By Stephen Ubanna
When Mohammed Uba Gabar was deployed from the Federal Operations Unit, FOU, Zone C, to FOU, Zone A, Ikeja, in May 2015, nobody expected him to make an impact in the Customs anti-smuggling operations in the porous south west geopolitical region. This is because of his back ground as a revenue officer and lack of proper understanding of the region comprising six states: Lagos, Ogun, Ondo, Ekiti, Ondo and Osun .
Muhammed was said to have been confronted initially with the problem of changing of the officers manning the Command various patrol and Surveillance teams who might have become very popular with the people because of their long stay in one particular area.
He had to contend with Lagos, Ogun and Oyo states which shares boundary with Republic of Benin in the West African subregion. The notorious borders, according to Customs sources are Seme, Idiroko, Ohunbe, Imeko, Sarki among others. The Nigeria Immigration Services, NIS, confirms that Ogun state had over 80 approved and unapproved routes alone and the FOU, Zone A, Comptroller is expected to deploy his patrol officers to man the various routes.
the Customs boss appear to have left no one in doubt that he has the mandate of Hameed Ali, a retired Colonel and Comptroller General of the Nigeria Customs Service, NCS, to sanitise the seaports and checkmate the activities of smugglers in the south west. His major task, according to an insider was how to dislodge the rice smugglers who had virtually taken over the region, thus forcing the genuine rice importers: Vetee Nigeria Ltd, Stallion Group, Dana Group and Olam to scale down their imports or run out of business as they could not compete with the smugglers because of the high cost of importation.
Unknown to the smugglers and their sponsors, Muhammed, is not a neophyte in anti-smuggling operations and may turn out to be one of their greatest nemesis in Customs anti-smuggling operations. The Customs Comptroller may have studied smugglers as a young officer in the early ’90s,by leading patrol teams at various times in the old Kano Command, now, Kano/Jigawa and Adamawa Command, now Adamawa/Taraba, where he was said to have successfully distinguished himself by making spectacular seizures of goods including rice.
Many believe he may have been prepared for the task ahead in the south west geo-political region as a one time Deputy Comptroller in-charge of Imports/Exports at Ogun Command which gave him the opportunity to attend the Command weekly operational meetings to review its anti-smuggling operation and to listen to the reports of the various patrol team leaders and problems faced in their areas of operation and the support needed from the management to tackle them and bring the activities of smugglers under control.
He was said to have taken the first two weeks on resumption to study the environment and watch the officers before coming out with a workable roaster that would put a square peg in a round hole to effectively confront the smugglers in the region and the bad eggs at the seaports and airport.
Initially, many had thought that the deployment of the arrow head of the Command Lagos Roving team, Adamu Muhammed, then an Assistant Comptroller and now a Deputy Comptroller, to Western Marine Command,WMC, in Lagos, would scale down anti-smuggling operations in the Command. They got it wrong.
The deployment of Adamu to WMC may have forced him to quickly look for a possible replacement in the person of Abdullahi Kerewa, an Assistant Comptroller. But Kerewa, an experienced anti-smuggling officer who had worked closely with Adamu to make spectacular seizures under Haruna Mamudu, a former Comptroller of the Command was redeployed to FOU, zone B, Kaduna. He was forced to make do with the senior officers of the rank of Assistant Comptrollers and Chief Superintendent to oversee the patrol and Surveillance teams of the Command including heading the approved Checkpoints in the region.
He had the problems of Apapa, Tincan Island , Port Multi-services Terminal limited,PTML, Kirikiri Lighter terminal, KLT, Phases 1 and 2 and the airport to contend with in the anti-smuggling war. The Comptrollers of the fifteen other Commands in the region may have kept him at arm’s length as they deliberately refused to respect the office as was the tradition in the past by coming over to familiarize themselves with the Comptroller who was new to the region.
The Magazine learnt that the only time he had opportunity of relating with his Colleagues from other Commands in the region was only during their Zonal meetings or when there was a call for an enlarged management meeting at Abuja by Ali, the Comptroller General.
