The Comptroller-General of the Nigerian Customs Service, Hameed Ali, has lashed out at shipping companies in Nigeria for their roles in the importation of illicit firearms into the country.
Speaking at a meeting with the Nigeria Shippers Council and other stakeholders in the sector, Mr. Ali said it would be difficult for his agency to halt the importations if indicted shipping companies are not sanctioned.
According to Mr. Ali, the only way to nip the act in the bud is through collaboration between the Customs and the shipping firms.
“Let me start with the importation of arms which is the biggest problem we have at the moment,” said Mr. Ali, a retired Colonel.
“As you are aware, from January to September, we have been able to intercept 2,671 pump action rifles between Apapa and Tincan Island ports.
“This has become a cause for concern not only to us Customs but to all Nigerians and, of course, our neighbours because proliferation of small arms may leave Nigeria into other neighbouring countries and become problematic to them.
“For example, in Cameroon, they are facing secession, we believe that some of these arms are meant to be channelled to those who are agitating. Also in Nigeria, we have Boko Haram issue, we have kidnappers and armed robbers.
“Through these arms that came in, I can say we have by the grace of God to intercept this quantity and there is no way I can stand before anybody and say this is all that has come into Nigeria. We are still doing a lot of investigations, hopefully, we will find out what has happened, where these weapons had passed through without being intercepted.”
In January, the Nigeria Customs intercepted 661 pieces of pump-action rifles from Istanbul, Turkey, concealed with steel doors and other merchandise goods which came in through the Lagos port.
Two of the five people charged with the illegal importation pleaded guilty before a federal judge.
Four months later, 440 pieces of pump-action rifles manufactured in the United States and Italy were shipped into the country from Turkey and intercepted at the Tin Can Island port.
In September, another set of 470 pump-action rifles imported from Turkey was intercepted at the Tin Can Island port in Lagos.
Days later, Mr. Ali met with the Turkish ambassador, Hakan Cakil, over the spate of illicit arms importations from Turkey.
On Tuesday, Mr. Ali told said while investigations into the importations continued, there was a need to block the loopholes being exploited by the importers for the security of Nigeria and her neighbours.
“Shipping lines are responsible for arms shipment into Nigeria,” the Customs boss said.
“I say this with all sense of responsibility because what we discovered in this case of arms is that before containers will be shipped, in most of those containers, the last two was discovered that when we went to Turkey, they were documented as pump action rifles.
“So the exit certificate from Turkey really indicates they are rifles because to them, they did not know that those pump action rifles are on the restrictive list in Nigeria. Therefore, they don’t need to contact us before being imported. But the importers of these weapons knew that it was prohibited in Nigeria.
“So when they got to Morocco, they changed the manifest, concealed the weapons and only listed steel doors. The question is, why should the shipping lines accept the change of manifest on the course of transportation? That is the critical question.”
He revealed the sharp practices importers and shipping lines perpetuate to outsmart security agents in the ports to bring in weapons.
“We have, under our own regulations that shipping lines transmit manifest to us when they have concluded shipment from the last point of shipment to Nigeria. When they are heading to our country they now transmit the manifest to us. I want us to discuss how it happened and what can we do to forestall the change of manifest on the high sea when ships are heading for Nigeria.
“Then there is this manifest we also came across which says, shippers will pick up these containers and the statement will be ‘said to contain.’ Why say a container is ‘said to contain,’ so when I put bomb inside a container I say “said to contain steel doors” would you want to carry them on your ship?
“I believe shippers know exactly what’s the content especially, now that we have technology where scanners are all over the place. No shipping line that will agree to carry a container onboard the ship without knowing what is exactly inside the container. So this manifest coming to us “said to contain” does not make sense. When we find any illicit item on “said to contain” manifest, we will hold the shipping line responsible. Before you accept ‘said to contain’ document, you must know what is the content of the container.
Mr. Ali threatened to come down hard on any shipping company found culpable in the act.
“Ignorance to the content of a container does not arise,” he said.
“That is not going to be accepted by the authorities in Nigeria again. Any ship that comes with ‘said to contain’ manifest and we find any illicit item, the law allows us to detain the ship and then seize it.”
In his reaction, Hassan Bello, the Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Shippers Council, promised to work with the Customs and others in the sector to curb the illicit importations.
“I commend the customs for involving critical stakeholders in the issue. We have been grappling with the issues of smuggling and importation of arms,” Mr. Bello said.
“We condemn in totality the guts to import such dangerous weapons. We support the government to bring such offenders to book.”