The whirlwind in Customs

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By Shulammite ‘Foyeku

The appointment of Col. Hameed Ali, a retired Army Colonel to head the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) has been one of the most controversial appointments made by President Muhammadu Buhari since the inception of his administration.

Officers of the NCS and indeed stakeholders in the maritime industry were taken aback on August 27 when President Buhari, through his Special Advisr on Media and Publicity, Femi Adeshina announced the appointment of Ali, a non-Customs officer as the Comptroller General of Customs.

Ali’s appointment was seen by many as a move by the President to sanitize Customs, which is perceived as one of the most corrupt agencies in the country especially at a time when the country’s oil revenue has declined.

While some have applauded the appointment of Ali, others expressed disappointment over the President’s choice saying that it may portend great danger for the revenue collection drive of the Service and its revered position in the World Customs Organization (WCO).

Senior Special Assistant, Media and Publicity to the President,  Mallam Garba Shehu had while fielding questions from journalists shortly after Ali’s appointment over the choice of the former Kaduna State Military Administrator to head the vital revenue agency, said the need to optimise the potentials of the Nigeria Customs Service as the nation’s cash cow informed part of the reasons for his appointment.

He said the president believes Customs could triple its revenue target with Ali at the helms of affair in the Service.

He said: “Do you, in all sincerity, know Col. Hameed Ali? If you do know him, how many of his types do we have in this country? This is the man who many probably felt should have gone to head the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC. But, looking at the critical place of the Customs in the economy of this country, you need somebody like him.

“After oil, the next revenue spinner for the government is the Customs. In these few days we have been listening to briefings, I have seen people flying ideas that Customs revenue can be tripled and that there are ideas that can lead to the revenue being tripled on the basis that corruption is eliminated.

“I think that Col. Ali has a rare breed of reputation that will be difficult to find. There might be a few people in the Customs, but maybe they are too low in rank to warrant this appointment.

“I think the President has done the best thing anybody can do for the Customs and for the economy of this country. Otherwise, smuggling will ruin Nigeria. Look at what is happening in the textile industry in Aba, Ikeja, Kaduna, Kano and Gashua, ” Garba had stated.

 

The man Hameed Ali

Hammed Ibrahim Ali was born on January 15, 1955. He retired from the Nigerian Army as a colonel in 1998.

He served as Military Administrator of Kaduna State under late military dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha from August 1996 to August 1998.

He is married to one wife and has four children.

As Kaduna State administrator, in October 1997, he sacked about 30,000 striking civil servants in Kaduna State, and detained 18 local government chairmen.

A journalist who reported the sackings was allegedly arrested, severely beaten, then taken to the Government House and further tortured. The story published in Tempo Magazine was entitled “Goodbye Justice”. The story was later discredited and proven to be false.

After retirement from the Army, Ali became Secretary of the Arewa Consultative Forum, a northerm lobbying group, and an ardent supporter of Major General Muhammadu Buhari in his bid to become the President of Nigeria.

In June 2006 Ali stated that the North would regain the presidency in 2007. He supported then Vice President Atiku Abubakar’s comments to the effect that President Olusegun Obasanjo would honour his pledge to vacate office in 2007.

 

Ali’s mandate at Customs House

Since his resumption – more than a week after his appointment – there has been an uneasy calm and uncertainty in the Service as the officers are now living in morbid fear with a wait and see attitude.

Ali had at his maiden meeting with Customs officers vowed to carry out total reforms and restructuring of the Service in line with the mandate of President Buhari.

He said he would not tolerate corruption and any form of indiscipline which had over the years portrayed Customs in a bad image while threatening to jail anyone found culpable.

He said he was appointed to restructure, reform and increase revenue generation of the NCS.

“The mandate he has given me are three basic things: go to Customs, reform Customs, restructure Customs and increase the revenue generation. Simple, I don’t think that is ambiguous, I don’t think that is cumbersome. It is precise and I believe that is what all of you are here to do,” Ali told officers during his maiden meeting with them.

Many read his lips and believed that there would be a mass purge in the NCS. Ali denied this when he visited Lagos penultimate week, but keen industry watchers were not convinced.

 

The purge

The nation was jolted on Thursday evening with the news that all five serving Deputies Comptroller-General of Customs had resigned from the Service.

The DCGs conveyed their resignation in a joint letter written to the Chairman of the Nigeria Customs Service Board through the Comptroller-General.

A copy of the letter, which was obtained by Ships & Ports, showed it was signed by all the DCGs making up the management team of the NCS.

It read, “We, the under listed officers currently on the rank of DCG, met today and unanimously decided to voluntarily retire from the service of the NCS having risen to the rank of DCG.”

They thanked President Muhammadu Buhari for the opportunity given to them to serve Nigeria.

The Deputy Comptrollers General include John Atte (Finance, Administration and Technical Service); Adewuyi Akinade (Tariff and Trade); Tahir Musa (Enforcement, Investigation and Inspection); Chukwuma Nwosu and Ibrahim Mera.

The spokesperson for the NCS, Wale Adeniyi, when contacted immediately after the news broke, said he was not aware of the resignation.

He said, “I left the office at about 4pm and I’m not aware of such development.”

But the following day, he issued a statement concerning not just the retirement of the five DCGs but of 29 other senior Customs officers, bringing the total to 34.

Adeniyi said the retirement was “part of on-going re-organization in Nigeria Customs Service”.

“The re-organization of the Service is one of the core mandates of the Comptroller-General of Customs, Col. Hameed Ali (Rtd),” Adeniyi said.

He said, “Three others, of the rank of Assistants Comptroller-General are also affected in the re-organization exercise. They are Madu Mohammed mni, Secretary to the Nigeria Customs Board, Victor Gbemudu, Zonal Coordinator Zone ‘A’ and Bello Liman, Assistant Comptroller-General, (Headquarters). The rest are of the rank of Comptrollers serving in Customs Headquarters, Zonal Offices and various Area Commands.”

Adeniyi quoted the Customs Comptroller-General as saying that “the retirements were part of measures to kick-start the repositioning of the Service for improved performance”.

The purge, according to keen industry watchers, has just begun. Many more heads will roll in future.

 

Stakeholders react

Some stakeholders have described the voluntary retirement of the DCG’s as fallout of President Buhari’s decision to appoint a non-customs officer to head the Service.

According to them, the resignation of the DCG’s is a right step in the right direction and better for them rather than wait and be sacked by Ali who had earlier promised to make the ‘kitchen hot’ for them.

Chairman, Igbo Maritime Forum, Aniekechukwku Uchechukwu said, “If the reorganization we are talking about is the downsizing of the officers, I don’t think that would do the Service any good. What would happen to those that have been thrown into the labour market? I think there is more to reorganization than dismissing the officers.”

A member of the Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents, (ANLCA) Dom Onyeka said the voluntary retirement of the DCG’s could be an indication of their disapproval of having a non-customs officer head the NCS.

He said, “The retirement could be that they felt they are incompetent to have somebody who is not a career person to head the profession they have painstakingly worked for. So they decided to throw in the towel.”

He advised that the affected officers who were asked to go on compulsory retirement take the sack in good faith as such is bound to happen in life.