Customs Controller, Federal Operations Unit Zone ‘A’ Ikeja, Compt. Mohammed A. Aliyu, displayed seizures worth N2billion made by his Zone in the first quarter of this year.
There are complaints that local rice is not readily available in the market, and the few you find are more expensive. How does the Customs Service which, as part of its anti-smuggling measures, has been at the fore front of government campaign for local rice, reconcile this conflict?
Yes, this government has done so much to promote the production and sale of local rice, some of the challenges we are having is our preference for the foreign brands. If you go to Kano you will find over two thousand trailers waiting to load rice produced locally, you cannot say local rice is not available, they are everywhere. And our local rice, Kebbi rice, Abakaliki rice, Nassarawa, rice are more nutritious and healthier, but our foreign taste is not helping issues. We must learn to grow our export and support local employment and productivity. It is sad that some of our international trading partners are not encouraging, you are aware that we exported yams and beans to Europe and America, what happened to them? They rejected them, they told us all sorts of stories…so there is a gang up to make our cash crops inferior but it is our duty to fight this conspiracy by accepting our own rice.
Are you saying the attraction for foreign rice is wrong despite that the local brands are not seen in the market?
It is not true that local rice is not in the market, they are. Because of our foreign thirst, our local producers do not give them local label; they package them like foreign brands to make them attractive. Let me tell you also that we suffer huge capital flight and incur huge foreign exchange yearly from rice importation. As of today our capacity in local rice production is huge and it is enough to feed not only Nigeria but to also have surplus to export. Let us tell ourselves the truth that foreign taste will continue to hinder the growth of our economy. Thailand and some of the other economies in the Asian Tigers are rice based, so when we chose their rice over our own, we are contributing to growing their economy and neglecting our own. We have a collective duty to patronize our own rice.
What would you say is spectacular about the seizures you are displaying now?
Let me start with rice again, this is the first time we are arresting a cement silos truck used for smuggling rice. The health implication is much; the rice will get contaminated with chemical preservatives used for cement. These smugglers engage in repackaging of rice which will end up in the market. The buyer could be me or you. Number two, just imagine if this quantity of drugs have escaped arrest and ended up in the market and pharmaceutical shops, imagine those abusing these drugs for purposes of vices and crimes, you could be their victim, I or anyone I know could be their victim. Many Nigerians are known to be getting addicted to these drugs, and those doing so are mortgaging their future, for us in customs, we feel good that we have succeeded in preventing these items from getting into the market. Let me also tell you that some of this smuggled rice expired even before they are shipped.
Some of the vehicles used as means of conveyance belong to popular organizations like Dangote, earlier there were Nigerian Brewery trucks involved, what will happen to them, is government going to confiscate them?
Means of conveyance are in two categories. In the first category, any truck that carries container in which the container is discovered to be carrying contraband, the law says customs should release the driver and the truck but arrest the content and container. In the second category, any vehicle that carries contraband concealed with the knowledge of the truck driver or owner, the law says customs should seize both the truck and items. A clear case is this silos truck used to conceal rice.
Does the law apply to vehicles belonging to government and corporate organizations?
The law does not recognize persons, so any truck used for unlawful purposes is subject to arrest, and that is what we have done and our own duty ends there. The federal government has the prerogative of doing as it pleases. But under CEMA law, it is clearly stated that means of conveyance of smuggled goods are subject to outright seizure and forfeiture.
Over the years, arrested suspects turn out to be mere errand boys, when will the customs service prosecute the real smugglers?
The position of the law is clear on who is a smuggler, but the definition is wide. Anyone found in possession of an offensive or smuggled item is a suspected smuggler. Therefore it is only those we find in company of offensive goods we arrest as suspects, and that is why if they can prove their case to the contrary, they enjoy the benefit of justice by defending themselves, that is why also many of them get administrative bail. All of us know that the barons, the real smuggler with huge financial resources don’t move with the goods, they employ crossers, carriers and informants who do the dirty business, while he is in the hotel monitoring. They don’t use their children or relatives; they use poor village people as crossers and informants. As soon as their goods get apprehended, they know, and they flee instantly, so customs are not magician to be able to identify smugglers when nothing is seen on him, but through investigation and active intelligence, customs can go after smugglers of items considered as dangerous and a threat to national security, such as arms and ammunition.
The quantity of some of the drugs here like Tramadol and Codeine is negligible, why would customs seize these?
The federal government has banned the importation of this category of drugs and customs have been given the mandate to confiscate them, so whether it is big or small is immaterial. Let me tell you, these drugs is already doing much havoc, don’t be deceived, smugglers are very ingenious people, they can decide to smuggle them in bit by bit, we won’t allow that. The codeine here is 600 cartons, we agree that the quantity is small, but do you know the havoc it will cause if it gets to individual hands? Now this particular consignment has no NAFDAC number, any drug without NAFDAC number should send the alarm bells ringing, you should know something is fishing. If I were to compromise, I will collect N200million on this container alone, I mean it. So this should tell you that this government is doing everything to protect lives of the citizens.
Which seaport did you arrest this container of drugs?
FOU do not operate at the ports, we are in our offices and have roving teams stationed and patrolling along the highways and flash points. For instance we intercepted the silos truck along Sagamu road. Some of the smuggled items come through the bush and through unapproved routes, but despite all the corner-corner tricks, the goods will end up in a warehouse and CEMA gives us the power to enter anywhere customs suspects’ smuggled goods are kept, even without search warrant. I read one of your reports about people complaining that customs are too much on the road that customs is this and that. Our duty as Customs officers is not only to collect revenue and facilitate trade; we are working to save lives too. Those who are complaining about our presence on the roads are not fair in their argument. We seize all sorts of unlawful things in passenger vehicles. We work with intelligence and analyze situations, if we feel that raiding an identified warehouse would cause fracas or lead to resistance and possible casualty, we back off but we maintain surveillance. Anytime those items move out, we follow and intercept them at a location where there would be no resistance or protest and attacks. Let me tell you, if customs leave the road, everybody will suffer the consequences, the present war against contraband drugs should be a collective one and rather than see customs as disturbing you on the highway, every Nigerian should be grateful we are there, we checkmate influx of dangerous items including these drugs.
What would happen to these drugs?
There are procedures, first the court has to condemn and then it is gazetted. After that the federal government will do anything they want with it, for now we are waiting for directive from the headquarters, if they say we should give it to NAFDAC, we do so, if they say we should destroy them, we will dig holes, douse them with chemicals to clean out harmful agents in them and bury them.
Is the customs aware that risks are involved in the cause of transferring some of these products to NAFADC for destruction?
Management is aware that there are some elements of risk involved, not just risks but even logistics and cost. Yes there are risks because owners of this items and their agents could be hanging around and the moment you transfer, they have their agents and thugs follow and can hijack the items. But we follow directive, if directive is given for it to be destroyed here, we will call NAFDAC and do it together. For the time being and for as long as they remain in our custody, they are safe. Here or at NAFDAC, the end result is same, to destroy them.
Eguono Odjegba write from Lagos state.