Otu Toyo

It may not be wrong to address the Comptroller-General of the Nigerian Custom Service as Alhaji Hameed Ali but I am not sure that anyone who dares will get anything better than a frosty relpy.

Ali may be an Alhaji who may have performed the Holy pilgrimage more than the stipulated minimum number of times, he may also lately have developed a preference for going to work in Babanriga or embroidered kaftan but do not let any of that fool you.

This Ali is a thoroughbred soldier. A Colonel, retired colonel, one with a reputation for ram rod honesty and efficiency. He also retains a fierce pride in his membership of that select institution, the Nigerian Army. Which is why one does not address Ali as anything other than Colonel Ali. Admirable attachment one can say.

It is a sad commentary on the list of well trained, capable officers who have been retired from the Nigerian Armed Forces before reaching their prime that after so much resources have been invested into the project of turning these raw boys into prime fighting and administrative machines, they are retired before the country can tap the full benefits of that investment. With every premature retirement, the forces become poorer. Not so in Ali’s case, for even though lost to the army, his expertise was well utilised as the face and voice of the Area Consultative Forum; the mythical but powerful think tank which represents the conservative northern nigerian political point of view.

At about the time his work for Arewa was birthed, Nigeria needed a man with Ali’s reputation and credentials to clean up what has become Nigeria’s poster department for corruption. He was just the right kind of man for the job so what had been the army’s loss, also became the Custom’s gain. No one however, absolutely no one foresaw at the time, that even though it was a fairly easy task to take Ali from the Army, it will be a national struggle to take the Army from him.

By all indications Ali is doing a good job putting the Custom back into shape, no one quarrels with his output. It’s just that in those forces and services, dressing is a major consideration. So as CG, Ali has a specially designed uniform. Every Bona Fide Custom faithful will fast for months just for the privilege to don that garb. Not so Ali. He will have nothing to do with that fancy dress. He is a soldier and will, if he has his way, die as one. So began the National process of trying to coax Ali into his Custom CG uniforms. It was not until he said it with bewildering emphasis the other day, that anyone else but him knew that he was allergic to every other uniform but his army issue.

It started very innocuously at first with everyone expecting him to turn up the next day in his official uniform but those days led to months. Despite all entreaties, the Colonel stood his ground, he will not not dorn any other green but that of the army. Naturally, it did not take long for the Senate to notice Col. Ali’s reluctance to “dress properly” at work. Not exactly known to be agile on serious matters like the Petroleum Industry Bill, the Senate sensed a chance to perform another important national duty. This was not quite in the class of reviewing the electoral act but it will have to do. The comical national relief featuring over one hundred Senator’s trying to cajole, beg and threaten a reluctant Col. Ali into a CG of Customs uniform was an interesting episode in a series of comical plays choreographed in the Senate. Fresh from another very tedious national duty, the rejection of Ibrahim Magu as the Chairman of the EFCC, our ever reliable lawmakers set to work. This could turn out to be their most productive week since their argumentative session on whether it had the right to invite Lamorde over, just to say what he knew about the fate of EFCC seizures. On that occasion the Senate rose as one against itself. Eventually everything went back to normal and our Senators were content to leave it things the way they are, before the Lamorde disclosures ruffle a few senatorial feathers.

Now here was another auspicious occasion to show how hard working and patriotic the Senator’s indeed are. They must be seen working as one to deliver Col Ali to his CG uniform or deliver the uniform to him. Whichever way, the 109 elected members of the Nigerian Senate would have earned their keep.

After a few verbal skirmishes, the battle was joined when the Senate invited the Colonel to its chamber for a first hand insight into why their committee’s oversight function has failed to convince the CG to do the needful, wear the CG uniform. After an initial detour, Ali arrived at the Senate but serious business could not be conducted because the Senate insisted it can not talk to an improperly dressed Comptroller General. So if Ali wants to talk to the Senate he now knows what to do. With the approval of his budget exercising his disciplined mind, I am sure it will not take the Colonel too long to make up his mind on what to wear when next he goes calling at the red chamber.

A good soldier, Ali beat a retreat to save his materiel but it is doubtful whether he will come back guns blazing, now that the rules of engagement have changed and the battle is in “enemy territory”. This “enemy” may have creatively cornered the Colonel. He does not hold the aces. But that’s quite understandable, Don’t forget there are battle scarred Senators in the National Assembly too.

The Senate is the arm of government which is constitutionally charged with the oversight functions to superintendent over every arm of the presidency which includes the Armed Forces and the Customs Service. There is therefore little room for manoeuvre for Ali. As things stand, he has just as much chance as a cockroach that goes for justice in the Supreme court of Broilers. My guess is that patriotic considerations will win over and the Colonel will soon rationalise that if he could wear the APC campaign uniform with pride, customs uniform is even more worthy of his consideration.

It is not difficult to see why Comptroller-General Ali was in such a dilemma. He is a quintessential product of the Nigerian Military which has, in the main, very sadly refused to redirect its mentality from its colonial, authoritarian and civil war heritage. It has retained a sharp edged entitlement syndrome peculiar to medieval forces of occupation. Hence this believe by the military that it is entitled to certain privileges which gives it some form of immunity from the control of civil and legal authority. It’s a hang over from years of command rule of our country by I’ll disciplined soldiers who managed to stage successful coups against constitutionally valid authorities and their pernicious internal struggles for raw and unauthorised power in a series of counter coups. The world has moved beyond that now. Even the most powerful military in the world is subordinate to civil authority.

