Customs Area Controller of the Federal Operations Unit, FOU Zone “A”, Garba Uba Mohammed, spoke with Vanguard Maritime Report’s Godfrey Bivbere & Ebuka Oko, on effect of smuggling, why border communities support the act, the contribution of neighbouring countries, Customs efforts and the way forward.
On the issue of smuggling, despite the quantum of seizures you make, people keep embarking on smuggling activities, why?
Like you know, the Federal Operations Unit, FOU is saddled with the responsibility of combating smuggling, blocking of all revenue leakages, community service and treasure sanitation. Globally speaking, no country in the world has stamped out smuggling completely. You can only bring smuggling to the barest minimum.
Some smugglers see smuggling as part of their life, as a way of life. For instance now, in Ogun State, in the border communities, you find that almost every person is a smuggler. In the course of doing our work, when our officers pursue a smuggler to a town or a place, you will see that nobody supports the Customs officer; the community will rise against the Customs officer and treat them as enemies.
They will say they have been in the business (smuggling) long ago, even their forefathers were into it. So, why are you now coming to tell them that there is a government policy, that this should not be done?
Despite the efforts of community relation committee formed by the border Commands, comprising the traditional rulers, traders and the agents; it has not stopped them from engaging in smuggling. And the danger of smuggling, the effect of smuggling as I say, it results in underdevelopment, it brings diseases, we lose foreign exchange, we become dependent and we are not self-sufficient in whatever we want, it also kill our industries. So, to that extent, smuggling must be fought to a standstill. That is what we do, and we will continue to do.
So, in the course of performing our anti-smuggling function like I said, people do not want to lose their money. They see us as tax collectors, they see us as enemies. So in the course of perfuming our duty, they try to fight us. We are armed, but we use our common sense to make sure that we minimize casualties.
Because no matter what we seize, no matter the quantity, no matter the volume, the moment any human life is lost, it is no long of any valuable. That is why we keep on calling individuals, patriotic individuals, community leaders, traders, members of the press, other security agencies to join us and put all our hands on deck and fight smuggling because it is destroying our economy. And we must make sure that our economy survives.
Policies of one country differ from the policy of another country. For instance, in Benin Republic they have their own policy; look at the case of rice, as far as they are concerned, they have no limitation to bringing in rice into their country. Nigeria has banned the importation of rice through the land border.
So, anybody that brings in rice as far as they (Benin Republic) are concerned, they will collect their taxes, wherever you are going to carry the rice to; is none of their business. I remember vividly when we had a protocol on transit when I was in Ogun Command. It was celebrated, and Benin Customs officers and we on the other part. When the whole thing started, in less than one month they stopped. Because they said they have collected their taxes, why should they suffer to bring vehicles to Nigeria? The moment they escort one or two they stopped. So, they are encouraging smuggling but as far as they are concerned, they do not see it as encouraging smuggling, but see it as boosting their market because they are looking for customers.
And these smugglers are individual traders, they are looking for profit, while the government which is an umbrella body for every person, is not a profit-making organization. It renders community service including a smuggler himself.
There is this argument that government is not doing enough for these communities, that is why they are still supporting smuggling, that if government have done enough enlightenment and provided the needed amenities for these communities, they may stay away from smuggling.
Well, you know, the Nigerian state is composed of three tiers of government, the federal government, the state and the local government. Like the revenue we generate, it is shared among the three tiers of government. It is the responsibility of the federal government, the state government and local government to distribute these resources to make sure that such communities are developed. So, whether they are doing it or they are not doing it, it is left to the individual community.
But what I know is that the federal government does its best because the federal government’s presence is felt everywhere. Because without the federal government there will be no roads, no security and when the environment is not secured, the system cannot survive, it cannot operate.
The other tiers of government should also copy as much as possible from what the federal government is doing so that the citizens will have sense of belonging.
But there is one important point; you should not expect the government to do everything for you. Government provides enabling environment, provides security. Now, all of us cannot be government employees, if you are a trader and there is a secured environment, there is market, you also contribute your own quota to the development of the government, because the people are the government, we are the government. So, we do not see government as an isolated body somewhere, no! All of us, we form the government and whatever we do is what keeps the government going.
It is just like people continue to attack the government, say government this government is that but the moment they are in trouble, they turn to the same government.
You talked about smuggling resulting in loss of foreign exchange and lose of employment; can you explain more of this?
When goods are smuggled into our national economy, they affect our industries. When they bring in such smuggled goods, it affects our industries. When our industries are affected, they will not be able to employ the needed manpower; they will not operate at full capacity which will cause unemployment. And when there is no employment; when people who are qualified for employment either in private sector or in government, would not get such opportunity, then there is a problem.
So the next thing is people can engage in other activities that may not be to the advancement of the government and the society like smuggling. Now the goods that are being smuggled may not necessarily be certified fit for human consumption, like poultry products that have been certified unfit for consumption by the health authorities. That is why we arrest smugglers of such products and we burn the products.
The issue of rice for instance, since government has banned the importation of rice now, anything that is smuggled is not on the record of the government, and government is denied the statistics and when there is no accurate statistics government will not be able to plan adequately. For instance, if the government is building a community school, or maybe the whole citizen they are two thousand, now if the government does not know the number of the people, it may build a school that will not adequately cater for the need of that community. This is the essence of having accurate statistics. One thing about smuggling is that there are no records; it has negative effect for planning and development.
Some people say smuggling thrives in Nigeria because some Customs officers connive with the smugglers to let in prohibited goods. How do you react to this?
The truth of the matter is that, no government is perfect and no system is perfect. But in any society or in any organization, you will find some member of such society or organization who will not conform to the norms. That is why in Customs, we have the three layers of defence for fighting smuggling. That is the Area Commands. If duty is not paid on consignments that escaped the Area Commands there is the federal operation, whether on information patrol or conventional patrol, to make sure that such goods are seized. If government money is not collected, such money is collected.
If the federal operations are not able to check that, there is the last line of defence, the Comptroller -General of Customs, CGC Strike Force, they will do that.
Now, along all these three lines, there might be issues of compromises of some individual officers.
The CGC in particular has a management style, summerised as “anybody caught is out.” There are sanctions provided for such erring officers. You are aware that in recent time, officers have been dismissed, some have been demoted in rank and others have been suspended.
So what we are appealing to members of the public and any other person who is patriotic enough, that wherever such officers are found, they should be reported to the appropriate authorities and you will see what will happen.
We will take appropriate measures at our level. If it is higher than our level, we will forward the report to the Customs headquarters and we are sure that appropriate sanction will be applied on such officers.