BY EGUONO ODJEGBA
When Col. Hameed Ali (retired) was appointed on 27th August 2015 as Customs Comptroller General (CGC), his mandate according to him was to reform the customs and raise revenue generation.
Despite its lack in operational logistics and infrastructure in the main, Ali has failed to deploy the two armoured patrol boats he inherited, even as the marine unit of the customs sercive has collapsed substantially.
Granted that he did not inherit a top shape customs marine unit, it is on record that preparations was in full throttle at raising the unit’s human and material capability before the then CGC, Alhaji Abdullahi Dikko was apparently forced out of office by President Muhammadu Buhari’s government.
Strangely, for his own reasons, Ali was believed to have neglected actions on it for four years, and who was obviously smarting from unrelenting critical media reports for allowing the assets to lie waste, embarked on an embarrassing, failed launch of the boats in September 2019. But the CGC and indeed the Buhari government glossed over the failed launch with unbelievable arrogance; and in spite of the huge scarce resources that went down the drain with the failed launch.
Industry observers who likened the behaviour of the customs leadership to deep seated arrogance, argue however that personal or political grudge should not stand in the way of national assets, even as some condemned the frightful level of rot the boats have been subjected over the years. This is in addition to worries about the running financial wastage tied to the boats maintenance and supplies, and state of un-productivity.
By August 27 this year, it would be seven successive years the boats have suffered inexplicable abandonment; even as there are indications that the entire customs marine system, has suffered untold combined neglect and near total collapse.
As an organ of productivity, the utility value of the marine unit combined with assets, manpower, structure and super structure, remains abysmally low haven been severely undermined by primitive politicking and suspected poor leadership style.
Those whose business it is to know say the establishment of two additional marine commands by Ali has been described as an additional unwarranted drain on the nation’s scarce resources in view of the fact that the new commands exists only in name, quite unable to contribute in any positive measure as an enforcement arm of the service.
Apart from the public concern that Ali presided over the steady rot of the two customs service sea going patrol boats and neglect of other operational water crafts, there are allegations that the customs helmsman also use the mismanaged boats to provide assortments of contracts running into millions of naira quarterly to cronies and political friends of the government; allegedly within the military circle.
With the boats under the custody of the Nigerian Navy, the customs is which has statutory mandate to maintain presence at the nation’s inland waterways, lagoons and seas, including crude production and loading platforms, has been unable to function in the above capacity, for a long time already; leaving the coast entirely to the navy.
The customs additional enforcement and monitoring roles in STS operations, import and export platforms, loading and offloading platforms, both within the exclusive economic zone and its contagious international waters, have also been adjudged lost.
Analysts say that under Ali’s watch, the customs lost its statutory marine operations, currently believed to be functioning with the minimum force of existence. Under the circumstances, customs marine has abdicated its enforcement roles almost entirely to the Navy which graciously and occasionally hands over to customs marine few bags of rice and kegs of fuel it seizes at sea, lagoon and inland waterways.
Rumoured to have come in with some air of military superiority and perceived disdain for the customs service and its supposed corrupt officers, he integrated the military into the customs service administration and operation; in the effort to unwittingly reshape the customs system and adapt it to his desired form and personal wishes.
In September 2019, Ali together with the National Security Adviser, Major Gen. Babagana Monguno launched the customs two sea going patrol boats, namely ‘Pride of Customs’ and ‘Group of Nine’ in Lagos; with a declaration that the launch will end smuggling on our territorial waters.
The launch created some hype in respect of the capability of the patrol boats. But instead of sailing to sea, the two patrol boats departed the venue of the launch back into berth at the navy yard and has remained there ever since. Ali had described the boats as the pride of the customs during the questionable launching ceremony.
The customs boss and the NSA said the deployment of the patrol boats was expected to cut down smuggling to the barest minimum, block revenue leakages and catalyze the growth of non oil revenue receipts; noting that the sea and waterways anti-smuggling gains will be harnessed into the national economy under this regime’s improved customs marine operational capabilities; which will in turn boost the nation’s projected non oil revenue receipt.
He said, “Unfortunately, before now the service has been weak on the water arising from the lack of seagoing vessels to effectively checkmate smugglers on the high sea. This situation led to the death of nine Customs marine officers while confronting deadly petrol smugglers on the sea.
“It is in honour of this group of nine gallant officers who died in the service of their fatherland that one of the seagoing vessels was named ‘Group of Nine’ while the other represents the ‘Customs Pride’ on the sea.
“With these vessels, I hope smugglers will no longer take advantage of NCS vulnerability on water to smuggle in contraband. NCS marine operatives can now sail to intercept them right on the high sea. The timing of this commissioning is strategic as it will on the immediate boost the ongoing joint security ex-swift response on the water and henceforth remains symbol of NCS strength on the sea.”
On his part, the NSA commended Ali’s initiative to deploy the patrol ships; noting that smuggling is a big dent on the nation’s economy and security.
