STRIKE FORCE: Operational policy somersault generates dust in Customs
Confusion has hit the leadership and management of the Nigeria Customs Service, NCS, over perceived failure of its recent policy adjustment into the operational modus operandi of the Headquarters Strike Force, the service’s elitist enforcement unit.
National Coordinator of the Headquarters Strike Force, Deputy Comptroller Abdullahi Kirawa was sacked and his team dissolved, following what insiders described as backlash effects of the management’s failure to implement the controversial directive in which the strike force was positioned to operate even at the ports, alongside constituted port command authority.
The adjustment which followed a directive of Col. Hameed Ali, Retired, the Comptroller General of Customs, for Strike Force to also operate inside the ports to checkmate smuggling and curb further loses of revenue was however adjudged a failed venture following fierce resistance by forces within and without the service.
Meanwhile, stakeholders have said that the best option for the leadership of the customs in an atmosphere of distrust as the current development suggests was for him to resign. Chieftains of the Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents and that of All Ports Unified Freight Forwarding Practitioners Association said changes in the headship of enforcements units without commensurate sanctions against officers deemed to have compromised does not have any prospect for better trade facilitation in the future, or guarantee the required work ethics that punishes anti-trade behaviour and compromises.
Resistance to the directive which became strident with calls by some stakeholders on President Muhammadu Buhari to call Ali to order was believed to have sparked confusion and apprehension at the customs headquarters. Reliable insider sources informed our reporter that the development forced management into a number of emergency meetings; the last of which a decision was taken to embark on face saving measure for the management as well find a soft landing for the customs boss, who came under very harsh attack by ports operators over the apparently unpopular directive.
To further diffuse the confusion, management also made major reversal in the controversial operational policies, by hurriedly dissolving and reconstituting the strike force under which the contentious directives were supposed to have been implemented.
The announcement of the dissolution contained in a fresh circular which was also signed by the Deputy Comptroller General in charge of Enforcement, Investigation and Inspection, DCG Augustine Chidi on behalf of Ali, said the reconstituted Strike Force has been dissolved and reconstructed into three zonal arrangements, with each zone to be headed by a Deputy Comptroller of Customs.
Under the new arrangement, Deputy Comptroller Usman Biri Yahaya was appointed to head Zone A Lagos, Deputy Comptroller Kolobe B. to head Zone B Kaduna, with Deputy Comptroller Adamu A. M drafted to take charge of Zone C Owerri.
Commenting on the development, President of APUFFPA, Prince Mike Okorie said, “It does not make any sense to say the strike force has been reconstituted. It is duplicating the job of enforcement units of the commands, of customs intelligence unit, CIU, and federal operations unit, FOU. All these are duplications, and each time there are issues, the CG makes changes, that shouldn’t be the approach, because the new heads would be changed anytime soon too. It shows that the CG is not effectively in charge and he should resign.
“The CG cannot continue to lament that there is smuggling and leakages where he has all these groups everywhere. If he is saying he cannot trust his officers, that he has no confidence in them, he should make a clean sweep or resign.”
On his part, National Publicity Secretary of ANLCA, Mr. Joe Sanni suggested a deterrence approach to the matter through genuine sanctions.
“There are three issues at stake that needs to be addressed urgently in this back and forth tangoing within and outside Nigeria Customs Service. Customs must now begin to sanction its defaulting officers for such lapses to deter others, reward honest import/export/declarations for compliance, and put defaulting importers/exporters out of business, withdraw licenses of collaborating Customs Brokers/Agents, after due diligence/process, to establish facts behind the acts.”
Personnel at the customs public relations office declined to speak on the fate of the earlier directive empowering the strike force to enter into the port. But a senior officer who spoke in with our reporter in confidence said the situation is still hazy.
“My brother, you will agree that there is a general atmosphere of confusion in the system, particularly on this strike force matter. So I cannot tell you whether that directive is enduring or not. Let us wait and see what happens”, he said.
Those whose business it is to know argue that the earlier directive merely created unnecessary trouble for the defunct strike force and its leader. They blame Ali and his management team for putting the strike force under pressure, and creating enemy for it and its leaders.
According to a source, “When you empower a strike force to enter into an command with a constituted command structure to take action over cargo and cases under him, you are creating enmity between both.
“The strike force by virtue of its mandate is already surrounded by enemies, to say it should also go and do oversight on the activities of the command is simply putting the man at the helm of the strike force under attack, under suicide mission. His enemies doubled overnight, this policy is a very wrong, unjust and poorly thought out policy.
Pinnacle Time gathered authoritatively that during the emergency meetings at Abuja where Ali urged officers to speak freely, many blamed the strike force for concentrating too much on the ports while rice was freely coming in from the hinterland and waterways. This was said to have again changed the mood of the CGC, who had barely three weeks ordered the strike force to show more presence at the seaports. It was amid this confusion that the decision to dissolve the former strike force was adopted.
The dissolved Strike Force made seizures worth over N17b in Duty Paid Value, in addition to recovering over N1b this year vide issuance of demand notices, for consignments with underpaid duties.