As the nation awaits the resolution of the riddles surrounding the illegal importation of the large cache of arms and ammunition including rockets through the Apapa Ports in July, more damning and frightening details continue to ooze out from security sources about the arms import.
Sunday Vanguard reliably gathered that the investigating teams are still baffled about the mystery surrounding the loading port of the deadly cargoes. Whereas there have been various attempts to link the 13 containers of arms to Iran, Hamas fighters in Gaza, etc, insiders insisted that investigations so far have revealed that before the cargoes arrived the Lagos ports, they had gone through trans-shipment in Greece, Spain and India. However, there is no certainty yet about the original loading sea port.
It was further learnt that although the 13 containers (alongside 70 others), consigned to one Mr. Ali Abbas Usman Jega of No. 6B Nouakchott Street, Wuse Zone 1, Abuja, arrived the ports on July 15, 2010 on board the vessel MV CMA CGM Everest through doctored manifest and without Form M, it was the unsuccessful attempt to convert the containers to diplomatic cargo and trans ship or re-export same to State House, Banjul, The Gambia, that aroused the suspicion of the State Security Service (SSS), which raised a red flag to the Customs Area Comptroller, Apapa Ports.
Sources confirmed that when the doctored manifest details were electronically-imputed into the Customs ASYCUDA System, they showed that not only did the cargoes not have Form M, there was also no Risk Assessment Report (RAR), a clear violation of the cargo clearance process in Nigeria. Although an alert concerning the cargoes was raised, neither the importer nor the agent came forth to make any declaration. And, if there was no declaration (laying of claim),the Customs could only keep an eye on the containers pending the expiration of the 90 days permitted by law before being put on the Uncleared Cargo List.
The Gambian connection
Sunday Vanguard was told that suspicions heightened when, in August, a Customs licensed company, Jedo Investment Company, first attempted to re-export the containers to Banjul, The Gambia - a request that was rejected because only a shipping company could make such application to the Customs. Then, in September, a shipping company, CMA CGM Delmas Nigeria Ltd, submitted a purported manifest amendment to change the consignee to Kanilai Farms, State House, Banjul, The Gambia. This would have facilitated a seamless re-shipment as a diplomatic cargo, except that there was no formal notification from The Gambian High Commission. Two, there was no Form CCI, a mandatory document for diplomatic shipment.
Meanwhile, the two export officers of the Customs Service who may have been involved in the re-shipment efforts have since been with the SSS for interrogation.
More worrisome to the investigators is also the allegation that the Iranian suspect in the illegal arms saga had domiciled in a notable first generation top rate hotel in Abuja for three months to the knowledge of the security agencies. However, not a few Nigerians and security experts have queried why the security personnel did not act promptly with such information at their disposal.
However, experts had argued that had the Ports Service Providers, who got the multi-million naira contracts to install fixed scanners at the nation's ports since January 1, 2006, worked to contract terms, the Customs Service would have been able to detect the content of the 13 cargoes since July 2010, whether anyone made a claim to ownership or not. (Fixed scanners allow easy viewing of the content of containers, vertically and horizontally, whereas the mobile scanners which are in use, do not). But about five years into a seven-year contract, these contractors, who have earned great profit, had put Nigeria at a disadvantage because of the non-installation of the fixed scanners.
Rather than scan and know the content of cargoes, the Customs and security services still have to do manual inspection, only after the export seal may have been broken within the law, with all the disadvantages and temptations attached to human involvement in port clearing.
The nation woke up on Tuesday October 26, 2010, to a frightening story of illegal importation of 13 containers of arms and ammunition through the Lagos ports since July 15, 2010. Upon joint examination by the Customs and all the security agencies at the ports on October 26, the containers were discovered to have been concealed within marble slabs ammunition of various calibers including 7.65mm light ammunition with cartridges, 60mm, 80mm and 120mm mortar, rockets with firing pins and grenades.
