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    What’s in a Customs uniform?


    If someone had popped the question – What is in a uniform? To me, my response would be as dramatic as the interrogator. My reply would be: Absolutely nothing but that would depend on where the questioner is coming from.

    The clothes we wear have cultural significance just as the names we bear. In Africa, people attach meanings to names they give to their children. Unlike the practice in Western societies where names play the same role as tags, traditional societies are different because names that people bear are symbolic and have cultural significance. Names reflect not only our ancestral history but also our family’s lived experiences. Professor of English Literature, Walter Ong, who died in 2003 argued that names were used as labels in developed, literate societies but in less developed,  non-Western societies, “Oral peoples commonly think of names …as conveying power over things… Oral folk have no sense of a name as a tag…”

    I am not too sure about the political and cultural implications of an official uniform we are compelled to wear in our workplaces. I am aware that dress code is strictly enforced in some professions and service agencies, such as the police force, banking, nursing, midwifery, medical profession, the armed forces, such as the Navy, the Air Force, the Army, Road Safety Corps, Immigration Services, Corrective Services Officers, who look after prisoners and the prisons, Civil Defence Corps, Customs Service, Security and Civil Defence Corps, the Fire Service and a whole lot more that I cannot list here.

    While it is a requirement that dress codes are no respecter of persons, we have seen through the ongoing stoush between senators and the Customs Comptroller-General, Colonel Hameed Ali, that your title in an organisation could buy you exemption from wearing uniforms. Or, how else could the head of an important agency of government refuse blatantly to wear his uniform when appearing before distinguished senators. I don’t understand what the fuss is all about.

    I have listened to arguments from both sides of the fence. Those who support senators in their determination to compel the Comptroller-General of Customs to wear his uniform when appearing before senators say the uniform is the institutional symbol of the Customs Service and the Comptroller-General must do the right thing, in his capacity as the boss and a role model, by wearing the uniform. The Comptroller-General, the argument goes, is not exempt from wearing uniform, regardless of his status when he served in the army.

    Additionally, the Comptroller-General cannot be bigger than the institution he manages. Col. Ali was reminded last week that he was the boss of the Customs Service by appointment and not by birth and not by his divine right to lead that agency of government. In other words, political appointments are ephemeral. You can wield great power today but you can also lose it tomorrow. That is just the nature of life. Leaders come and go but institutions remain long after we might have all departed.

    Some people have also wondered why Col. Ali has found it uncomfortable or nervous to wear the Customs uniform. Would the uniform diminish his ego and his public rating? Would the uniform degrade Col. Ali to a kindergarten playboy in the presence of senators? Would he lose his public profile or title or the respect he earns for the position he occupies if he were to wear the uniform? Would his physical size shrink if he wore his uniform to appear before senators?

    These questions are critical but they are also troubling because they suggest more deeply that there is something problematic or awkward about the persona of the head of a government agency who refuses vehemently to wear the uniform of the organisation that he superintends.

    Regardless of these arguments, I am not persuaded that senators should lose focus and place too much emphasis on Col. Ali’s uniform. There are reasons senators invited Col. Ali to appear before them. Senators must remain focused on those reasons and refuse to be distracted by side matters, such as whether Col. Ali is wearing the Customs uniform or his former army uniform, or his traditional costume. Senators have pressed the matter so forcefully and Col. Ali has derided the idea that he should appear before the senators in his official Customs uniform. The longer the uniform debate drags on, the more distracted and more ridiculous the entire narrative becomes.

    There are many more serious issues, confronting the nation that require urgent and priority attention of our lawmakers. These matters must be accorded higher consideration over Col. Ali’s inflexible but ill-informed decision to not wear the Customs uniform. Anywhere you look around the country, you will find that poverty is growing, life is getting tougher for everyone, and a general feeling of ennui has enveloped the country.

    Many people are scrounging for food and other basic needs. The country is experiencing the worst economic crisis since the attainment of political independence more than five decades ago. The local currency – the naira – has taken a subordinate role to the currencies of other less endowed countries. Crime has taken over our streets. No one is safe during the day and during the night. Without exaggerating the situation, life in Nigeria has turned nightmarish. 

    What is worrying though is the fact that Col. Ali’s disrespectful treatment and taunting of senators are taking place in full view of senior officials of the government that Muhammadu Buhari leads. Yet neither the president nor the vice-president nor any other senior official of the government has bothered to intervene to call Col. Ali to order. The Customs Comptroller-General cannot be above the government that appointed him into his current position. The longer Col. Ali continues to quarrel with senators, the more we get the impression that there is chaos in government or that there is no one in charge. That may or may not be true.

    Let me be clear here. Regardless of whether he served as a Colonel or Major-General or Captain in the Nigerian Army, Col. Ali cannot be above an elected government and the senate. A man appointed by the government to head the Customs Service cannot behave as though he is exceptional, untouchable, irreproachable, and certainly above the law. That is not the spirit of the government of “change” that was elected into office in 2015.

    Col. Ali was appointed to serve the nation. If he continues to squabble with senators, if he continues to mock senators who make laws for the good governance of our society, Col. Ali could turn out to be a disruptive member of the government. Someone should whisper into his ears that it is time he dismounted from his high horse. It is not worth plunging into an unnecessary fight with senators.

    It is quite ironic that the original idea to invite Col. Ali to clarify the requirements for payment of Customs duties by vehicle owners who do not have them has now been overtaken by this dispute over whether Ali should wear the uniform when he appears before senators to answer questions.

    The ongoing fight between senators and the Customs Comptroller-General is misplaced. Every society places a different value on its institutions.

    Beyond rankings of institutions in other societies, I would argue what is worth doing at all is worth doing well. The entire nation should not be preoccupied with this dogfight over uniform. It is true we live in a society that venerates the rich and overlooks the poor but that should not be the reason men and women in authority should behave like children. Yes, ours is a society in which money opens all doors. Without money, you are denied a voice in your country. With money, you can attain any height you want. With money, you can host a banquet attended by monarchs, bishops, media stars, celebrities, and business leaders. With money, you can disregard road traffic regulations or even buy your own police escorts.

    Customs Comptroller-General Col. Hameed Ali is standing up to senators because he is privileged and probably because he knows more than we know about our elected senators. An ordinary citizen who is not well connected to the authorities would not display this kind of effrontery in front of senators. On the other hand, Col. Ali appears to be sending out the message that there is more to a man than the uniform he wears. Perhaps, he is right. Perhaps, he is mistaken. When the fight is finally won and lost, everyone would realise the futility of starting a fight that took place in a confined space, such as a tea cup. So much valuable time would have been invested and wasted over a trivial matter.

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