“Since I took over the leadership of the Nigerian Customs Service, if there’s anything that we are battling with, if there’s anything that is big challenge to us, it is smuggling.”
Col. Hameed Ali (rtd). Comptroller-General of NCS.
That was in a news report published in a national newspaper. The Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development has raised alarm about the increase in the volume of rice, fish and poultry products being smuggled into the country. The Ministry, obviously speaking to deaf ears, warned that “importation of rice and frozen fish through land borders is illegal and prohibited.” Somebody must assume that smugglers are not aware of the illegality of their actions. On the contrary, my years of experience at Idiroko, Ajilete etc point to the fact that smugglers are very much aware that they are breaking the law with impunity. They keep doing it because successive governments of the Federation, having depended largely on crude oil revenue have not regarded smuggling as economic terrorism which should be fought with the arsenals mobilized for other wars.
The NCS boss lamented that “This year alone, I have over five officers who have gone down fighting smugglers.” That is unfortunate and the NCS has our sympathies. At the same time, it would appear as if the NCS and the Federal Government, under Buhari, like its predecessors are fighting terrorists with weapons meant for policing civil society.
Adolf Hitler, 1889-1945, a first class terrorist himself and, perhaps a cousin to President Donald Trump of the USA, left the world with useful advice when he said: “You don’t fight terror with appeasement. You fight terror with terror.” Now that the Age of Oil is coming to an end, Nigerians and their governments must turn their attention to the economic terrorism which smuggling represents and which had led to the devastation of our manufacturing sectors, crippled our agro-allied industries and is making our quest for self-sufficiency in rice, tomato, sugar and vegetable oil appear like a mirage. This is a war for which all the governments in Nigeria must enlist the support of all of us.
Hitherto, public servants have been fighting this war alone and they are losing very badly as most of us sitting with steaming plates of rice, smuggled fish, chicken and turkey wings can testify. Civil servants are not trained marketing professionals. NCS preventive staff might be armed and dedicated, but they are fighting this war half-blindfolded.
The attempts to stop the smugglers at the borders have ended in failure or death of NCS staff as well as smugglers. One cardinal reason for failure is the number of illegal entry points into Nigeria which is surrounded by at least four other nations which are too willing to provide launching points for smugglers heading for Nigeria. Nothing less than 200 illegal borders are known to exist in this country. The NCS does not have enough men to monitor all of them. So border interdiction serves limited purpose. Contraband will still enter the country.
Since border patrols are inherently ineffective, the best way of discouraging smuggling is to deny smugglers of their markets. That means studying the channel of distribution of smuggled goods from border to open markets. Then governments should move to close them.
To do this the FG and State Governments must collaborate to strengthen the laws prohibiting the importation and sale of contraband goods. The penalties for possession and offering for sale of prohibited goods must be so stiff as to deter all but the most desperate. And, if during investigation it is discovered that a law-enforcement officer – NCS, Police, DSS etc – had lost his life, then those caught with the goods must be made accessories, after the fact, to the murder of the official(s).
Most Nigerians are cowards; but what we have is the survival of the “un-fittest”. Despite the fact that as many as forty percent of people living in Lagos state live on one form of crime or another – illegal street trading, illegal gambling, illegal transport services, prostitution, extortion, fraud, outright robbery etc – the markets will begin to fold the minute collaborators of smugglers realize that they might face murder charge for a crime committed far away to bring in the goods they sell. States and Local Governments should also enact laws prohibiting the sale of banned products in their domains and they should continuously raid the markets. It is easier to deny the smugglers of outlets than engaging in shoot-outs. And, fewer lives are lost. Incidentally, I did it before for a client.
Finally, if whistle-blowers can reveal corrupt officials, why can the FG and States not deploy whistle-blowers to apprehend smugglers? They are not ghosts and many of their neighbours are aware of their activities. They have never felt called upon to do anything – until now.