By Stephen Ubanna
Babagana Munguno, a retired Army Major General and National Security Adviser, NSA, who incidentally is Coordinating the current Operation Swift Response, or Joint Border s drills across the country appears to have dampened the enthusiasm of Nigerians who had expected him to make a policy Statement on Thursday, September 12, 2019 during the Commissioning of the Customs two specialized vessels for anti-smugling Operations on the High sea and the Creeks.
At the Commissioning of the $500 million or about N180 billion, two anti-smuggling Customs vessels: Customs Pride and Group of Nine, which was said to have been procured by Abdullahi Dikko, a former Comptroller General of the Nigerian Customs Service, NCS, in 2014, Munguno had declared ‘’there is no going back on the border closure with the neighbouring Republic of Benin and Niger. The countries share boundaries with Nigeria in the north west, north central, southwest and south-south geo-political regions till the countries bow to government demand to stop smugglers from using their countries as base to turn Nigeria into a dumping ground for prohibited goods, particular , foreign parboiled rice from the Asian country of Thailand.
The NSA was worried that ‘’ harmful products, mall and light arms including foreign rice were smuggled into the country through unapproved routes from the north and southern part of the country.
The Commissioning ceremony which had attracted the service Chiefs and other top government functionaries including the Director General the National Agency For Food and Drug Administration Commission, NAFDAC, who was said to have sent a Representative was a moment of joy for Marine customs officers. This is because of the several promises that had been made to them since 2015, about the Commissioning of the vessels which never materialised.
Dikko , the former Comptroller general may have lost the opportunity of taking the credit of being the one that Commissioned the multi-millions dollar vessels because of his inability to conclude the deal with the South Africa and Turkey ship building firms to mount the guns and other necessary security gadgets on the vessels.
Indeed, past and present Area Comptrollers of Western and Eastern Marine Commands, the only two Amphibious Commands of the service, before the unbundling this2019, may have known that it was the major problem that had delayed the Commissioning and deployment of the vessels to the High sea for anti-smuggling Operations.
The fallout was that the vessels were abandoned at the Marina water front since 2015 thus gulping N5 billion annually as it needs to run the engines as well as the generating sets and other Communication equipment fitted into the vessels.
Aware of the problem delaying the deployment of the vessels, which could move both on the High sea and shallow waters, for ant-smuggling operations, Ali, who had succeeded Dikko, in 2015, had engaged the services of the Nigerian Navy to add the necessary security gadgets.
Based on the deal, the vessels, which were abandoned at the Marina water front, for about two years were taken to the Navy Dockyard Nigeria limited , for dry docking. The dry docking was said to have facilitated the fitting of the necessary security gadgets into the vessels including the guns.
The Customs Comptroller General may have been encouraged to repair the abandoned vessels at the Marina Water front because of security reports that many of the smugglers have turned to the waters to carry out their nefarious activities because of the stiff resistance they are getting from Customs anti-smuggling officers n land.
From Seme Command, Idiroko, Oyo-Osun to Sokoto/Zamfara/ Kebbi Commands, the story is the same: stiff resistance to smugglers. Their case may have been made worse by the Federal Operations Unit, FOUs, and the Comptroller General of Customs, CGC, Strike Force, across the country which have initiated tougher measures to deal with them on Land.
Note that the large turnout of Customs and other security agencies personnel particular the Navy including the leadership of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, MAN, led by its President, Mansur Ahmed, and who incidentally is a member of the Customs Board at the Commissioning last Thursday speaks volume.
Giving a special message from the Katsina state born Nigerian President, who is very appreciative of Ali’s efforts in the last four years in repositioning the service on the path of sustainable improved annual revenue generation, which Kaycee Ekekezie, an Assistant Comptroller General, in-charge of Customs Zone A, said had hit the trillion naira mark.
Describing the Customs Comptroller General as a “silent achiever’’, the President had said that the ‘’sacrifices and the revolutionary changes brought about by the Comptroller General into the Service has led to efficiency’’ in Customs Operations’’ in the last four years.
He may have gladdened the heart of the officers who had gathered at the Naval Dockyard, to witness the Commissioning of the two anti-smuggling vessels when he expressed the President’s determination to give all the necessary support to Customs to continue in its giant stride in the areas of anti-smuggling operations and evenue generation.
