July 5, 2020
BRASS TACKS

Healing Our National Wounds: Why FG Should Partner Ufuk Dialogue

BRASS TACKS
with Suleiman Uba Gaya
0803 567 6295 (Text Message Only)

The first time in my life that I had the privilege of meeting a large assemblage of who is who in Christendom in Nigeria was in 2012 when I attended the first interfaith dinner/breaking of fast, hosted by Ufuk Dialogue Foundation in Abuja.

From that year up to 2019, and obviously for many years to come, the group, which has as its central theme the need to “reserve in your heart a seat for everyone”, has been hosting such gathering of Islamic and Christian leaders and commoners, placing them under the same roof, and providing the convivial atmosphere that makes for deep religious differences to be understood and resolved.

The principal goal of Ufuk Dialogue Foundation is the promotion of peace in the world, and encouraging harmonious co-existence of the adherents of different faiths, cultures, ethnicity and races.

The Foundation has been at the forefront in the promotion of education, exchange of information, opinion and expertise. It organizes conferences, seminars, panel discussions, projects, scholarships , publications, meetings, trips, and several other noble activities.

Ufuk promotes peace, friendship and compassion, and the entrenchment of human dignity by practicing the virtues in their everyday life. Ufuk Dialogue envisions a community in which people from all walks of life interact with each other and cooperate to serve their communities, thereby strengthening civil society and promoting the development of human values.

At the forefront of its activities is the fight against terrorism. All it’s principal officers, even more so Mr. Kamil Kemanci, its President, are proponents of peace. They believe that the fight against terrorism can be achieved through dialogue, peace initiatives and conflict resolutions rather than illegitimate armed struggles that has caused devastation and lack of hope for the future of the young generation.

Kemanci always emphasizes that the individual who is conscious of divine creation is a hero of affection because he is concerned about every existence and has mutual respect and understanding for one another.

I dare say that no group in Nigeria today commands the respect and admiration of Christian and Muslim leaders as Ufuk Dialogue Foundation. Government should therefore partner with this important group to attain deeper peace among the component parts that make up the Nigerian Federation.

Some may wonder why I am recommending a group that can be said to be Turkish in nature. But then Ufuk Dialogue was founded in Abuja in 2011, and its members include Nigerians who have been doing very well in advancing the cause of the country, from time immemorial.

The group is also an offshoot of the Hizmet Movement, a global group committed to peace and excellence, founded decades ago by the foremost global peace icon, Fethullah Gulen.

The reality is that most problems besetting Nigeria at the moment have tribal or religious coloration. With investments worth billions of naira in education, healthcare, and other critical sectors of the Nigerian economy, and with its members deepening our nationalism and entrenching love, peace and forgiveness by their very examples, Ufuk is the one group government can use to heal our wounds and unite the country.

ARMS PROLIFERATION, BORDER CLOSURE AND CUSTOMS CONTRACT SCAM
To understand the damage done to as strategic a matter as capacity building in the Nigeria Customs Service, one needs to reflect deeply and see the rising number of cases where officers and men of the Service are killing innocent Nigerians, virtually on daily basis.

There was the story of a man who, a few months ago, purchased a bag of foreign rice at the Maigatari border post in Jigawa State. Driving in his golf Volkswagen vehicle, he was flagged down for inspection by personnel of the Customs Service.

Fearing that the rice could be seized, he refused to stop and attempted to escape. The customs officers pursued the man until somewhere near Garki, where, in desperation, the man lost control of his vehicle and hit a commercial vehicle, resulting in the instant death of himself and some innocent passengers.

It was an open display of lack of professionalism on the part of the customs officers, who left their duty post in pursuit of a man bearing a bag of rice, forgetting that it could even be a ploy by bigger smugglers to use that and smuggle a much bigger quantity. Those customs personnel will hardly have behaved the same way if they were thoroughly trained and retrained by the Service.

When an institution, like the NCS, is allowed by law to have its personnel bear arms, it has a non-negotiable duty to see to regular training of those personnel, to ensure the arms are not misapplied.

Take another scenario as an example: you are a customs officer heading a checkpoint, and you see armed soldiers coming to cross the border with contraband. You and your officers are also armed, and there is the tendency for you to feel undermined by the soldiers and therefore confront them.

