by Simon Kolawole
Retired Col. Hameed Ali was sitting gently on his sofa and watching TV on August 27, 2015 when some news flashed on the screen: he had been appointed the comptroller-general of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS). He was shocked. The previous day, he was with President Muhammadu Buhari and had not the slightest idea that he was going to be appointed CG. As a long-time associate of the president, Ali was expecting to be made chief of staff — a position he had served Buhari for years in various presidential campaigns — or chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). He could not make sense of the customs appointment.
As the story goes, he was heavily disappointed. He refused to get in touch with Buhari for nearly two weeks. He wanted to turn down the job, according to those who were close to him. The rumour was that he had actually turned down the job. For weeks, David Atte, a deputy comptroller-general, held the fort to fill the vacuum left by Abdullahi Dikko Inde’s retirement. Rumours that Ali had rejected the appointment were not helped by his refusal to make public comments or report for duty. It took the intervention of many top APC politicians from the north to sway the former military administrator of Kaduna state.
To persuade the reluctant Ali, they told him how NCS was one of the most corrupt government agencies in the world. Ali hates the word “corruption”. Any assignment to tackle corruption would get him excited any day. As a military administrator in a very corrupt system, he had the distinction of riding the same weather-beaten car for 10 years after leaving office. This is not a typical Nigerian story. Maybe that was what Buhari saw in him and decided to saddle him with the customs job. It was one of those appointments in the early days of this government that made people think “change” was for real.
As icing on the cake, a senator from the north-east explained to Ali that NCS was one of the biggest revenue-generating agencies. The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) is the king in the ring. Then the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS). And the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC). And the Nigeria Customs Service. “If you clean up customs,” the senator reportedly told him, “then you are cleaning up Nigeria… Nigerians will feel the impact instantly.” He was promised a team of experts and consultants to guide him through this strange territory — to help him navigate the intricacies in a dirty world laden with explosives and mafias. He then changed his mind.
What Ali was not told, I presume, is that it would be lovely for him to wear the jersey. You are the No. 1 customs officer in Nigeria, you enjoy all the powers and perks of office, you make all the policy pronouncements, you do and undo — and then claim that because you retired as a military officer, you cannot wear the uniform. You retired as a colonel, yet a man who retired as a major general, Anthony Hananiya — by far your senior — wore the uniform of the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) as corps marshal under a military regime. The least demand you can make of a CG is to show that he is proud of the jersey. It doesn’t look that complicated in my view.
The uniform saga, unfortunately, has beclouded the real issue: Ali’s directive that all motorists must produce evidence of import duty paid on cars bought before 2015. This is certainly one of the most repressive directives ever issued by a government agency. There is no country in the world where that happens. It is called import duty for a purpose — it is the importer that has to show evidence that the importation followed due process. If I walk up to a car dealer and buy a car, I am an end user having nothing to do with the importation process. Why compound the woes of Nigerian motorists who are already battling with bad roads and high cost of spare parts?
What in the world was Ali thinking when he came up with this directive? Is it to combat smuggling? Where in the world does customs collect import duty on highways? If you want to combat smuggling, maybe you should pay more attention to your borders. There are more intelligent and brain-tasking ways of doing it in this age and time. The lazy way out is to set a trap for unsuspecting motorists by allowing extortionist customs officers to terrorise them on the highways. The original date of enforcement coincides with Easter — and you can imagine the massive disruption to travel at that particular period. Everything is wrong with the idea.
If this oppressive directive is restored (it has only been temporarily suspended, we were told), then customs will stop you one day and demand the import duty on your mobile phone. It may sound ridiculous, but it is the same principle — the phone was imported and unless you show evidence that you paid import duty, it will be impounded. That is how it starts. Give customs an inch and they will take a yard. They will soon start asking for evidence of import duty on your shirts, shoes and wristwatches. After all, it is not only cars that are smuggled into the country? Why then is import duty on cars the focus of the directive?