The anxiety was fueled by the fear of illegal use of firearms, especially in view of the October 1 twin-bomb blasts which led to loss of 14 lives near the Eagle Square venue of the national parade for the 50th independence anniversary, the Boko Haram insurrection in the North-East and armed militancy in the Niger Delta region and serial kidnappings in the South-East. The SSS has since charged some suspects to court while the alleged mastermind, Mr. Henry Okah, is facing trial in a Johannesburg court for alleged involvement in the October 1 blasts in Nigeria.
Mean time, the National Security Adviser, General Andrew Azazi (rtd), has urged Nigerians not to jump into conclusion till investigations are concluded.
UN joins probe,reports Hugo Odiogor
Meanwhile, the United Nations (UN), plans to send a three-man team to Nigeria to get first hand information on the illegal imported arms, Sunday Vanguard has learnt.
The UN is said to be worried about the implications of the arms movement to the ongoing initiative to ban illegal trade in arms by its members. The world body is also concerned about the prospects of internal and regional arms race in Nigeria and in the West African sub-region where civil wars and internal conflicts have propelled the propensity to spend huge resources to acquire deadly weapons.
The UN team, expected in the country next week, according to diplomatic sources, is interested in getting a clearer picture and accurate information on the origin and destination of the arms, and the choice of Nigeria as a trans-shipment point. According to Sunday Vanguard sources, the UN is worried about the arms haul in Nigeria which came at a time there is a global move to halt illegal trade in arms through the UN's Small Arms Treaty. The treaty is scheduled to be ratified before the end of the year as part of efforts to combat international terrorism.
If passed by the UN and endorsed by national governments across the world, the UN's Arms Sales Treaty would compel the national governments to, among others, enact tougher licensing requirements, making law-abiding citizens face tougher bureaucratic red tape before owning firearms legally; confiscate and destroy all "unauthorised" civilian firearms (this excludes all weapons owned by governments); ban the trade, sale and private ownership of all semi-a utomatic weapons; and create an international gun registry, setting the stage for full-scale gun confiscation.
However, there are questions on whether Nigeria will destroy the intercepted arms and ammunition or keep them as part of its armoury. There are also worries that Nigeria could become a dumping ground for "all kinds of weapon into the west coast." Nigeria is a signatory to international conventions on non-proliferation of small and light weapons, and one of the major promoters of the initiative in the West African sub-region. But whereas our neighbours have shown better resolve in promoting human security, Nigeria has not been seen to be doing much despite the presence of multiple agencies including Task Forces.
An expert in conflict resolution, Dr. Ademola Adeleke, told Sunday Vanguard: "there is a lot of misinformation concerning the seized arms saga as the attempt to throw the issue into the international domain by linking the cargo to Hamas may have served the primary purpose of momentarily diffusing domestic tension. Yet, the fact remains that we are very far from getting to the roots of the matter and the government as usual will compound the issue by withholding information from Nigerians. Adeleke dismissed as wrong the attempt to drag Nigeria into the politics of the Middle-East because the imported arms came into the country illegally and the Nigerian government security operatives were alerted early enough to intercept the cargoes. He said it was wrong for anybody to brand Nigeria as part of Hamas axis as insinuated by The Jerusalem Post, an Israeli newspaper. There are moves reportedly initiated by the Presidency to improve on the pro-activeness of its security asset as well as solicit more international
co-operation and seriousness on the part of local operatives.
The Dean, College of Development Studies at the Covenant University, Ota, Ogun State, Professor Kayode, contended that with what is happening in our security community, "every Nigerian is a potential refugee and the worst thing that could happen to the middle class will be a situation where those who are living comfortably would queue for food in refugee camps. This is a prospect that stares Nigerians in the face as the political class drives the country to the precipice because of their inability to manage their greed," Kayode told Sunday Vanguard.
He said what is playing out is the failure of the Nigerian state and the political class to place the interest of the nation above sectional interests and with the elections in 2011 approaching, the issue of physical security has become urgent.