Months after the Nigeria Customs Service Board promoted 3,466 officers, allegations of irregularities and lopsidedness have continued to haunt the exercise, with some senior officers claiming that those in the lower cadre were elevated and made their superiors within a fortnight.
The NCS explanation that the decision was borne out of necessity did little to assuage the aggrieved officers. However, beyond the NCS saga, TESSY IGOMU reports that such accusations appeared not alien to Nigeria’s paramilitary agencies, as the Nigerian Correctional Service, Nigeria Immigration Service and the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, seemed caught in the same web.
The voice of the aggrieved customs officer on the other end of the line, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was a mixture of anger, despondency and concern.
He claimed to feel cheated and demanded justice not only for himself but for others, whom he said became dispirited after being allegedly treated unfairly by the Nigeria Customs Service.
The officer had deep-rooted fears that crises might erupt, especially among those working in enforcement units and at the borders, and feared that it might lead to anarchy if urgent steps were not taken by the Minister of Finance, Comptroller-General of Customs, National Assembly and human rights groups to quickly remedy the alleged anomaly.
During the call, our correspondent was able to convince the caller to arrange for a physical meeting. He initially declined but later communicated with a meeting venue verbally through a dispatch rider.
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At the agreed time, our correspondent arrived at the discreet location and was ushered into a waiting area where eight crestfallen NCS officers sat.
An atmosphere of frustration and sadness pervaded the place as two of them that appeared to be the mouthpiece of the others, took turns to narrate their ordeal.
Having been earlier instructed by the dispatch rider not to bring along a phone or any electronic gadget, our correspondent went with just a jotter and pen and was immediately handed an unsigned statement that summarised the officers’ complaints and actions itemised for implementation.
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In April 2022, the spokesperson for the NCS, Timi Bomadi, announced the promotion of 3,466 general duty and support staff officers as approved by the NCS Board. He said the promotion became effective from January 1, 2021.
Bomadi explained that the approval was given on Tuesday, March 29, during the board’s 54th Regular Meeting, presided over by the Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, who also doubled as the Chairman of the board, Hajiya Zainab Ahmed.
However, dust stirred up by the promotion has refused to settle down and PUNCH Investigations gathered that disenchantments among some older officers have continued to grow.
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The aggrieved personnel hinged their anger on allegations of marginalisation and favouritism and lamented that their dedication and service to the country for about three decades seemed to have amounted to a total waste of productive energy and time.
They claimed that junior officers employed from 2009 to 2015, were promoted and elevated above them (older ones) that had spent about 30 years in service.
The NCS officers explained that there was a general promotion that made the junior officers to be at par with them, but were shocked when the same officers were elevated and made their seniors two weeks later.
They claimed the NCS Board carried out the elevation without stipulating any criteria for the action and alleged that it was an opportunity for some outgoing high-ranking officers to reposition their beneficiaries, whom they helped into the service.
“The junior officers automatically became our superiors. It is still unbelievable that a junior officer that I gave directives to on a Friday would resume on a Monday to start dishing out instructions to me,” lamented one of them, who had all the while remained silent and cupped his chin with his palms.
After the promotion was announced, The PUNCH in a report, highlighted the grievances of some senior officers, channelled through a Superintendent of Customs that spoke on condition of anonymity for the fear of victimisation.
In a voice note made available to PUNCH Investigations, the officer referenced claims made by the NCS on why the action was taken.
He said, “We have a big problem in the service now. New entrants into the service were promoted a step ahead of their seniors. There was one step ahead for graduate intakes of 2009, 2011 and 2013 but we, the old officers, did not get such.
“Our juniors became our seniors without criteria or due process. We were employed in 1992. Promotion came out and these men were elevated. I am a superintendent, but my juniors that were deputy superintendents, become superintendents, thereby meeting up with those of us that are old officers.
“These junior officers were later elevated one step ahead of us two weeks later and automatically became chief superintendents without following due process.
He added, “These junior officers joined the service as graduates, but some of us returned to school and went to the extent of obtaining master’s degrees while working. They are not more experienced than us because we have been in the service for many years before their recruitment. Second, if they were elevated based on the fact that they are graduates, we went to school with approval. They should retrace their steps because this will cause anarchy in the service.”