That Ali was not properly prepared for the customs job has been very evident in the way he has been going round in circles since 2015. Today, he will announce a ban on the land importation of rice into the country. Tomorrow, he will reverse the ban and set up border posts for payment of duties on imported rice. The day after tomorrow, he will say the ban is restored. These ill-conceived policies make us a laughing stock in the world. It is one thing for the government to say it wants to make doing business in Nigeria “easy” apparently to please the World Bank and international investors, but it is another thing entirely that we flip-flop on policies with relish.
As far as I am concerned, the uniform saga is a complete distraction. The senate has left the real issue of “import duty” and is now more obsessed with “uniform on duty”. If I were Ali, I would wear the uniform to the senate and put the devil to shame. I won’t die because of a “dirty” uniform. I would just go back home and wash myself with warm water and Dettol thereafter. But Ali is so rigid he would not contemplate such a thing. His nickname is “Netanyahu” or “Mr No Compromise” — after the stubborn Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Remember Ali was in the military police. He was provost-marshal of the army at some point. You don’t mess around with him.
Ali’s refusal to wear the CG uniform is nothing but military arrogance. Some (not all) of these military guys think they are superior to every other human being. They used to call us “bloody civilians” when they were in power. The mentality has not changed. That is why a band of soldiers would brutalise a physically challenged man for wearing a “camouflage” and all they got as punishment was a slap on the wrist. Some years ago, soldiers burnt down the police barracks at Ojuelegba, Lagos, and nothing came out of it. They think they can do anything and get away with it. So how on earth can you force a whole retired colonel to wear the uniform of customs? Infra dignitatem!
The real issue, in the final analysis, is Ali’s performance as CG. That is my own worry. He’s fighting corruption in the service quite all right, but as Nigerians now know, fighting corruption is not a substitute for good policies and good governance. Ali keeps getting things wrong, moving from one bad idea to the other. This has the potential to do more damage to the economy. He can wear the CG uniform for all we care and hate corruption perfectly, but the ultimate indicator of his success will be how well he is leading the very important agency in this age and time when the economy needs to stand on strong footing. Is he up to the task? That’s the question.
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS
Let’s be honest — there was relief across Nigeria’s political and financial circles on Wednesday when the senate refused to confirm Mr. Ibrahim Magu as the substantive chairman of the EFCC. The guy has been a pain in their fat necks in the last 14 months, forcing politicians, bankers and military officers to cough out billions of naira and dollars swallowed from the national treasury. Although I quarrel with his preferred style of media trials and concentration on non-APC offenders, he at least bloodied the noses of our erstwhile untouchable elite. But I knew our almighty elite would not sit by and watch Magu continue to mangle them just like that. Revenge.
Former UK chancellor, George Osborne, has just been appointed editor of the London Evening Standard newspaper on a £200k-a-year package. The Tory MP was at some point touted as a future prime minister until David Cameron lost the Brexit vote in 2016 and resigned, with Osborne also falling on his sword. But that’s not my interest. Osborne was the equivalent of our finance minister and was practically the deputy prime minister. If it were to be Nigeria, he would not step down to take a paid job; rather, he would form “Forum of Former Chancellors” and begin to angle for contracts at federal and state levels, going from state to state to harass governors. Parasites.
There is this moving story in TheCable on a young man named Babagana Bukar, “The boy who refused to join Boko Haram, says I watched them slaughter my father.” Three things struck me about Bukar’s story. One, he watched his father killed by the insurgents in Rann, Borno state, in 2014 when he was just 14. Two, he refused to join Boko Haram, riding a bicycle all the way to Chad to escape from the killings. Three, he is called “engineer” because of his dexterity in fixing phones despite having not been so trained. That aspect breaks me down emotionally. Only God knows how many future engineers have been cut down by Boko Haram. Pathetic.
TOR TIV THRONE
Recently, 30-year-old man Stephen Nyitse bizarrely went to sit on the revered throne of the Tor Tiv before the coronation of Prof Orchivirigh James Ayatse as the new king. Nyitse was promptly arrested, detained and charged to court by our super efficient police force. Within three days, he was sentenced to four years imprisonment by the highly efficient Justice P. S. Chaha for trespass and impersonation. In addition, Nyitse will be banished from Tivland after his time in prison (banishment in a republic?) Meanwhile, thousands of theft, murder and land cases still languish in courts. Awaiting trial suspects practically grow old in prison. Efficiency.