This is just a small example of where training comes in. Except the officer in charge is well trained, chances are that he will engage in a show of force with the soldiers, which may result in a serious loss of precious lives.

But a trained officer will forget all about ego and simply take the particulars of the officer commanding the soldiers and promptly inform the next checkpoint and his superiors. That way, the whole issue could be handled administratively, without anyone being harmed, not to talk of being killed.

What this therefore means is that for a service as strategic as the NSC, whose statutory responsibility has a lot to do with trade facilitation, training and re-training of its personnel is simply compulsory, more so since their job entails making quick, smart decisions that could involve lives, or the economic well-being of the society.

As of the time Colonel Hamid Ali, incumbent Comptroller-General of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) took over the reins of the strategic institution over four years ago, it could pride itself of having a world class training institution located in Gwagwalada, Abuja. It was an institution fully recognized by the World Trade Organization (WTO), and it was at the verge of becoming a full-pledged university where all capacity building needs of the Customs Service in Nigeria and even neighboring could be fully met. At that time, Ali’s predecessor, Abdullahi Dikko Inde, was holding a senior executive position in the WTO.

But take a visit to that institution today. It has been reduced to a shadow of itself, obviously accounting for why Colonel Hamid Ali, the same person who is being blamed for the rot, is now earmarking the whopping sum of N1.57bn to train 3,200 cadets presently being recruited into the NCS.

If any lesson is to be learnt from the negative and dangerous implication of neglect of critical institutions, as is often the case in our shores, there are more than enough in this case where far less than that amount will have been spent by the NSC, if only the training institution built with taxpayers money to provide just that service had not been left to rot.

There are even practical examples of previous Customs CGs spending far less to train far more than that number, all of them leveraging on existing training institutions to do so.

Colonel Hamid Ali has all through his life tried to make honesty and integrity his veritable trademarks. So far no one has credibly pinned him down on any case of corruption.

For people like us who believe in him therefore, it comes as a rude shock that the man is spending a whopping N1.57bn to train a little over three thousand cadets.

But that’s not even the whole story. From an institution that benefitted immensely from the personality of the CG when he was newly-appointed, and after wooing the personnel with a strategic salary increase, the Customs Service under Ali is fast nosediving to one in which all sorts of accusations on financial malfeasance are now being leveled. An example is the building of the headquarters of the Service, the contract sum of which was jerked up from N9bn in 2012 to N15bn In 2018, a whopping increase of six billion naira.

Something is definitely wrong somewhere because there is simply no way Nigeria’s inflationary rate, which between 2012 and 2018 has mostly remained in the single digit (except for the border closure when it has skyrocketed), could justify such massive increase in the cost of the contract in just six years. One could not even imagine Hamid Ali allowing himself to be involved in such a mess, though it is very possible he is being misled by vested interests around him.

A serving senator of the Federal Republic, said to be the Deputy Chairman of the Senate Committee on Customs, has been all over the place, shouting about these anomalies, and drawing the attention of Nigerians and the Federal Government to them. But so far no one seems to be listening, as the Customs Service has unapologetically carried on and is even digging deeper in its trenches.

Another issue of national security significance is that of arms proliferation. The Nigerian security services have been doing all they could to defeat terrorism and banditry in the country, yet the criminal elements have not yet been totally crushed.

Here, one institution that is critical in reducing that menace is the Nigeria Customs Service. Sadly, the overemphasis on the part of the NCS In curtailing the smuggling of rice is resulting in a situation where our statutory border posts are now being used to smuggle dangerous arms and ammunition. There are reportedly fewer personnel at our seaports because most customs officers and men have been deployed to stop rice from being imported, as if all our economic problems will vanish if we stop rice importation.

In 2018, I was involved on an official trip to China, sponsored by the government of that country. It took one visit to the automated seaport in that great country, the biggest in the world, for us to see just how difficult, if not impossible, it will be for personnel of the Nigeria Customs Service to uncover all contraband hidden in any consignment. The packaging is excellently done, and the goods are arranged in such a careful manner as to leave a customs officer without the use of technology confused and bewildered.

One is not in the least suggesting that the Chinese are importing arms or contraband. Far from it. It is just an example to buttress the fact that the present leadership of the Customs Service is constraining the ability of its personnel to uncover dangerous goods that could be hidden in imported consignments by its refusal to reactivate scanners that were fully at work when they took over four years ago.