Suffering for government’s decision
In the unsigned statement titled, “A looming injustice, favouritism and abuse of due process in Nigeria Customs Service,” given to our correspondent at the venue of the discreet meeting mentioned earlier in the story, the aggrieved officers noted that the NCS explanation that a wide gap existed due to embargo on recruitment between 1992 and 1994, until 2009, was untenable.
The embargo, PUNCH Investigations learnt, led to stagnation in the agency, as several officers remained in the same rank for years.
It was gathered from the officers that about 75 per cent of old officials at the Nigeria Customs Training College, Abuja, were affected by the stagnation and forced to become subservient to the newly elevated junior officers.
This, the personnel lamented, was tantamount to bearing the consequences of a decision they knew nothing about.
They further alleged that the elevation in rank was not based on merited promotion or special performance, but on entry qualifications and argued it was not a factor for promotion in the public service rules.
The statement partly read, “Suffice it to say that really, an embargo and gap existed but it was not the fault of the older officers. The older ones suffered serious delays in promotion with some of them staying on the same rank for six to eight years with the attendant humiliation, deprivation and other effects.”
The officers described the elevation as blatant abuse of due process in a regimented public service, noting that if allowed to stand, could decrease productivity and jeopardise the revenue target of NCS.
“The morale of older officers is presently at its lowest ebb,” he said, sighing deeply.
“Older officers now give compliments to younger officers and take instructions from them. These younger officers don’t have adequate experience to handle the challenges associated with higher positions and this may trigger lots of setbacks.
“This action will breed bad blood and indiscipline in the system as the older officers might not submit to overnight superior officers. This will cause disaffection and rancour. Some older officers may be forced to exit untimely and unprepared with the attendant effect on their lives, their families and society.”
The unhappy officers alleged that most of those behind the elevation have one year to exit the service, adding, “Most of the beneficiaries are their children and relatives that they helped into the service.’’
Before the meeting ended, one of them, who unashamedly became emotional, lamented, “I enlisted into the service with an OND, but returned to the classroom and upgraded to HND. Presently, I have a master’s degree. This is quite insensitive.”
AYCF faults earlier exercise
PUNCH Investigations gathered that before the promotion was announced, the Arewa Youth Consultative Forum, a political and cultural association of leaders in the North, got wind of it and warned about the inherent consequences of carrying out what it described as a “selective” exercise.
The National President, Yerima Shettima, in a statement appealed to President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd), to correct the anomaly and prevent national calamity that might arise from the action.
After the exercise, the association noted that despite pleas to reconsider the controversial exercise for the sake of institutional growth, the NCS Board still went ahead.
AYCF insisted that the explanation put up by the NCS that the set of officers employed between 1992 and 1994, were employed as junior officers cannot stand, as most had improved their skills and capacity.
It argued that at the point of promotion, the statutory requirement was not the qualification at the point of entry but rather qualification at the point of promotion or elevation.
“Information available to Arewa Youth Consultative Forum confirmed that despite our plea to Nigeria Customs Service on 27 February, 2022, to reconsider its controversial plan to elevate certain group of officers who joined the service between 2009 and 2015, leaving behind those that joined the service between 1992 and 1994, the service proceeded with the widely-condemned plan.
“We wish to re-state our stand against this policy that smacks of administrative abuse, injustice and to further declare as follows: That this selective exclusion in the name of elevation plan should be cancelled immediately, so that everybody can now be carried along,’’ AYCF stated.
Reacting to the AYCF, the NCS spokesperson, Bomadi said the decision was best of the lot taken.
He said, “Suffice it to say that every organisation plans both for the present and the future. What seemed apparent for the future of the NCS, if nothing was going to be done about the present, is the emergence of a yawning chasm in the horizon that most certainly would have left the service in disarray. This decision was borne out of necessity. Its expediency, when juxtaposed against its present impact, would eventually vindicate the decision of the NCS Board. Indeed, many options were also considered within the framework of Public Service Regulations. Let’s just say this was the best of the lot.”
Public Service Rules on promotion
Though the NCS is officially under the public service, it is, however, an independent agency under the supervisory oversight of the Federal Ministry of Finance, Budget and National Planning.
It is responsible for the collection of customs revenue, facilitation of both national and international trade and anti-smuggling activities.
