terms of states claiming superior culture and development but which other states contest.

It should not be a surprise therefore that states have their own reception protocol and etiquette. In several countries, presidents do not often go to the airport to receive a visiting colleague. Senior government officials are sent to receive such guests but the host president will be waiting earnestly to receive his guest at a specially designated and befitting place. In Nigeria, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a befitting waiting lounge where guests with rendez-vous will first be received by the Chief of Protocol and thereafter taken to the Office of the Honourable Minister of Foreign Affairs. If the ultimate destination is the presidency, the Minister will take over the responsibility. At the airport, another befitting waiting lounge is also provided for: protocol lounge, which is still different from the Presidential Lounge.

The foregoing is to underscore the importance of official visits in global governance. In this regard, official reception is not simply a function of protocol and etiquette, but largely a resultant of the warmth in a relationship. If the relationship between the visiting guest and the host is good enough, and especially at the level of the bilateral ties between their two countries, reception at the airport can be worth it. Reception of guests is generally taken very seriously in international relations.

For instance, in 1982, the official visit of President Shehu Shagari to Paris had to be cancelled because President François Mitterrand decided to send Mrs. Georgina Dufoix, a very junior minister to receive him at the airport. Mrs. Dufoix was not even of the Quai d’Orsay, the Foreign Ministry, but of the sporting, fisheries and women affairs. When Germany learnt about the cancellation of the visit and that President Shagari would be coming to Bonn, the German government quickly planned a red carpet welcome from the tarmac to the reception hall for the Nigerian president. In this regard, what France lost in terms of business contracts thereafter, Germany gained. This partly explains the essence of protocol and the implications of not having the right protocol in place.

Protocol is about regulations but the application of any regulation also requires the introduction of jots of common sense. It requires strategic calculations, especially in terms of how not to engage in protocolar miscalculations. This is, however, what appears to have happened in the case of the disagreement between the Senate committee on Wastage of Resources in the NCS and the NCS.

In Nigeria’s established Order of Precedence, is the NCS, as a government parastatal, superior to the Senate committee whose members are elected? We believe, and strongly too, the answer is capital NO and the reasons cannot be far-fetched: the Senate always produces the number three citizen of Nigeria. Senators are elected while Comptrollers-General are not. The point about being elected and its importance is that it is universally acknowledged that power resides with the people who delegates the power for purposes of representation.

If and when someone is representing another person, it is important to note that it is the person represented that is officially acknowledged and that should be reckoned with. All the courtesies due are given to the person represented through the representative. We therefore agree with Senator Melaye in his argument that the presence of his committee in the Customs headquarters implies that the Senate itself was before the NCS. The Committee is a Senatorial one. More important, the Committee came for official business. The purpose of the visit did not have a private character. It was for official inquiry even if some analysts still look at it as vendetta-oriented. The purpose of the visit does not have any good linkage between the person of Colonel Ali and the NCS as individuals but as a subject of instittional enquiry.

As reported, Colonel Hameed Ali said customs officials are servants of the people ‘who believe in Nigeria and (are) working with others to make it great without being railroaded in anyway.’ How do we interpret ‘without being railroaded’? More significantly, Colonel Ali also reportedly declared as follows: ‘Personally, I took this job because of my commitment to serve this country selflessly, having earlier done so in the military. So nobody can tell me that I’m not a committed Nigerian.’

All Nigerians ought to commend Colonel Ali for his selfless service and commitment to Nigeria like other millions of the ‘bloody civilians’ running into millions have also shown. However, any service and commitment to Nigeria cannot and should not exist outside government’s official regulations and standard protocol and etiquette. In some institutions, while the protocol of reception of private visitors, varies from one department to the other, high-level official visits take place on the basis of fixed rendez-vous, and therefore, official reception must follow acceptable treatment and logical arguments. For instance, who were the officials sent to the gate to receive the Melaye delegation? What is their level? What is their status? Has the NCS a waiting lounge, befitting or not? If appropriate officers were sent to receive the Melaye delegation, why was the delegation not taken directly to the office of the Comptroller General?

Again, in general diplomatic and official practice, a host often begin his reception of guests with pleasantries, in some cases, in the first waiting lounge, before retiring into another lounge for more serious têtê-têtê exchange of ideas but this was not the practice with the NCS. What is clear is that Colonel Ali has a hostile relationship with the Senate that is largely driven by taking ‘the bad end of the stick.’

