Tuesday, October 3Nigeria's Authoritative Maritime News Magazine

*A breath of fresh at Customs House* By Pius Mordi

On August 27, 2015, then President Muhammadu Buhari took the unusual step of appointing a retired army colonel, Hameed Ibrahim Ali, as comptroller general of the Nigeria Customs Service. But it was not until two weeks later, precisely on September 10 that he accepted to take up the job.

Initially, Ali was reluctant to take up the offer, having thought that the job was not befitting enough. His expectation of something more befitting for himself was not misplaced. He was the Chief of Staff to Buhari during the campaign that led to the 2015 that brought the former president to Aso Rock and thought he would return to the position with his principal now in power.

Ali had been able to establish a strong bond with Buhari who not only trusted him intensely but considered him incorrigible. In hedging over Buhari’s offer of the Customs job, he displayed his ignorance of what it was all about. Indeed, he was not just ignorant of the opportunity, he was totally unfit for the job. His army career was almost entirely restricted to police functions. His only time in public service outside the army was in 1996 when he was appointed military governor of Kaduna State until 1998. He was retired in 1999 by then President Olusegun Obasanjo when all military officers that had been politically exposed were compulsorily retired.

Somehow, Ali’s eyes were opened to the opportunities in the Customs and moved in two weeks later. His first statement on resumption was that Buhari had mandated him to clean up the Customs, block all revenue loopholes and increase collectable revenue to the Federation Account. True to his military background, he saw the job as a military assignment and duly enrolled a serving army, Col. Isa Buhari, (no relation of President Buhari) as his enforcer with the nebulous office of Principal Staff Officer (PSO) to the Comptroller General. At a time the rest of the world of Customs was effectively transiting to reduction in the impact of the human element in official transactions and adopting automation and application of technology to facilitate trade and reduce the logistics challenges in port and operations, Ali sent up legions of quasi independent special squads variously named “CG’s Strike Force”. They were outside the control of any comptroller and reported directly to Col. Isa Buhari. The Strike Force operated anywhere and everywhere – seaports, borders and highways. They could overrule the approval given by command comptrollers for the release of any laden container and seize them. Importers and freight forwarders read the script and routinely paid to avoid costly delays.

With his eyes and those of his ubiquitous PSO now “opened”, a machinery for boosting revenue, not necessarily that ploughed into the Federation Account was established. But the down side was born by the Federal Government. So lucrative was the venture that Col. Buhari abandoned the various opportunities that came in his core calling, the Army. He failed to attend compulsory trainings, courses and interview that would precede his promotion to Brigadier General. An audacious request from Ali asked President Buhari to exempt Col. Buhari from the long established tradition on the route to emerging a general. Buhari strangely obliged and similar strategy was enacted for Isa Buhari to be promoted a Major General. Even though the former president again approved, the army failed to act before President Bola Tinubu wielded the big stick and disengaged Ali.

Ali’s disdain for the rank and file in the Customs was not disguised. He loathed the top echelon of the service and kept them at arm’s length. The impressive array of Deputy Comptrollers General and Assistant Comptrollers General were so brow beaten that they dared not try to visit Ali’s office.
With virtually no knowledge of the core functions of the Customs prior to his appointment as Comptroller General and having emasculated the officers who could have guided him, Ali saw his job as just collecting revenue, a perception fueled by the annual ritual of setting a “revenue target” for the service by politicians without any scientific parameters.

The announcement by President Bola Ahmed Tinubu on June 19, 2023 removing Ali and his army personnel was celebrated by the business community as well as in the Customs House where the senior personnel had effectively been cowed into silence. The coming of Adewale Bashir Adeniyi, a career office, effectively returned the service to the path of responsibility.

Suave, urbane but yet honed in the hallowed traditions of the service, Adeniyi combines the knowledge of the Customs with its modern transformation as a trade facilitator. Adeniyi’s broad understanding of the dynamics of modern border protection while ensuring that the inward and outward flow of goods is not compromised makes him the right fit for the return of the service as a facilitator of international trade, not just a revenue collector.

The Modakeke-born top administrator was the national spokesman for the Customs for nearly 20 years. This enabled him to get a bird’s eye perception and knowledge of the duties and challenges of the service not just on the manning of the borders and the seaports but also how its peers have evolved in other climes with the challenges of international trade that thrives on timeliness without compromising national interest.

Having attended numerous courses locally and internationally, Adeniyi has vast sources of knowledge on how to transform the Customs into a modern agency. Already, he has started echoing the crucial task of the service as a trade facilitator to its officers and reaching out to various stakeholders in the maritime industry on their expectations of the Customs and collaborating to make the process of cargo delivery less cumbersome.

For the career officers at Customs House and all the formations nationwide, Adeniyi’s coming as acting Comptroller General is a breath of fresh air. Gone is the era of taking orders from a retired army officer with limited knowledge of the dynamics of Customs operations.

Adeniyi was promoted to the rank of Comptroller in 2017 and appointed Deputy Commandant of the Nigeria Customs College, Gwagwalada, Abuja.
In 2019, he was redeployed to serve as the Controller at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA) Command, Lagos.

He was promoted to the rank of Assistant Comptroller General in February 2020 shortly after he supervised the seizure of $8.07 million cash being illegally taken out of Nigeria through the E-Wing of the international airport tarmac.
In recognition of his service, former President Muhammadu Buhari, on October 11, 2022, conferred the national honour of Member of the Federal Republic (MFR) on Adeniyi.

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