As the Yuletide period approaches, Ahmadu Bello Shuaibu, the Officer in Charge of Customs Strike Force in Zone A, covering South West tells journalists in this interview, that his men have commenced total anti-smuggling blockade to curb prevent and seize prohibited items. PAUL OGBUOKIRI brings the excerpts:
The Yuletide period has a feature of increase in smuggling activities and we are close to that again. Fortunately, you have just been appointed to head the strike force at this critical period. What is your preparedness to prevent increase in smuggling activities this time of the year and beyond?
Thank you very much for that important question. We are not oblivious of the fact that during the Yuletide, activities are usually very high in respect to smuggling and other unwholesome activities.
So right now, just to buttress your point, I want to let you know that since last week, we deployed intelligence to major smuggling routes in Ogun and Oyo states.
We were able to block Oyo axis through Iseyin from Ilesha Baruwa, Okuta, and Saki and back to Iseyin. Igbeti has already been blocked for over three weeks and that was what led to the crisis that erupted in that axis last week.
It may interest you to know that we are equally working in harmony and in conjunction with the Rice Millers Association, because the major item being smuggled this period is rice and the millers equally provide information on the movement of smugglers within and around those catchment areas.
On a daily basis, we do what we call interface with the executives of the association and their President. We see the routes that they move through from Ajilete to along Idiroko road, which we later blocked. Seeing that those routes have been blocked, they move to other unapproved roads which we also blocked.
So, what we have done is to encircle them, so that at the end of the day, we will strategise and synergise with other units and commsnds because custom is one.
Strike Force, Federal Operations Unit, border drill, as well as command, the four layers of security will come together as one to fight this menace.
After being encircled, they are now forced into pushing the rice into warehouses and markets. We don’t want to enter any market. They will not be consumed there. They will now be moved into owners’ residents and warehouses. From there we will mobilise enough manpower, including inviting sister agencies to go and mop up these rice and seize them.
It is obvious if you challenge smugglers in areas where they have strength, there will be crisis that could lead to casualties. We want to avoid a bloodbath as much as we can so that there will be no direct confrontation.
By the time we discover their warehouses, with the goods evacuated and the warehouses sealed, we would have caused a monumental financial loss to the owners. So we are on their trail. We shall get them. We are paid and licensed to do this, and we will do it by the grace of God to the best of our capabilities.
Aside avoiding friction with people that can lead to casualties between you and smugglers, what other strategies do you have to prevent onlookers and passers-by from suffering injuries or losses in the course of customs operation?
We have already started by engaging community leaders to help appeal to the people to desist from this act. Secondly, we have carried out extensive campaign within the communities why they should join hands with us to fight this menace. So we are gaining more ground and getting support, because once they are informed and carried along, then you will gain sympathy.
Oil revenue has dwindled for years and the government is now looking at other areas to pay salaries and execute projects like construction of good roads and stable electricity. So we brought all these to their knowledge that if they want a better life, they must join us to fight smuggling and economic saboteurs.
Ours is national security issues, and we want to play that role beyond revenue generation, fighting smuggling, as well as other ancillary duties. So we are gaining grounds gradually.
Those elites amongst them are with us, appealing to their conscience to join hands and fight this menace. So in that way, we believe we will drastically reduce the crisis and misunderstanding that do happen when such operations are carried out.
You talked about blocking unapproved routes which makes them take other routes, but you did not mention water. Don’t you think when you block the roads there is the option for them to use the waterways. Are you prepared?
That is beyond our calling in the Strike Force. We do not have the capacity to block water but we have a unit whose responsibility is to do that and they are doing it effectively. That is the marine command. Because we cannot completely block the land borders and equally go after them on water. So the unit charged with that responsibility is handling it professionally, I can assure you.
There is this observation that goods that exit the port with strong likelihood of underpayment are also checked and revenue recovered by the strike force. How do you do this? Do you have the capacity to do valuation?
The strike force is composed of two units, the ICT and operations. The ICT is well equipped to monitor the entire importation process, because we have advanced information about cargoes coming into the country by way of transmitted manifest.
Once we have the cargo manifest, we know through the weight that some of these declarations are dubious and not real. Though, the service does not exist to create poverty, we exist to collect maximum revenue.
Where there is anything suspicious, we probe it to the bottom. That is why you see alert being placed on cargoes. Then our operatives are called for joint examination with the command officers, and the result of the examination will determine which way we will follow; either to seize at the port and make it less cumbersome so that nobody is put in trouble as far as our operatives are concerned, or to reclassify these goods so that the government will not be shortchanged or lose revenue.
For the past four weeks and during our press briefing we disclosed the recovery of over N350 million through that process. You will agree with me just like the national PRO said, anybody who was forced to part with this amount will not go home and clap for the Nigeria Customs Service. Such person will want this unit to be scrapped, because to pay tax is not an easy or happy experience for the payer.
Alerts are products of non-compliance. On a scale of zero to hundred, if you check 10 containers, at what percentage will you say there is compliance and non-compliance?
I don’t want to base it on percentage. Just like what I used to tell your colleagues, we should change the narration now. It should not be about the DPV, but about the quality of effort that officers have put in to even seize one bag of rice.
It is inestimable and immeasurable. The intelligence, professionalism, time and determination put into the job is what we should be looking at.
You will see hardworking officers on the system from early morning to 6pm trying to make sure that all illegalities are blocked. At the end of the day, once anything considered to be dubious but not against national security is discovered, that particular cargo is reclassified and appropriate punishment backed by the law is meted out to the culprit in the form of additional payment, etcetera.
So once that is done, we profile importers to know those that are compliant and the non-compliant ones with dubious character. If we discover that it is a pattern for them, we refer to post clearance audit to go and collect the short fall in duty payment.
Our calling is to protect our national economy through maximum revenue collection and prevent the smuggling of prohibited and unhealthy items.
Dangerous and unhealthy food and drugs or even cosmetics that are not registered are prevented from getting to the market. This functions preserves the health, economic and social well being of the citizens.
We will never compromise on these tasks.