Mustafa Sarkin-Kebbi is Comptroller of Customs in charge of Zone B with headquarters in Kaduna. In this interview he said fight against smuggling in the zone is higher but that his men are undeterred.
What are the major challenges in your anti-smuggling operations in the area you cover?
In August 2018, I took a study of the area comprising 10 states including the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). I discovered that most of the states are border-states and I will be relating with some, largely rural communities with some porousness.
The areas are vast and not all the places can be manned at the same time. I observed that there are over 2000 illegal routes leading into Nigeria from these border routes.
Another challenge is the more daring nature of smugglers. They have become more deadly and more sophisticated. I have to also sit down and look at how best to manage this challenge. I realise that most of the border communities are aiding and abetting smuggling activities. In ignorance, they believe smugglers are doing a legitimate business. This is one strong area members of the press have to come in to help sensitise communities
To what extent have community leaders supported your fight against smuggling?
There are strategic stakeholders we have to relate with. We interfaced with them because they are close to their people. Even the big traditional rulers, like the Sultan, emirs and many others are not left out.
Whenever we visit to our men in the fields, we include the traditional rulers in our itineraries. We educate and re-educate them on smuggling and its dangers. We approach them in ways that do not criminalise everybody in the community. While we are applying our enforcement powers, on one hand, we use enlightenment on another hand with the traditional rulers to the people.
We tell them about the ills of smuggling and its effects on the people. We cite issues of insurgency and other insecurity that could be fuelled by smuggling and they agree with us. We remind them that smuggling contributes to the killing of local industries and throwing a lot of people out of jobs.
We apply wisdom and tact to seek the traditional rulers’ cooperation. I also encourage my men on the field to always be close to the traditional rulers to get their confidence and it has been working. We have had instances where traditional rulers gave us information and we have achieved some results with it in the course of our operations.
If we were confrontational with them and make the entire communities look criminalised, they will not be happy to offer any form of support. We give them graphic examples with instances on what smuggling is doing against the country and her people. I must tell you, our strategies are working.
Some of the states under your watch experience some form of insurgency and increased military presence. Do you enjoy any form of cooperation from the armed forces?
Yes, we do. In Katsina State, we all work together. The Military, Police, Customs and all others work hand in hand. In most cases, we share information and intelligence. Where one security agency is covering, the others may not be there, so we share information. That is what we do to survive.
We got information that bandits and smugglers were planning a big attack on our men in Basari, Katsina State. The information came from a sister agency. Our men vacated in the interim. Lo and behold, they came and rained gunfire on our outpost thinking our men were inside at that moment. We also get back up when it appears smugglers want to overpower us.
I have reasons to suspect that bandits are working in league with smugglers. There are times the bandits will strike, shooting sporadically and smuggling activities will take place within same period.
It is not impossible that there are some forms of criminal collaboration between the bandits and smugglers based on the coincidence of same time operations between them.
How you are able to achieve lesser casualties with increased seizures?
My background in the service is the Customs Intelligence Unit (CIU). I was in CIU for more than 15 years. From my first basic training, I was posted there in the early days of my joining this service. When I came we had situations of casualties, even my own cousin was shot dead in Katsina. I looked at it and decided to embark on more intelligence driven operations.
If we discover that applying force may be fatal, we allow smugglers to come in, we identify the warehouses being used and at the appropriate time we strike in the wee hours to evacuate the smuggled items.
They do the smuggling using smaller vehicles to bring in items in bits. If we decide to engage them at that point, it may be disorganised with higher casualties and lesser seizures.
We allow them to converge in one place and we strike. Sometimes we trail trucks to safe positions I call no man’s land before striking.
Another thing is the appropriate use of weapons. We have told them that the guns are not for decorations. We have always told our men to apply use of weapons as provided by the law to protect their lives and ensure criminal elements do not murder them.
We assure them of our support. Human rights community is unfair to us. When Customs officers are unlawfully killed, human rights crusaders are quiet but when our officers kill suspected smugglers in the course of protecting their lives, human rights people come out to talk against us.
I have told my officers that I will always defend them whenever they use their arms lawfully in the discharge of their duties. They cannot be armed and cowardly allow lawless people to maim and kill them as Customs officers on duty.
That has been my position and luckily for me the Controller General has also given us support from the top. My CGC frowns at a situation where an armed officer will allow smugglers to stab them, kill them and walk away. Officers who allow such don’t know what they are doing.
I also urge my officers to pray for God’s guidance and protection before embarking on operations.
We do experience intermittent casualties in the zone generally sometimes with various commands and units like Strike Force, Katsina Command of FOU Zone B.