With the NCS spokesperson noting that many options were also considered within the framework of public service regulations, PUNCH Investigations extracted the portion of the rules specific to promotion.
Section 7 of the Public Service Rules, sheds light on promotion, but subsection (B) and (C), explicitly stated that the only criteria for exempting an officer from promotion is when under disciplinary action.
It stated, “(b) All officers who fall within the field of selection for any promotion exercise shall be considered except those who are under disciplinary action.
“The minimum number of years that an officer must spend in a post before being considered eligible for promotion shall be as follows: Grade Level of Staff Number of Years in Post 06 and below Minimum of 2 years; 07-14 Minimum of 3 years; 15-17 Minimum of 4 years.
“(c) Promotion shall be made strictly on the basis of competitive merit from amongst all eligible candidates.
“(i) In assessing the merit of officers, a clear distinction shall be made between their records of performance or efficiency in lower grades and their potential for promotion, i.e. ability and competence to perform the duties and responsibilities of the higher post efficiently.
(ii) Seniority and previous records of performance will be taken into account in choosing between candidates with equal potential for promotion. (iii) In all cases, however, a generally satisfactory record of conduct shall also be considered.”
Customs law on promotion
Going by the ‘Customs and Excise Preventive Service Regulation of 1963,’ the NCS remains under the control and management of the board, but the Comptroller-General is responsible for matters affecting recruitment, advancement and discipline within the service of a certain rank.
It stated, “The Comptroller-General may, within the limits of approved establishment, fill by promotion or fresh appointment all vacancies in the service below the rank of assistant superintendent, which may occur from time to time through any cause whatsoever, and every such appointment shall be deemed to be an appointment under these regulations.”
Citing the regulations, the aggrieved officers argued that if the Comptroller-General was empowered to fill gaps by promotion and appointment of the aforementioned rank, then, no gap could have existed within the said time the Federal Government embargo existed.
They alleged that between 1994 and 2009, the service carried out unadvertised recruitments.
NCS employment from 2009
PUNCH Investigations after an extensive search found no record of any employment from 1994 to 2008, but on July 3, 2009, the NCS, on its website, updated information concerning the training for successful candidates in a recruitment exercise.
The number of recruits was not mentioned, but they were directed to report on July 5 for basic training meant to commence on 6, at various training points across the country.
Not long after, on July 21, the Assistant Comptroller General in charge of training and staff development, Salisu Argungun, announced that the Federal Government had approved the recruitment of additional 5000 officers to boost its operation, as the last batch of recruits would finish their training by the end of the year.
Though several recruitments have since taken place, the actual number of officers employed so far or timelines of recruitments up to date remains a mystery.
Previous NCS promotion exercise
With the said embargo placed on promotion seemingly lifted, in 2015, the NCS announced the promotion of 2065 senior officers that participated in the 2014 computer-based promotion exercise.
Based on reports, the then Comptroller-General of Customs, Dikko Inde Abdullahi, gave the approval following ratification by the NCS Board.
Similarly, in 2018, the CG of Customs, Col. Hameed Ibrahim Ali (Retd), approved the promotion of 775 junior officers to various ranks.
The NCS said that the promotion was based strictly on merit, while cumulative marks of annual performance evaluation, written examination and availability of vacancies, determined those eligible for promotion.
2020 saw the promotion of 2,974 junior officers to various ranks, which was followed by this recent exercise that became an issue of contention.
“Decision not designed to punish anybody”
Contacted by PUNCH Investigations, the NCS spokesman, Bomadi, denied the elevation of those in the lower cadre above senior officers.
He explained that proper placement of promoted officers was carried out among those recruited in 2009 and 2011, who were not promoted within the period.
“The service discovered there was going to be a problem in future if this group was left unattended due to the gap. That meant that most of the people that are there presently, by the time they leave, the gap can’t be filled.
“If you have a gap in promotion, that gap can’t be filled if there’s no way to make up for what has been caused. So, that was what informed the action,” Bomadi said.
He further explained that the agency was trying to address a hiatus in recruitment, adding, “It’s not this administration that caused this no recruitment issue, but we are trying to address it by making adjustments. If the gaps are not properly filled, there will be gaps in the future and the service is going to have problems.
“It was a hard decision. The best way for us to solve the problem was to have an accelerated movement for them. It was just to close the gap that existed, nothing more. It was not designed to punish anybody, or to give a special reward but to close a gap that the management felt will occur in future.
