Nigeria Customs Service’s Reign of Terror

Comptroller General of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Col. Hameed Ali (rtd.)

From the abuse of end user certificate to killings of innocent Nigerians who allegedly refuse to offer bribe to the Nigeria Customs Service’s anti-smuggling units across the country, the Customs has earned a bad reputation leading to call for urgent reforms, writes Eromosele Abiodun

All over the world, governments consider trade as the main engine of their development strategies because of the implicit belief that trade can create job, expand markets, raise incomes and facilitate competition. In Nigeria, the federal government during the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo, in its desire to achieve Nigeria’s trade policy established the National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategies (NEEDS) of which the reform of Nigeria Custom Services (NCS) is one of the major functions.

Over the years, custom and excise duties have been a major source of revenue. However, the problems of corruption, fraud and malpractices together with inefficiencies and ineffectiveness in operations have hindered the desire to contribute maximally to the economic development of the nation.

Following the appointment of the current Comptroller General of the NCS, Col. Hameed Ali (rtd), as the head of the organisation over by President Muhammadu Buhari, effort has been made to reform the NCS. However, the desire by the service to meet the revenue target and mandate given to Ali on his appointment has pitched the service against the general public who are at the receiving end of the brutality of men of the service. Part of the services bid to meet its revenue target is the drive to stamp out smuggling. Leading the charge against smuggling is the Federal Operations Units (FOU) across the country.

The FOU of the Nigeria Customs is the anti-smuggling arm of the service created to carry out one of the statutory duties of the Customs, which is to suppress smuggling. There are four such units headquartered in the four Zonal structures of the customs.

They are FOU Zone A, Lagos for the South-West, FOU Zone B at Kaduna, FOU Zone C at Owerri and FOU Zone D at Bauchi. However, the officers of these special units have killed and maimed many innocent Nigerians in the course of stalking and tracking smugglers and their contraband goods.

For instance, on January 21, 2019, five innocent Nigerians among who was one Jamiu Bello, a fresh graduate of Tai Solarin University of Education, were felled at Yewa Community at Owode-Yewa in Yewa South LGA of Ogun State when they raided a house suspected to be harbouring contraband goods.

In November 2018, the Nigeria Police arrested seven Customs officers for shooting indiscriminately and killing one Mrs Patience Oni near Badagry roundabout.

In March 2017, one Taofiq, a cab driver, was killed at Kobape Town, Abeokuta Ogun State for allegedly carrying three bags of rice suspected to have been smuggled.

In January 2017, one Bukola Olugunna, a pregnant woman, was shot and fatally wounded by Customs operatives on the trails of suspected smugglers at Iyana-Iyesi in Ado-Odo/Ota LGA in Ogun state.
The list of these needless killings and maiming is endless and inexhaustible.

Killed Over Bribe
Two weeks ago, an officer of the NCS allegedly shot and killed a fellow Nigerian over refusal to give a bribe of N5,000 at Shagamu interchange, along Ijebu Ode- Lagos Expressway. An eye witness said the victim, who was coming into Nigeria from overseas, boarded a vehicle had some personal effects which an officer showed interest in. The deceased was subsequently asked to cough out N5, 000 and depart in peace with the personal items

It was further learnt he had wanted to oblige by offering the bribe, but for the intervention of another person, who maintained that with the war on corruption being relentlessly waged by President Buhari and Ali, the deceased should not offer the bribe because customs officers had been tutored to ignore bribes.

The deceased therefore declined the demand to offer bribe, following which a hot argument ensued.
An attached video showed one of the officers, having become disgusted by the victim’s boldness and refusal to give the bribe, cocked his gun and shot him point blank.

Wailing in heart rendering tears, an alleged sister of the deceased, who wept herself into a wreck, wondered how her ‘brother’ could be felled in cold blood over his refusal to give bribe.

Meanwhile, in a swift reaction, the National spokesman and Customs Image-maker, Joseph Attah, who described the entire scenario as painful, gave a different account which though confirmed a life was wasted, but nonetheless was contrary to earlier account.

According to Attah, “While it is painful and totally unnecessary to lose life in anti-smuggling operations, at Shagamu interchange along Ijebu Ode, attempt to obstruct lawful performance of duty by passengers of a commercial bus (a white Toyota Hiace) suspected to be carrying bales of used clothing led to the death of a young man (Godwin) and serious injury of a Customs Officer, ASC1, Destiny Onebamho.

“Contrary to some narratives, the young man was not a passenger of the bus but a good citizen who always come to fetch water for Customs Patrol men anytime they return to the base.

“Preliminary finding indicate that it was during the skirmishes and struggle to disarm the officer that the riffle discharged and hit the friend of the Customs (Godwin) who lost his life. The Service is already in touch with the bereaved family.”

He added: “Sadly, it should be noted that while attention shifted to the dead and the wounded, the passengers who filmed with inciting commentaries boarded their vehicle and left, leaving the wrong impression that it was one of them that was killed.

“While the wounded Officer is under intensive care at the hospital, the patrol team has been recalled to the office for further investigation.”

Four Officers Detained
Following the alleged killing of Godwin Onoja by operative of the FOU Zone ‘A’ of the NCS in Ogun State, the NCS said it detained four of its officers over the incident.

In a statement, Attah said the service was in touch with the bereaved family of the deceased.

