By Stephen Ubanna
When Mohammed Uba Garba, Comptroller, Federal Operations Unit, FOU, Zone A, sent a warning signal to smugglers in Ogun, Lagos, Oyo, Ekiti, Ondo and Osun, the six states in the south west, Nigeria, to desist from the illegal trade, They did not take him serious.
Garba, has every reason to do so because the Command is well equipped with all necessary arsenals to cripple them and send the smugglers out of the illegitimate businesses.
He may have been further encouraged to do so because of the porous nature of the region. But the smugglers, considered the warning as one of those tough talks by a newly deployed Comptroller to FOU, Zone A, to show his ability to do the job.
The smugglers were said to have prepared themselves and devised new strategies to beat the Command anti-smuggling patrol teams of along the border routes as they did not see the resident officers as much of a threat.
Investigation by the Magazine shows that they had lived up their threats of sustaining the tempo of the illegal business, thus giving the FOU, Zone A, officers much jobs to do. The situation became worse with the warning by Garba, the FOU, Zone A , Comptroller to them as they tried to prove to him that no one officer can stop them. True to their words they had continued the illegitimate businesses by smuggling the government prohibited items, rice and vehicles from Republic of Benin through inappropriate routes into the Nigeria markets, thus causing the government loss of billions of naira annually.
The FOU, Zone A, Customs boss , could not sit- by and watch the smugglers and carry out their threat of continuing their illegitimate businesses of smuggling but to confront them headlong , despite the inability of Sani Madugu, Comptroller, Ogun Command and other land border stations Comptrollers to deal decisicively with them.
Given the mandate of Hameed Ali, a retired Colonel and Comptroller General, Nigeria Customs Service, NCS, to Garba, the FOU, Zone A, Customs boss, to stop the smuggling of rice and vehicles into the country, he mobilised his men into action by raising patrol teams to cover the entire south west.
He was said to have made it clear to his men that” government policies banning the importation of rice and vehicles through the land border stations are still in force’, to guide them in their actions.’
He was also said to have given a word of advice to the team leaders on the to ensure compliance to the government fiscal policies and not to compromise their position. The advice was said to have emboldened the various teams to excel in their anti-smuggling operations to break into the rank of the smugglers and youths in the border Communities as well as develop sources of getting information on the smugglers movement and where they stored their smuggled items . These had prepared the officers to intensify their attacks on the fireworks men in all nooks and crannies of Ogun, Lagos and other states in the south west in the recent time, leading to officers sustaining injuries and sometimes, the smuggler losing his life. This is evident on what happened on Monday, January 15, 2018, when an LT volkswagene wh was loaded with rice from Republic of Benin was said to have entered Nigeria market through Sango Otta, Ogun state.
The FOU, Zone A, patrol team around the area were said to have traced it to from the Ogun state Commercial nerve center to Abule Egba, theoutskirts of Lagos , where it was stopped. The alleged smuggler was said to have died during encounter with the Customs operatives under mysterious circumstances.
Given the death of the alleged smuggler, there had been accusations and counter accusations between associates of the deceased and the Customs Operatives. The associates of the alleged smuggler are going about with the impression that the Customs Operatives killed him. The Customs Operatives on their part countered that they never fired a shot, let alone, or kill the smuggler.
But eyewitness account confirmed that the alleged smuggler may have died out of shock of losing his LT bus and the rice content to Customs personnel. They claimed that the smuggler may have died rather than see the Customs anti-smuggling operatives dispossess him of the wares and still take him to the Command for interrogation and possible prosecution. Another account has it that he died of straight bullet. The question on the lips of most people was: who fired the bullet?
Worried by the diverse opinions about the death of the alleged smuggler and public opinion which is tilting against the Customs Operatives, Garba, the Comptroller of the Command was forced to speak out about what transpired between his men and the driver of the LT bus loaded with rice turned smuggler. He disclosed that the anti-smuggling operatives never”shot or killed the smuggler”. His declaration was followed up by a statement by Jerry Attah, an Assistant Superintendent and the Command Image maker, stating the smuggler was the architect of what befell him.
He stated that on Wednesday, January 17, 2018, the Command anti-smuggling Operatives acting on a tip -off had traced an LT bus loaded with smuggled foreign rice from Republic of Benin, a neighbouring country to Nigeria in the West African sub-region to Sango Ota . The driver of the LT bus, according sources, had a contract with the owner of the smuggled bags of rice to discharge it at his warehouse in Lagos.