First, he might still be feeling bad about how the Senate wanted him to be in official uniform whenever he was coming before the Senate. The NCS boss argued that he was not a Customs officer, and should not be compelled to wear any official uniform, even though he is occupying the seat of the head of the organisation. In the possible thinking of Colonel Ali, he is a living soldier. Soldiers in Nigeria are generally arrogant but very patriotic. Colonel Ali appears to be wrapped up in the glory of being a soldier like President Muhammadu Buhari, and therefore wrongly believes that he can operate like another untouchable sacred cow who ‘nobody can tell that he is not committed to Nigeria.’

There is also the ad hoc committee set up by the Senate to look at the alleged wastage of resources in the NCS. Perhaps more interestingly, Colonel Ali has prevented the National Assembly from escaping from payments of duties for cars imported by the National Assembly through a private company. The Senate, for instance, may not be happy with this, a reason why some observers look at the establishment of the Melaye committee as that of vendetta. In this regard, there is no way Colonel Ali can be happy with the Melaye committee, even if he had received the delegation appropriately.

As reported, Colonel Ali said: ‘on your assignment you called economic waste, we shall cooperate with you to unearth whatever you want to unearth and effect any correction if there is any.’ This reaction is mature, but the anger inherent in it is still quite visible: ‘on your assignment you called economic waste…’ The statement speaks volumes.

A second issue is that of principle of reciprocity. Colonel Ali said there was no need for him to come downstairs to receive the committee, because no one in the Senate or House of Representatives has ever come out to receive him anytime he visited the National Assembly. Hence, he maintained that ‘there is no breach of protocol.’ This statement is most unfortunate for many reasons.

For instance, as much as I want to agree that the National Assembly should have a better protocolar service of reception for invited guests, that will be efficient and able to receive and direct invited guests to their appropriate meeting venues, Colonel Ali must still be told that the NCS does not in any way have the aura of the Senate when considered severally and collectively. His manu militari lifestyle and the NCS self-established protocol does not fit well into any democratic setting. The fact of non-being officially received at the National Assembly cannot be sufficient an argument and does not also make it right to reciprocate. The truth is that the NCS, as an institution, is lacking in the knowledge of standard protocol and etiquette. For instance, if it is true that Colonel Ali left his official guests behind at the NCS premises and drove out of the office, it was, indeed, a serious breach of national and international protocol for which Colonel Ali, as a comitted patriot, should apologise. He should not unnecessarily claim seniority over a Senate Committee to which he is not entitled both in person and as an institution.

Additionally, when a comparative analysis of what obtains in France, the internationally acknowledged ‘Father of Diplomacy,’ and also in developed countries like the United Kingdom, United States and Russia, there is no way Colonel Ali would not need to apologise for the public embarrassment caused the Senate, in particular, and the people of Nigeria who elected it, in general. The experiences of other countries clearly point to this.

For instance, the Ordre protocolaire en France (Décret de 1907), that is, Order of Protocol in France (Decree of 1907), distinguishes between Order of Precedence when the diplomatic corps and public authorities participate in public ceremonies in Paris and in the various Departments of France. In Paris, the national capital, 47 levels of recognition were identified and the recognition of the President of the Republic comes first, followed by that of the Prime Minister, President of the Senate, President of the National Assembly, Members of Government, National Assembly Members, Senators, the Constitutional Council Members, Council of State Members, Members of the Social and Economic Council, in that order, etc.

Ministries, under which institutions like the National Customs Service operate, are listed as number 27. In this regard, Ministries are also ranked: the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs to which the NCS belong in Nigeria and in France is listed after the Ministries of Justice, Foreign Affairs, Interior and Armies.

At the level of the Departments, the Prefect, accompanied by the Secretary General of the Prefecture, comes first. He is immediately followed by the Senators and the Deputies. Of the 37 levels of official recognitions during departmental functions, public officials from various ministries, professors from tertiary institutions and états-majors (Joint Chiefs of Staff), etc are listed as number 21, while delegations of national, departmental and community’s public institutions are listed as number 25.

