By Paul Omoruyi
This is an eye witness account of how Nigeria Customs Service Officials took wire transfer bribe on the freeway.
In the past, I have never had any reason to deal with Nigeria custom officials while driving. All that changed in a recent encounter with the Nigerian custom. I was riding in a car with a friend and a relative. We were heading out of Lagos. The car was imported by my friend and had been cleared by a “car clearing agent” with all custom excise duty supposedly paid. We had no reason to be concerned because the clearing agent should have paid all the required fees before custom cleared the car for release out of the port.
Just before we got to Lagos-Ibadan turn-around access road, we were flagged to a screeching stop by mob-looking custom officials and some military gun-toting bandit-like officers. I could not understand why they have to dramatically throw themselves in front of a moving vehicle with their guns drawn as if we were criminals. “All these just for a vehicle inspection?” I asked a relative who was riding with us. He went into hysterical laughter and simply said “Christmas don dey come, they are desperate for bribes now. Just wait and see wetin them go do us today. We no go leave here until they get money from us”.
True to that. We spent four gory hours of our lives there. The series of events that unfolded were so distressing and startling that I would never have imagined that such things still happen even in third world countries.
Just before the custom officials got to our car, my relative had advised that we “behave” and “speak” like locals; otherwise they would make up non-existent things to extort more money from us. We heeded the advice. They came and requested the vehicle papers. We gave them the car custom clearance papers. They took the papers and went away. There were several cars that had been stopped all around and people sitting on the floor on each side of the road.
For more than 20 minutes, we were in the car waiting. No one came to provide us any information or update. We were very naive about how the “system” work. My relative started laughing and told us we need to get out of the car and go meet with them. So we did. We went to the custom official that took the papers from us. He directed us to another custom official stating “na my oga be that, make una go talk to am”. We went to the “oga”. He said he was busy with another vehicle and told us to wait.
While waiting, we started having conversations with other vehicle owners they had been stopped. Some said they have been there for 3, 4, 5 hours claiming the custom officials are demanding thousands of Naira as bribes from them before they would let them go. Some of them were still negotiating the requested bribe amount while others were pushing back on the requested bribes.
We were there for more than one hour now. While chatting by the side and observing what was happening, we observed that anyone that wants to “settle” (give bribes to them) would go inside one of the official custom van parked by the side. As soon as he or she emerges from the van, they would let that individual go.
At this point, my relative had told us that we should step back so he can engage with them. Then, the so-called “oga” beckoned on us to come over. My relative went to him. After 10 minutes of speaking with him, he came back and told us that they said the custom excise duty payment for the car was not “paid in full by the clearing agent”. We were confused with what that meant. How can the car be cleared with the right custom clearance papers without the agent making all the necessary payments? They were not saying that the papers are not complete but that the custom payment amount for that specific vehicle make/model appear to be less than what it should be. It just doesn’t make sense to us. So why did custom release the car if the clearing agent didn’t pay the appropriate custom amount? We were confused.
We told my relative to go ask them some of our questions for clarification. He came back and told us they said he should wait. It is now 2 hours since we were stopped. They had stopped more cars and were gallivanting from one car to another negotiating bribes. It was like a page out of a fiction novel.
After another 30 minutes, they called my relative. He came back and said they told him if he wants answers to his questions, they would take him to their office somewhere inside Lagos; about two hours from where we were. My friend was getting agitated for the unnecessary delay. He had started speaking “American” English. I told him to calm down and remember what my relative had told us. In addition, we don’t have much Naira cash on us. We hadn’t made any substantial currency change transaction.
My friend started calling his relatives to contact the agent that cleared the car while my relative went back to chat with the custom officials speaking with them. He came back and said they are now acting funny because they heard my friend’s “American” English. They gave him these options: 1. Give them 40 thousand Naira right there or 2. Follow them to the office to pay the balance of 150 thousand that is purportedly the balance of the right amount the agent should have paid or 3. Call the agent to come down to the location to tell them why he didn’t pay the full custom clearance suggested amount.
