Two years ago, the Nigeria Customs Service had acquired two boats to bolster its capacity to patrol the coastal areas and creeks which had been taken over by smugglers. The boats whimsically named "Customs Pride" and "Group of Nine" were purchased under the administration of Alhaji Dikko Abdullahi as comptroller general. Despite this, the Navy appease to be taking the shine as it is rather confronting and overcoming better smugglers which in the statutory role of the Customs.
Market surveys in Lagos reveal a huge presence of imported rice on sale in contrast to the local version the federal government claims is now largely available. Concerns are that this commodity is massively smuggled into Nigeria from the neighbouring Benin and Togo using big boats. It is discovered that while a trailer can accommodate 600 bags of rice, a wooden boat used by smugglers through the creeks can ferry about 3,000 bags of the commodity at a time.
In Lagos recently, the Controller, Federal Operations Unit, Comptroller Uba Garba disclosed that imported rice no longer comes in through the seaports following stringent importation processes involved. But how come the commodity remains highly visible in all the local rice markets in Nigeria?
PIX: Vice Admiral Ibok Ete Ekwe Ibas
Recently, Agro Nigeria, an agro-based information and consulting services outfit, urged the Nigerian government to drag the government of Benin Republic to the African Union and Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) for aiding smuggling of foreign rice into Nigeria.
According to the Chief Executive Officer, Richard Mark-Mbaram, it is the only way to encourage local rice production of the commodity. The agency called on the federal government to adopt stiffer penalties against rice smuggling through the land borders.
“The countries that have borders with us are stockpiling rice; so Nigeria needs to take definite, radical measures.
"There is no point playing big brother; it is about our life and that of the nation. It is about the businesses of our citizens.
‘‘If businesses are challenged and threatened, we have a problem as a nation,” he said.
Mbaram explained that a measure of confrontation is what is needed to put the conversation on the front burner.
Curiously, the two boats said to be equipped with state-of-the-art facilities and capable of out-speeding the boats at the disposal of smugglers have remained anchored at Marina water front where a huge amount of money is budgeted yearly to run the engines regularly.
While the Marine Command of the Customs has remained incapacitated by the failure to deploy the boats, smugglers have been having a field day in the coastal waterways and creeks.
But for the Nigerian Navy which has picked up the guantlet by actively filling the gap left by the Customs, it would have been an unrestrained heyday for smugglers.
The lackluster performance of the marine units of the Customs in recent times remains a huge concern especially considering the rising cases of smuggling within the coastal states of Nigeria and the need to curb it.
In the exercise of her basic statutory function of surveillance and protection of Nigeria’s territorial waters against any form of aggression, the Nigerian Navy has always acquitted itself. In recent times, the service has upped the ante. It has gone beyond her brief to make seizures of contrabands from smugglers which ordinarily is the obligation of the marine unit of the Customs.
The eastern and western marine commands of the Customs established about four decades ago have the primary responsibility of combating smuggling on the waterways. The extent to which they have succeeded in executing this function, has been less than salutory, especially in the last three years.
Definitely, Navy’s recent foray into anti smuggling on the waterways is a challenge to the Customs and her marine surveillance duties.
The eastern command with headquarters in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, oversees the coastal region spanning the entire eastern flank while the Western Marine unit based in Ibafon, Lagos, patrols the western coastal areas up to the northernmost stretch of the Niger River.
Under Comptroller Yusuf Umar, the former controller in charge of the Western Marine Command, the Customs, on a weekly basis, recorded an average seizure of 600 bags of 50kilograms of smuggled foreign brands of rice along with vegetable oil, second hand clothing, etc. This was achieved with minimal platforms at their disposal. With antiquated arms, ammunitions and other gears including patrol boats to comb the creeks, the ex-controller stood firm to rid the waterways within Lagos and neighboring countries of smuggled items.
Similarly, the eastern command under retired Controller U. K. Bello pulled some stunts in the area of seizures even though not as pronounced as that of the Lagos- based marine unit.
Apart from the staple commodities such as rice and other imported food items, the unit was known for continually confiscating Indian hemp in proportions unprecedented in the history of the command.
In the Western Marine command, however, it continues to be a huge surprise that regular seizures of cannabis suddenly stopped under the new controller, Mustapha Darling Kebbi, who was deployed to head the Unit since 2017.
