Controller of the Nigeria Customs Service, Federal Operations Unit, Zone ‘A’, Hussein Kayode Ejibunu says that the service can and has wielded the big stick whenever it discovered that any beneficiary of the Fast Track cargo clearance system fail to respect the rules of engagement.
The dreaded anti-smuggling chief explained that the customs service will rise to the challenge and correct any procedural violations wherever and whenever it is discovered, irrespective of the cargo owner clearing status; and that the service will stop at nothing until every kobo involved in any revenue shortages are recovered; disclosing that the unit under his watch has recovered close to one billion naira.
Ejibunu in this media chat speaks about his motivation, fears, sorrowful and joyful moments, since taking over the reins of leadership at the flagship federal operations unit.
BY EGUONO ODJEGBA
Industry observers think that you have raised the bar of performance since taking over at the flagship FOU Ikeja, despite daunting challenges by smugglers to slow you down. What would you say motivates you?
Yes, nothing that has motivated me other than the zeal, enthusiasm and patriotism to serve my country. There is no price a man cannot to pay for his name. It is when the nation is safe and fine that we too can go home and be able to sleep comfortably. But where we keep having problems here and there, economic, psychological and financial… and all these are intertwined, because when the economy is bad, you can’t make money. When you don’t have money, it affects your psychology of balance and stability. This is my first job in life and it is the only job I have. After I graduated from the University in 1988 l joined customs in 1991. I didn’t do any other job before joining the service and I took this job out of passion and the determination to make our input as young Nigerians. So I have no other desire than to be patriotic, to do all my best to support what will make Nigeria succeed and prosperous.
You have been here for more than a year, bursting economic crime, what would you say is your most challenging, saddest moment?
Well, every minute of the job is challenging, enemies of the country, smugglers and economic saboteurs are always on the move to shortchange government fiscal and economic policies. As they plot, the unit is also working, we do not go to sleep, we are always strategizing to remain a step ahead of them. So challenge is normal, we rise above them as they come. The saddest moment of my time here was the day I lost a young, promising officer. I have been losing officers, but this one hit me below the belt, why? It is because the officer that this thing happened to is a very quiet, gallant officer. His team happen to be my hit teat, hit team in the sense that when you give them assignment, they deliver and timely, even if they have to confront all the smuggling barons at a go. It was the same team that uncovered that 1099 bales of okirika cloths. They went, condone off the place before I sent reinforcement. That very day, it was another assignment of trailing containers that specializes in ‘cut & lock’, based on intelligence we got. Those were the containers they were going after when a trailer rammed into them. I cried because he was a very young man, the wife too is a very young woman and seven months pregnant. And this trailer just cut short his life and the driver ran away. We are still on it. I have been losing officers due to community attacks, for seizing 40 or 45 bags, and they will hack them (officers) down. But this last one affected me greatly because these are officers I am grooming so that when we disengage from the service, they can continue from where we stop, and one of them was mowed down. In fact two of them among that team are still at home recuperating as I speak.
Since arriving here, what has been your most joyful, most exciting moment?
There have been a number of achievements that gave me joy and excitement, because my officers have been up and doing. But let me talk about one striking one. It is about premium motor spirit (PMS) that was kept in sacks in Badagry, about 81,000 litres, which is more than two tankers. They ingeniously packaged them in leather and sack, to take out of Nigeria. My officers got there around 2am and they were fired at. By the time my men repelled them, they dropped the guns and ran away. And you know those creeks, they know their creeks and were able to escape, but my officers made secured the seizures. When I got there l directed them to bring the seizures here. You asked about challenges, the vehicles we hired to convey the products developed faults on the way, but by and large, we succeeded and brought them here, plus the vehicles the smugglers had hired to convey the fuel out of the country. But you can be sure that they carried fake registration numbers, so we couldn’t trace the owners. My officers showed absolute courage and gallantry in the tense situation lasting about 8hours, loading, trans-loading when the truck started having problems, calling mechanic to have it repaired until they brought everything here. Why I said this one gave me joy, fuel is a very volatile product, but we secured and successfully evacuated it. That is why I said it was a very striking operation, because I did not loss any officer.
Talking about your gallant and hard working officers, are you satisfied with the existing reward system for sterling performance?
The management reserves the right to reward whoever it deems proper, the matter is beyond my purview and I am grossly incompetent to express any view or pronouncement. That question is outside the scope of my assignment here.
Given the nature of your job which is to chase after criminals and or be chased by criminals, I can imagine the state of mind of your officers and you especially as the head. How do you manage stress, physical and psychological?
I take time to rest. There are occasions I sleep in this office because I cannot send my officers to the battle ground and go home and feel relaxed. Like that day I mentioned, I sleep in the office, I was here until morning, and very early, I gathered more officers and we went there. Many times when any officers are on tough assignments, I don’t go home, I remain here and monitor, it makes me concentrate knowing I am still at work, so I don’t go home. My phone doesn’t ring more than twice, I pick it up and follow up on development. Sometimes I do the calling, to know the progress of the assignments. When there is no urgent demanding task, I play table tennis in the evening and return home. I sleep early and wake up early; even when asleep, I wake up at interval to check up on my men at the frontline because ours is economic war. I call to check up on all my OCs every night.
