By Stephen Ubanna
Hameed Ali, a retired Colonel and Comptroller General, Nigeria Customs Service, NCS, is a happy man. Ali’s source of happiness, according to a senior Customs officer, who spoke to the Magazine, was the impressive performance of the Headquarters Strike Force in its anti-smuggling operations in the country.
There was the initial pressure on the Comptroller from both official and unofficial quarters that there was no basis for the Strike Force, because of the existence of the Federal Operations Unit, FOU, in the south west, south east, north west and north central geo-political regions of the country.
The Customs boss was said to have stood his ground over the establishment of the Strike Force, which mandate, was similar to the FOU. He was said to have been advised by those opposed to the Strike Force, to dissolve it after six months to avoid the officers seeing it as another Department in Customs that had come to stay as part of the ongoing restructuring of the Service, as mandated by President Muhammadu Buhari.
The performance of the Strike Force officers ever since May 2017, in each of the Customs Zones across the country speaks volume: making spectacular seizures of foreign parboiled rice and exotic vehicles. It is not surprising why Ali could heave a sigh of relief that he had not made a mistake in setting up the team to compliment the anti-smuggling efforts of the FOU, officers, across the country.
Investigation by the Magazine shows that smugglers who may have escaped the eagle eye of the FOU, patrol teams on anti-smuggling operations and those at the seaports, airport or land border stations , were said to have fallen into the waiting hands of the HSF officers who lay ambush at strategic locations .
Prior to the establishment of the Strike Force , Last May, the smuggling of Contrabands, particular , foreign parboiled rice, processed vegetable oil, second hand clothing including exotic vehicles through unapproved routes into the country was a common sight .
The smuggling situation was said to be worse in Lagos, Ogun, Oyo Aadamawa ,Yobe, Sokoto, Katsina and Zamfara, forcing Buhari to mount pressure on Ali, the Comptroller General and his men to do something urgent about it to stop the smuggling in all its ramifications.
David Paradang, a former Comptroller General, Nigeria Immigration Service, NIS, had said that there are 84 approved Border routes and about 1,400 illegal routes used by smugglers and cross border immigrants to find their way into in the country. Paradang confirmed that 80 of the illegal routes are located in Adamawa , north east and 83 in Ogun state, south west Nigeria, alone.
At present Ali and Mohammed Babanded, the Current Comptroller General, NIS, are working closely together to manage the nation’s border routes . The Customs Comptroller General, particular, was said to have given a matching order to the FOU, Strike Force and Land border Comptrollers and their officers to tighten up security at the land border posts to forestall smuggling of dangerous weapons into the country by cross -border immigrants as the country prepares for the 2019 general elections. The just concluded International Conference, on Border Regions In transition, BRIT, in Nigeria and republic of Benin, may have exposed the Customs officials on new approaches to Border Management. They may have realised that it is not good for the country to throw its borders open to foreigners in the guise of being neighbhours from the same sub-region.
Indeed, this is exactly what the country had done in the past to immigrants from Republic of Benin, Niger, Chad and Republic of Cameroum , fueling the increased cases of smuggling of Contrabands and exotic vehicles into the country .
The smuggling situation in Adamawa and Ogun states appear to be very worrisome , forcing the FOU and the HSF officers in the Lagos and Bauchi Zonal offices to step in to combat the smugglers. Abdulraman Dambazau, minister of Interior , may have to take a look at the NIS suggestion for the establishment of an additional 30 immigration check points in the country to match the Customs efforts in policing the border routes to check mate smugglers and cross border immigrants.
Perhaps, to contain the activities of cross border smugglers in the south west, Adamu Aliyu Mohammed, Comptroller, FOU, Zone A, had strengthened the patrol Units inherited from his predecessor, Mohammed Uba Garba, now Comptroller , Seme Command. The Customs Comptroller was said to have given a matching order to the Command Strike Force team, headed by Superintendent Ahmed to blockade the region to forestall Contrabands and exotic and fairly used vehicles from being smuggled into the country. The Jack Okpabi led Rapid Response team were also said to have been stationed permanently at the Saki axis and Iseyin axis of Oyo and Osun states, which falls under the jurisdiction of Oyo/Osun Command.
