By Stephen Ubanna
For much of last year and now officers and men of the Nigeria Customs Service, NCS, had looked up to Hameed Ali, a retired Colonel and the Comptroller General, to improve on their remuneration package and solve the Accommodation problem facing the Service.
They were worried that staff of the Nigeria national Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, and the Federal Inland Revenue Service, FIRS, both revenue generating agencies, had better condition of Service as their own was nothing to write home about.
Investigation by the Magazine shows that he may not have considered improving the Customs personnel welfare package a top priority because of the Presidential mandate given to him to reform, restructure and improve the Service revenue generation which did cover it.
The fallout was that it rubbed off on the Service revenue generatio between 2015 and 2016 forcing Kemi Adesun, the minister of Finance to cry out for improvement because of the down turn in the International Oil market. The ministerial plea to the Customs personnel to rekindle their effort to improve the Service revenue generation and a promise that something would be done about their welfare may have shut up the Service revenue generation to over a trillion naira in 2017.
Appreciative of the Customs effort to pay over a trillion naira into the Federation Account, Adeosun, the minister , was said to have taken up the matter with Buhari on the need to improve the remuneration package of Customs personnel in order to rekindle their effort to improve on the revenue generation of the Service because of the instability in the price of Oil in the International Oil market . Buhari was said to have directed Adeosum to work out the details to know the financial implication.
Going by the verbal Presidential approval, the minister was said to have asked Oladumi Biosola, a Director of Finance in the Ministry of Finance to broke the cheery news of the government plans to improve their welfare pacckage at a Custom function in Abuja last January. The enthusiasm with which the officers received the news speaks volume, meaning that they had long expected it to happen.
The Customs Officers had expected Ali, the Comptroller General to follow it up because of his close relationship with Buhari to quickly get approval for it but he was said to have relaxed leaving it out to Adeossun, the Finance minister, despite her pressing official duties both within and outside the country.
The delay in getting a quick response from the minister may have forced him to set up a Committee headed by a Comptroller to review the salary structure of the Service. The Committee was said to have been set up about three months ago .
Insiders told the Magazine that the Committee which had collected the salary structure of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC and the Federal Inland Revenue Services, FIRS, the two other revenue generating agencies of the government, to guide them in designing a new salary structure for the Service are yet to come out with an agreeable salary structure for the Service as at July, 2018.
The Committee is expected to forward its report to Ali, the Comptroller General, who in turn would present it to the management before forwarding it to the minister with a covering letter for her input and presentation to the Revenue Mobilisation , Allocation and Finance Committee, RMAFC , to work on it .The RMAFC is expected to report back to the minister about the financial implication who will in turn take it to the President forapproval and implementation.
Perhaps, one major area the Customs Comptroller may have failed the Service was the provision of Accommodation . The situation is so bad in Apapa, Tincan can Island , PortMulti-services Terminal Limited, PTML, Federal Operation Unit, FOU, Zone A, Ikeja, and Ikorodu Lighhter Terminal, ILT where Customs officers still sleep in offices and Containers. The aggressiveness of the Customs Provost Officers, CPO, at the Commands, particular, FOU, Zone A, were visitors are forced to drop their mobile phones at the gate speaks volume.
The Accommodation problem in the FOU, Zone A, was said to be very worrisome that the Commandant of the Customs Training College, Ikeja, was forced to step in by allowing the officers to make use of the vacant places in the school, including empty Containers in the premises. Insiders told the Magazine that the offices and classrooms are crowded with officer. The source informed the Magazine that about 10 officers could be found n a class or office with their mobile bags.
at Abuja, the accommodation problem of the officers may have reached him that he was said to have recently bought a 200 units Housing Estate which is considered a tip of the iceberg as there over 1000 officers at the Customs Headquarters and the Abuja Customs Command awaiting to be accommodated.
It would be recalled that Abdullahi Dikko, a former Comptroller General of the Service had set a record of establishing new Customs Barracks at Abuja and renovating existing Barracks in Lagos, Ogun, Oyo, PortHarcourt, Kano and Sokoto states among others including buying a multi-million naira new Customs Corporate Headquarters at Abuja which is still under renovation and building new Customs Command offices and warehouses in Seme and Idiroko land border stations.
