By Bayo Bernard
Barely a month after Comptroller Muhammed Uba Garba took over the leadership of Seme Customs Command of the Nigerian Customs Service, NCS uncertainty looms in both the camps of smugglers, men and officers of the command.
Comptroller Uba took over from Comptroller Mohammed Aliyu barely a month ago in a major shake-up by the NCS that affected over 70 controllers across the country.
The fear now, is whether the new customs boss will be able to rein in the smuggling ring made up of notorious smugglers and some colluding officers and men in the command.
Seme border area is West Africa’s most notorious smuggling route, border and customs experts told The Source.
According to these experts, more is needed on the part of the area command to curb the activities of cars and commodity smugglers, now that the President Muhammadu Buhari-led federal government is trying to tighten noose on smuggling across the nation’s porous borders.
Unknown to many, smuggling of cars have increased along this route in the last few months, despite ban placed on importation of used cars through land borders by the federal government.
Some officers told the magazine last week that car’s smuggling business along Seme has been booming since the Presidency promulgated the policy restricting importation of Tokunbo vehicles to the seaports.
For instance, one officer working in the command told the magazine that the policy has also boosted the “take home” of officers posted to numerous check points along the Lagos Badagary expressway, and specialized patrol units like the CG Strike Force.
According to the source, what smugglers now do is to ‘arrange’ with customs’ officers in the command on how to bring in the prohibited items. This is usually done at odd hours in the night, ‘to escape prying eyes,’ the magazine was told.
“At these times in the night convoys of vehicles are allowed in through the Seme border, as long as superior officers in the command have been settled,” the source further told the magazine.
He said problem only arise when” smugglers only try to play smart. For instance, when you agreed with officers to bring in 20 cars, and after charging you, it’s now discovered that what you are bringing in are 30 vehicles.”
He said this will likely “blow the cover and such item are likely to be seized even after they have passed through the border.”
Those in the know in the command told the magazine that senior officers in Seme Command are in the know of this racket. “If you are lucky to be part of this gang, you will make money, because you are negotiating for yourself rather than the government,”
Asked further what he meant by this, the officer said the situation is different from the past when Tokunbo are allowed through land borders, and what the importer or owner needs to do, is to pay Customs Duty, CD.
“The only thing we do at the time to make money, is to under-value the car to reduce the CD payable. But mow that there’s ban we just charge the importer based on the item he’s smuggling, once the modalities are agreed, the payment is made. It’s almost risk free for officers involved in the racket, the importer or smuggler bears the biggest risk,” the officer who spoke in confidence stated.
Very reliable sources in the command told the magazine that some top officers in Seme Command, from the ranks of Assistant Controllers are members of this ring, though he refused to mention names for fear of being apprehended.
“This is what has been going in the command before the arrival of the new controller,” he said.
The source however, disclosed that the arrival of the new controller may have sent jitters into the minds of the ‘cartel’ “as officers are now very careful about their conduct,” he said.
The magazine could not confirm whether the former area controller was in the know of the racket. Comptroller Aliyu, now in charge of Federal Operations Unit Zone A, Ikeja did not respond to the allegation, as phone calls and text messages sent to him were not answered.
The magazine learnt that Comptroller Uba Garba has a plan mapped out to deliver the mandate given him by Comptroller General of Nigeria’s Customs Service, Hameed Ali. “Stop smuggling in Seme,” his boss in Abuja must have told him.
But a top customs’ officers in the command told the magazine on Monday that it’s not going to be easy to rein in customs officers involved in the smuggling ring.
‘Even with his experience in FOU, the task before him is enormous. Since he came in he has been having consultations with officers and men, including other stakeholders such as traditional rulers around the area on the way forward,” the source stated.
Recently, Comptroller Uba Garba met with the General Officer Commanding 81 Division of the Nigerian Army, in his office, as part of effort at strengthening inter agency ties.
The magazine learned that the controller is planning to meet other security agencies working at the border, the DSS, police, immigration in the coming weeks, to chart a way forward in the anti-smuggling effort. The months ahead will determine whether the new controller will replicate his success in FOU in Seme, a senior officer at the command told the magazine on Tuesday.