One more hour had gone between all of these back-and-forth. We were now more than three ungodly hours into the comedy. My friend’s relative who knew the agent had reached him and said the agent would call us immediately.
Five minutes later, the agent called. We explained the situation to him and asked why he didn’t pay all the required clearance money. He laughed and told us to give the phone to the custom official. We passed the phone to the custom officer. They spoke at length and the custom officer gave us back the phone. The agent told us that we should give them ten thousand Naira so we can leave and that he would reimburse us the money later.
We told him we didn’t have that amount on us. Funny enough, the three of us have less than ten thousand Naira on us. He instructed us to pass the phone again to the custom officer. They spoke briefly. The custom officer passed the phone back to us. The clearing agent asked if anyone has an account he can transfer the 10 thousand Naira into so we can go withdraw and give it to them? We said no, we don’t have Nigeria account.
Again, he requested that we pass the phone to the custom officer. We did. After both of them spoke, the clearing agent said the custom officer will give us an account information to send to him via text immediately. Couple of minutes later, the custom officer provided an account information and requested that we send it to the agent. We sent the information to the agent. We thought they would allow us to go at this point. But no. They said until they get wire transfer payment confirmation from the agent, they cannot let us go.
The scotching sun was not very kind either. We have been standing right under the direct ray of the sun for more than 3 hours now. I was dying inside to speak out against their brazen corrupt and unbridled behavior but my relative told me that it would be counterproductive.
I wanted to record their activities; again my relative said it will infuriate them and lead to more “chaos” for us. At that very moment, I detested visiting Nigeria and the “nature of the people” we were dealing with it. 15 minutes later, the agent called and said we should tell the custom officer to confirm payment. We conveyed the information. The custom officer got on the phone (we believe he used someone else’s account for the transaction) and came back to us stating that “if not God, they would have impounded the car to their station until the 150 thousand Naira balance is paid”. We knew he was just bluffing.
It’s been more than four hours now. They gave us the car documents and told us to leave. We drove off thinking that we are off the hook from these unconscientious callous folks with seemingly sub-human behavior. But not so. Between Lagos-Ibadan Road to Benin-Ore Road, we encountered more than five custom checkpoints. At each point, they were asking for us to explain a myriad of different things on the custom papers. Some very senseless and idiotic. The ones that didn’t ask senseless questions before asking for “something” would out rightly go straight to the point of asking for “something”.
The custom officials at the Lagos-Ibadan access road and those before entering Benin City are the worst set of them all that we had to deal with. It is amazing how low they can go just to get couple of cents as bribes. One expects that people that have questionable custom clearance documents should be rightly interrogated and subjected to the laws of the land. But making up bogus and spurious custom clearance requirements just to exploit the public is just pathetic and sickening.
It was my most horrendous experience with the uncustomary behavior of Nigeria custom officials. What was most intriguing to me during this entire journey was that the Nigeria Police officers we encountered on the way were very professional. They just did their security check of the vehicle. Only one of the police checkpoint friendly asked for “something to chop”. We happily did and thanked them for keeping the road safe!
Before writing this piece, I had asked my friend to get me the account details that the custom officers used to receive the money. Unfortunately, he said he gave his phone to someone else before leaving Nigeria. We reached out to the agent. He said he doesn’t want “trouble”, so he can’t provide the transaction information.
The Nigeria Custom Administration need to address the issue of custom officials taking bribes on the road from unsuspecting public by making false claim of incomplete excise duty payment or missing one custom paper or another. I believe there are thousands of Nigerians that suffer such ordeal on a daily basis.
I went to the Nigeria Customs Website (https://www.customs.gov.ng/) to research car clearance and excise duty payments. But that information is not published online. Are custom officials on vehicle inspection duty given lists of required custom costs to clear goods from the port? Do they have the right to collect custom clearance fees on the road? Can the custom service release a car from the port without all payments made? I don’t know what my friend could have done differently to address the situation. Maybe the Nigerian public and patriotic Nigerians can help me find the answers by forwarding this piece to the Comptroller-General of the Nigerian Customs.