According to Attah, the Comptroller General of the service had set up a panel led by the Zonal Coordinator, Zone A to investigate the killing and vowed that any officer caught on the wrong side will be death with accordingly.

The Customs spokesman added: “Following the unfortunate incident on Sunday 17th February 2019 at Shagamu Interchange involving Operatives of the Federal Operations Unit Zone A, which led to the death of a fellow citizen, Mr. Godwin Agada Onoja, the NCS has continued to maintain close contact with the bereaved family.

“We are pained by this sad development and share the grief of losing a fellow compatriot in a seemingly avoidable circumstance. We are and will continue to take every necessary step that will cushion the pain associated with losing a dear one. Consequently, the Comptroller-General of Customs has directed a thorough investigation into the immediate and remote causes of the incident with the view to ensuring that justice is served.”

The service image maker, who assured that the outcome of the panel would be made public for all Nigerians further stated that the officers whose rifle discharged would also face the panel as soon as he’s fit.

“In line with this directive, the investigation panel headed by the Zonal Coordinator Zone A, ACG Kaycee Ekekezie has interrogated and detained four members of the patrol team. The panel could not immediately conclude the investigation because the actual officer (ASCI Destiny Onebamho) whose riffle discharged is presently receiving medical attention as a result of attack following the unfortunate incident. He will face the panel as soon as he is fit to do so, to enable the panel conclude investigation and recommend appropriate action(s).

“NCS is a reputable organisation known for integrity and responsibility. In line with our corporate values, we will not shield any operative found wanting in this ongoing investigation. The Service appreciates the public concern and strong emotions drawn from the viral video with narratives that created various opinions.

“Nigerians will recall that in 2017, the Service made public its investigation and dismissal of five officers implicated in the illegal release of the 661-pump action riffles from Apapa Port. The dismissed officers were immediately handed over for prosecution alongside the importer and agent. A prosecution that is ongoing at the Federal High Court, Ikoyi Lagos,”he said.

He further assured that the investigation would comprise the weapon handling skills and actions that must be taken by the Service to possibly prevent future occurrence.

He added: “In the same vein, the ongoing investigation will be holistic including looking at the weapon handling skills and actions that must be taken by the Service to possibly prevent future occurrence. We will continue to update the public details of every action taken in the handling of this unfortunate incident.”

Abuse of End User Certificate
It is not just the killing for bribe by the NCS that is of concern to Nigerian. Last week, importers and manufacturers of chemical substances in the country accused the NCS of abuse of EUC leading to a loss of over N200 million monthly to demurrage on imported chemicals for paint and some pharmaceutical products.

THISDAY Investigation revealed that some customs officers demand End User Certificate on products that are not on the list of chemicals that requires the certificate issued by the office of the National Security Adviser.
For instance, THISDAY investigation revealed that the NCS demand End User Certificate for Titanium Dioxide which is not on the list of chemicals that requires the certificate.

Also, some importers told THISDAY that they have not been able to clear Glycerine, a chemical used for making cough syrup, cosmetics, paints and coatings making and also used by oil and gas companies for drilling operations.
An End-user certificate, or EUC, is a document used in international transfers, including sales and arms provided as aid, of weapons and ammunition to certify that the buyer is the final recipient of the materials, and is not planning on transferring the materials to another party.

THISDAY findings also revealed that several containers have been trapped at the ports in Lagos as a result of the customs refusal to generate Pre-Arrival Assessment Report (PAAR) for importers to clear their goods.

An importer, who does not want his name mention for fear of persecution, told THISDAY that prior to obtaining Form M for importation of these chemicals, they are not informed that the products require end user certificate.
“Nobody told us that Glycerine, a none explosive chemical has been included upon obtaining Form M. It was when we got to the bank to make payment for our goods to be cleared that we were told the customs has refused to generate PAAR because the chemical is now requires end user certificate, “he said.

An official of Resin Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) who are majorly affected by this development told THISDAY that they have complained to the Manufacturers Association of who has promised to look into the matter.
In a position paper set to the sent to MAN and obtained by THISDAY, the group stated, “We wish to state some negative impact of the requirement of end user certificate on further regulation of our importation of chemical raw materials. We acknowledge the wisdom and motive behind the requirement as a mode of combating especially terrorism that seeks to destabilise peaceful habitation of our country.

“However, our business has been injured by the extension of the frontiers of this requirement in the following manners: .Some chemical raw materials that are known not to be related to arms or explosives production are now under this requirement. Such materials include Glycerine and Caustic Soda. Chemical raw materials that were not under this requirement are continually being pushed into the category without adequate information to the importers. The result is that an importer becomes aware when his products arrives the ports and clearing agent is asked to produce the certificate. Since this certification takes between two to three months to be issued, demurrage bills gets beyond any profitability threshold.”

They added, ”Custom officials presently exploit this requirement as they request the certificate for all chemical imports. Some clearing agents and importers have fallen prey to such practices by giving out various sums of money to be allowed to go with their goods. Some importers who have resisted such ploys are made to suffer higher demurrage bills due to the unnecessary delay tactics employed by the custom officials.”

When contacted, Public Relations Officer of the NCS, Attah told THISDAY that the end user certificate does not emanate from the NCS.

When quarried on the abuse of the requirement on by custom officials, he said importers should insist on clearance from the office of the NSA before making any payments.