Lets your pry into your privacy, who is H.K. Ejibunu’s mentor?
Well the closest person to me after God is my mother; that is at my home front. Then when it comes to my job in customs and look at those who moulded me, like my oga retired Comptroller M.D Daura, Daura was here, I served under him in this office and up till tomorrow, l can say he was my greatest trainer, teacher and professional guardian. Till today he still checks on me, he knows I am here. From time to time he will call me, ‘Ejibunu, I hope you are okay, I hope there is no problem? As his boy, he will not be happy that the service gave me assignment and I failed. My ogas are thoroughbred customs officers. Now for the present time, I get a lot of inspiration from the CG, Col. Hammed Ali, retired. Yes, he may not be a commissioned customs officer, but you know his military background and will agree with me that he has put Nigeria Custom NCS on the global map. Please get what I am saying, he has re-written NCS name on the global map and has fought for the service, officers and men. Today, if you are retiring as Comptroller you are going home happy. Before Col. Ali came, how much were retired comptrollers paid? Today if you are retiring, you are happy that your benefits can comfortably keep you without having to beg. Col. Ali did that, it is his handwork. He is a no nonsense man, he watches everybody. Whatever you are doing don’t think he is not looking at you. I didn’t know him personally, but he chose to put me here. I am not the best of all, but he chose to say ‘you this boy, go and stay here’. And he gave me everything I needed to work with. For avoidance of doubt, go into the records, there has not been any controller that has enjoyed the largesse of vehicles, arms and other support like myself. I was given 21 brand new vehicles at once, all other controllers before me, maybe the highest they get at a go is five vehicles. He wanted me to perform and he gave me these operational vehicles, gave me officers, gave me arms, gave me helmets, what do I need again? The other day he came here, it was inside this office, he said, ‘Ejibunu you don’t have ambulance here? They will send one to you next week, and it was done, the ambulance is what you are seeing outside, and it is helping us during emergencies. He has created the enabling environment you see today. He gave us the logistics and he is not a man you can twist, no. A lot of people who think about attacking personnel of the NCS, the moment they hear the name, Col. Hameed Ali, they shrink back because they know he is a man who does not accept illegality. So we have a great deal to thank him. That is why I say he has placed us as a credible and renowned institution. Currently in the committee of nation, is it WCO, WTO…our customs enjoys special mention; in West and Central Africa, NCS is number one, and it is Col. Ali’s efforts. And that is why I feel very proud that he is my mentor. I didn’t know him from anywhere, I merely worked in Strike Force under the Headquarters supervision. I am sure he probably looked at my perforce and said, ‘go to FOU Zone A, you can handle that unit for me’. And I thank God for granting me the diligence to do what I have been able to do.
How would you rate your officers and man in terms of productivity and performance?
In every organization, you have the good, the bad and the ugly. Usually the good outweigh the bad and that how it is here. Anytime I discover the bad eggs, I isolate and put them where they belong. I can reassign then to the office where I monitor them or even request that they get posted out of the unit. By and large, the productivity ratio here is increasing by the day because when you look at the quantum of what we have for this year, it is enormous. When you look at what we made even when we arrived towards the tail end of last year, it was something substantial. And it was the same group that are still here, although there have been little movement here and there. By and large, it has not actually affected anything yet. We still hope that we will continue to increase our productivity.
What is your expected revenue recovery figure per quarter and annual as an enforcement unit?
You have put it in the proper perspective by recognizing that we are an intervention unit. As an interventionist unit, we are not given recovery target because we don’t regulate import. The revenue areas is not our core function except that we make it our business to intercept containers or cargoes we have reason to believe have shortchanged government in revenue earning, either by way of not paying accurate and appropriate duty. We bring them here, we have valuation unit here which is the revenue seat. We ask them to do examination on the intercepted containers and give the real value, and then raise the debt notice (DN) for them to pay. So, you cannot quantify how many containers you will pick, it depends on intelligence. If you have intelligence on five containers you are not sure that those five containers are those due for corrective duty payment. The containers could be those carrying contra-bands and therefore liable for seizure. We don’t raise DN for contraband item found in the container, it is outright seizure. Those who identity as having violated the trade procedure and attracts DN, you have to categorize them to know what has happened. Did they do true declaration? If yes, did they enter into the appropriate chapter heading or is it by value? So those are the indices that our revenue seat will determine for them to be able to raise DN, so the service didn’t give our unit target, but expects us to add value when we discover such infraction in the line of revenue generation.
What is the estimated revenue recovery figure for this year so far?