It was learnt that when information filtered out that an FOU Zone A patrol team were coming after him , he tried to change route but it was too late. He was said to have tried to reach out to some members of the former patrol team along the Lagos-Otta road to help out but no luck.
The Customs Operatives were said to have flashed him to slow down because of the content of the bus but he was said to have increased his speed but was eventually caught up at Abule Egba. Sources told the Magazine that he may had headed to the Abule Egba area because of the help he had expected to get from his associates and the area boys around the area.
The Image maker disclosed that that there was apparent total total confusion as the driver started ” shouting and making inciting statements that attracted a mob action against the FOU men hurling broken bottles, stones at them and using cutlasses against the officers as well.
The Customs Operatives were said to have made attempt to arrest the alleged smuggler and take him to the Command for interrogation but were frustrated by the mob. The Customs anti- smuggling officials were said to have fired a warning shot to disperse the crowd but to no avail. The Customs Operatives could have reacted violently as two of their Colleagues, both Customs Inspectors, who were armed to the teeth restrained from doing so but they sustained injuries from the advancing mob who were armed with dangerous weapons.
They may have been guided by the Comptroller’s warning to do everything within their powers to save life while dealing with the smugglers as they may be provoked by irate youths who might want to take advantage of the Customs Operatives and the Fireworks exchange of bullets to aggravate the situation by fighting the Customs personnel.
Indeed, this was exactly, what may have happened at Abule Egba, where the Customs Operatives had a face- an alleged smuggler and his associates. Many believe that the casualty could have been much if the officers had fired on the crowd as their lives were in danger.
”As a responsible Organisation”, he said, the” officers were forced to retract to avoid aggravating the situation and further loss of life’, Atta said’. He recalled that there was no loss of life as at the time of the confrontation but two officers sustained injuries from the mob attack and are being treated .
He may have spoken the mind of the Comptroller when he warned that ”smugglers who could bribe their way to bring in their wares into the Nigeria market by following unapproved routes stand the risk of losing the items to government anywhere it is found by patrol officers whose duty is to” ensure compliance”.
While Garba, the FOU, Zone A, Customs boss was yet to overcome the embarrassment caused by public opinion against the Command over the death of the alleged unknown smuggler conveying smuggled rice to Lagos, another trouble involving the Customs broke out at the Nigeria’s rice smuggler’s haven, Sango Otta. The Customs operatives were said to have pursued fireworks men to Iyana- Ese junction on Thursday, January 18, 2018 around Sango Otta but ran into a mob. It was a bad situation for the officers was bad as their lives were in danger. A by stander at the scene said they had had no option but to shoot sporadically to scare the angry youths who had trooped out there large number to frustrate the Customs Operatives from doiing away with the smuggled items or arrest any of the smugglers. He confirmed that a straight bullet went had hit a woman, one Bukola Olugunna, an eight month pregnant woman, working with IBEDC at , further fueling the crisis.
Initially, the FOU Zone A, patrol team had been linked to the gun shot which straight bullet hit the pregnant woman because of the large presence of its men along the Sango-Otta -Idiroko road but on investigation it was found that the eight-month old pregnant woman was hit by a straight bullet from a gun shot by members of the Comptroller General’s Compliance Squad who were in pursuit of the fireworks men carrying rice at the Iyana- Ese junction around the Sango Otta axis.
Olugunna Tosin, the brother In -Law of the victim disclosed that she was on her way to work that early morning when she was hit by that straight bullet. He said family members quickly rushed to the scene when information filtered out that the eight- month pregnant woman life was hit by straight bullet.
Attah, who has been under intense pressure defending the Command over the recent encounter between Customs Operatives and a smuggler who mixed up with the mob at Abule- Egba was said to have spoken with the husband of the woman at the instance of Garba, the Comptroller, to ascertain the state of the woman. He disclosed that the woman is in good condition going by the response of the husband. The FOU, Zone A, Customs boss , may have taken up the matter as Anzerema, the Comptroller of the Compliamce team is based at the Customs Headquarters.
It was gathered that two members of the squad were taken into protective Custody by the police at Obasanjo Farm following the attack by the desperate youths. The Officers had since been released, the FOU, Zone A, Image maker said.
