Nigerian Customs Service: A Cesspit of Corruption
By Onyiorah Chiduluemije Paschal
Judging from all indications, it does appear that there is no government institution in Nigeria today that is most currently stinking of corruption than the Nigerian Customs Service. Of course, not a handful of people may be aware that the Nigerian Police Force had in the recent past consistently maintained an unenviable lead as the most corrupt government institution in Nigeria, for years.
Yet a dispassionate and cursory look at the current inner workings of the Nigerian Customs Service under its present leadership will certainly reveal that it apparently has overtaken the Nigerian Police Force with respect to the extremely high level of corrupt practices massively going on there.
This, of course, is a great negation of the very reason for which the Muhammadu Buhari-led government went against the long years of tradition and conventional rule of appointing the Controller-General of Customs from within the Service itself – ostensibly in an attempt to bring about sanity and change which originally informed the decision of Mr. President to impose a so-called no-nonsense retired army Colonel, Hammed Ibrahim Ali, on the Customs establishment. Indeed, to say the least, this is most unfortunate.
To begin with, it appears that the farcical composition of the various levels of operation within the Nigerian Customs Service today is not only done in a way that creates room for unnecessary duplication of functions of the different operational units, but also it is structured in a manner that has kept aiding the increasing level of corruption which now pervades the entire fabric of the Service.
For goodness sake, and I stand to be cleared, what is that fundamental difference in functions between the Customs Intelligence Unit and the Customs Surveillance unit, on the one hand, as well as between the Customs Federal Operation Unit and the Strike Force on the other hand?
No doubt, by merely drawing a surface meaning from the word “surveillance,” even the uneducated mind can clearly spot the corruption-laden motive that lies behind the discrete existence of the Surveillance Unit and the Customs Intelligence Unit.
The same ill-motive is by no means less applicable to the very essence of having both the Customs Federal Operation Unit and the Customs Strike Force existing side by side or independent of each other within the same Nigerian Customs Service, when obviously their functions apparently overlap and, almost always, even provide a recipe for incessant intra-unit clashes.
Interestingly, if not for corruption purposes, what else could better explain this glaring duplication of offices and functions within the stinking Nigerian Customs Service?
Now come to think of it, as it stands, insider information has it that examples abound regarding the ways and manners members of the Nigerian Customs Service perpetrate their various nefarious and corrupt practices.
First in a series of these practices is that, it has been observed that in an attempt to carry out its functions of arresting persons carrying or conveying contraband from one place to another or apprehending defaulters over underpayment of duties on cargos, members of the Customs Federal Operation Unit – at Ikeja, Lagos state, to be specific – are alleged to often enlist the services of civilians who they project as front men for the collection of bribes on their behalf.
To this end, it is noted that for every forty (40) feet container to be cleared or allowed passage without search, the clearing agent so concerned needs to part with One Hundred Thousand Naira (#100,000) bribe duly paid to these civilian front men who in turn put down in a list the container number(s) of the concerned clearing agent(s).
Subsequently, with the help of this list, the Federal Operation Unit office at Ikeja, for instance, will now decide through its field officers the fate of each of the containers that are to be “officially” allowed or passed without conducting search on them. Incidentally, the same fate also awaits every twenty (20) feet container “certified” to be contraband-free at the bribe price of Fifty (#50,000) Thousand Naira for each container.
What is more, like the activities of their counterparts already illuminated above, both the Customs Surveillance Unit and Customs Intelligence Unit are by no means less guilty of indulgence in these nefarious acts of bribery and corruption, as well.
While of course it is observed that most officers of the Customs Intelligence Unit tend to use the names of their siblings and relatives alike as registered clearing agents to effectively engage and compete in the business of importation and clearing at the ports, members of the Surveillance Unit usually turn a total blind eye whenever containers belonging to this set of Customs officers are purportedly enjoying safeguarded passage.
Indeed, following observation, this unbecoming attitude accounts for the saying amongst them that “monkey no dey chop monkey”, implying in actuality that they are all co-partners in this criminal activity.
Meanwhile, on the bribery antics of the Nigerian Customs Strike Force, the observation is made that this mobile team often collects huge sums of money as bribe from either the importers or the clearing agents.