“We can’t go to the past to talk about the past. If something happened in the past and we feel that it’s going to affect the future, won’t we take action to avoid that occurrence? So, that is what management did.
“So, will somebody say that because something was not done in the past, then nothing should be done in the present and that the future can go to hell? Is that how we plan for the country?”
When told that the exercise was being perceived in bad light and creating disaffection, Bomadi said, “For every action there are consequences. It was not an easy decision. The good will always avail the bad because we are looking at the future of the Nigeria Custom Service, not at any particular individual. At the end of the day, the service will forge ahead in spite of the challenges of the present.”
Related promotions’ imbroglio
Even though there are other paramilitary agencies directly under the control of the Ministry of Interior, the Nigerian Correctional Service, Nigeria Immigration Service and Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, specifically, have in the past been variously linked to promotion lopsidedness by aggrieved officers.
PUNCH Investigations learnt that this created disaffection and an unhealthy work environment. It is worthy to note that Customs was once under the Ministry of Interior.
NIS alleged nepotism in promotion
In August, 2016, following an alleged sudden cancellation of a computer-based test meant for promotion exercise without an official explanation, a tense atmosphere enveloped the NIS.
The cancellation was made known by the then Comptroller General of NIS, Mohammad Babandede, while announcing that some 2000 dismissed recruits would be re-screened before being re-absorbed into the service.
The 2000 recruits, who had been protesting at the National Assembly and the Ministry of Interior for their reinstatement, were employed by a Presidential Committee set up by former President Goodluck Jonathan in 2015, after the March 2014 tragic recruitment exercise that led to the death of many candidates.
In as much as another promotion exercise examination was rescheduled, some unhappy officers alleged that the cancellation was meant to favour a section of the country that performed woefully and might not have made it up to the cut off mark, as the CBT was used for the first time to determine those eligible for promotion.
The personnel also accused the NIS hierarchy of highhandedness, nepotism and arbitrariness.
They claimed the NIS was systematically side-lining, deliberately promoting, posting, and replacing senior officers with loyal junior officers from a section of the country.
In his explanation, the NIS spokesperson at the time, King Ekpedeme, said only the new recruits were being re-screened and that no promotion examination was held.
Similarly, in 2014, some officers of the Nigerian Correctional Services appealed to the Controller-General of Prisons, the then Minister of Interior, Abba Moro, and the Civil Defence, Fire Service, Immigration and Prisons Board to correct alleged irregularities that characterised a promotion exercise carried out in 2013.
The officers, whose identities remained protected for fear of dismissal, claimed that many of them who were qualified for promotion had their names omitted, while unqualified ones promoted in 2011, got promoted again.
They also claimed that some officers that didn’t sit the promotional exam were promoted, noting that the action was contrary to the public service rules.
“Some officers who were last promoted in 2009 and 2010 were dropped, while those promoted in 2011 and are on the ranks of Superintendent and Deputy Superintendent of Prisons, were promoted to Chief Superintendent of Prisons,” they alleged.
The aggrieved officers argued that the public service rules stipulated that senior officers are qualified for promotion once they are up to three years on a rank, and dependent on vacancies that exist.
One of them, who contacted PUNCH Investigations lamented that years after, he had yet to benefit from the 2013 promotion and said a deep-seated frustration still simmers among those affected.
Speaking on present and age-long promotion irregularities in NCS, a senior officer that spoke with PUNCH Investigations on condition of anonymity, said promotion within the service is dependent on the cadre of the officers – commissioned and non-commissioned officers.
He said, “The rank of commissioned officer starts from Assistant Superintendent upwards, while that of a non-commissioned officer is from Assistant Inspector down.
“For commissioned officers, the Civil Defence, Fire, Immigration and Prisons Services Board, which is chaired by the Minister of Interior, conducts promotion interviews, while that of non-commissioned officers is at the discretion of the Controller-General.”
He noted that senior officers can only be due for promotion after staying on a rank for at least three years, adding, “If they sit for an exam and a vacancy exists in the next rank, they get promoted.
“The higher you go as an officer, the cooler it becomes and less, the vacancies. Just like it is obtainable in the military, after a certain rank, other considerations and criteria are attached to reflect the diversity of the nation.
