Abdullahi I, Comptroller-General of Customs, Hameed Ali, and Odiba Haruna Inah
By Ifeyinwa Obi
THE recent arrest of a container carrying high calibre arms by the Nigeria Customs Service, NCS, in Lagos, has raised questions about the role of security agencies and other agencies in the ports, who were saddled with the responsibility of inspecting imported goods. It was learnt that apart from the seven authorised inspecting agencies at the ports, no fewer than 15 operate at the various ports-a situation industry operators said had been instrumental to the indiscriminate clearing of harmful goods.
Saturday Vanguard learnt that the authorized agencies include Nigerian Ports Authority, NPA, Nigeria Customs Service, National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, NDLEA, Nigeria Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, NIMASA, Nigeria Police, Nigeria Immigration Service and Port Health.
The duties of these agencies in the process of examining and giving clearance to imported goods were supposed to complement the efforts of the NCS, but findings showed that most of the agencies often compromise professionally.
Of these agencies, it was gathered that it was impossible for some to be ignorant of the content of the 40-foot container which was ferrying 661 Pump-Action rifles to an unknown destination.
A source revealed that the exit of the truck carrying the weapons may have been facilitated by the agencies saddled with the examination of the goods in connivance with the releasing officers.
The faulty state of the scanners at the Port suggested that the officer in charge of examination alongside other agencies may have carried out the inspection after which a report which facilitated the release by the Releasing Officer was written.
Saturday Vanguard further learnt that the container could not have exited from the port without being opened at the gate for sighting.
With these suggesting the likelihood of a coordinated deal among the various officials saddled with the responsibility of ascertaining the content of the container, some stakeholders noted that unraveling those behind the importation and release of the goods would not be difficult.
The Secretary General, Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents, ANLCA, urged the Federal Government to hold the Command where the container was released responsible.
He said: “This is not the first time arms and ammunitions have been passing through the ports. They should not fool us. It was only when negotiation broke down that the FOU was alerted.
‘’These security agents including the Customs all saw these arms. It was a syndicate. All the agents have compromised. The wanted officers could not be the releasing officers. The releasing officer is always between the rank of Deputy Comptroller or Assistant Comptroller.
‘’There is no way these releasing officers and the officer in charge of the gate could claim ignorance of the sordid incident because, at the gate, containers are always re-opened after examination. All the security agents, including the Customs are culpable.”
His views were corroborated by the National Coordinator, Save Nigeria Importers and Freight Forwarders Coalition, Mr. Osita Okechukwu, who described the incident as a national embarrassment.
He said: ‘”These two officers declared wanted could not have ordered the release of the container. The releasing officers should have been arrested. The Officer in charge of inspection, Officer in charge of releasing and Officer in charge of the gate, who are of the rank of Deputy Comptroller and Assistant Comptroller, have questions to answer.
The junior officers, who are being hooded by the Customs authority, are not those to be held responsible.”
It was however gathered that a female officer, who authorized the release of the container, Rose Abetiambe, an Assistant Comptroller of Customs, had been in detention at the FOU cell in Ikeja since Monday.
Saturday Vanguard was told that the Releasing Officer did not deny authorizing the release of the container after physical examination.
However, industry commentators have dismissed as untenable the excuse being bandied by the NCS that the Customs examiners failed to detect the arms in the container due to faulty scanners.
Importers and their agents, who ventilated their views over the incident, claimed that the Customs had long abandoned the use of scanners for 100 per cent physical examination.
‘’Even in 2010, in the wake of the seizure of the 13 containers of rocket launchers and other high calibre arms said to have been imported from Iran, Abdullahi Dikko, the then Comptroller-General of Customs, gave a directive to all formations to subject all containers to physical examination.’’