Usually, members of this unit often go all out to certain distance to waylay already cleared or officially released vehicles from the terminal with the primary target to intercept in order to demand for the relevant papers covering the importation and release such vehicles in question.
More often than not, the importer or the clearing agent in charge is presented with a number of threat options, mainly with the threat of possible seizure or impounding of the vehicles, in the event of which he/she is thus compelled to pay huge amount of money as bribe in order to be let off these marauders” hook.
Besides, of all the units, meanwhile, the observation is that members of the Strike Force are most times the most avaricious set of people within the Nigerian Customs Service.
Rightly or wrongly, this observation is mainly predicated on the tendency that they usually would want to hide under the cloak of discharging their functions to covet, obtain and eventually convert impounded imported goods and posh vehicles to their personal uses.
By implication, this sort of seemingly raw deal, among others of its kind, naturally is meant to provoke and draw the ire of the clearing agents and importers alike and their respective associations for not just bearing the heaviest brunt of all the foregoing corrupt practices and antics of these Customs Service personnel, but also for excruciatingly living daily at the mercy of their whims and caprices.
But then, what often happens instead is yet another sad commentary on the overall activities of terminal operators and the Nigerian Customs Service as well as, in particular, a serious indictment of the leadership of the clearing agents.
Specifically based on observation from the happenings in the sector and in addition to interactions with stakeholders therein who pleaded for anonymity, to say that the National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF) and the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANCLA) appear in actuality to be docile and pliable may, to a large extent, amount to an understatement of fact.
Of course not a handful of members of these two associations, based on observation, are wont to impugn the integrity of their leadership.
In fact, these rank and file members view their leadership as fantastically corrupt, selfish and greedy and as such highly amenable to the manipulation and control of certain Customs Area Controllers, who allegedly settle them from time to time for always helping to rip and silence the vast majority of their hapless members.
For one, the allegation is rife that these Area Controllers – with specific mention made of the Apapa and Tin Can Island port commands in Lagos state – often give members of the executive of these two associations undue waivers on the clearing of their customers’ cargos which largely accounts for their apparently perpetual docility and inability to address squarely matters of deep concerns affecting the vast majority of their “voiceless” members – such as the unwarranted and whimsical introduction and imposition of arbitrary charges and sundry other extortions every now and then on the vast majority of clearing agents by the different commands of the Nigerian Customs Service across the federation.
Regrettably, thus far, a number of reasons have been implicated regarding why there appears to be deeply entrenched in the system this apparently repulsive culture of impunity in the Nigerian Custom Service of today.
First among these reasons is not unconnected with the assertion that the top echelon of the Nigerian Customs Service of today is predominantly made up of people from one part of the country, the people of the Northern region of Nigeria to be precise, and as such there seems to exists a sort of conspiracy of silence amongst them whenever issues bordering on allegations of corrupt practices, violation of rules and punishment of offenders arise.
Unfortunately, the assertion holds that this condemnable attitude of the leadership of the Service has rather made many a Customs officer nowadays to learn to either keep mute or to join the bandwagon of the bulk of their corrupt colleagues in the perpetration of diverse dirty deals which prevail in the system.
Equally fundamental to the seeming incurability of the festering corruption in the Nigerian Customs Service, is the deep-seated notion that since the top hierarchy of the Service is deeply enmeshed in the business of importation and clearing of goods using their proxies in diverse ways, it follows without necessarily saying it that the system is thus entangled in doom and gloom.
However, it will suffice at this juncture to say that all hope is not lost yet, despite all these ills thus far highlighted.
For the way forward, there is an urgent need for the Muhammadu Buhari-led government to swiftly affect a total overhaul of the stinking system that prevails in the Nigerian Customs Service of today – with a view to reducing the high incidence of corrupt practices massively going on there.
Therefore, until this all-important and, in fact, unavoidable overhaul is carried out, the Nigerian Customs Service will ever remain a cesspit of corruption.
Onyiorah Chiduluemije Paschal, a Journalist, writes from Nsukka; Phone: 070 6750 4208