The question on the lips of most people was: how the fireworks men could easily beat the numerous Customs heck points along the Sango-Otta and Idiroko road and other teams manning the various unapproved routes in the border Communities to land their smuggled items at Sango Otta
Investigation by the Magazine shows that there are over 10 Customs Check points, mostly mounted by Ogun Command officers alone, on the busy international route. This excludes the Ajilete checkpoint that was approved by the government in the state. The FOU, Zone A and Customs Headquarters Compliance team groups and other teams from the Customs Headquarters including the police and the military also had their checkpoints on the same road . But smugglers appears to have taken them to the cleaners as the Customs Operatives appear to have no answer to them.
This is an indictment on Sani Madugu, Comptroller, Ogun Command, whose men are supposed to take the lead in the anti-smuggling war for others to follow in the land border sation. A source confirmed that the Customs operatives could not doing anything to forestal the smugglers because the checkpoints are ”booking centers”.
There is no gain saying the fact that Madugu and his men may have lost the anti-smuggling war in the state, thus given Garba Comptroller, FOU, Zone A, and his men much job to do in containing the activities of the smugglers.
the Ogun Command Customs boss, may have suddenly realised that there are black legs among his men on the field that he could no longer rely them to execute any operation that he had information on. He was said to have prefered to use the services of Seriki AAbdullahi Abdullahi, a Chief Superintendent, and the Officer in-charge of the Command Crack Squad to lead the operation.
Insiders told the Magazine that Abdullahi who had carved a niche for himself at FOU, Zone A, as an anti-smuggling officer, under Adamu Mohammed, now a Deputy Comptroller, in-charge of Enforcement at Western Marine, Apapa, had led several of such operations for the Comptroller making enormous seizures of rice and vegetable oil from the smuggler’s den in the bush.
Abdullahi and his men may have dispossessed the smugglers of some of their items and forced them to flee from their hideout but it had not stopped the smugglers from carrying out their nefarious activities in the state. This is evident as cores of Jerrycans of 50Kg of vegetable Oil and thousands of bags of rice had continued to be discharged at Sango Ota market and Lagos from unapproved routes in Ogun state daily. According to the Nigeria Immigration Service, NIMS, there are over 80 unapproved routes in Ogun state alone Most of the routes, a source informed the Magazine are not known to Customs operatives but to smugglers alone.
While Garba and his men are giving Smugglers a run for their money to cover the gross inefficiency of of Madugu, the Ogun Command, Customs boss, Exotic vehicle importers using Tincan Island port and Port Muti-services Terminal Limited, PTML, who find their way through Valuation and the Vehicles Seat to take delivery of their vehicles by making nder payments are no longer finding it funny as some of the vehicles finally ended up at FOU, Zone A, office complex.
A visitor to the Command office Complex at Ikeja would be surprised at the number of assorted vehicles parked there. As at last Friday, there were about 30 of such vehicles impounded by the Roving team headed by Charles Okpabi Jack, a Chief Superintendent of Customs.
The owners , according to sources, are still making efforts to recover the detained vehicles. Some of them who had provided the necessary documents and made the necessary payments as recommended by the Valuation Unit may have been cleared to take delivery of their vehicles . It was confirmed that they took delivery of the vehicles on Monday, January 22, 2018.
A senior Customs officer who spoke to the Magazine on condition of anonymity said Jack, may be making a head way in his anti-smuggling war at the seaports that had facilitated the recovery of millions of naira for the government from under- valued vehicles and Containerised cargoes because he does not go out of his way to do what he likes but works according to the Comptroller’s instruction.
the officer disclosed that what turned the Roving team into a force that could not be ignored by anybody was because Jack is in total control of his boys and no one can go out of his way to do what he likes or collect money from desperate agents with their importers to forestall taking their suspected Containers or assorted vehicles to Customs warehouse, Ikeja, for proper valuation and payment of appropriate duty.
Ali, the Comptroller General may have recognised the contributions of Garba and his men in the anti-smuggling war, particularly the roving team in the recovery of millions of naira for the government that could have entered into private pockets that he was said to have given award to Jack, the arrow head of the team. The award is expected to be given to him and other recognised officers on Friday, January 26, 2018.
Many believe that the award would ginger Jack and other beneficiaries to work harder and ensure that there is no escape route for fraudulent agents car dealers smugglers and their Customs collaborators at the seaports, airport and land border stations. The temptation is much for the roving team but they were said to have turned their back on such mouth watery offers by suspects but to do the job.
This is an indication that all the efforts by the FOU, Zone A, Customs boss to inject discipline into the field Staff is not vain.