With the closure of the border routes in the south west, the FOU, Zone A, Command, Enforcement Department , have been forced to establish more checkpoints in Lagos, Ogun, Ekiti, Ondo, Oyo and states. Take for instance, the notorious , Ota -Idiroko, road, the Command, was said to have set up four checkpoints to the HSF, Lagos Zonal office one.
In spite of the blockade of the region by FOU , Zone A, Strike Force and Rapid Response teams, the Headquarters Strike Force have continued to penetrate the ranks of smugglers in the region. This is evident going by the foreign parboiled rice and exotic vehicles seizures in Ogun and Oyo states, in two weeks .
In the said two weeks of the Lagos HSF Zonal office operations, it was said to have made a seizure of 2000 bags of foreign parboiled rice in the region , described by analysts as a very impressive performance when compared to the FOU, Zone A , Command, which had officers everywhere in the south west that made a seizure of 11,000 bags of 50kg each in two weeks.
It would be recalled that last July alone, the Salisu Shuaibu an Assistant Comptroller and Commander of the Lagos Zonal office Strike Force and his officers, acting on information were said to have made a seizure of 3000 bags of 50 kg each of foreign parboiled rice. Concealed inside a truck laden Container allegedly belonging to an disclosed Corporate Organisation along the Ijebu Ode -Benin Expressway.
He revealed that when he got a tip off that an empty truck laden Container had been taken to an undisclosed land border area in the south west with a promise by the drive to come back with it into the country, they became suspicious of it. The Strike Force officers may have been forced to lay ambush for the truck at strategic locations at the Seme, Idiroko and Lagos -Ibadan Expressway. It was not surprising why the driver of the truck laden Container could not escape the eagle eye officers of the Strike Force officers on the Ijebu Ode -Benin Expressway .The Strike Force Lagos Commander confirmed that a seal was put on the Container by the smuggler to show that it was released from the country’s seaport in Lagos.
The Magazine learnt that the truck driver had attempted to bribe his way but got it wrong. He knew the game was up when the HSF officers, who intercepted the truck insisted that it must be transferred to the HSF operational base at the Customs Training Collage, Ikeja, for examination because of the suspicision that the 40ft Container laden on the truck may have been loaded with Contraband items.
The Strike Force patrol team leader was said to have assured the driver that the truck would be released to him if nothing incriminating was found inside the Container . With the assurance, he was said to have summoned up courage to drive the truck to the Customs Training College, Ikeja, under heavy security. The Seal of the Container was said to have been broken open and about 3,000 bags of foreign parboiled rice of 50kg each were found inside. The truck was said to have been promptly detained. This brings to 5,000 bags of foreign parboiled rice of 50kg each, seized by the Lagos Zonal office, HSF, in one month.
The Shuaibu led HSF team in the south west, are also said to be giving importers with their agents tough time at the seaports and Murtala Muhammed International airport, MMIA, in Lagos. The team, was also said to have intercepted and transferred several suspected Containers from the seaport and pallets, released from NAHCO or SAHCOL, terminals at MMIA, to its operational base at Ikeja.
A source confirmed that the activities of the Lagos Strike Force officers in the south west have become the talk of the day at the Customs Headquarters. The officer disclosed that wherever two or three officers are gathered , their discussion centered on what Shuaibu, the Commander of the HSF in the south west and his officers are doing to compliment the efforts of the FOU, Zone A, officers , in the region.
Ogah Odibu, a former Comptroller of the Oyo and Osun Command and now an Assistant Comptroller General, ACG, in-charge of the Headquarters , Zone B Office, Kaduna, patrol officers were said to have been affected in their anti-smuggling operations in their areas of jurisdiction by the FOU ,Zone A, officers alleged blockade of the region.
Odibu may have started well in the Command when he mobilised his officers to make a seizure of nine trucks load of rice at the Saki and Iseyin axis of the state within two weeks of assumption of office but that was how far he could go. . The seizure may have forced Mohammed, the then Comptroller of the Command , to deploy more officers to Saki border routes to Oyo and Osun states.