“One of the key issues government is concerned with is the security of the country, this is aside economic issues. From where I operate, I see a lot of things concerning insecurity. Smuggling is one major source of insecurity. With the level of indolence on the part of smugglers, we are determined to deal with the problem, no matter the amount of money being moved around by those involved or blackmail.
“This is therefore, a unique accomplishment as it will help in stemming criminal activities and in the years to come, more equipment will be acquired.”
Although the commissioning attracted the crème-de-la-crème in society, it turned out an orchestrated fantasy trip and seeming ego massaging, as the whole idea ended with the ceremony.
Despite that Ali was appointed to reform and reposition the customs, the customs patrol ships which were receiving refit work upon his resumption, suddenly grounded to a stop. Then days, weeks, months and years went bye; and night and day meets the boats anchored at the navy yard.
Every effort by the media to get an update ended up in political posturing that no doubt aligned with the body language of the retired military chief. Even as the Pride of Customs has been left stranded for almost seven years, findings showed that Ali has lost no moment in signing off their maintenance and custody contracts. He did not also bother to query Messrs Port Plus Ltd, the acquisition/operations technical adviser of the ill fated patrol boats.
It is believed that Messrs Port Plus Ltd is still being retained as technical partner, smiling to the bank yearly; while the assets corrode and rot away in installments. The patrol boats which have been undergoing reported upgrade plus maintenance effective 2017 reportedly gulps an estimated N5billion per annum. This includes running the various engines, generating sets and communication equipments.
Those familiar with ships operation say the two boats have been due for dry-docking and routine maintenance according to manufacturer’s specification since 2020. This is even as other sources inform that some of the machines and gadgets have since packed up due to non-usage.
According to sources, the affected gadgets include the radar, radios, generating set, water-jet, fuel system, among others.
In October 2021, Ali beefed up the operability of the customs anti-smuggling and logistics components with new Hilux Jeeps. While some commands, federal operations and strike force units got between 10, 8 and 5 units of operational vehicles each, the marine commands received nothing.
Checks by this reporter indicate that the marine fleets believed to be highly inadequate, have also largely broken down leaving just few, which are not the least epileptic. This reporter also gathered that between 2015 to date, the customs have not produced a single WCO certified marine officer; leaving the task and operational tasks to ill prepared personnel, populated by general duty officers and men; that has made customs marine assignments notoriously suicidal.
Those whose business it is to know say the CGC has also turned the issue of customs marines training into another brisk business for the boys, having abandoned the patrol boats acquisition contract clause said to include the training of marine officers in accredited centres in UK and Asia.
Authoritative insider sources disclosed that Ali does not have qualified customs marine personnel to crew the patrol boats any time soon. In 2019, he created two additional marine commands, namely North Western Marine and North Eastern Marine commands; outside the existing Western and Eastern Marine commands, he inherited in 2015.
In its stationary position the two customs patrol boats are not just facing wears and tears occasioned by the elements and tide, they have also suffered routine navigational accidents, which reportedly left one of the boats in gaping dent and damage.
According to official information, a passing ship rammed into the boat where they remained moored at the navy yard. The absence of the customs in our waters, offshore production, offloading and discharging platforms and in mid stream operations is believed to have sharply raised the curve in the smuggling of dangerous imports such as arms and ammunition into the country.
In terms of offensive and questionable imports and exports by air, land or sea, customs is the statutory agency empowered to bridge the safety and security gap in all sea borne trade, through monitoring, administration and compliance. How prepared the customs boss is to set aside his military bias and use his closeness to President Muhammadu Buhari to revitalize customs presence at sea and critical offshore production platforms can only be imagined.
Concerned stakeholders say he must rededicate to his assignment with broader outlook and patriotic zeal by ensuring the timely operational turnaround of the customs patrol ships, and have them deployed as purely customs marine affairs.
They advised that should he insist in accommodating the military in customs operations, customs operatives must lead and be in position of responsibility; while soldiers in the mix serve as backup.
Experts posit that one factor working against the customs is the prevailing beggarly status, and urged Ali to have the requirements of the customs marine captured in its yearly budget and desist from begging to finance customs operations.
They argued that a situation where special appeals for funding of customs are directed at particular office holders instead of the budget demeans the customs service.
“We are talking about a federal department, why must customs beg the presidency for money? Funding of customs is constitutional; it is either budgeted for or through statutory internal mechanism by deduction of certain percentage of amount generated. It shouldn’t thrive on favour or the political benevolence of anyone”, said a retired customs deputy comptroller, Pius Adenrele, not real name.
While other agencies of government like Nigerian Ports Authority, Nigerian Navy and Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency amongst others statutorily involved in security, safety and economic assignments in the water and sea are map out dogged blueprint in fulfillment of its tasks, the Nigeria Customs Service that has active role to play at sea and the waterways just sit-down-look like a spectator, curiously and seemingly unconcerned.
Last year, the Federal Executive Council (FEC) reportedly approved the sum of N1.59trillion for the purchase of patrol boats for the customs. There was no update on the approval or what the management of customs did with the fund before the year ran out.