In other climes he would be a national hero, promoted for his heroism and with various material rewards. Mr. Umoh Sunday Etim performed the unusual feat of arresting former Liberian President, Mr. Charles Taylor, with his team, and handed him over to the Nigerian government, while the latter was fleeing from the long arms of the law over war crimes he committed. He saved Nigeria the international embarrassment and sanctions that could have been visited on the nation. Recently, Taylor was sentenced by a United Nations-backed international court at The Hague, Netherlands.
But 12 years after his arrest, AkwaIbom State-born Etim is not thumping his chest, neither is he happy about his lot. He is an aggrieved man because of a system that refused to reward patriotism and integrity. Etim recalls the capture of the ex-warlord, a feat that appears to have become his undoing in the Nigeria Customs Service(NCS), just as he recounts the sad story of his dismissal on account of an offence he was not culpable of six years after, when others who were implicated alongside him, have been reinstated. Excerpts...
When did you join the Customs Service? I joined the Nigeria Customs Service in December 1987, after which I was sent to the training school at Ikeja, Lagos. After the training, my first posting was to Katsina State, later Kaduna and Kano. In 2000, I was transferred to Apapa Area Command in Lagos. I was there till 2004 when I was transferred to Borno-Yobe Area Command. On March 29, 2006, I arrested the fugitive ex-Liberian warlord, Charles Taylor, and handed him over to the Government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
What was your rank then? I was an Inspector of Customs on Level 07. I wasn't in charge; we were a team. The Borno-Yobe Command is mostly an enforcement area, which means it is an area we patrol border to border in order to curtail smuggling. We came from headquarters in Maidugurito Gamboru-Ngala; that is the name of that particular border area. While there, we split our team. Some officers would be in the area command, some in the outstation while some patrol other areas where smuggling could possibly be taking place. So, I was one of the officers left at the outstation office. It was while there at 6 a.m. on March 29, 2006, that Mr. Charles Taylor tried to escape.
About 5 a.m., because I normally listened to the Voice of America, I learnt that Taylor had escaped from his residence in Calabar since Monday of that week. Also, they said the President at the time, Chief
Olusegun Obasanjo, was in the United States trying to see President George Bush, but he was not allowed to see him. Bush insisted that Obasanjo should produce Taylor before granting him audience. That news did not go down well with me. I said how can my president be so humiliated? But, thankfully, an hour later, little did I know that Taylor was going to use Gamboru as escape route to Cameroun.
At 0600 hours, an ash-colored Range Rover jeep tried to cross the border. It tried to meander through the barricade at the gate; whereas the formality is that any vehicle crossing the border must stop at the Customs gate for necessary checking, and then granted passage. But this particular vehicle Taylor was in did not stop for Customs formality. Rather, it headed straight for the outward gate manned by immigration officers. Once it crossed that gate, it would enter Cameroun. A resident officer named Ekandem was trying to hoist Nigeria's flag that morning when he saw the vehicle trying to pass, so he ran inside to inform me. I ran out immediately and followed it. The vehicle had a diplomatic number from the Liberian Embassy. As I followed it, I instructed the immigration officer not to allow the vehicle to pass because it had not stopped for Customs check. So, the vehicle stopped there and three passengers alighted and came to me - an elderly woman and two men. They said they had been asked to drop the woman at the nearest village in Cameroun and that they were coming back with the vehicle. I told them I would not listen until they bring the vehicle back to our station. They continued pleading, but I refused to budge. I went inside and instructed another officer to ensure the vehicle was brought back to the station. His name was Madaki.
So, when he went there, the people followed him with the vehicle. I ordered the driver to come down and asked him for the papers. He brought out a paper on which was written: "To whom it may concern.
The Embassy of Liberia extends its compliments and wishes to inform of its diplomatic mission on tour in and around the Federal Republic of Nigeria." But the two men had told me they wanted to drop the old woman across the border. This aroused my curiosity because the paper said in and around Nigeria. What were they doing at the border? The vehicle had a diplomatic license plate number 81CD-85.
After collecting the paper, I asked the driver to open the car to see what was inside. He hesitated, but when he saw that I was serious he opened it. I discovered two more occupants, a man and a young lady. Immediately, the lady came out, she took a briefcase from the car and tried to unzip it. I told her to stop and asked her who the man was.
She said the man was sick, that they were taking him to a hospital in Cameroun. This was another statement entirely. I said if this man was sick and couldn't use a hospital in Nigeria, let me see him. The man had a veil with a cap like the Arabs and was wearing dark sunglasses. I asked him to remove it.
The lady said because of his sickness, the sun would affect him. But at that time there was no sun as it was harmattan season. I insisted and he removed the veil. Though I had not met Taylor before then, only on television and newspapers, his face registered immediately he removed the veil. I said, "You are Charles Taylor", and he said yes. Then he said the presidency was aware of his movement. I felt that was a gimmick for him to accomplish his mission, because if the presidency was aware, we at the border should also be aware as our Comptroller-General would have been contacted and information passed down to us that a diplomatic mission was going to pass through and we should assist them. But we did not receive any such message. So, I suspected he was trying to escape.