Congratulating the Customs Comptroller General men for the spectacular achievement, of procuring the two Commissioned vessels, the NSA, declared that the’’ first step in solving the menace of smuggling activities in the country’s waters , by ‘’bringing all the neighbouring countries that have not been Cooperating with the country in the anti-smuggling war has been found’’ . He stopped short at saying that the “water ways smugglers are in trouble”.
He is right. President Issoufou Mohammad, of Niger, one of the neighboring countries in the northern frontier may have understood the language of the Border lockdown on his people that he has banned foreign rice re- exportation from Republic of Benin into his country. Issoufou, may have done so in order to contain the activities of the smugglers using his country as a base to smuggle foreign parboiled rice and other banned items by the Nigerian government into the country .
Moreso, he did not want to play into Buhari, the Nigerian President’s hands, who believes that smugglers are taking advantage of the country’s porous borders to smuggle rice into the country. This is evident going by a circular that was said to have been sent to all Custom formations in Niger on Thursday, September 5, 2019,signed by Oumarou Amadou, the country’s Director General of Customs in the ministry of Finance .
The purported circular which was said to have been written at the instance of the Issofou, had made it it clear to those that cares to listen that the re-exportation of foreign rice from Republic of Benin into Niger has been banned. Investigations by The value News shows that some of the these trucks laden rice from Benin earmarked for the Niger market develop wings on the way as it ended up in Kano or Jigawa state markets. It was not surprising why The Niger Customs Director General had warned the agencies to ensure they ‘’comply strictly with the Presidential directive or face severe sanctions’’.
This is a big blow to Patrick Talon, the Benin President , who may still be dragging his feet to support the Nigerian government policy measures to contain the activities of the Cross-border smugglers because of the transit duties collected from the land locked countries transit cargo importers . Recall the NSA , had said that the cross-border smugglers smuggle into the country “harmful products and other prohibited items such as rice and vehicles from neighbouring countries through unapproved routes ”into Nigeria because of the government support.
An elated Ali, the Customs Comptroller General who could not hide his feelings was said to have assured the President, “ With the Commissioned vessels “smugglers will no longer take advantage of the NCS vulnerability on water to smuggle Contrabands into the country”. He admitted that the service has been weak on the water arising from the lack of seagoing vessels to effectively checkmate the smugglers on the high sea, over the years.
He alluded to the nine Marine officers from the Eastern Command, based in Port Harcourt, Rivers state, who were ambushed and burnt alive by petrol smugglers in 2014. The death of the nine Marine officers was said to have weighed heavily on Dikko, then Comptroller General of Customs.
It was not surprising why one of the two sea going vessels, that was Commissioned by the NSA, was named after the “Group of nine’’, as the officers were called in security circles. Ali is optimistic that with the Commissioning of the vessels, the service will effectively deliver on its mandate to the nation to fight smugglers on the nation’s water ways to a standstill.
He further opined that “it will boost the ongoing joint security Ex-Swift Response on water”. Recall that the major problem of the two Amphibious Customs Commands,Eastern and Western Marine over the years had been lack of sea going vessels. The situation was so bad that the Nigerian Navy from time to time had come to the assistance of the Customs Marine officers when faced with smugglers on the High sea.
A,t the Western Marine Command, premises, at Apapa, are littered with broken down Crafts on the waterfront. This may have informed why BN.Binga, the Area Comptroller, could not hide his joy that at long last the Command now has a seagoing vessel to give smugglers a run for their money on the High ea.
It was learnt that Customs Pride, which was one of the two vessels Commissioned by Munguno, the NSA, had been allocated to the Western Marine Command while the Group of Nine was allocated to the Eastern Marine Command.
Given the Presidential mandate to Ali, to restructure , reform and Improve Customs revenue generation,which Joseph Attah, a Deputy Comptroller and the Customs Spokesperson described as the “ the” big three mandate the two Marine Commands based in Port Harcourt and Apapa, had been unbundled into four:Western, Eastern, North Western Marine and North Eastern Marine Commands. Ali, believes that with the unbundling of the Marine Commands, “smugglers would no longer operate on land , Air or the sea’’.
He may have read the riot to the Customs Comptrollers to ensure regular maintenance of the vessels in order to remain sea worthy.’’You will be held responsible if any of the Crafts broke down,and could no longer be deployed into the High seas or shallow waters for anti-smuggling Operations.
This is bad news for the Comptrollers of the Marine Commands who had expected the Customs Headquarters to still shoulder the responsibility of regular maintenance of the vessels because of paucity of funds to handle such capital intensive projects.
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