Last April, Jack, the then Officer in-charge of the Command , Lagos Roving team, now baptised Operations and Lagos Roving team, was said to have made, eight trucks load of rice from the Saki axis, the closest the Command has come to achieve the Oyo/Osun Command feat. But with the blockade of the region, Jack and his officers were said to have made two truckloads of rice for the Command.
Officers who spoke to the Magazine averred that Mohammed, the Customs Comptroller may not have helped matters by giving the Jack led Rapid Response team and the Ahmed led Strike Force a matching order to block the six states in the south west geo-political region to forestall the smuggling of foreign rice , vegetable oil, second hand clothing and vehicles into the country as the VIP smugglers who were forced to go underground are fully back into the business doing what they know best: smuggling of trucks load of foreign rice and exotic vehicles into the country through unapproved routes scattered in the region.
More worrisome was the smuggling of bullet proof vehicles into the country ahead of the 2019 general elections . Only recently, the Command Operations and Lagos Roving team, headed by Riks Lura, a Chief Superintendent of Customs, were said to have intercepted and detained two Bullet proof vehicles in Lagos.
The team had earlier last August evacuated nine smuggled bullet proof vehicles hidden at a private residence at Victoria Island, Lagos based on information, thus bringing to 11, smuggled bullet proof jeeps that had been intercepted and transferred to the Command premises by Riks led Operations and Lagos Roving team. The bullet proof vehicles , were promptly detained on the orders of Mohammed , the Area Comptroller, to force the importer to produce the End User certificate, EUC, issued from the office of the National Security Adviser, NSA, Babagana Munguno, a retired Major General to take delivery of it.
Riks and his officers may have warmed themselves into the heart of the Customs Comptroller with the bullet proof vehicle seizures. The Comptroller may have shown to the officers that he appreciates hard work and dedication to duty when he honoured Riks , Ahmed and Jack and their team members on the Command parade day on Tuesday, October 16, 2018.
The star award of a Silver Cup trophy, was said to have been given to the Operations and Lagos Roving team headed by Riks, over its spectacular seizures ranging from drugs, Containerised cargoes to the interception and detention of exotic vehicles which had generated millions of naira from Demand Notice, DN, raised on those that made under-payment at the sea port and outright seizure for those allegely smuggled into the country through unapproved routes.
The second best award was said to have gone to the Command Strike Force headed Ahmed while Jack and his team, got the third position award. Jack and his team members , may have been honoured over their past spectacular seizures of trucks load of foreign rice from the Saki axis of Oyo state and evacuation of scores of exotic vehicles from private residences and car marts in Lagos and Gunn states over alleged under payment and suspicision of being smuggled into the country without payment of appropriate duties.
It would be recalled that Ali,the Customs Comptroller General had been invited by Muhammed, the then Comptroller of the Command, to the Customs Training College, Ikeja, to see for himself the detained exotic vehicles instead of relying on reports to get the true gist of what is happening in the Command.
The Magazine learnt that the FOU, Zone A, Comptroller, may not have taken into consideration the seizure of 180,000, Jerry cans of 25 litres each or 90 tankers of premium motor spirit, popularly known as petrol, loaded into locally built boats ready to be smuggled to the Republic of Benin through Ijofin Creek, Ogun state, which could have placed the Rapid Response team ahead of the Operations and Lagos Roving team as well as the Command Strike Force,to win the Comptroller’s Star award.
The Customs boss may not have seen the seizure, regarded in Customs circles as unprecedented as a joint effort. This is because of the involvement of two other Commands and other security agencies personnel to the Ijofin Creek Operations to dispossess the smugglers of the thousands of Jerry cans of petrol.
Officers of the Ogun Command, Western Marine Command, WMC, soldiers, Navy, , police and Federal Road the safety Commission, FRSC, were said to have played significant role to the Ijofin Operations. The Officers of the WMC and the Navy, were said to said to sailed to the Ijofin area with their patrol crafts to forestall the smugglers from sailing out with any of the boats loaded with the Jerry cans of petrol into Republic of Benin.