Unknown to the other Commands Comptrollers, the muhammed they knew as a Deputy Comptroller in-charge of Imports at Ogun Command had changed over the years that he had been toughened and could not easily be compromised by any stakeholder both at the seaport or land border station. He had put at the back of his mind recovering lost revenue for the government and minimizing the activities of smugglers in the region.
Given his enormous powers as a Comptroller of a Federal Operation Unit, FOU, derived from the Customs and Excise Management Act, CEMA, Cap 2004 and the mandate of the Comptroller General, the 56 – year old Comptroller had set the stage of achieving results at the new Command by ensuring no files stay on his table till the next day. He attends to files to avoid giving room to the patrol or Surveillance team leaders to blame their non performance to the delay in the reply to memos forwarded to his office for necessary action.
Insiders told the Magazine that even when he closes from work, his mind is always in the office expecting that he might be called up at anytime .This is evident by his recent arrest of some Headquarters officers who had mounted an illegal road block to intercept suspected Containers allegedly released from the seaport.
It was learnt that the intervention of some senior officers from the Customs Headquarters, Abuja including Salisu .A, the Zonal Commandant of the Headquarters Strike Force, HSF, in Lagos saved the officers from facing the Customs disciplinary Committee. With the action, he may have sent a warning signal to officers that it is no longer going to be business as usual.
There is no gainsaying the fact that Muhammed may not against genuine business men and officers who do the right thing but those that cut corners to shortchange the government through smuggling or make false declarations in other to pay inappropriate duties with their Customs and bank collaborators.
Indeed, putting on the garb of a thorough bred administrator, he has thrown his door open for his officers irrespective of the rank , if only the officer could summon the courage to do so. He hated frivolities or people coming to his office including officers to make financial demands He was said to be averse to people including officers who just call at his office to ”greet him” as he wants officers to do their job as their work would speak for them. Officers attached to the Command who understand his policy face their work and are making seizures daily.
Given his determination to achieve results in the Customs anti-smuggling war, he had overhauled the operational team of the Command. The overhaul of the Command operational team saw the deployment of Jack Okpabi, a Chief Superintendent of Customs, and Head of the Lagos Roving team to the Command Rapid Response. He was said to have been replaced by the Bauchi state born Riks LMB, a Chief Superintendent of Customs, described as fearless in Customs circles.
A senior Customs officer informed the Magazine that Muhammed could make the drastic changes in the Command operational team having interacted with the officers in the past one year and therefore knows their capabilities.
Critics may see it as using officers to achieve results in the Command and dumping them at the last minute. This may not really be true as he wants all the senior officers who had headed one patrol team or the other to test other areas to be an all rounder in the Customs anti-smuggling war. He is one of few Comptrollers who believes in giving his senior officer equal opportunity and not having some officers being described as was the case in the past: “Comptroller’s boys.”
There are about three major operational teams in the Command patrolling the streets of Lagos and other states in the south west. These include the Lagos Roving, Rapid Response, Crack and the Headquarters Compliance team . This is in addition to the Surveillance teams in different parts of the region and the approved check points at Ijebu-ode, Ajilate, Baji, and Agbara manned by reputable offices. he has a way of monitoring the various patrol teams through the regular weekly meeting where the team leader are expected to brief the Management about their activities and seizures made. H e was said to have devised a way of rewarding officers who excel. Okpabi, the former of the Lagos Roving is a position to attest to it. At least through his recommendation to the Management ,he was honoured at the last World Customs Day Celebration at Abuja by Ali, the Comptroller General.
Muhammed has every reason to be effective in the Command. Ali, the Comptroller General has changed the old order of doing things as he was said to have enthroned ” accountability and transparency” in the service. The Computerisation of the operations of the Service and the subsequent migration from NCS91 to NCS 92 may have put a spanner in the works of officers as it had given Muhammed and his men opportunity to fully monitor the release of Containers at the port.
