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Zero Patrol Boats and Customs Expanded Marine Operations (1)

Few days ago, the management of the Nigeria Customs Service under the watch of Col. Hameed Ali (retired) increased the service’s marine commands to four, up from the existing two, being the Western and Eastern Marine Commands, respectively.

According to the service’s internal memo, the action was part of the latest reorganization reached at the 50th Regular Meeting of the Nigeria Customs Service Board held on Tuesday 21st May, 2019.

For a long time already, due to the collapse of the customs marine operational fleet and the federal executive council (FEC) inexplicable lack of interest to investigate and reposition the unit, the task of keeping the beat going has fallen on the Nigerian Navy.

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The NCS is not only revenue generating in nature, but indeed is an integral part of the national security architecture, active in both economic and social security, as well indeed in trans border security, including other sensitive responsibilities in the diplomatic and continental regional bloc. Nonetheless the aforementioned important roles, the Nigerian state has for upwards of two decades criminally rendered this important department of government redundant and prostrate.

Those whose business it is to know have alleged political, military conspiracy to undermine the operability of the customs marine unit in other to render the service ineffectual, allegedly just so to prevent it from carrying out its statutory oversight functions in the offshore and crude production/platform monitoring.

Grapevine holds that whereas the plot to render the customs marine inactive was hatched by certain military chiefs during the military regime, the plot was kept alive and active by retired military chiefs who transformed into political leaders since 1999.
Having successfully disabled the unit, the Nigerian Navy has now gratuitously undertaken to help the customs carry out its marine anti-smuggling function, while the customs has been effectively, officially and permanently precluded from showing its presence upstream in the crude production field.
Thus for close to three decades, the plot to lock out the customs service from  upstream monitoring, not only succeeded according to plan, but invariably also incapacitated the unit in meeting its other core operational duties such as routine patrol at sea and within the national territorial waters to checkmate smuggling and related anti-economic activities.
Ironically, the FEC which has routinely discussed and presented budgets for police and military needs, appeared to always look past customs operational needs, having tossed the service into a the corner like the weeping child with a criminally deficient funding formula forced down the throat of past administrators and which can best be described as an orphan pittance .

As a revenue generating agency, its personnel are nowhere near their counterparts in NNPC, NPA, NIMASA, FIRS etc in terms of remuneration, training and welfare, yet the customs is the one every government puts on the toe to ‘get more money’ anytime government is broke. From findings the salary of a customs comptroller is at par with a graduate entry wage at the other revenue generating organizations. The customs officer is armed and placed at the entry points, land, sea, air, to combat smugglers at great risk to his life and the lives of his officers and men. Yet the customs officer is discriminated against in all ramifications, while government top officials take delight in even calling them unprintable names.

As tax collectors, the public do not take kindly to customs men, and the very operators of government for on whose behalf these taxes and revenues are collected, gleefully even add to customs officers yoke, to such an extent, well meaning Nigerians must feel scandalized by this shameful official posturing, where top political office holders just in other to impress their listeners resort to dirty name calling.

But let us return to customs patrol boats in the light of the creation of two additional customs marine command by the Ali led management. Under normal circumstances, with this latest development, the resort would have been a directive by the headquarters for the assets of the two existing commands to be shared proportionately by all four commands, with possible fresh supplies by headquarters to supplement required operational needs; which include gun boats and seaferers.

But we have a situation where the marine unit current operational logistics, infrastructure and fleet are at best beneath satisfactory, short of politics. And but for the fact that a segment of the industry and society still holds Ali in high esteem as a patriot, a gentleman officer and uncommon public servant, the question begging for answer would have been, what he intend to achieve with more marine commands.

There is no question that the CGC inherited a derelict marine unit upon his appointment in August 2015. Of his three-point agenda of reform, restructuring and revenue increase, it would seem he has succeeded somewhat meaningfully with the latter, followed slightly by the first, while the second rung of the ladder, being restructuring can safely be said to have trailed behind, if not having failed woefully.
Thus, after more than three years in the saddle, it can safely be said that Ali has been unable to turn the tide in any significant measure. Some have argued that he has very good intentions, but time is of the essence and when leaders are chosen to rebuild broken down system, the response should be quick-march, right-turn, left-turn, about-turn, all in double-time and in military fashion.

