By Stephen Ubanna
Barely three weeks that Sani Madugu, former Comptroller, Ogun Command and Comptroller Enforcement at the Customs Headqarters, handed over to Agbara Ojobo Michael, a Deputy Comptroller, smugglers appear to be on the loose in Ogun state.
Agbara may have provided opportunity for the smugglers to give him the first baptism of fire in the state when he said on taking over from Madugu, his predecessor that” that he will not make any promise until he must have inspected the Command, understand the terrain and identifies the threat.
He may have shot himself on the leg when he said,” the Customs policy is that ” no officer should stay too long in a particular place because if you stay long, you will begin to have friends and will not be as aggressive as you use to be” which may have given the officers the impression that he has a hidden agenda to introduce his own officers into the scene.
Unknown to him, his predecessor had carried out a major re-organisation of the Command which saw the removal of two officers to give a bite to the Command anti-smuggling operations. Seriki Abdullahi, who got a special promotion from Hameed Ali, a retired and the Customs Comptroller General as a Chief Superintendent of Customs over an arms seizure at Federal Operations Unit, FOU, Zone A,and incidentally the officer in-charge of the Command Crack team was removed by by Sani, the former Comptroller of the Command.
Until , Abdullahi’s removal, he made a seizure of 2018 model of a Range Rover with a Duty Paid Value, DPV, of N51 million. the former Comptroller, was said to have also removed one Olumu, the Deputy Comptroller , Enforcement and replaced him with Deputy Comptroller Ochiba which may leave him with little or no changes to be made but to allow the status quo to remain and work with the team met on ground and giving them his own rules to follow to give a bite to the Command anti-smuggling operations.
Hemay have assured Agbara, his successor, that the Command has a team of dedicated and committed officers that could support him to succeed in containing the activities of smugglers in the state. That was how far he could go.
On Saturday, May 13 , the suspected smugglers took the battle to Ilara, a border Community in Imeko-Afon local government area, between Nigeria and Republic of Benin . the border Community , according to source is very close to Abeokuta, the Administrative Headquarters of Ogun Command.
The smugglers may have decided to move a convoy of vehicles loaded with smuggled 50kg bags of foreign par boiled rice from Republic of Benin through Illara to Abeokuta to show to Agbara, the Ogun Command Comptroller , the likely threats he will face in the state and for him to put his axe right.
Armed to the teeth, the smugglers according to Lawal Oladimeji, a resident of Ilara , were ready to kill because they knew the consequence if caught in the act by Customs personnel on patrol. They knew will lose both the smuggled bags of rice and the vehicles to Customs killed in the process of resisting arrest
.Perhaps, having gotten to a point of no return with their smuggled bags of rice in a Convoy of vehicles at Illara, the border Community on their way to deliver the items to their sponsors in Abeokuta, they ran into a Customs patrol team, accompanied by ,soldiers, who were members of Operation MESA who applied all the tricks to dispossess the smugglers of the vehicles loaded with the smuggled bags of rice without a gun- shot but the hoodlums were said to have resisted it, leading to exchange of bullets.
Eye witness account confirmed that no fewer than four people were feared killed in the gun duel and six others injured. It could not be ascertained whether both parties in the gun duel experienced the casualty as Abdullahi Maiwada, an Assistant Superintendent of Customs failed to volunteer information.
To show that he was not top of the incident , he was reported to have said, ” I learnt there was an interdiction between our men and smugglers at Illara, a border Community when the smugglers wanted to move bags of rice in their vehicles out of the town to their receivers ”.
It would be recalled that on Saturday April 14, 2018, Abdulraheed Abdulsalam, an officer attached to the Federal Operations Unit, FOU, Zone A, Lagos Roving team headed by Jack Okpabi, a Chief Superintendent of Customs, now in-charge of the Command Rapid Response team, was abducted these fireworks men at Sango Otta , Ogun state. The hoodlums may have escaped with the Customs officer without confrontation because the team had no soldiers or police back up. The team may have gone out on operation based on available of information received of smuggled bags of rice hidden in an area, dreaded by soldiers and police men including Customs patrol to raid because of what may come of it. This is because lives would be lost as the suspected smugglers in the area are described as killers because of their fierce looks after taking tramadol drugs and India hemp.
But Jack , regarded as a fearless officer in Customs circles braved the odds to take his team to the area but was unlucky to lose one of his men to the ruthless smugglers, who sees smuggling as a matter of life and death. The FOU, Zone incident may have thought other Comptrollers of the FOUs across the country and land border sations never to send out patrol teams on anti-smuggling operations either based on classified information or on routine patrols without the involvement of soldiers from the Operation MESA, and the police to effectively confront the smugglers and come out without results. It is not surprising why the Ogun Command patrol team at Ilara border Community could dispossess smugglers of their convoy of vehicles loaded with foreign rice.Rice traders and importers confirmed the trend has worsened because of the high tariff and 70 levy on imported rice into the country by the government.
A Customs source confirmed that rice imports from the Asian countries of Thailand and India had significantly dropped. Take Tailand that use to flood Nigeria ports with rice exports, between 2014 and now , the Magazine found the trend had changed because of the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, policy which which was made public on June 23, 2015, that that it would no longer provide foreign exchange, for 41 items, including rice imports into the country.