We have made and raised duty of about N766million from January to September, 2022 (N766,167,093.71) which is recovery made from containers we raised DN on, apart from whatever they paid as duty in the original seaport command. As we speak, there are other pending assessments that are yet to be paid, so we are not accounting for that now, which is about N1.5billion, we are expecting the company to come and pay. As for September to December last year, at least we made over N500m; add this together with this year’s recovery, we have made over N1billion.
This administration has been unrelenting in its wildlife protection anti-smuggling activities; can you give account of your unit’s intervention so far?
We are not directly involved in wildlife policing, there is a unit created for that purpose. Ours in FOU Zone A is to provide them backup whenever they want to embark on routine monitoring. They are autonomous to a large extent, if they make arrest they bring to FOU cell, but they account for whatever they do. Despite that, if I have intelligence, like the other day when somebody gave me information on Pangolin, I went there, I discovered it was moved a day earlier. If I had gotten it, nothing stops us from arresting and inviting them. Nigeria customs is involved because we are signatory to most of the wildlife international treaties. Most of the species under protection are becoming extinct due to the greed of some people including Nigerian collaborators who believe they can use them for economic purposes. If you travel out to developed societies, you will see squirrels playing around within human habitations, free and without fear of been killed.
How much does it cost you in terms of naira and kobo and in terms of challenge to deliver bond cargo to their destination?
It is the responsibility of the FOU that once containers are on bond, either through transire or fast track… for the fast track cargo, examinations are to be done at the owner’s premises. Where we entertain doubts about the propriety of the transactions of that terminal, the onus is on us to raise alarm and ensure that we put it right. I will give you an example, there are time they’ll say semi knock-down, CKD, SKD. At times it is not so, it could be fully booked, so when we discovered anything like this, we escalate to the headquarters who issues such violators DN and they must pay it. That is to tell you that even if you are on fast track, if it is discovered that you are not measuring up, it will be checked. As for bonded terminals, we have inspection unit which move round to look at bonded terminals because there are some, they do not operate up to optimal capacity. And some of them don’t meet the requirements that should guide their operations. Those not meeting up, our unit will report in order to prevent them from shortchanging government. We do escort, we escort containers from the port to points of destination, some within Lagos, some to outer states. Our only challenge is inadequate manpower, which the headquarters is seriously looking into. Manpower in the sense that we need junior offices and that is why you see the CGC is recruiting from time to time. In fact management is in the process of employing more people into the service, it is due to all these things. The service is even going systematic now, systematic in the sense customs has raised the bar in tracking, the process is on, where we track containers to know their movement. I have given them a place where the system will be installed and that will lessen man to man contact. Any container that didn’t get to its destination, we will get it.
But controller, here have been issues of missing containers on bond and on transit
Yes, that is part of the reasons we want to embark on container tracking. It got missing on transit, why? One officer will escort about five containers. As they go, he communicates with drivers…pass here, pass there, it’s a challenge. There was a case, they were going to Kano, the officer escorted the containers to Kano, the last one, he asked to pass through Bida through Suleja, this lone driver went to pass through Birnin Gwari and at Birnin Gwari, he ran into bandits and was kidnapped. The owner in Kano has to use the military to recover it. In this instance the driver did not follow the directive of the officer. Then we have cases where along the way, the officer will be with three containers in front or back and one will just veer off, which was arrested at Iseyin by the area command, the truck is still with them; that is what had led us to this tracking initiative. It is the responsibility of the FOU that once containers are on bond, either through transire or fast track… for the fast track cargo, examinations are to be done at the owner’s premises. Where we entertain doubts about the propriety of the transactions of that terminal, the onus is on us to raise alarm and ensure that we put it right. I will give you an example, like for instance, the Fuani Brothers, at a point I have to stop their bond movement until we sent people there, from headquarters and their premises were inspected and all the things there accounted for, because there are time they’ll say semi knock-down, CKD, SKD. At times it is not so, it could be fully booked, so when we discovered that, the headquarters gave them DN and they paid. That is to tell you that even if you are fast track, if it is discovered that you are not measuring up, it will be checked.
How many suspects has been successfully prosecuted by the units?
I am happy to tell you that we have gotten six convictions and the suspects are in various jail cooling off their feet. It is important we let them know the law is no respecter of persons, most especially those that attacks my officers. Some of them are cooling off their feet in prison. I am also happy to inform you that some of the civil cases instituted against us have been thrown out for lack of evidence.
What are some of your high profile seizures for 2022
From January to September 2022, we made a cumulative of 1068 seizures with a DPV of N10,392,450,325.40, including seizure of 67,012 bags of foreign parboiled rice which is equivalent of 112 trailers load. We intercepted tramadol of 225mg with N3bn 774600th. Also we got cannabis sativa with 4090.48kg, 406230blitres of PMS, equivalent of 15 tankers. We also seized 4,0858 bales of second hand clothing with DPV of over N350m, 90 units of tokunbo cars, one pump action riffle, 2 units of dane guns, 35 live cartridges and empty shells.
What of branded vehicles?
So many of them, like I keep saying, if someone is found to be in possession of a smuggled customs item, that means of conveyance will be taking from you and items.