Customs: Anti-smuggling War Getting Tougher But Thai Parboiled Rice Still Found In Nigerian Markets

By Elizabeth Chukwuma

President Muhammadu Buhari appears to have gotten an answer to problem of smuggling of prohibited parboiled rice and other foreign brands of rice including second hand vehicles, clothing, bags, shoes and processed vegetable  oil into the country  from Republic of Benin, Niger, Chad and the Central African country of Cameroon.

 The Nigerian government had banned the importation of these items , particular, vehicles and rice, into the country through the land Border in 2017, in spite of the fact that that the Republic of Benin and Cameroon fiscal policies, allow these items to be imported into their country. Given the Republic of Benin Liberal economic policies, it had allowed the land locked countries of Niger and Tchad, o use its harbours to import goods, which includes these prohibited items in Nigeria. Given the free movement of persons in the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS,  smugglers were said to have taken it as an advantage  to use these neighbouring  countries , particular, Benin, as a base to smuggle these prohibited items into the Nigerian market  through unapproved routes.

 Initially, the anti-smuggling war, was carried out a lone by the Nigerian Customs  Service, NCS, Federal Operations Units, FOU, Land border  Commands across  the country while the Western and Eastern Marine Commands, the two amphibitious Commands of the Commands took over control of tackling the scourge of the water-ways smugglers.

Hameed Ali, a retired Army Colonel and Comptroller General, NCS, may have known that the country’s water’s waterways is too big to be left in the hands of only two Area controllers to manage that he created two additional  Customs Amphibitious Commands to complement the existing ones.  He had separated the WMC into Western Western  and Northern Marine Commands. The Western Marine Command was placed in-charge of the south-west water-ways while the northern Western Marine Command  officers patrol the northern waterways to checkmate the activities of the smugglers to ensure that there is no hiding place for them either on land land or the water ways. The Eastern Marine Command was also split into two: Eastern and North Eastern Marine Commands.

 The Katsina state born Nigerian President may have sent a signal to Patrick Talon, his counterpart in Benin, Mohammad Issofou, Niger,  idris Derby, Tchad and Paul Biya of Cameroon, when he took a trip to the  some of the nation’s land borders to over-seethe informal trading activities going  on there  and the need to stop it to protect the country’s economy.  He was said to have pleaded with the neighbouring countries Heads of State and Governments to join Nigeria in the war against smugglers by tightening security around their borders with the country.  They never expected Buhari to be hard on them. Unknown to them , the Nigerian President , who is closely working with Ali, the Customs Comptroller General, has his plan B to teach the neighboring countries and the smugglers  one bitter lesson: to  close the border.

 As a prelude to completely  stop the activities of the smugglers, both on land and the water-ways, Ali, had established Comptroller General , Strike Force, to Compliment the efforts of the FOU, across the country. The Strike was placed under his control at the Customs Headquarters. The trial stage was not really palatable as the team lost direction. It was said to have been given a bite to carry out its anti-smuggling mandate  when Abdullahi  Kirawa, a tested  anti-smuggling officer, was appointed to Head the team  last year. The team made a bold Statement with the seizures of rice,made, in different parts of the country, including Kwara state, which convinced Ali, that the rice merchants have different routes of pushing the imported  rice to Benines harbours into the Nigerian market. The fallout  was the  splitting of the adhoc team into groups, placed under  different  Deputy Comptrollers to boost the country’s anti-smuggling operations. Yahaya Usman, a former Deputy Comptroller , Enforcement, FOU, Zone A, Ikeja, was deployed to Head Zone A, Lagos, which covers the entire  six south western states of Lagos, Ogun, Oyoo, Osun, Ekiti and Ondo.  Another tested anti-smuggling officer, Adamu, M.D., who may have carved his teeth at FOU, Zone A, Lagos and a former Deputy Comptroller, in-charge of Enforcement, of  the old Western Marine Command, was deployed to Zone C, to oversee the  Strike Force, anti-smuggling operations in  the five  south eastern states of Anamra, Enugu, Eboyi, Abia and Imo states including the  six south-south states of Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Bayelsa, Rivers, Edo and Delta states. Adamu, according, who is regarded as a workaholic in Customs circles, was said to have requested for some of his reliable officers  when he was  in-charge of the FOU, Zone, Operations and Lagos Roving to be sent deployed to his Zone and it was said to have been quickly granted by the Comptroller general to ensure that there is no Complain by him in the discharge of his duties.

Insiders told the Magazine that  Adamu, who disguises himself most of the time shuttles between  his operational base in PortHarcourt, Rivers state, to the flash point anti-smuggling  states of Akwa Ibom and Cross River state, have succeeded in Joining Comptroller Kayode Olusemire in driving most of the rice smugglers in the Bakassi and Ikom axis of Cross River state  and those using the south-west state of Ondo to enter into Delta and Edo states to carry out their nefarious activities under ground.  Last May, alone, the Olusemire  patrol teams on the road had seized  1,572 ‘’50’’ bags of Thai foreign parboiled rice , valued at about N 200 million,which escaped  the eagle eyes of Comptroller Mohammed Aliyu of FOU, Zone A, patrol  and Surveillance teams  within the Benin axis.