“Apart from passing the oral and written interviews, there are certain criteria like geo-political zoning that is used as criteria for higher positions.”
The source said the 2012/2013 promotion debacle affected those in the lower cadre, noting that their promotion was based on qualifications.
He explained that a remote cause of what was being perceived as promotional injustice arose in the mid-90s, adding that it followed a Federal Government policy regarding those in paramilitaries that didn’t have university degrees.
“An action known as right-sizing was taken. Senior officers like Assistant Superintendent and Deputy Superintendent that got there by length of service but didn’t have the right qualifications were right-sized to inspectorate cadre. This swelled the number in that lower cadre.
“That was when the agency experienced a bit of delay, but successive Comptroller-Generals have cleared it. Promotion is now regular and frequent,” the source said.
The senior officer urged aggrieved personnel to write to the Chairman of the Civil Defence, Fire, Immigration and Prisons Services Board for accelerated hearing.
“Each Para-military agency has a unique act of establishment. So, if the act doesn’t cover some issues, the public service rules will be applied,” he added.
NSCDC promotion stagnation
The Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, was for years, rocked by similar allegations.
The extent to which promotion irregularities affected the agency was exposed by its Commandant-General, Ahmed Audi, in June 2021, while decorating and administering oaths to 19 newly promoted officers that had been stagnated for over 10 years.
The CG, during the ceremony, said the era of viewing promotion as a jamboree was over and gave an assurance that those deserving and due would be promoted, to boost personnel morale and keep the ranks in order.
Ironically, about 162 senior officers had their promotions and conversions withdrawn by the service for alleged document falsifications in the same month.
NSCDC addressing cases
The NSCDC spokesperson, Olusola Odumosu, in a chat with our correspondent, admitted that cases of delayed or irregular promotion arose years back, but assured that the new Commandant-General was addressing the l complaints.
He said, “The complaints about stagnation were on ground before he came on board and he has been able to address most of them. As of today, promotion exams are conducted annually. Those deserving get their promotion as and when due.’’
Godfatherism fuelled promotion irregularities, says security expert
A retired military officer and National Public Relations Officer, Association Of Licensed Private Security Practitioners of Nigeria, Okhidievbie Roy, blamed promotion irregularities, especially in the Customs, on godfatherism syndrome.
The veteran noted that Nigeria paramilitary agencies were bedevilled with the same consequences of dilapidation caused by lack of trust, motivation and incurable lapses in training.
He said, “As a godfather, you can request for the employment of those not meant to be in the Customs in the first place. You can’t talk about promotion without bringing in employment. Some of them didn’t pass through proper exams or screening systems.
“Now, when they are in the agency, there are tendencies that they could manipulate the apparatus of government by putting their names up for promotion without considering if their set is due for such. At the training centres and colleges, many of the rank and file officers are aggrieved.”
On the promotion of junior officers above seniors, the veteran said in the military, when a junior is promoted to a position above senior colleagues, they (seniors) must be compulsorily retired with necessary benefits.
“We can’t do anything about it for now till we begin to have good leadership and good governance at the apex, one that would remove its hands from activities of agencies for professionalism to prevail,” he added.
Also, a security risk management and intelligence specialist, Kabir Adamu said that grievances relating to promotion were a threat to internal security and could breed insecurities.
He identified discipline as the core principle guiding every security, paramilitary and intelligence organisation, noting that it could be threatened by anomaly like promotion discrepancies.
He said, “Grievance breeds its own insecurity, especially when there is a feeling that favouritism or other non-meritorious criteria were used for promotion or awards. Grievance can easily be exploited, first off, by our enemies.
“Let’s remember that our enemies have infiltrated most of these agencies and part of the reasons they succeeded is because of such grievances. When promotion is not conducted based on transparent policy, grievances would find a place to grow.’’
He added, “Grievances can also be exploited by fifth columnists that are unhappy with the system. That is why today, we wake up to find confidential and top-secret documents in the public domain. They are made public by people within the system, mainly because they are aggrieved over issues like this.
“To have people at the frontline that are riddled with this type of internal challenges is quite unfortunate. It’s of absolute importance to address issues like this, especially for a country that is in the middle of several wars. Agencies have to come out with a policy that is plain and transparent to address it.’’