A retired senior Customs officer who spoke to the Magazine disclosed that Dikko could achieve this much because he has the support of the then President Goodluck Jonathan. He was said to have judiciously used the seven percent cost of revenue collection approved for the service by the then President Olusegun Obasanjo to provide the Housing and other infrastructural facilities for the Service including an enhanced salary structure for the Service which was approved by the former President Jonathan.
. The question on the lips of most people was: why was Ali not spending the seven percent cost of revenue collection allocation from the RMAFC as expected. He has been in the saddle as the Customs Comptroller General for about three years the monthly allocation to the Service. In 201 collecting the seven percent cost of revenue collection for the government. Between 2017 and the first two months of 2018 alone,the NCS was said to have received N53.479 billion from the Commission, which may have facilitated the buying of the 200 Housing units in Abuja.
There are fears in both official and unofficial circles that he may have been returning the unspent financial allocation to the Federation Account to win the heart of Buhari as a transparent political appointee . The source posits that Ali may have to act fast to improve the revenue remuneration package and solve the Accommodation problem of officers to save the situation from degenerating.
But maritime analysts believe that the major reason why Ali may be dilly-dallying in improving Customs personnel welfare has to do with a cabal at the Customs Headquarters who were said to have held him hostage over the last two years . The Magazine learnt that the cabal which spread across the management team down the line, were said to have occupied him with other issues that takes his mind away from officers welfare need. Moreso, he was said to have allegedly blocked the Comptrollers from having direct access to him to preempt unsolicited advice from any of them.
His rigidity and inaccessibility to the Comptrollers , who are the field officers may have forced many of them with good ideas on how to move the Service forward to remain calm at their various meetings with him at Abuja. They may have withdrawn to their shelves to avoid been tagged by the cabal as the ”know it all Comptroller”, thus leaving him to be in the strong grip of the cabal.
It was not surprising why Adeosun, the minister of Finance said ”being an outsider in an insider’s place is a difficult job”. There are decisions which were said to have been taken by him but considered by many as counter-productive. Take for instance the setting up of the Compliance team which was disbanded after one year of operation at the seaports, airports and land border station across the country.
Also, last May , he had set up the Headquarters Strike Force, HSF, as a replacement for the Compliance team, doing precisely the job of the Federal Operations Unit, OUs across the Country: anti-smuggling operation. Just like the FOUs which had Zonal offices located in Lagos, Kaduna, Owerri and Bauchi, the HSF, also have the same structure, thus making nonsense of Customs traditional structure he met on ground.
.The HSF, has a mandate to strike based on intelligence information supplied to it by the Customs ruling center at the headquarters or Apapa, for the Lagos team and return back to their operational base .They Strike Force personnel may have been carried away by the job and the interest to service at the Customs Headquarters that their operational vehicles are found all over the Federation competing with FOU personnel. This is evident at the busy Oshodi-Apapa Express way in Lagos, fueling speculation that Ali knows what he is doing to whittle down the powers of the Customs FOU, described in both official and unofficial circles as the Customs Police Unit.
More worrisome was the militarisation of the police to serve the interest of the cabal outside the Service. Given his military background, he had created a Customs police Unit , described as an ”internal mechanism to check and ensure discipline in the Service. he was said to have spent millions of naira to train the Customs police officers at the Nigeria military police school in Zaria, Kaduna state.
Many believe that the establishment of the Customs police was a waste of funds as the FOUs across the country are well equipped to do the customs police job going by the arrests that had been made over the years of importers with their agents involved in dubious trade transactions. is regarded as the police of Customs is recognised in the Customs and Excise Management Act, Cap204. The copy cat Comptroller general of Customs may not have fully read out the duties of the Customs Police Unit as in the case of the military police, the Unit has a clear-cut function to maintain discipline in the Barracks and indeed, the military in general. As a prelude to setting up the Customs police, a gun had been mounted at the entrance to the Corporate headquarters manned by trigger hungry Customs police men who hare armed to the teeth. Analysts inssts that there was no basis for the militarisation of Customs operation because it is a para-military Organisation, with established structures . They described the Customs policemen as Ali’s body guards and not established to serve the interest of the Service.