My shipment had contained all of my household goods – furniture, electronics, kitchen utensils, books, clothes and one SUV – as I was planning to relocate to Nigeria upon my retirement. My shipping agent in California had requested an itemized list of the contents of my shipment, which I duly provided. The clearing agent in Lagos also requested the same thing, and, of course, I obliged.
Upon the arrival of my container in Lagos, the agent informed me that the DSS inspector asked for N10,000 in order for him to not inspect the container and just give it a “pass”. I told him that if it was the practice for the security people to inspect the container, he should let him do so because I did not want the container to be detained by any other agency on the approval chain. We did not give the DSS guy the N10,000 bribe.
And so, during inspection, he found six pairs of my old military uniforms in the container. My itemized list had included clothing as a general item but not specifically “six pairs of used military uniforms” which bore my name, service and rank. The security guy now detained the whole container on suspicion of connection to “Boko Haram”. I would be so stupid as to send six pairs of uniforms with my name and rank on them to Boko Haram in Borno via the port in Lagos. And Boko Haram was really in such a bad shape that it was waiting for my used uniforms. I sent a photocopy of my international passport, military ID card and other documents that proved I was duly authorized to possess those uniforms. The DSS released my container to Customs after about two weeks. But that was when my ordeal really started.
Customs now said since the DSS had to get approval from its headquarters in Abuja before releasing my container, they too had referred my case to their headquarters in Abuja and I would have to wait for approval from there. One month, two months, three months, four months and five months went by and they still had not gotten approval from Abuja. I engaged a couple of my friends in Lagos who knew the terrain and what I heard was that plans by some of the senior officers were already afoot to confiscate my container, “auction” its contents off to themselves and declare the case closed. Outraged, I flew to Lagos from California to see with my own eyes which Customs officer would have the temerity to confiscate a container that did not contain any brand new item; any item of commercial value or any contraband item. I met a very senior officer at one of their Apapa offices. He sympathized with me and gave me all the assurances in the world that if he could help, he would; but the case was out of his hands and my file was on the desk of the Comptroller-General – Dikko Inde Andullahi. And only he could authorize the release of my container. What! What had I gotten myself into? I couldn’t believe it. The whole CG had to approve the release of one container that did not carry nuclear bomb?
The DSS found forks and knives in my container but did not detain it for those. It detained it for six pairs of military uniforms. It was as if you found syringes in a container shipped by a medical doctor, or books shipped by a professor and you seized the container. No guns, no drugs, no explosives, no “dangerous” manuals were found in my container. Yet, the Comptroller-General had my file! And he was all the way in Abuja. Each time I went to the Lagos office from Ibadan, I was told the CG in Abuja had not “treated” my file because he was on tour of this zone or that zone. At one point, he even went on the lesser Hajj while my container kept incurring an unbelievable amount of demurrage charges at the port.
Finally, a friend introduced me to another senior Customs officer who got the CG’s office to release my container. So, indeed, the CG had to personally approve the release of my container! How not-so-busy could he be!
Now, I had to deal with the Apapa Ports management and that of Maersk – owners of the container, who’s combined demurrage/rent charges were in excess of N3.5 million! This did not include the N1.2 million I already paid the clearing agent as regular clearing fees and ports charges. The same Customs officer was able to talk to both the Ports and Maersk people and got my charges down to a little over N2 million. I paid it and took possession of my container. (Please note that neither the DSS nor the Customs removed any of the uniforms from the container.) I was allowed to keep them. Basically, I was made to pay over N2 million that I should never have paid. And if the uniforms were meant for Boko Haram, I could go ahead and send them. Wow!
So, how do you think I felt when CG Dikko Abdullahi, the face of indolence, ineptness and corruption at Customs, was fired by President Buhari in August? Ecstatic! The man was a piece of human feces. How do you think I felt when the new CG, Col (rtd) Hameed Alli, fired those Deputy Comptrollers-General – John Atte (Finance, Administration & Technical Services); Adewuyi Akinade (Tariff & Trade); Austin Nwosu (Strategic Research & Policy); Musa Tafir (Enforcement, Investigation & Inspection) and Ibrahim Mera (Human Resource Development)? Jubilant! All five of them shamelessly “resigned” on one piece of paper as if they were all hired on the same day. They were all pieces of raw garbage. And how do you think I feel knowing that 29 other officers, including three Assistant Comptrollers-General – Madu Mohammed (Secretary to the Nigeria Customs Board); Victor Gbemudu (Zonal Coordinator Zone ‘A’) and Bello Liman (Assistant Comptroller-General, Headquarters) are going to kiss the dust with many more to follow? Of course, I am so exited I will throw a party! They will not and should not die well if they ever contributed to the grief of any innocent customer of Customs.
