Chief Emmanuel Adedeji Ogunbode, who joined the Nigeria Customs Service during the colonial days rose through the ranks to become the Deputy Comptroller General of Customs and retired after putting in 32 years in service. At 90+, Pa Ogunbode, suave and gentlemanly, still walks with a swagger and has a boyish look which belies his age. In this interview with Ibrahim Apekhade Yusuf, he reminisces on his days at the Customs, his philosophy, life in retirement, etal. Excerpts:
When did you join the Nigeria Customs Service?
I joined the Nigeria Customs Service 9th May, 1955.
How would you compare the Nigeria Customs Service of the past and the present day?
The Customs of today is not the Customs of yesterday. I must be very frank with you because of the new technology. In our time, we had to do everything by manual tabulation to get the job done. But today, everything has become computerised. But notwithstanding, in those days judging by the way they trained us and the way they trained us from time to time, in the colonial days we were able to do our best as at that time. I would say the Customs of today you can’t compare it to that yesterday for these reasons in every aspect. Is it the collection of revenue? Is it the communication? Because right now, the Comptroller General (CG) from his office in Abuja, can just press the button and know what going on at Apapa Port, TinCan Island, Kano. This was not there during my time at the Customs and it makes things faster than what it used to be. And the volume of trade, you can’t compare that of those days to that of today. I would say in our time we did our best according to the training they gave us and the resources at hand. But today, things are much better, faster than what it used to be.
What are your fond memories of about your days at the Nigeria Customs Service?
(Laughs). My most interesting time at the customs is that I started very well and I ended very well. If I had not ended very well I will not be getting attention today and I retired 1st September 1987. I still get my pensions till date. The memory I will share is that I sacrificed myself when I was in the service and at the same time I entered Nigeria Customs Service during the colonial days. That was May 1st, 1955 and that time you have to work hard, no godfather, no godmother and they access you for the whole year by the Whiteman and you have to defend your rank at that time. The only house I have in Lagos by the special grace of God with my late wife, was through sweat and toil. That time we were encouraged. If get small money at that time, when they take value of the goods and they determine what it is in terms of value, they give you what is called monetary award. That one is out of your salary just to encourage you to do more. You get rewarded for the seizures you have made after determining the value of the goods and the duty involved. It was a form of incentives that helped a lot of us to be able to build houses.
You talked about defending your rank. Can you expatiate on this?
I defended my rank ab initio. If I had not defended my rank abinitio, I wouldn’t have climbed up the ladder. I defended my rank by doing exactly what the government wanted us to do. I defended my rank at that time in being honest in serving as far as operation is concerned, revenue collection is concerned, and obedience is concerned and I keep the oath of secrecy, as part of defending the rank, we don’t release information anyhow to anybody. It is by defending my rank that I started to have promotion from ACP and retired as Deputy Comptroller General of Customs.
What was your experience working with the colonial masters?
I got commendation in a job that I solely deed in arresting some smugglers and the commendation came from the late Oyeleye, then our director. The commendation was for bravery and another commendation for administrative efficiency and all that. I still have a lot of these certificates gracing my shelves till today.
Where was your last posting?
I retired as Deputy Comptroller General of Customs (DCG), Investigations. I worked at FOC. I retired when I was heading the investigation team in Lagos.
Were all your postings within Lagos? Or did you ever worked outside Lagos?
I served in parts of Cameroon before the country seceded from Nigeria. It was in Bamenda, Tiko and other parts. And in Nigeria, I’m not boasting; I have served in all the four corners of the country. I worked around Southsouth, Southwest, north, Midwest. You know in our time, we regarded posting as a form of education. When you’re posted, you move to where you want to go. And that is why I thank God that today, I know a lot of Nigerians through my posting, I travelled across Nigeria. I became stationary when I rose up to DCG at the headquarters, in 1982 and I retired in 1987.
How are you spending your life after retirement?
After my retirement, precisely in 1988, I joined a group called TOLORAM Group. From TOLORAM Group, I moved to Vista Group, where I have stayed till date. I have involved in a number of activities that keeps me busy round the clock.
You have had the best of your both worlds. You have served in the public and private sectors. So that comes with a lot of experience. Do you think they have really made their mark in the various sectors they operate?
The Vista Group is very vast. The Vista Group is a very strong group. I have been working with them in the last 30 years. To start with, when they first came to Nigeria, they were trading electronics, paper and so on at that time, until later when they started to industrialise. From what I have seen with VISTA, they have done a lot for this country. You can see where they are today and my own opinion, I will say that they are very trustworthy people, I will say that they are very honest to some certain extent in their business, like you rightly said, it is not only in Lagos here that Vista has factories or base to sell their products. Again from what I have seen here, you could see that a lot of bankers came to the formal launch and unveiling of their corporate headquarters in Isolo. That tells you a lot about their credibility. If they are not trustworthy, what you are seeing here today, you will not see it. If they don’t utilise that money in the correct way, you won’t see what you are seeing today in Vista and at the same time, the company has invested massively in Nigeria not only Lagos. If you go to Ibadan, you will meet them there, if you go to Kano you will meet them there, if you go to Maiduguri you will meet them there, if you go to the East you will meet them there. They are spreading their tentacles all over Nigeria.
All that you have shared are fond memories of working with the Vista Group. But as one of their partners, was there any time they wanted to call it quit in Nigeria due to unfavourable government policies and all?
Let me tell you something about Vista Group, they have a very thick skin. We all know the economy of Nigeria but there was never a single time that they planned to leave, instead of doing that, they continued to bear and forge ahead but for them to say “I am parking away, I want to leave this country, no.” even when the foreign exchange got so high, gave them difficult times to plan how to market their products, yet they persevered. They have created a lot of jobs for our teeming youths here in Lagos and other parts of the country so in answering your question, I have not seen or heard one day that they want to pack and go because of the economy but instead they continue to grow and do their best.
What is the secret behind your boyish looks?
(Laughs). I take you down to Proverbs chapter 30. It says, ‘Two things I ask from you: do not make me to be poor and at the same time, do not make me to be rich.’ The scripture went further, it says: ‘If you make me to be poor, I’ll steal and at the same time I’m going to swear a false oath in your name. But make me not just too rich. I will live a moderate life.’ My mantra is in Proverbs chapter 30. As I always tell God, if I’m rich I’ll forget you God as my creator and feel there is none like me. So in that wise, I live on whatever God gives me. I don’t do more than myself nor my family. If its water I want to drink in my house and I don’t have to go to the next neighbor, I thank God for my life. Then the second part is God’s grace my dear. “Your life would be that of eagle.” That’s in the Bible. What does that mean? God has given me the life of eagle. When people see me they don’t believe my age. What does the eagle do every year? The eagle sheds its feather and put on new feathers and become a young eagle. So I’m an eagle. But I cannot explain it myself.
But let me sound a note of warning: do things moderately in life. If you know how to drink, don’t drink too much. If it’s food you know how to eat, don’t eat too much. In fact, anything you want to do, do it in moderation. There is a proverb, “Elder tell us if you have not passed through the youth. In our time when we were working, we believe that if you do things wrongly and you have no godfather or godmother, you’re out of the system. So it is always good to be contented. Aso nla kolagba (it is not the big gown that you wear that makes you an old man). But stick to your God, trust your God, and obey His commandments. You see contentment is most important. I’m contented with what God gave me. I do more than myself and at the same time I believe in God. The holy book says vanity upon vanity all is vanity.