From the peak 1. 23 million metric tons in 2014, it dropped to 23.192 metric tons as at November 2017. For the past 18 months, the CBN , was said to have stopped issuing Letters of Credit, LC, to rice importers and those who have had opportunity of buying ffrom their oversea Customs by sourcing for forex from unofficial sources to buy from their oversea suppliers find it difficult to pay the 70 percent duties and 70 levy They had no option but to divert their rice cargo carrying vessels to Republic of Benin and other ports in the West African sub-region which find to Nigeria through unapproved routes in Ogun, Oyo, Lagos, Kwara, Sokoto, Kano, Jigawa and Borno states, Cross river states among others.
Curiously enough, rice imports through Republic of Benin in particular in the last 18 months had been on the increase due to the lower tariff. from 805.765 metric tons recorded in 2015 by at the country’s seaport at Cotonou, it move up astronomically to 1.65 million metric tons as at November 2017 and had continued to increase on a monthly basis since beginning of 2018. The gains of Cotonou port is also the gains of other countries seaports in the West African subregion, leading to the suspicion that the staple food item might have been smuggled into the Nigeria market through the land border.
Mohammed Abubakar, President, Rice Millers Association of Nigeria, RIMAN, hinted that smuggling remains the major problem in the rice value chain. Abubakar pointed out that rice smuggling is thriving because the price of the locally milled rice cannot be the same as that of smuggled rice because of evasion of duty by the importer. He is right. Already there are indications that some four rice milling Companies which had been so hard hit by the high tariff and the 70 percent levy on rice are almost being compelled to close shop because of drop in patronage by rice farmers.
The milling firms hard hit by government fiscal policy measures include Veetee Nigeria ltd, Stallion Group, Dana Group and Olam Nigeria ltd. There are fears in both official and unofficial circles that if the government fails to review its fiscal policy measure on rice to attract low duty and levy as obtained in Republic of Benin to encourage legitimate rice importers and dealers, it may work against its lofty objective of to improve the sector of proposing the establishment of about 20 rice processing mill plants across the country.
Ibilola Sholaja, Vice President, Rice that insufficient of Nigeria rice Distributors Association of Nigeria, RIDAN, had said one of the factors responsible for rice smuggling. Muda Yusuf, Director General, Lagos Chambber of Commerce and Industry, LCCI, corroborated Sholaja’s views.
In spite of Federal Operations Units, FOUs, across the country, particular ,FOU, Zone A, to stamp out rice smuggling in the south west, Yusuf disclosed the market share of smuggled rice in the region and other parts of the country was still bigger than the share of locally produced rice.
Abubakar Atiku Bagudu, governor of Kebbi state and Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on Rice, PTFR, had made it clear to those that care to listen that the mandate given to the Task Force is to ensure that Nigeria is self sufficient in rice production instead of depending rice imports.
As a prelude to achieve the stated objective , The Kebbi state governor may have raised the hope of rice millers when he disclosed of government’s plan to reduce the interest paid by them on loans. The millers had asked for reduction on interest on loans to sustain the tempo of rice milling in the country. he admitted that what Nigerians want now was not about making subsidy available on rice production but making it affordable and accessible such that Nigeria rice could be as competitive as the imported foreign parboiled rice into the country.
Giving an insight into a close- door meeting with the RIDAN officials recently, the PTFR Chairman explained the rice distributors are interested in selling Nigeria produced rice because it is nutritious and help to provide employment to the teeming unemployed Nigeria youths.
As officials of the Nigeria Customs Service, NC, battles to contain the activities rice smugglers across the country , RIDAN, members may have promised of their readiness to assist the government revenue and anti-smuggling agency in stamping out smuggled rice in the Nigeria markets .
This is a good news to Kemi Adeosun and Audu Ogbeh, ministers of Finance, Agriculture and Rural Development respectively, only if they can fulfill their promise. There had been such promises in the past by the Rice Millers and Distribution Association of Nigeria, RIMDAN, to Abdullahi Dikko, the former Comptroller General of the NCS. the Association bought branded Hilux pick up vans, with the inscription RIMDAN, which was donated to Customs to help in the fight against smugglers.
The Association did not stop there as it was giving out classified information on rice smugglers to smugglers and how to track them . they may have relaxed in supporting the Customs with information to track rice smugglers as most of them are said to be members of the rice smuggling ring.
It is not surprising why all the efforts made by Muhammed Uba Garba, Comptroller, Federal Operations Unit, FOU, Zone A, in the south west and other and his counter parts in Kaduna, Owerri, and Bauchi and otherComptrollers in the land border stations involved across the country appear not to have made any appreciable impact.
take for instance, Lagos, Ogun and Oyo states, where the Command patrol and Surveillance teams had made spectacular seizures of trucks load of rice which should dampen the enthusiasm of the smugglers to continue in the nefarious business because of the loss but they are still swarming into the illegal business like bees, meaning that they are either corporate or VIP smugglers who have the financial resources to go into full scale rice smuggling.