A few months before my mother’s death, soldiers had overthrown the civilian administration of Shehu Shagari on December 31, 1983. Major-General Muhammadu Buhari became the new Head of State.
As part of its monetary policies, the Buhari government had introduced new Naira notes in April 1984. The policy was aimed at halting the illegal speculative trading of the Naira outside the shores of Nigeria. A time limit was imposed within which old notes could be turned in for new ones. Government agencies at the nation’s borders, sea and air ports were instructed to screen all bags and containers entering the country to ensure old Naira notes were not being smuggled into the country.
A first class traditional ruler and a returning Nigeria diplomat had arrived from Saudi Arabia with several bags. My officers at the Airport in Lagos were not allowed to search the bags. The duty officers reported the incident in writing. I did not know how a newspaper got wind of it.
The Guardian, a Lagos-based newspaper, reported on its front page on June 10, 1984 that “Passenger with 53 suitcases leaves airport unchecked”.
The incident became a scandal and the government was forced to set up an administrative panel of inquiry to determine why due process was not followed. The government was clearly embarrassed by the incident and rather than punish those who flouted its directive that all baggage be searched, it began to look for scapegoats. They mounted pressure on me to deny that the incident ever happened. I was threatened and intimidated. I vowed to surrender my uniform and quit the Customs rather than lie.
The federal government would later declare that the controversial 53 suitcases contained the personal effects of the traditional ruler, the returning ambassador and members of their families.
The government added that those who intimidated and threatened the Customs officers on duty on that day at the airport had been reprimanded.
Some government officials wanted me sacked for not covering up their mess. But Finance Minister Onaolapo Soleye, who supervised the Department of Customs and Excise, said I should be left alone.
Soleye did not know me. He acted on the basis of the facts before him. He said it would be unfair to punish me for doing my job and for standing by my officers. He was also swayed by my impeccable service record. No queries. No sanctions. My file was filled with commendations for meeting and exceeding revenue targets at the different posts I had headed.
Culled from the biography titled ‘Atiku: The Story of Atiku Abubakar’ by Adinoyi Ojo Onukaba (Africana Legacy Press, Abuja, 2006)