The Tramadol Scandal: Will Nigeria Customs shield officers, importer again?

Comptroller-General of Nigeria Customs Service, Hameed Ali

Adegboyega Oni

The rate of importation of Tramadol drugs into the country is alarming. Despite series of seizures by the customs, the nation’s seaports and airports are still being flooded by Tramadol. There is no smoke without  fire. This is handiwork of a dare-devil syndicate of importers and their collaborators in the port systems, particularly in the customs and freight forwarding, who trade with the lives and health of Nigerians for selfish interest.

It is assumed that the nefarious business is on the increase because the customs authority has developed cold feet to  mention any name of the perpetrators either as an importer or a collaborator or prosecuted the offenders in the court. It shows that the importers and collaborators are within the system and are well known to the customs.

What you hear after the display of the drugs and possible parade of any suspect, if there is any, is, the perpetrators shall be brought to justice. Obviously, there is no action thereafter as the matter ends there. An empty promise.    

On Wednesday July 17, 2019, the Apapa Command of Nigeria Customs Service reported a foiled attempt by an ambulance bus while smuggling 10 cartons of Tramadol out of a terminal in  Apapa port. The 10 cartons of 225mg Tramadol tablets were valued at N2,814,139.00.

Earlier, before the suspects were paraded, the Customs Area Controller of the command, Comptroller Muhammed Abba-Kura had announced that on the night of Friday 12th July 2019 at about 2300 hour officers of the command on routine surveillance had intercepted an ambulance (Hyundai) with registration number LND 605 XW LAGOS suspected to be laden with the offending articles of trade.

Abba-Kura noted that upon examination, it was discovered that the ambulance was carrying 10 cartons of 225mg Tramadol and the two male suspects named Michael Ajibade (driver) and Olatunde Emmanuel (escort) were arrested.

He averred that upon further investigation into the matter, it was revealed that the drugs were pilfered from an undisclosed container at the AP Moller Terminals. He added that physical examination carried out revealed further that 211 cartons of drugs were missing from the container with a duty paid value of N59,378,332.09.

According to Abba-Kura, ”preliminary investigation has commenced, and we are currently working hard to ascertain the level of involvement of staff of the AP Moller Terminal with a view to getting to the root of this unfortunate incident and they will be charged to court of competent jurisdiction.’’

Broaching of container and the use of ambulance bus to wheel the drugs out of the port in a supposedly creating emergence situation was the method adopted by the importer and his syndicate to beat the prying eyes of customs inspection officers. But luck ran out of them as the ambulance driver and his escort were apprehended by the customs.

The ambulance is owned by Medbury Medicals Services contracted by the management of APM Terminals Limited to provide healthcare services for its staff.

During an interrogation, the suspects – the driver and escort – stated that they were engaged by some people whose names they did not mention to use the ambulance to ferry the drugs out of the port to an undisclosed destination. Even Abba-Kura stated categorically that any of his officers caught in the act will be made to face the wrath of the law as the investigation was ongoing. This sounds good. But how sincere was he?

APM Terminals should be left out of the matter. Rather, the medical company that owns the ambulance, although hired by APM Terminals, is more susceptible in the saga because such drugs are used in hospital.  A lot of medical institutions do import drugs and sell to retailers who would directly sell to the end users. APM Terminals staff could not get involved in the pilfering saga since they do not have information about the said container and what it contained. Customs has all the information about goods coming into the country not terminal operators like APM Terminals whose duty is to position containers for customs examination. The pilfering could be collusion between the ambulance owner and some unscrupulous elements in the customs that have privilege information about the container and adopted the use of the ambulance to smuggle the drugs.

A most intriguing aspect of the fiasco is the attempt by the custom to rope in the APM Terminals into the debacle. This is puerile, a hocus pocus for the federal government, meant to shift blame from the custom to the respected terminal operators. APM Terminals may have their own fallibilities but certainly not collusion in drug dealing  

But the real perpetrators, should the customs be ready to do a thorough investigation , are in its fold, in the freight forwarding, in the stevedore and in the terminal. It is a vicious, evil cycle. But who is ready in the customs to dig deep, to fish out the perpetrators?

All these people are profiting heavily from the venture; and the money is syndicated to them by no other person than the importer’s  customs agent who is licensed by the customs.

But these people – the importer and the collaborators – are no ghosts; they are Nigerians flesh and blood. If a thorough investigation is done as promised, they can easily be fished out except the people in the customs hierarchy including decide to sweep the matter under the carpet to protect their own.

In the recent past, perpetrators of seized Tramadol drugs were and have never been arrested or prosecuted despite promises by the customs to fish them out and bring them to justice. Customs has kept mute over all the matters. The perpetrators are still at large. When justice is not done, crimes increase and the society is held in the jugular by criminals just as tramadol peddlers, I mean importers, are daily  emboldened to continue in the nefarious act and their collaborators in the port have continued to create a leeway for them to circumvent the laws.

One week after the incident now, the Apapa Customs Command is yet to tell Nigerians anything about its investigation. When an investigation into a case is deliberately prolonged, the matter goes underground and nothing is said about it anymore. The service does not need an elongated investigation to unravel who the perpetrators are; the CAC knows his officers even if not by names but by assignments. The society is waiting to hear the outcome of the investigation and the case must not end up like the ones before it.

Can Nigeria Customs Service live above board? To prove it, the importer and customs officers who may be caught in the act after investigation must be paraded publicly just as the driver and the escort were paraded; nothing like ‘shielding our own.’

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