The person in charge of my patrol was not with me at that station. So, I called the immigration officer that assisted me to stop the vehicle and informed them that the man inside the jeep was Charles Taylor. He didn't know what to do; he was just confused as he went to inform his colleagues. I detailed my officers to make sure Taylor does not escape from the vehicle. I went back to remove the key from the ignition, but I wasn't familiar with the vehicle, so I didn't know the key was where the gear is. As I was looking for it, Taylor rushed from the back to remove the key where it was and threw it outside. So, we couldn't find the key afterwards such that it had to be towed from that place. I went to inform my OC who was happy at the news, though initially when I told him he was laughing because he couldn't believe it, until another officer with him asked again and followed me after seeing my seriousness, my OC also followed to see for himself.
By the time we arrived, the whole place had become crowded with officers of various security outfits. The Nigerian Army is always on patrol at that border, the soldiers had come that morning to freshen up when they stumbled on the operation. The police also stumbled on it, then, confusion set in. The immigration officers brought their vehicle to convey Charles Taylor to Maiduguri, so also the State Security Services, who came on hearing the noise. They went to hire a vehicle to convey him. But we said no, that since we had a vehicle available and we (Nigeria Customs Service) arrested him, we were going to convey Charles Taylor to our headquarters in Maiduguri because the incident happened on the outskirts of the town. But we agreed that officers from the other security outfits could escort us to town, so the soldiers and the police delegated two of their officers each to follow us.
However, on our way, there was a Massa Local Government where we were ambushed by the police, because they had been signal led by their colleagues and an Assistant Police Commissioner had been deployed there with other officers to hijack the operation, but we were able to maneuver and pass through. Still on getting to the local government, soldiers also came; two patrol teams led by a lieutenant colonel had barricaded the road, so we couldn't pass. We had to stop, and they wanted to transfer Charles Taylor into their vehicle, but our Comptroller General, who was constantly in touch with us, told us that on no account should we hand over the man, but they could lead the way, or follow us, that Charles Taylor should remain in our (Customs) vehicle.
What about other occupants of the vehicle? The woman and the other men escaped during the ensuing confusion. By the time we returned, we didn't see them again. But the young lady, we later learnt was Charles Taylor's niece, was with him. We took her in another vehicle with their luggage to Maiduguri. There was no key to drive their jeep to Maiduguri; it was two days later that it was towed.
So, the soldiers were insisting on taking Charles Taylor, but we refused, and our Comptroller now deployed another unit of command to join us. When they arrived, they reached a compromise, with the soldiers agreeing to lead the way, and the police behind us, followed by immigration. On getting to Maiduguri, soldiers had barricaded the gate to our office, asking us to take Charles Taylor to their barracks. So, our Comptroller now had to come out to instruct that we should take Charles Taylor there, 1 Amphibious Brigade in Maiduguri. We got there and handed him over to the military, then he was transported to Sierra Leone.
Before we handed him over, on our way I noticed that Charles Taylor was trying to put hands in his pockets. The first time, I pretended I didn't see him; he was sitting between me and an officer from immigration. But the second time I cautioned and asked him what he was looking for, and he said, "I want to chew gum." Then, I said, "You want to chew gum in this condition you are?" And it struck me at that point (having watched a lot of James Bond 007 movies), that James Bond could be chewing gum here and a bomb could explode somewhere else. And I thought, maybe this man wants to use one of those James Bond tactics. So, I cautioned and told him that I did not handcuff him because I wanted to respect him as an ex-African leader. But I told him that if he chose to throw the respect away, I would handcuff him like a common criminal. I asked him to hold on to the rail in the vehicle, which he did till we got to Maiduguri.
Later, after we heard security reports, we thanked God, because when they took Mr. Charles Taylor to the airport and searched him (we did not search him because of the tussle between the security forces over who should carry him), they found that he tied a grenade to his scrotum. That meant that at the time he was trying to put his hand into his pocket, he was trying to detonate it. So, I thank God that I noticed and cautioned him otherwise we would all have been killed.
And if that happened, maybe that's when the Federal Government would remember to honor me, and call my wife to give her some money. But I'm alive now, nothing has happened. And like I told you, the lady who brought out a brief case tried to open the brief case, but I told her not to. Given the reputation of Charles Taylor, I didn't trust him; it could be gun or native charm. Then, he told me there was 200,000 US dollars in the brief case and that I could have everything. At a point I had to slap the lady to close the brief case, then Taylor was holding another one, and he said if that was not enough for me I could have the one he was holding also, which he said contained 250,000 US dollars. He said I could have both suitcases containing 450,000 US dollars altogether, and allow him to go.
But I told him that because of him my president was in the US waiting to see George Bush, but he refused to see him, and if I collect the money and allow him to go, what embarrassment would I cause my country? And again, that the European Union, the United Nations and American government are promising to bombard Nigeria with sanctions. If I collect this money, it would do me well, but what about the rest of the Nigerian masses these sanctions would affect? These were the things I considered at that moment.
But that was so much money, how much were you earning as salary at the time? What I was earning was of no consequence because this is a job I was paid to do. Arresting human beings might not really be my area of duty, but when a situation like that arose, it called for cooperation from all agencies; because, if the man had succeeded in his escape bid, the sanctions that would be slammed on the nation would have affected the common people. The elite may not feel it, neither me, if I had collected the money. My salary then was just a little over N27,000, but I did not consider that.
So, you decided to forego the $450,000 he promised you? He was not promising me the sum; he was actually giving it to me. He ordered the lady to give me the briefcase, and his own too, to allow them to go, but I said 'no'. Though the money would do a lot for me, what about the rest of Nigerians that would suffer the consequences of the sanctions we were being threatened with?
I wanted to show that though Nigerians are perceived as corrupt, there are still some patriotic ones that are honest.