If you look up the definition of Corruption in any modern dictionary, it will be illustrated with the uniform of the Nigeria Customs. That organization needs to be turned upside down and inside out. The pervasiveness of corruption in that place makes every single officer look like a thief…even those who are not. And there could very well be some who are not corrupt in that place. In my odyssey with that organization, I came across three officers who struck me as decent people. But I keep remembering what my friend says about them; do not trust them past how far you can throw them. He has one of them in his family and has dealt with many of them in the past. He should know.
With my container experience, you can imagine my irritation this past July as I drove through the Idi Iroko border on my way to Benin Republic when a female Customs officer, slouching on a chair as if she was in her bedroom, tried to delay my passage because I refused to pay N10,000 to cross with my family. Something about N10,000 with these people! Not until I asked her to show justification for such a fee did she let me go. A European friend of mine who is a diplomat later told me he had to pay N10,000 at the same border even after showing his diplomatic credentials and after threatening to report the illegal charge to his country. They just don’t care anymore. The impunity with which they fleece people and carry out other kinds of nefarious activities now knows no bounds.
Another friend based in Texas, USA, told the story of how he was levied N400,000 at one of the Apapa Customs offices before he was allowed to clear some vehicles he had shipped legally into Nigeria. “They pointed to a cardboard box in one corner of the office and told me to drop my money in there. The box was full of raw cash. One of them told me the money was meant for their senior bosses and whether I liked it or not, I had to pay; or else my vehicles would go into demurrage”, he told me. Right there in the Departure and Arrival halls of the Murtala Muhammed Airport, in full glare of everybody, Customs officers demand and receive “levies” for taking (non-commercial quantity) foodstuff out of the country and for bringing (non-commercial quantity) gift items into the country. Only in Nigeria would a family of six visit home and on their way out, they cannot take with them two bowls of Gari or yam flour without being surcharged by those useless Customs people at the airport. Only in Nigeria would you be coming home from overseas and you can’t bring shoes and dresses and wristwatches as gifts for your nieces and nephews without those useless Customs officers taking their cut. I can’t begin to list here all the countries I have been; but none….none…either in Europe or America nor even in the rest of Africa was I ever questioned about food in my luggage, except Nigeria. Only in Nigeria would you have Customs officer deep in towns and cities, several hundred kilometers from borders, collecting “levies” from motorists and farmers. What went on at Customs was no longer corruption. It was rape…rape with unlubricated hot rods (Please pardon the language. It is the way you feel after encountering these beasts).
So, for me, it is celebration time knowing that the axe is falling on all those officers who have made life miserable for innocent Nigerians. May their roads forever be rough. And may they lose all they have illicitly acquired.
Do you know any Customs officer? Check their standard of living. Most of them live well above their incomes. Yes, they are relatively well-paid. But they are still living too much above their incomes. Maybe if they just stole government money directly from government like their politician friends do, things would be different. But stealing directly from innocent people is too cruel. I know that all those Customs officers who were part of the reason I paid over N2 million extra for my container will never know peace.
My friend, the one who gave me the title for this piece, once asked me to research the lives of Customs officers; that I would find they always wore tattered clothes in the twilight of their lives. He was speaking in the presence of the family member who was a Customs officer. I hope that is the fate of all Customs officers who make life difficult for innocent people. If I had not resolved to get my container out no matter what; or had not known somebody who knew somebody; or did not have the financial wherewithal to pay the demurrage, those useless people would have stolen the fruits of my hard labor, especially some items to which I have sentimental attachment. For that, they will wear tattered clothes at the twilight of their lives. And when they die, it will not be near their valuables.
By Abiodun Ladepo
Ibadan, Oyo State