No one else understands this time element demand more than the distinguished CGC. For the most part, he functioned almost like a sole administrator, reporting only to Mr. President. He has no reason to fail in repositioning the customs service, part of which is to free the service from its hitherto military imprisonment, free it from its political subjugation, from its orphaned status, its crippling servitude and organizational hopelessness.
Ali has the duty to free the customs from the military stitches sewn into the service by Gen. Sam Ango regime, and the prolong ostracization it has suffered under the military. There are those who believe that the NCS has given Ali a national sense of service and fulfillment than the military ever afforded him.  He cannot therefore, try as he may; successfully exorcise himself from the customs service. A man of history, Ali should consider his presence in government at this material time a second chance to make good certain matters history has recorded against the military.
What is more, at this time, he is fortuitously serving under General Muhammadu Buhari, a former military head of state, whose regime cannot be washed clean of the fate that has befallen the customs service; directly or indirectly. Ali not only has direct and unimpeded access to Mr. President, those whose business it is to know say he has the President’s ears, anytime, any day; and that Mr. President is almost always favourably beholden to him. Maybe it is a twist of fate that today; he is the helmsman of the customs, a service that has unarguably been hemmed under military/political jackboot. He has the duty to untie the strictures and set customs free. History is watching and beckons on him and will judge him, appropriately. Having become interwoven with the customs service, Ali cannot afford to fail secure for it, all necessary interventions. He owes it to himself and posterity.

In the past twenty years talk about reviving the customs marine unit moribund water craft fleet has assumed a political posture as every New Year alters the clarity of the matter. It is made worse when every successive CGC opt to play the politics of hope which never materialize into concrete terms.
Since 1999 the political class has held fast to the strictures they inherited from the military, regarding the question of an efficient customs service. In-house, it si also believed that some elements in position of advantage have also done so much to perpetuate the slavish atmosphere under which the service operates. In fact, no management of the service since 1999 has bothered to look into the question of cadre dichotomy, which lump officers of the marine unit together under what is known as ‘support staff’; seen as a major item of demoralization amongst the marine corps.

Although it is unclear how this dichotomy came about, feelers suggest that it was imported through the ministry of transportation which conducted Trade Test examination for that category of personnel at the point the Preventive and Revenue arms of the service were amalgamated. The marine corps is considered beneath the general office duty personnel, whose career progression is strangely pegged at GL 13 which restricts the personnel to the comptroller rank, while their counterparts in the general duty department can aspire to the rank of Assistant Comptroller General, and upwards.

While successive sole administrators have maintained the nomenclature as inherited, perhaps, Ali could make a difference by investigating this systemic default and taking the bold initiative to correct same. Customs marine personnel need equal treatment and encouragement to put in their best. For so long the customs marine have never had anyone occupy the national management level and hence, nobody have been able to speak for them, Ali could be their voice, once and for all. History will not forget this necessary intervention and correction.

The problem of the customs marine is much more, the kernel being lack of capacity building and motivation through enhanced operability and qualified professional manpower. The unit has collapsed more than a decade and all the motions about its operations mere pretentions. Compared with the Togolese and Republic of Benin customs marine, ours is a laughingstock.

As things stand, none of the marine customs area controller or even the OC Operations can board a patrol ship and move it, not even the simplest of the water crafts, to lead a patrol taking the wheel. The reasons are not farfetched, none of them are marine officers; none since getting their present posting have had the benefit of adequate training; it is as bad as that. These are the facts, shameful as they may sound.
The Nigerian Navy has war ships, patrol and combat ships, surveillance ships; and its fleet is robust, functional and efficient. The Air Force has war heads, fighter jets, assault jets, surveillance jets, training jets, its fleet is adequate and ready for action, any time and any day; same goes for the Army.
The Police is well equipped, although there was rumour it suffered something similar to the Customs treatment during the General Ibrahim Babangida’s regime, it has since been rehabilitated. It has Personnel Armour Carriers, tanks and various calibers of assault rifles and all essential weaponry.
Why is the case of the Customs different? Is the Nigeria Customs Service the personal property of the Sultan of Sokoto, of Obi of Onitsha or Oba of Benin, and perhaps, for that reason is on the wrong side of mainstream politics? Does it stand to reason that government can shortchange one of its own critical departments?

The last training of 10 marine officers was at Maritime Academy of Nigeria Oron in 2008. The South African trainers brought their gun boats to give our officers practical training. Officers of the Amphibian Brigade Port Harcourt participated in that training. Then CGC, Elder Buba Gyang and Senator Nenadi Usman, then Minister of Finance, life and kicking, declared the training open.

The one that was conceived during Abdullahi Dikko’s regime didn’t sailed, 160 officers were reportedly shortlisted for the training at the US Military Academy, but the plan collapsed. Nobody has said why the plan collapsed. Same with the planned training of 9 officers slated for Japan, which impeccable insider sources said was actually tied to the contract for the purchase of the Dikko two patrol boats, which were delivered stillborn. Not only did the so-called patrol boats arrived a miscarriage, the training of the nine officers never took place. A certain retired Rear Admiral got the contract.

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