His repeated seizures of Containers released from the sea port may have informed why Barsha Yusuf a former Comptroller of Tincan Island port and now Comptroller, Pre-Arrival Assessment Report, PAAR, at the Customs Headquarters and Baba -Musa Abdallahi, his successor to warn officers who may want to connive with agents to contravene the government fiscal policy measures or dare expose their passwords to third parties to commit fraud at their terminals to be ready to face the music.
Like Yusuf, Baba-Musa is not ready to stoop low to Muhammed to beg for pardon for any officer caught in the act for fear that he might been seen as supporting dubious deals at the port or terminal. ”You will bear your cross’, he had told the officers.
Jibril Musa , Comptroller, Apapa Command may have also read the lips of the FOU, zone A, Customs boss that he had restructured the operational network of the Command to ensure that stakeholders are compliant to the government fiscal policy measures to take delivery of their goods to avoid playing into the hand of FOU, Zone A, personnel on the road to intercept any suspected Container released from the seaport.
The monthly report of the FOU, Zone A, activities in the last one year under him speaks volume. Take the month of June , 2017,for instance, the Command had intercepted Contraband with a Duty Paid Value, DPV, of about N334million. In the month of July, the Command intercepted various Contrabands with a DPV of about N201 million. The spectacular record had been maintained by him in the subsequent months in the Command.
Vehicle dealers within and outside Lagos have been under his close watch . A dealer showcasing his vehicles for sales close to the Command’ premises at Ikeja would not hide his experience in a hurry when he was asked to produce all the relevant documents of the vehicles on sales to show that they were not smuggled and if imported through Nigeria seaport that appropriate duties were paid or the car mart would be sealed.
The car mart was said to have hurriedly produced the documents to confirm that he is doing a legitimate business to avoid falling into Muhammed’s hand as he would not spare him. Other vehicle dealers are also said to be coming up with their documents to prove that they are into legitimate business to avoid Muhammed’s troubles.
Last year, the Command had sealed a hidden warehouse in Ikoyi where it impounded 51 assorted vehicles including four bullet proof vehicles. The seizure of rice which the Command under him had made between January and May this year is a warning to rice smugglers that the game is up. The Command was said to have seized over 5000 ”50kg”, foreign par boiled bags of rice from different parts of the states in the south west geo-political region.
Only recently,25,318 bags of seized foreign rice which had ben condemned after a Court process was evacuated from the Command by the Army Corps of Supply and Transport on the orders of Ali, the Comptroller General to Internally Displaced persons, IDPs Camp in Borno state.
It was a bad news for Corporate Organisations such Nigeria Breweries plc and Dangote trucks which trucks were used by drivers in their employ to smuggle the items. As at last Monday, 21, 2018, the trucks are still the Command premises, meaning that the Organisations may use their contact at the Customs Headquarters to get their trucks back as the detained trucks are already known to the Headquarters. This is because the Command do make any seizure of goods or detain vehicles or trucks without reporting to the Headquarters about it.
He has had demonstrated that he was not at FOU, Zone to fight smugglers but to recover lost revenue for government. There was hardly a month that he had not recovered millions of lost revenue for the government. Take for instance, last this he had recovered over N28.87 million for the government.
But those who have had the opportunity of interacting with him at a close range, described him as a not too ”ambitious officer who will never lobby for positions” as he lives a quiet life. But he had come to head a Command where he could not hide for too long as his achievements in the anti-smuggling war had brought out. This is exactly has happened to him in the last one year at FOU, as his name has become a household name.
As a career officer, the FOU, Zone A Customs boss has attended many courses both locally and overseas on Valuation and modernisation. He was said to be a pioneer member of the Customs modernisation process at the Headquarters which gave birth to PAAR.
His outstanding performance over the years had stood him out that he received in 1996,the prestigious Managerial target award from Major General, ngo,a retired Major General and the then Sole Administrator of the NCS and several other awards from private Organisations.
In the recent time, he has received a commendation letter and verbal Commendations from Ali, the Comptroller General over his outstanding performance in FOU, Zone A, fueling speculation that he may have warmed himself to the Customs boss that he may be among the Comptrollers that may be elevated soon to the enviable rank of an Assistant Comptroller General, preparatory to giving him a higher responsibility in Customs soon.