Apart from Order of Precedence at the governmental level, there is also the Order of Precedence of authorities invited in their private capacity. 24 and 19 are listed respectively for ceremonies in Paris and in the Departments. In Paris, the President of the Republic always comes first. The Prime Minister and the President of the Senate always follow. The President of the National Assembly and Members of Cabinet follow in that order. There is no place for chief executives of parastatals of the Nigerian type. In the same vein, the Prefects come first in the Departments. Senators and Deputies do follow. Thus, elected authorities always come before appointed authorities as a standard practice.

What is particularly noteworthy about the order of precedence in France is that senior academics are not only officially recognised but also acknowledged before many political leaders, not to talk about chief executives of ministerial agencies.

The Order of Precedence in the United States is equally interesting. Unlike in France where the Order of Precedence is determined by a decree and amended from time to time, it is the President of the United States that ‘determines the rank of all American officials on the Precedence List. The State Department has the responsibility of determining precedence among (the) foreign representatives…, as it is the custodian of the records establishing the dates on which they were accredited… and their… respective seniorities,’ to borrow the words of Mary Jane McCaffree and Pauline Innis (vide their book, Protocol: the Complete Handbook of Diplomatic, Official and Social Usage (Washington DC: Devon Publishing Company, 1997, p.6).

In the United States, there are 40 levels of official recognitions. As it is the practice internationally, the President of the United States comes first, followed by the Vice President. At this second level, the Governor of a state comes after the Vice President if the event is holding in his own home state. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, former Presidents of the United States and American Ambassadors, when at post, are at the third level of recognitions in that order. The Secretary of State is in the fourth position while the Ambassadors Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary accredited to the United States are in the fifth category in order of presentation of their Letters of Credence.

More important, while the widows of former Presidents of the United States occupy the sixth position and the Ministers and Envoys Extraordinary of foreign powers accredited to the United States, again, in order of presentation of their credentials, the Cabinet, excluding the Secretary of State, are in the ninth place. The seniority of the Cabinet members is determined by the date of establishment of their departments. Members of the House of Representatives are in the 11th place and their seniority is determined by the length of continuous service, and where it is the same, the date of admission of their states into the Union or alphabetically by state.

And perhaps more interestingly and noteworthy, the Five-star Generals of the Army and Fleet Admirals are grouped under the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff who are placed in the 14th position. Even if Colonel Ali wants to capitalise on his military career as a retired soldier, to claim seniority, the truth remains that the ‘retired chairmen rank with, but after active-duty chairmen and vice chairman.’ The Chiefs of Staff of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Commandant of the Marine Corps, whose seniority is determined by date of appointment, etc, are still in the 14th place under the Generals. Colonel Ali retired and answers the title, ‘colonel.’

Consequently, under no circumstance can a government agency claim superiority or seniority over the Senate and its committees. In international practice, military men are generally respected but they are also generally put under political authority. What Colonel Ali refers to as internal protocol of the NCS, is, stricto sensu, not protocolar in character. It is, at best, an internal regulatory arrangement to guide the day-to-day management of the NCS.

Protocol, which etymologically is derived from Greek and meaning ‘the first glue’, is meant to promote better understanding and mutual respect. It is not in any way established to militate against entente-building. As rightly noted by McCafree and Innis, ‘any organisation or society must, if it is to thrive, operate under certain rules if for no other reason than to prevent chaos. The same applies to relations between governments. It is necessary that contacts between nations be according to universally accepted rules or customs and some form of planned organisation. That is protocol.’ It is this type of protocol that is required at the level of the relationship between the Senate and the NCS.

Additionally, they have further submitted that ‘whether on the local, state, national or international level, proper protocol is vital in assuring that relations between the officials of organisations and governments are conducted with minimum friction and maximum efficiency.’ Thus, protocol does not deal with what is internal but how to relate with the external stakeholders. Certainly, Colonel Ali would never have contemplated or expected the Vice President or his own Minister of Finance to come and meet him in his office under the pretext of an internal protocol of the NCS. He would also not have waited in the comfort of his office to receive another Controller, or Comptroller, General of another agency of government coming locally or internationally. It is not the person of Senator Melaye that was disregarded per se by the NCS boss, but, unfortunately that of the Senate, particularly, that of the Senate President, and the people of Nigeria, in general.

Consequently, it will be good if greater emphasis is placed on training in protocol and etiquette for the generality of the senior public officials and particularly for all political office holders. It is the surest way of avoiding embarrassments and also promoting better intra-governmental relationships.