 Ali,the Customs Comptroller General, who do want the Strike Force, under his supervision to fail, was said to have proved the necessary working tolls for the teams to work with in order to excel. Take for instance, in the south west,  Jack Okpabi, the Head of the Strike Force team  according to sources moves about with security tinted vehicles  to carry out his operations. It is not surprising why the team has succeeded in intercepting some exotic vehicles, including a Rose Royce, which are parked at the Team operation base in Customs Training College, Ikeja.  Note that the interception of exotic vehicles  and bullet proof vehicles over the last one  year had remained the exclusive preserve of the  Riks Lura, a Chief of Customs , CSC, led FOU, Zone A, Operations and Lagos Roving Team.  This is in addition to the thousands of ‘’50’’ kg bags of Thai parboiled rice that had been made by the team and other patrol teams of the Command  including the Strike Force  Headed by  one Superintendent  Ahmed, who was said to have mobilised his boys to comb the  forests of Ogun , Oyo and other states of the south west in search of smuggled rice rice and vehicles.

Hameed Ali: Comptroller General, NCS

The high point of the anti-smuggling operations to prove to Talon, the Beninese President , Issoufou, Niger, Derby, Tchad and Biya of Cameroon, that the era  of talking without taking action was over was the setting of the Border Drills under the presidency Headed by Babagana Munguno, a retired Army Major General, from Borno state,  comprising of NCS, Nigerian Immigration Service, NIS, the Military, Department of State Security, DSS and Directorate of Military Intelligence, DIM, personnel to block the borders since August 19, 2019, to ensure that nothing comes in or goes out of the country  to any of these neighboring countries.

 The seriousness of the Border  drills personnel in the south west speaks volume  as even Customs officers and other security Operatives working at the Land Borders are  not allowed to buy or carry  foreign rice in their vehicle for personal use.  The Magazine watched how an NIS official travelling home after the close of worked  from Seme/Krake Joint border, was forced to drop   bag of rice found on the booth of his  vehicle despite pleas that he should be allowed to go as a Uniform person. ‘’It is  a Presidential order that  not even a bag of rice should enter the country’’, a soldier remarked.

Investigation by Te Magazine shows that  despite efforts by the Presidency to ensure to ensure the Heads of the various security agencies deploy  most of their men to serve in the  border  drills across the country to ensure no prohibited iems, particular, foreign parboiled rice , enters the country, the foreign rice , which are imported from the Benin terminal Cotonou, and Bollore port, in Republic of Benin , have flooded the Nigerian market, competing with the locally produced rice .

From Lagos, Ogun, Oyo, Sokoto, Zamfara, Kebbi, Katsina, Kaduna, Cross River, Borno, Yobe, Adamawa, Taraba and Kwara states, the story story is the same: Thai parboiled rice every. This may have forced the price of the a 50Kg of the  Popular Abakaliki rice, produced in Eboyi state to hit N18,500.00, excluding the cost of transportation to destination while the foreign rice which had dropped to the rock bottom price of  N14,000.00 has hit N24,000.00 and above, depending on the area and Nigerians are still going for the it.

The question on the lips of most people is: how did these Thai parboiled rice, enter into the Nigerian markets , despite the tight security at the border?. Many believe that the border drills may have forced the smugglers, particular, the rice and vehicle smugglers to go back to the drawing board to devise strategies to beat the border drills officials to it by discovering new routes to carry out their nefarious trade which are not known in Customs or Immigration circles.

 There are indications that many of the rice trading Companies, may have  devised strategies to trans load their imports from bigger vessels on the high sea into smaller vessels in order to reach out their Customs which found their way into the Nigerian market without any harassment, without getting into Benin harbors in the recent time, and indication that the rice smuggling business has been interntionalised which may require divine intervention to curb.

Many believe that some security Operatives have taken advantage of the involvement of the border drills to aid and abet the rice  smugglers  to enrich their pocket since the government target was on  curbing rice rice smuggling.

 Note that since June last year, the  Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN,  had not  issued any letter of Credit, LC, to any rice trading Company in the country, which may have forced many of the to relocate to Republic of Benin on the invitation of Talon, as a way to boost the country’s  revenue generation base.  This is where Munguno, the NSA , Ali, the Customs Comptroller General and Muhammad Bandende,  the NIS , boss  including Tukur Buratai, A Lt .General and Chief of Army Staff including Magaji Bichi, Director General, DSS, may have  look inwards to monitor closely the activities of the Border drills personnel, who may have seen  the  national assignment as an opportunity to  make cheap money at the expense of the nation.

Perhaps, to force down the price of  A cereals, maize, wheat, millet, barley, sorghum, fish, flour , starch meals, fruits, nuts, pulses, vegetables, yam, cocoyam, sweet, Irish potatoes, egg poultry products , meat, milk,  salt,  herbs of various kinds and  natural and table water including rice and bread, The President  was said to considered it necessary  to exempt these  items from  the 7.2 % Value Added Tax next fiscal year.In presenting the 2020 2020 budget proposal to a Joint session of the  National Assembly recently,  Buhari  had made it clear to the lawmakers   that  threshold of VAT registration  had been increased for Companies with N25 million per annum.

He noted that the decision  to the raise the registration fees for such Companies  was to give the revenue generating agencies , particular, the Federal Inland Revenue Services, FRS,  the opportunity to focus their attention  on larger business in order to bring relief  for the micro, small and medium –sized  Companies. 

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