“Of all the businesses into which I would venture, the most successful and the most lucrative would be a small oil services company I established with an Italian business man in the early 1980s. I met Gabriel Volpi when he was working at Apapa Ports in 1982. The Genoa, Italy-born Volpi was a director in MED Africa, a shipping company,” former Vice President Atiku Abubakar has disclosed.
The former Vice President, made the disclosure recently as part of activities marking his campaign for the office of the President of Nigeria.
Abubakar, who served as the Area Controller, Apapa Command of the Nigeria Customs Service in the 1970s, said: “Volpi suggested we go into oil and gas logistics. He knew Nigeria’s future was in oil and gas. We registered the Nigeria Container Services (NICOTES), operating from a container office at Apapa Ports. I was not involved in the running of the company.
“NICOTES relocated later to the Federal Lighter Terminal in Port Harcourt when the business began to grow. The company, now known as INTELS (Integrated and Logistics Services), has grown into a multi-billion naira business providing over 15,000 jobs in Nigeria and other African countries, and paying hefty dividends to its shareholders.”
The All Progressives Congress (APC) presidential aspirant also narrated how he joined and exited the Nigeria Customs Service.
“Before completing my Diploma in Law programme in June 1969, a team from the Federal Civil Service Commission came on a recruitment drive to the university. By chance one of the interviewers found in my file a report that I had once been found suitable to join the police force and had in fact received some training in 1966. This information was brought to the attention of the chairman of the interview panel who promptly ruled. “O.k., you go to the Department of Customs and Excise”.
“That was how I joined the Department of Customs and Excise in June 1969. The invisible hand that has always shaped my life had once again steered me towards my destiny.
“After my training at the Police College in Ikeja, Lagos and at the Customs Training School in Ebute Metta in Lagos, I was posted to Idi-Iroko border station. My colleagues and I were tasked with collecting duties on imported and exported goods, stopping the entry and exit of banned items, and arresting and prosecuting smugglers.
“I was posted in 1972 to Ikeja Airport in Lagos and later to Apapa ports in Lagos,” he stated.
He said he saw the Nigeria Customs Service as a way of money-making apparatus of government which made him determined to live above board.
“Instead of seizing goods and extorting money from their owners, I made money for government. A lot of people tried unsuccessfully to induce me.
“I was posted to Ibadan mid 1975 and promoted Superintendent of Customs. This was during the memorable days of General Murtala Muhammed, the nation’s new military leader who had electrified the nation with his campaign for discipline, probity, hard work, patriotism and dedication to duty.
“I admired General Muhammed and tried to promote the same values and attitudinal change in our office. I was nick-named “Murtala Muhammed Junior” by my Customs subordinates in Ibadan because they said I was behaving like him.
“Although I was second-in-command in Ibadan, I used to order late-comers to be locked out of their offices.
“I was sad to hear about General Muhammed’s assassination on February 13, 1976 during a failed military coup. Some of those who were later implicated in the coup and killed were well known to me. But I did not know they were involved in a coup plot. Shortly after that failed coup, I was transferred to Kano in 1976,” Abubakar said.
He also narrated the circumstances leading to his exit from the Customs Service.
“A few months before my mother’s death, soldiers had overthrown the civilian administration of Shehu Shagari on December 31, 1983. Major-General Muhammadu Buhari became the new Head of State. As part of its monetary policies, the Buhari government had introduced new Naira notes in April 1984.
“The policy was aimed at halting the illegal speculative trading of the Naira outside the shores of Nigeria. A time limit was imposed within which old notes could be turned in for new ones. Government agencies at the nation’s borders, sea and air ports were instructed to screen all bags and containers entering the country to ensure old Naira notes were not being smuggled into the country.
“A first class traditional ruler and a returning Nigeria diplomat had arrived from Saudi Arabia with several bags. My officers at the airport in Lagos were not allowed to search the bags.
“The duty officers reported the incident in writing. I did not know how a newspaper got wind of it. The Guardian, a Lagos-based newspaper, reported on its front page on June 10, 1984 that “Passenger with 53 suitcases leaves airport unchecked”.
“The incident became a scandal and government was forced to set up an administrative panel of inquiry to determine why due process was not followed. The government was clearly embarrassed by the incident and rather than punish those who flouted its directive that all baggage be searched, it began to look for scapegoats.
“They mounted pressure on me to deny that the incident ever happened. I was threatened and intimidated. I vowed to surrender my uniform and quit the Customs rather than lie,” he narrated.
He said the Federal Government would later declare that the controversial 53 suitcases contained the personal effects of the traditional ruler, the returning ambassador and members of their families.
He said: “The government added that those who intimidated and threatened the Customs officers on duty on that day at the airport had been reprimanded.
“Some government officials wanted me sacked for not covering up their mess. But Finance Minister Onaolapo Soleye, who supervised the Department of Customs and Excise, said I should be left alone.
“Soleye did not know me. He acted on the basis of the facts before him. He said it would be unfair to punish me for doing my job and for standing by my officers. He was also swayed by my impeccable service record. No queries. No sanctions. My file was filled with commendations for meeting and exceeding revenue targets at the different posts I had headed.”
Abubakar said he stayed on until 1989 when he voluntarily retired from the Service.
“When I joined the Customs 20 years earlier, I had drawn a graph anticipating my career progression from Cadet to Director of Customs by age 40. I told myself that if by the time I was 40 years old I did not head the organization, I would quit.
“I retired at 43 as a Deputy Director on April 30, 1989. I paid the mandatory three months salary in lieu of notice to government.
Copyright Ships & Ports Ltd. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit given to www.shipsandports.com.ng as the source.