It was not for nothing that the new helmsman at the Nigeria Customs Service was nicknamed “Benjamin Netanyahu” during his days as the military administrator of Kaduna State. The predominantly Muslim population of Kaduna State must have been conversant with the non-malleable and non-compromising character of the Israeli prime minister in his dealing with his Arab neighbours. So, the nickname that was given to Colonel Hameed Ali was a tribute to his reputation as a man who was said to have found it very difficult to be swayed to viewpoints other than his own.
During his days as the military administrator of Kaduna State, for two years, between August 1996 and August 1998, Colonel Ali’s administration once had some labour issues with the public servants of his state that led to a general strike. Rather than negotiate with them, Col Ali announced the dismissal of the entire 30,000 work-force, while detaining 18 local government chairmen. Yes, he was that tough. Yet, apart from his reputation for stubbornness and intolerance, a shibboleth that stuck to him like a shadow was his acclaimed incorruptibility. His transparency, up till this moment, is said to be legendary.
In fact, for his widely acclaimed incorruptible record, he has been widely regarded as a Siamese twin to General Muhammadu Buhari, whose political aspirations he had supported to the hilt, all through the times that the president had aspired to govern Nigeria. As the secretary general of the Arewa Consultative Forum, he was at the forefront of the plot that eventually wrested power from President Jonathan to satisfy the ultimate avowed desideratum of the ACF to return power to the North at all cost. Their closeness eventually paid off and Ali must have seen Buhari’s ascendancy as the president as his own victory.
Most observers had hoped that Ali would be moved to take over at the EFCC and it was some surprise that the he was appointed the comptroller-general of the Customs, even when that attracted some legal raised eyebrows. The vibrant media gossip even suggested that Ali might not have been quite satisfied to be at a place where he would have to report to another person other than the president. In the Customs, he will have to report to the minister of finance.
Like Buhari, Ali had been mentioned as a man who is against corruption in all its ramifications. But unlike the president who had bent backwards to shed most of his military characteristics to imbibe democratic principles as he sought democratic power, many people who know Hameed Ali swear that the retired colonel has not metamorphosed one bit. And it shows clearly from the way he has carried on at his new post as the Comptroller-General of the Customs. As the CG Customs, he comes across as a man who thinks that he was a commanding officer of a regular army battalion and can bang into the guardroom, any officer or other-rank, who fails to conform to his marshal brand of discipline.
Most Nigerians hold their breath daily when Ali is reported or aired barking orders at the Customs personnel like a headmaster would shout at kindergarten kids. In that process, he often over-reaches himself, claiming powers that he would never have. For instance, he has been reported shouting at Customs officers that he would dismiss any of them who he catches derelicting in his duties. Strangely, he has also often barked that he would imprison any Customs officer involved with corruption for upwards of 10 years, without an option of fine.
The truth is that no matter how rightly indignant Colonel Ali might feel about the oft-suspected corruption and other misdemeanour in the Customs, his new workplace is a state institution that is governed by rules and regulations, and not by the whims of any boss, no matter how well intentioned. Perhaps, the new CG will mellow down when he discovers that he might not even be able to sack the smallest personnel there without going through a rigorous process that has been put in place to protect a public officer. As for jailing his officers, which he boasts of so regularly, one is surprised that Col Ali has forgotten that even in the military, the prosecuting officer has no powers to convict an accused at a court martial, not to talk of the civil court to which he must take an erring Customs personnel. Such a threat is just laughable.
It is obvious that the new Customs CG has a mind-set which will not serve him well, especially, when at the resumption of the minister of finance soon, he finds himself under a boss. It is only then that he would realise that the boss of the Nigeria Customs Service, by law is not a sole administrator. Apart from that, the NCS, as an institution, is historically made up of officers and men who are very conscious of their place in history as one of the state’s oldest institutions and had, in the past, staunchly resisted quick-fix attempts to change things there from outside. They know that he is not one of them; he would forget that at his peril.