Before Comptroller Umar was retired from service in 2017, he was able to fight smugglers and smuggling activities to a standstill even with constraints imposed by lack of modern fighting equipment.
It is on record that during his reign as the controller of the beachcombing command, two combat sea-going vessels were imported for the Customs. But despite the failure to utilise the platforms till date, the ex WMC boss was able to record the highest seizures in the history of the command. Before his exit from the service, there was a sudden rise in the seizure of cannabis by men and officers of the service but after retirement, the illicit drugs began to flow in despite Customs presence in the creeks.
In the first quarter of 2018, the Navy announced an unusual confiscation of imported of rice and other smuggled items within the western and eastern waters. Under the former controllers of the respective commands, it was an inter-agency affair, especially between Navy and Customs. But at the moment, the navy is taking the shine off the Customs to a large extent.
As revealed recently by Navy Commander Julius Nwagu during a recent seizure in Calabar, the navy arrested a large wooden boat with 3,574 bags of foreign parboiled rice worth over N53.6 million. The Navy chief also stated that the items were smuggled in from Cameroon. At the end of the briefing, the Navy top brass said, "We will hand over the seized items to the Customs for investigations and prosecution ".
Ordinarily, the operation would have been a joint effort by both agencies. But having neglected to perform its statutory functions through its marine unit, the Customs allowed the Navy to outshine it on its mandate.
Last month, the Navy intercepted 124 bags of cannabis with street value of N150 million on Badagry creeks in Lagos. Again, the Customs were missing in action.
The seizure confirmed another inter- agency collaboration between the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) and the Navy. Unfortunately, the Customs were not in the picture. The impounded substance and a suspect were handed over to the NDLEA on March 21 for further investigation and possible prosecution.
Handing over the seizure to the NDLEA at Naval Forward Operating Base in Badagry, Commodore Okon Eyo, said that other suspects fled on sighting naval personnel at the creeks. “The substance was intercepted by our men on the Badagry waters on March 16. The cannabis was packaged in big bags with an estimated street value of over N150 million.
“The seizure was sequel to a tip-off about some criminal elements indulging in transportation of cannabis and other illicit substances within the area through the waterways.
“One of the suspects was arrested while others absconded on sighting the Navy patrol team at the scene of the crime,” said Eyo who is Commander, Nigerian Navy Ship (NNS) BEECROFT. He said the Navy would continue to collaborate with other security agencies to rid the waterways of all forms of criminality.
The Customs has often attributed her inability to police the waterways as expected to lack of sea- going combat vessels. If this excuse is tenable, how come former controllers were able to deploy what was available to make spectacular seizures within their domains?
Incumbent controllers of the beachcombing arm of Customs have said the vessels, Group of Nine and Customs Pride are yet to be commissioned by the Comptroller General of Nigeria Customs Service Hameed Ali (rtd) and until then, effective operations may not be possible. This has fueled concerns among stakeholders about Customs’ ability to put into use the ships over time. .
Group of Nine is to be deployed to the eastern marine command while Customs Pride will patrol the western axis up to Kebbi state.
It is recalled that the service had promised to commission and subsequently deploy the patrol boats in 2016. Comptroller Umar Yusuf, during a media briefing, attributed the delay to the need to install guns on the boats before commissioning and deploying them. He had also claimed that one of the vessels was involved in an accident where it was anchored and had to be repaired, adding that some officers of the command had already been trained in the operations of the boats. This never took place. Since then, smugglers have been freely operating along the waterways.
PIX: Customs Area Controller in charge of the Western Marine Command, Sarkin Kebbi
Meanwhile, the incumbent Customs Area Controller in charge of the Western Marine Command, Sarkin Kebbi, who assumed office April last year equally told newsmen that the two patrol boats were yet to be commissioned and deployed for operations due to absence of adequate armoury and a trained crew. Kebbi promised that the boats which were still idling away on the Marina waterfront would soon be engaged appropriately. Since that has not happened, smugglers have continued to operate with ease along the creeks.
The big question now remains: for how long will the Customs keep the boats idle? For how long will Customs allow other security agencies to perform critical aspects of her job? More importantly, how long will the service continue to spend over N5 billion yearly just to be revving and warming the engines of the boats that have not been deployed to add value to its operations?