Written by Dayo Modupe
To an average Nigerian the most corrupt law enforcement agents are found in the Nigeria Police. The reasons cannot be far fetched; these are the ones Nigerians catch in the act everyday either on the road, in their stations or other places demanding and collecting bribe. I bet, not a few Nigerians cannot readily recognize a Nigerian custom officer in uniform.
My opinion of the Nigeria Customs Service as a paramilitary agency of the government until recently was that comprising officers, men and women of fine character, equipped to deal with smugglers of banned/ contraband goods, smuggled vehicles at borders or near border posts. But from the foregoing the service does not seem to be interested in smugglers or people caught with smuggled vehicles/goods, so as to deter the crime. They are more interested in the goods for their personal enrichment.
Unknown to many Nigerians, the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) is unarguably a worse culprit whose propensity for backhander has far surpassed that of the Nigerian Police. The NCS agents are ironically public enemies, who hold the ‘rest of us’ without political, economic and social power to ransom. A lawyer friend of mine defined the ‘rest of us’ as non-citizens. He was correct! The Merriam Webster Dictionary describes a citizen as someone who owes allegiance to a government and is entitled to its protection. The NCS is an arm of the government. Instead of deriving protection from them, what we get is tyranny. They thrive on our ignorance and defenselessness through official brigandage to inflict trauma on us, the result of which is helpless submission to their corrupt desires.
Many times before my sad experience with the ‘Men in Grey’ I had seen them at their duty posts on some border and non-border routes. They had never stopped me, so I had never shown any interest in them like I would grudgingly do police men once they appear in sight.
On Friday, 26th of November 2010, at a point, between sagamu and Papalanto, called Iyana abese, between 10am and 11am they had laid ambush. I was returning to Ibadan. No motorist can evade them at that crater point, where they laid siege on the long failed road.
They stopped me and asked for my car papers. As I had never been stopped by customs men before, I had the temptation to say I was driving a registered car which was obvious because of the number plates. But there was really no reason to fret, as even for about two years that I had been driving the car, policemen had never faulted my car papers. As a law abiding citizen, I obliged. After checking through the documents, they alleged that I did not have custom papers. I explained to the leader of the team, one ASC1 Ojeh, that I had never had an encounter with customs officers before neither did I even ever envisage having one. So, I pleaded that henceforth I would ensure that the papers were kept in the car. In all sincerity, since I completed the car registration I had never taken the custom papers with me in the car. Police men had never asked for it so I took for granted the need to keep it in the car. I had kept away the custom papers in a file at home. Sincere mistake really!
I was alone in my car while they were about 6 in number. A couple of them had guns. I begged that I had the papers they required and that I could even go to Ibadan where I reside and fetch it, assuming that they were from Ogun State. I was therefore surprised when the team leader declared that they were taking my car to Lagos from that point. All my pleadings fell on deaf ears.
The team leader hence ordered his men to remove my car number plates, eject me and all my belongings in the car. The men obeyed to the letter and took possession of my car at gun point. My plea that I was not in good health and to be allowed to follow them (either in my car or their patrol van) to where my car was been taken was rebuffed violently. As I stood bewildered, I gazed at car as it was driven away out of sight. As this brigandage cannot be less consistent with armed robbery, I concluded that my car had been snatched by some outlaws in uniform.
It may interest the readers to know that there was no paper issued to me, evidencing the confiscation of my car.
I was left stranded by the road at a great risk to my life, considering the alarming rate of insecurity in the country today, evidenced by incessant cases of kidnap and rituals. All attempts to reach out on phone to family and friends were abortive as the area did not enjoy any network service. Some good Samaritans, after more than two hours in the wilderness, later helped with useful information and transportation to Sagamu.
As soon as I got to shagamu I quickly contacted some friends on phone and relayed my troubles. One of them swiftly got into action, by going to Federal Operations Unit (FOU), Nigeria Customs Service, in Ikeja to inquire if the people that seized my car at gun point and left me in danger were actually customs men or some bandits considering the mode of their operation. I had intended to go to Ibadan (where I kept the custom papers), from Sagamu, to quickly pick it and head again for Lagos to present it hoping the men that violently took my car from me were customs men and had actually taken it to their office. But another of my friends, who is resident in Lagos strongly advised that I come to Lagos first and ensure that I locate my car. I heeded his advice.
I was in the Federal Operations Unit of the Nigeria Customs Service by 5pm, anxious and agitated. A crowd of civilians with tired mien and long faces, some standing in groups mixed freely with men and women in customs uniform. My friend that had gone in advance to FOU was already waiting for me among the crowd. During my transit, he had tried to make enquiries as regards my concern but he did not get a clue. One woman who he spoke to and who was pretending to be of assistance was actually in the waiting to take advantage of my situation. She told my friend, ‘when your friend gets here, if he can quickly come up with some money he will get his car’. My first interaction with her incited in me suspicion of extortion and of course a passionate feeling of hatred. I needed an assurance first and foremost that my car was safe but her close-minded interest had beclouded her sense of reasoning so much she could not perceive the trauma I was going through.
I was impatient, so I left my friend with her and looked around for a possibly more civilized and reasonable staff among the officials. A seemingly motherly staff caught my attention. I approached her and told her my day long suffering in the hands of her colleagues. She seemed to be moved by my cry and attended to me by obliging my request – the need to sight my car as I was not sure if I had been robbed by some fake men in custom uniform or uniformed custom men with criminal intention. She ensured that I locate my car in the unit’s mechanical workshop where seized cars are kept. She suggested that there was nothing I could achieve again that day and I should return on Monday with my car custom papers. For the first time that day I had a let-up.
