Comptroller Abubakar Umar is the Controller, Western Marine Command of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS). In this exclusive interview with Maritime Today Online’ Shulammite Foyeku, he speaks on how the anti- smuggling campaign of the command has continued to yield results leading to a significant reduction in the level of smuggling through the waterways.
He also speaks on how constant engagement with host communities has led to zero attack on officers in the course of their duty among other issues.
Can you give an overview of the activities of your command and achievements so far since assuming duties in the past five months?
I cannot rate myself. The only overview of our activities I can say is that our officers are charged with responsibility of law enforcement, this is an enforcement area and we have our officials posted and directed to do the best they can under the circumstances. We have recorded a number of seizures and as a matter of fact we made seizures almost on a daily basis. It could be rice, second hand clothes or premium motor spirit. Even today, I’m expecting some seizures because a team left at 4:am in the morning, so I am expecting results. The thing is seizures don’t just happen; it is a chain of events. You have to first deploy intelligence observed. You know the water is unlike the land, we don’t have warehouses that we can go and break in. The few places we broke in we didn’t see anything. Information would come but some could be right while some could be wrong. We could see some shanties by the waterways, break in and there would be nothing there. But by and large we have made significant seizures.
What challenges do your officers contend with while carrying out these seizures?
The issue of challenge comes with people losing their properties to the government. It is not easy for people to let go of their properties just like that without a fight. So that in itself is a challenge for officers. It is not easy. Sometimes, they have to fire in the air to disperse the crowd. The PMS we seized two weeks ago, we had to use another strategy to be able to evacuate it. As soon as officers are at a location to make a seizure and they are noticed, informants will tell the smugglers that the customs are here and before you know it a crowd will come. That’s why you see that several times when we make seizures, the smugglers always attempt to sink the boat so that everything will sink down instead of them losing it to the government.
How about in the area of operational equipment like patrol boats?
To the best of my knowledge, all the assets under my control are deployed and we are still expecting more. We have patrol boats, arms and ammunition and we have been making seizures with patrol boats at our disposal. We don’t have any challenges in that area.
What’s the relationship between the command and its host communities?
I have visited almost all the traditional rulers along the creeks and waterways within our area of jurisdiction. We have appealed to them and made them understand the strategic nature of the Service vis a vis the economy of the nation that it is not in Customs interest alone but in the national interest that smuggling is completely stopped. We have appealed to them to bear with the Service that we are not doing anything extraordinary but it is for the benefit of Nigerians. We try as much as possible to tell the youth that smuggling is not a good business but they should engage in other legitimate means of livelihood. So, we have excellent community relations with our host communities and so far, we have never had any attack on my men. I have constantly engaged the communities to partner the Service in protecting the nation’s economy. It is not about Customs but the nation. It is the pride of the nation if smuggling stops. We will continue to do our best and I can tell you that smuggling has drastically reduced because the number of seizures we are getting now has dropped. The waters are as quiet as you can imagine. I was on the waters yesterday for eight hours. There is no week I will not be on the waters at least two to three times in a week. I moved from here up to Idiroko, Ijora, and Bar Beach because that’s my job. That in itself is a deterrent to smugglers when they see us on the waters and mostly, I appeal to the communities. Deterrence is even more than the action. If you can deter people from committing crimes, it helps you a lot more than you even making arrest and court prosecuting. But by mere persuasion, it deters someone.
There are concerns about how confiscated rice and other foodstuff are left to rot away at Customs warehouses and commands while so many Nigerians are dying of object poverty. What is your command doing in ensuring quick disposal of seized goods?
By law any seizure you make, there is a time frame in which you condemn it in the competent court of law before you take an action on it. So, first we can’t just seize and share with IDPs, that period must be maintained. So, when they condemn them, they will inform the headquarters, it is then the management will take a decision on it and direct. And since my assumption here, almost every two weeks, the military comes and moves the seized items to IDPs in Yobe, Borno and other disaster areas. But they must be condemned in the law court. You can’t just seize and give it to somebody; it must be condemned first.
In all the seizures you’ve made, how many suspects have so far been persecuted?
By nature of the waterway operations, it is very difficult to arrest. Once you see the smugglers boat mostly in the night and you use the alarm “Customs stop’, the next thing you see is that they have sunk the boat. So, they have always avoided arrest, they will just dive into the water and escape leaving the means of conveyance and the goods. This is what we have seen. So far, we have had only few arrests but in extremely difficult circumstances because most of these things don’t take place during the day, it is mostly at night and we don’t want to fire. Even if somebody is escaping and if we fire, and a stray bullet hit somebody, how do you explain that? We are to use minimum force not maximum. And in most cases, these are creeks where people live. So as much as possible, we don’t want to shoot. If we shoot, people will say Customs kill because of rice.
What is your message to smugglers?
My message is simple. They are in logger head with the government. There are consequences for actions. So, whatever anybody does, he should be ready for the consequences of his action. If you’re arrested, you will not only lose your goods, freedom but your name. Let them turn a new leaf and look for something legitimate to do.