When President Olusegun Obasanjo attempted to bring some British officers to re-organize and ‘reform’ the Customs, it was stoutly resisted and thoroughly frustrated the government and the finance ministry in the process. The resistance to that attempt by ‘outsiders’ to reform the Customs as well as the frustration it caused the government formed the crux of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s book: Reforming the Unreformable . If Col Ali would depart from the ways of Nigerians at the helm who hardly allow themselves to be guided by history, and appreciate that the only reforms that had succeeded in the Customs are those done from the inside, his tenure there would be less nerve racking for him.
He is coming to the Customs like a man that has been sent to a reformatory to turn the head of a bunch of recalcitrant thieves. But then, that is hardly the situation if he had understood the enormous transformation that the service underwent during the last six years that Alhaji Abdullahi Dikko Inde ran it. In those years, the service that had been characterized by large scale corruption, inefficiency, low personnel morale and low motivation has been turned into a completely new outfit, with a personnel that has developped a brand new mindset and world outlook. This reporter is conversant enough with the process of that change which the administration at the time achieved through a highly successful six-point agenda that touched on every aspect of the service.
Another fact is that the new Customs that Ali met had become completely digitalized, having invested heavily in technology and training, to the extent that it would be doubtful if any personnel of the Customs is not computer-savvy. Processing and clearance of imports are now effected in a matter of minutes via a sophisticated digitally-powered PAAR system. During this period, the capacity of the service has become enhanced as to have enabled it take over the import inspection procedures that had for decades been handled by contracted expatriate companies, with its huge implication on national security.
It is obvious that far from the corruption which the NCS helmsman has continued to point at ad naseum, the truth is that the enormous technology which the Customs has deployed in the last six years has severely decreased instances of graft. For one thing, it is now almost impossible for under-invoiced imports, which had constituted a major area of corruption, to be cleared by the software that is now used for clearance procedures, and which is done in a transparent manner. While it is true that no organisation is completely devoid of corruption, harping on corruption whenever the Customs is mentioned is a clear misunderstanding of the current situation there.
It is not for nothing that for the past four years, the revenues collected by the Customs have continued to spiral upwards, to the extent that the service has become the second revenue earner for the economy, after oil. Much of it was achieved through the enhancement of the morale of the workforce, the morale that is said to be now in low places due to the alleged bullying and castigation by the new CG. That being so, it would manifest from the expected corresponding fall in the revenue that would be collected at the end of the corresponding period.
What appears to be clear, too, is that Col Ali might not be receiving good advice from his subordinates – that is if he is consulting them at all. Otherwise, he would not have made the recent announcement, directing that the nation’s borders be thrown open to importers of rice. Since this announcement was made, there have been loud outcries from all those who wish Nigeria well and from all patriots who had been rejoicing that the nation was steadily inching towards self-sufficiency in rice production.
The National Rice Millers Association of Nigeria, NRMAN, has cried out against what amounts to a national economic suicide, pointing out that the CG in his decision to lift the ban on importation of rice through the land borders has erred. Its chairman, Mohammed Abubakar, pointed out that the NCS overreached its statutory mandate as an enforcement agency in taking such a policy decision, and that if the Customs succeeded in its decision, it would destroy Nigeria’s rice value chain attained by the previous administration. Abubakar like most Nigerians see the policy reversal as an attempt by Col Ali to legitimise the smuggling of rice.
Hearkening to the loud outcry of Nigerians, the Senate last week moved a motion asking the Comptroller General to appear before it sometime this week to explain what appears to most Nigerians as a bizarre policy which is bound to reverse the huge gains of the nation in rice production. Incidentally, Senator Adamu Aliero who moved the motion was once a Customs officer.
Nigerians hope that the policy volte-face which was announced by CG Customs does not reflect the larger policy option of the Buhari administration on the rice production issue, as that would be most unfortunate. Rather it is hoped that it is just one ‘scatter-head’ pronouncement of one over-zealous officer trying to over reach himself.