If you want to break records in revenue generation, one of the easiest ways to go about it is ensuring optimal and effective inspection of goods being imported into the country. At the moment, personnel of the Customs Service only draw from experience to do this. It is more of guesswork.

It is ridiculous – if not pitiably laughable – that a country as big as Nigeria, and at this age of technology, is relying mostly on manual way of doing things in its Customs operations. Earmarking some of the money being generated to servicing the scanners, and even acquisition of new, higher versions will have gone a long way in tackling the incidences of arms proliferation in the country.

I have in most cases, been an advocate of closure of our borders by the Nigerian authorities. But as the legendary Nelson Mandela would say, only a fool does not change his opinion when confronted with superior facts.

I recall that when Chief Olusegun Obasanjo was at the helm as President, a serving president of Benin Republic had to severally kneel down begging him whenever that small country was threatened with border closure.

It was like a mother threatening her child to stop giving him chocolate whenever he derails. We were at that time getting those neighboring countries to do our bidding for their fear of border closure.

Now, after closing the border for months on end, and seeing that they are still standing, those small neighboring countries are coming to terms with the fact that they don’t necessarily need Nigeria to survive. In other words, they have now seen that Nigeria’s closure of its borders does not necessarily aggregate to a death sentence for them.

Now the lid has been lifted; the jinx has been broken, and with the World Bank last September appraising that the economy of Benin Republic has continued to wax very strongly inspite of the border closure, that country will now no longer feel obliged or compelled to cooperate with us militarily.

Now, to get itself out of any economic drawback resulting from Nigeria’s closure of border, Benin Republic is partnering the World Bank, which has actively been supporting Benin’s poverty reduction strategy to increase growth, improve access to basic services, governance and institutional capacity building.

Now, the common refrain on the streets of Ghana, Benin Republic, Togo and all our neighbors is that Nigeria is an enemy, out to crush their economy and kill the people through orchestrated deprivation and poverty. . There have even reported acts of hostility against Nigerians in Ghana and elsewhere. Chances, therefore, are that some citizens of these countries could now, just to take revenge, use our porous borders to inflict serious harm on Nigeria. There are even suggestions that the seeming resurgence of ISWAP is owing to that, and it is important for the security services not to sweep this under the carpet or dismiss it, as some of them often do when served with useful information.

Also, whereas the Nigeria Customs Service is smiling to the bank everyday, making billions upon billions courtesy of the border closure, hardly does it or the higher authorities take into cognizance the ripple effect on the economy and purchasing power of poor Nigerians, accounting for why poverty is at unprecedented level.

Since the closure of our borders, the rate of inflation in Nigeria has continued to increase, to 11.98 percent in December 2019 from 11.85 percent the previous month. One reality not everyone has realized is that the higher the cost of living, the more the tendency for some compatriots to take to crime. This has been the trend globally. So in a way, while we are happy we are making more billions owing to closure of our border, we are inadvertently spending a lot more in securing the country from criminal elements. This can only get worse, if care is not taken.

Of course there are arguments to the effect that border closure will ultimately result in a more buoyant economy for Nigeria. But the figures do not back up this argument, and the examples being cited of China also closing its borders to protect local industries is entirely a false one.

This, of course, is not overlooking the many advantages that Nigeria has driven from closure of its borders. This column has enumerated on a number of them. But placed on a scale, the reality is that either now or in future, the disadvantages outweigh the advantages, and the measure will sooner than later harm our economy and also completely rubbish the ECOWAS Trade Liberalization Scheme (ETLS).

It is also astonishing that we have continued to encourage wastage. At the border posts, such as in Seme, there are hundreds of trucks bearing goods worth several billions of naira that have been trapped in transit during the time the borders were closed. Instead of Nigeria to allow them pay the necessary duty and pass, they have forced the vehicles to park for several months, laden with goods that are wasting by the day.

Many owners of these haulage trucks have been crushed economically, and all of them are Nigerians. The multiplier effect is such that some of these people will never ever recover again. And some of them might take to crime, just as some Fulani herdsmen are reportedly doing because they have been deprived of their cattle, their means of livelihood, rustled by criminal elements.

It is our hope that the Customs authorities, more so the hardworking Comptroller-General, will take proper notice of the issues raised here and address them as quickly as possible. We still see him as a man of integrity, but then this is Nigeria, where he can be misled by vested interests.

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