Looked at from another disciplinary angle, the retired Colonel could, with good justification be assumed to be exhibiting gross misconduct. There is a stipulated (official) mode of dressing for the CG of the customs service and that should be the end of that argument. Anybody occupying that office should take that as a given. It comes with the territory.

Other than the intrusion of this aforementioned conqueror mentality which should, given their training, in fact act in obedience of all legal and constitutional authority, no disciplined or armed corp can constitutionally claim superiority over the other. For the simple reason that they all perform different but vital roles in the effort to keep our country afloat, safe and prosperous. That other level of interactive operation can only be sustained at the level of peer rivalry and competition for bragging rights and not extended to formal national duties.

Many people can recollect the mustachioed Major General Babmayi who was brought in to head the Nigerian Drug Law Enforcement Agency for a period there. This officer’s fierce demeanor resplendent in NDLEA uniform must have contributed to the reputation the agency carved out as a no nonsense department. Major General Hananniya was not forced to wear the Corps Marshall’s rig, he wore it as a duty with the pride and the mentality of a trained and disciplined soldier who held a serious command. How can any officer command a corps of persons whose uniform (and by that act, their persons) he/she considers inferior to his/hers. Nothing can be more backward. It is a recipe for mutiny and chaos.

Since they are constitutionally charged with performing the oversight function on Government institutions and it is their duty to look into the management and conduct of such departments or agencies. The Senator’s owe it to the nation to nip any disgraceful infractions before they lead to a breakdown of discipline and order. So they are not overstepping their limits. There is in fact a legally constituted Senate committee for that job. So one can see why this task is so important to our Senate. Did anyone mention the PIB? Have a heart, will you! Everyone with eyes can see that the Distinguished citizens are busy, hard at work trying to dress Col Ali up for Duty.

The world over, Customs men are uniformed men. It is as old as the vocation. It is the tradition, It is historic and it is expected. There have even been the example of a higher serving and retired officers setting the tone. It will help the Senate to come to a fair conclusion in their self imposed sartorial duty to find out if Hameed sleeps in his Army issued tunic and moves about at home in the uniform of veterans. We already have a minister who daily decks out in a red beret uniform, once upon a Governor, we had one perpetually dressed in khaki fatigues So nothing will shock the Law makers.

This whole episode is dragging out a bit too embarrassingly for our country. Can any serious country pay some very curiously endowed blokes over N36 million every month to spend time trying to figure out how to dress up a recalcitrant bloke?

If Hameed Ali chooses to live and die in the Uniform of his first Corp that’s a personal decision but he should quietly decline the offer to serve in the Customs and head home to his beloved Colonel’s uniform. If however, he is to remain the Comptroller-General of the Customs service, he must dress properly or be thrown out. It’s just that simple. He will not be the last CG and there are thousands others who can deliver a better job if given the same support by the President.

PMB can not be seen to be grappling every so often with stuff which would have been solved routinely. It’s getting embarrassing and the Hameeds of this world, if they are indeed his friends, should cut him some slack. What is there in wearing any uniform at all except it comes tainted with an objectionable history.

He should be advised to learn the wisdom brought forth in two typically philosophical messages on uniforms by our very own Fela Anikulakpo Kuti. In one he addresses the common roots or origins of all uniforms, when he says: “…uniform na cloth, na tailor the sew am…” So Organ Handed would be well advised to stop his discriminatory attitude towards other uniforms. In the other, he addresses the synthetic frailty and equality of even the highest uniforms, as he intones that, no matter how highly officious they are in presentations, it is still made of fabric and nothing more serious: “…khaki no be leather… ” warns the abami. Someone would have rescued the dignity of our Senate if they got the Colonel to learn these simple truths.

We have, as a country tolerated far too many distractive incidences and humored the perpetrating masquerades with for too much attention. Some issues should be dealt with official despatch. This country has far too many other pressing issues to deal with other than one guy’s wardrobe preferences. Discordant issues like this Ali issue are unhelpful at this time and it is understandable if anyone behind to question the motives behind these seemingly unrelated but serially occurring missteps. It ridicules the office of the CinC.

There are fringe complaints arising from the Senate’s very curious attempts to get”busy”. It is being observer in some sensitive quarters that the Senate is fast becoming a hub for the ridiculing of Presidency (if it has not already attained that distinction) It is a thought which is difficult to dismiss out of hand given certain developments within that chamber. However in this particular case, it will be tough to lay the blame of this avoidable conflict at the feet of the upper house of the legislature. Col. Ali was given all the room he needed to deescalate the uniform wahalla but he chose the path of obstinacy and eventually went to dare the upper chamber dressed in mufti. Upon this development, even this Senate, must have had enough.

Ordinarily good sense determines that if the Senate of the country gets involved in anything it should be treated as serious and if they are near unanimous on anything it should, failing any serious constitutional or social infringement be allowed to ride.

If our senate is noticed to have exhibited some sort of jaundiced behaviour, well, that’s the price we have to pay for mismanaging their DNA and tolerating their ridiculously selfish idiosyncrasies for so long. It’s like having to sort out a spoilt child, who perennially disgraces the family at adulthood.

In less than two years we will be voting in another Senate. It is left to be seen if we will be wiser in 2019.

Otu Toyo is an Architect and writes from Uyo.

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