The following Monday I confidently produced the requested custom papers at the Unit’s Legal department with the hope that I would be able to take possession of my car. My trouble had just continued.
On the directive of the Legal officer-in charge, my papers were taken for verification on the NCS computer system. A 3-page document was generated from the system with information bordering on my car. A hand written and signed report, showing the car’s declaration at Lily Port Pond and the import duty paid on the car, was written on the back of the first page of the generated document by the officer that did the verification. The document was thereafter passed to another officer for crosscheck. After 3 hours of waiting I was ushered in to his office. He opened the document and tried to call my attention to some data that I cannot comprehend and alleged that the chassis number of my car was not contained therein. Probing him to explain further, he asserted that the document was recycled. I did not still understand him so I replied that the paper was generated from the NCS system and asked him what the way forward was. He asserted that the document was fake and declared with finality that my car had been seized.
I was stunned beyond words! Observing his gaze behind some light-framed bifocals, I suspected some mischief and felt he was out to play a fast one on me in order to extort me. Quickly I demanded for the document which he reluctantly returned to me. Hence I began soliciting the interpretation of the entire document among some other custom personnel and some civilians around there some of who turned out to be clearing agents and have good knowledge of the workings in the system.
Everybody who checked the document agreed that something was fishy, basing their suspicion on the signed handwritten report, which was a confirmation that the information on the car clearance is contained in the NCS computer system indicating that the car was imported through the right channel and physically checked by Nigeria Customs as required, and not a smuggled car.
From that day on I was left to run from pillar to post in abject confusion in search of useful information in respect of the release of my car, as the operations of the customs service personnel had become shrouded in cult-like secrecy. The pursuit of the release of the car took me as far as Tin Can Island and Lily Port Pond, Apapa twice, where I got further useful information concerning the importation of the car. I also stumbled on the fact that an hour within which my car was driven into the NCS yard, it was placed under ‘’SEIZURE”, their terminology used for category of smuggled cars which are not recoverable by owners and eventually auctioned for pittance; a sharp departure from normal investigation while a car is in ‘’DETENTION’’. The point I have raised here should be an interesting concern for investigation.
With all the information at my disposal I still met brick walls. At this point I was advised to get a legal aid. About a month after my car was snatched and of daily appearance at the unit office, my lawyer came into the scene. They refused to acknowledge the receipt of the memo sent by my lawyer. However, the content of the letter spurred them into action as they did not only study it but kept it, and diplomatically suggested that I leave my lawyer out of the matter. They conceded that an error was made by their patrol men to have placed my car under ‘’SEIZURE’’ and assured me that I would have my car back. But that was not to be immediate as the ‘’SEIZURE’’ status would have to be reversed by those who ‘’made the error’’.
On the 30th December 2010 the reversal was done by the patrol men. I had thought that I would be given my car immediately, and even get an apology for the more than one month suffering I went through while my car was erroneously placed in ‘’SEIZURE’’.
I was shocked when some days later they insisted that the car clearance at the port 2 years ago was not perfected and decided I would have to pay some money to have my car back. I was given a hand written bill of =N=150,000 without reference to any guideline or authority, which eventually was reduced to about =N=71,000. At this stage, I had been beaten to submission and had to choose between enduring the suffering of traveling to Lagos everyday from Ibadan while my car was still in the FOU mechanical workshop and getting damaged and just having my car back by paying. Because of the slow bureaucracy in the system and financial inducement among the rank and file, my car was released to me two days after the payment was done at a recommended Zenith bank branch.
My car number plates were missing as at the time of retrieving the car. This was on January 5, 2011. For having the guts to complain at the gate of the mechanical workshop and ask for the number plates, the personnel on duty began to insult me and even threatened to lock me up. They said I should be happy enough that I was able to retrieve my car. I went to the head of the legal department to complain about the loss of the number plates. His response was neither helpful. My car is still without number plates as I write.
The motto on the NCS logo reads justice and honesty. The way and manner of the men and women of the service is a sharp contrast from the slogan. The generality of the service personnel at the FOU are uncooperative, insensitive and nonchalant lot whose handling of public concern is dependent only on the extent to which their personnal interest is involved. They do not see their position as a call to national service. They throw caution into the air in their demand for bribe. The entire place is a trade center. A seized car owner must physically follow up on his vehicle case through the long processes and he dare not appear at any desk without preparing to pay a non-receipted fee. The customs men and women are so daring in their demands for bribe that one wonders if we still have a financial crimes or anti-graft commission in this country. One even wonders again if journalists ever fall victim of the oppression expressed by these men and women, to bring their acts to public knowledge.
Every car seized is an avenue for extortion and so long are the processes and many the different desks created for this extortion. Where their victims are not showing ready disposition to their demand, they resort to tactical and frustrating delay of the already inefficient and deliberately designed long processes. The exercise is agonizing and traumatic. The FOU personnel treat fellow Nigerians with lack of respect for dignity of human person, decorum and diplomacy. They even resort to detaining whoever has the guts to prove his right or challenge their inefficiencies.
This is a psychological violence against the public whose taxes sustain the service. I call on well meaning Nigerians, Human rights organizations, Nigerian Bar Association and the Press to beam a searchlight on these men and women whose activities are capable of promoting the Rule of Force, a major threat to the jealously guarded refinements of a civilized society.
Culled from NVS