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Stakeholders want government’s conditions met before re-opening

By Sulaimon Salau
02 February 2020   |   4:30 am
As the Federal Government prevaricates over the re-opening of the country’s land borders about six months into the Joint Security Operation codenamed “Ex-Swift Response,” stakeholders insist it must adequately address issues...

Border Closure: Seme Border Still scanty as at yesterday PHOTO: AYODELE ADENIRAN

• Demand Critical Infrastructure To Monitor Borders
•January 31 Re-opening Date Not Feasible – Customs
• Say Smuggling Is Still Ongoing
• Agents Traders Count Losses

As the Federal Government prevaricates over the re-opening of the country’s land borders about six months into the Joint Security Operation codenamed “Ex-Swift Response,” stakeholders insist it must adequately address issues that necessitated the closure ab initio, as well as perfect critical areas that would facilitate cross-border trade going forward.

Specifically, they want the government to ensure that state-of-the-art infrastructure, including cargo scanners are operational; inter-customs connectivity initiated; security officers better equipped for 21st century border security; enlighten the border communities, stakeholders and the security officers, and tidy up arrangements with neighbouring countries for public interest.

While also cautioning border communities against joining forces with neighbouring countries to commit economic crimes against Nigeria, they stressed the need for the government to ensure that all the conditions set out for neighbouring countries to fulfill are fully complied with by neighbouring countries.

President Muhammadu Buhari had in November approved the extension of the ongoing closure till January 31, 2020.

The directive was contained in a memo signed and dated November 1, 2019, by the Comptroller of Customs in charge of Enforcement, Investigation and Inspectorate, Victor Dimka. It was addressed to Sector Coordinators of the Joint Border Operation Drill – Sectors 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Since this directive was made, nothing categorical has been said by the Federal Government to counter the position. It, however, said nothing in that regard at the expiration of the deadline.

According to the President, National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF), Boniface Aniebonam, as the Federal Government expedites action in its engagements with neighbouring countries, there was need for it to put in place, sustainable measures to effectively police the borders, as there still exist areas where officials of the Nigeria Customs Service do not cover.

He said: “We need to do more than we are doing to protect our borders. So, the Federal Government should take a second look and increase its engagements with our neighbouring countries with a view to re-opening the borders as fast as possible. We want the government to fast-forward these engagements and see that tension at the borders is lessened, while ensuring that porous areas are secured.

“Our neighbours must be brought to the table to discuss those issues that make them bad neighbours, as early resolution of these issues would make for regional integration. In fact, by now issues that necessitated the shutting of the border should all have been addressed in the interest of the country because up till now, smuggling is still going on with the use of camel, commercial motorcycle among others. How many of these can Customs arrests?” he quizzed.

“We are strongly of the opinion that there is no need rushing to re-open the borders if conditions put forward by the Federal Government are not met and adhered to by the neighbouring countries. So, whatever it is, let us tidy it once and for all,” Aniebonam said.

Re-echoing Aniebonam’s views, the President, West African Road Transport Union (WARTU), Salami Nasiru, insists that the Federal Government must put adequate structures in place if it truly wants to end the influx of illicit items and illegal migrants into the country.

According to him, even if the border is closed for 1, 000 years, it will not change anything until the Nigerian government takes the bull by the horn and put infrastructure in place, as well as orientate the necessary stakeholders in the cross-border trade.

He said: “Government should do what is expected of it. You don’t expect a miracle to happen when you have not put solid structure in place to address cross-border crimes. The government should not blame the private sector, but put the right measures in place. We can close the border for 1, 000 years and not achieve anything. So, the government should perfect the Customs connectivity, put cargo scanners to use, enlighten the border communities, enlighten stakeholders (transporters, customs agents, importers, exporters among others. It should also enlighten security officers and equip them accordingly.”

Nasiru, who lamented that goods worth billions of naira were still stuck at the border for about five months now, explained that transporters and importers are still incurring demurrage.

Many importers, he said, have gone bankrupt, while others are groaning under unnecessary expenses just to keep their drivers, motor boys, their vehicles and goods in good condition at the border points, notwithstanding the huge demurrage accumulating on legitimate goods denied entry.

A clearing agent at Seme border, Kunle Aromolaran, who said he has lost hope about the reopening of the border, added that its closure has made many agents to close shop and quit the business.

“We will be very glad if government reopens this border, but we have lost hope because we feel it is not going to be possible, going by the body language of Mr, President. However, it is certain that the borders cannot be closed forever, so we expect the government to put appropriate structures in place before re-opening to forestall economic sabotage because there are many illegal activities that are going on at the border points. All these must be stopped to ensure that only legitimate businesses cross into the country.

“Customs officers and their counterparts from the Nigeria Immigration Service and others must be taken through professional courses to ensure that they conform with the highest standards of service delivery, and shun bribery and corruption,” he said.

The Public Relations Officer of NCS, and spokesperson for Ex-Swift Response, Deputy Comptroller of Customs (DCC) Joseph Attah, emphasised in a chat with The Guardian that no deadline has been set for re-opening the border contrary to what the November 1, 2020 memo suggested.

That memo read in part: “I am directed to inform you that it is observed that despite the overwhelming success of the operation, particularly the security and economic benefits to the nation, a few strategic objectives are yet to be achieved.

“Against this background, Mr. President has approved the extension of the exercise to January 31, 2020.

“Consequently, you are requested to convey the development to all personnel for their awareness and guidance.”

Attah explained that whatever information that was pushed out was for internal communication among officials of the joint operation and not meant for the public.

Meanwhile, neighboring countries such as the Republic of Benin, Niger, and Ghana are still bemoaning the severe impact that the border closure is having on their economies, even though the Nigerian government has claimed that the action has come with more benefits.

The government equally claimed that agriculture entrepreneur, including rice farmers/ millers, among others, are now smiling to the banks as a result of improved patronage, while foreign rice is gradually fading away from Nigerian market.

Car dealers are also hailing the policy, claiming that the spate of vehicles smuggled into the country has reduced drastically. The same applies for the influx of illicit arms and ammunitions.

Earlier on, the Customs Area Comptroller, Apapa Command of NSC, Mohammed Abba-Kura had said that since the beginning of the border closure, the command’s revenue has increased.

According to him, the command generated N414b from January to December 18, 2019, as against N404b generated between January and December 2018, which translates into about 111 per cent of the 2019 annual revenue target.

This feat, according to him, gives credence to the positive impacts of the policy.

Also, the Port Terminal Multipurpose Limited (PTML) Command reported N116.52b revenue collections between January and September 2019, showing an increase of N28.9b from N87.6b collected within the same period in 2018.

The Customs Area Controller of the Command, Mrs. Florence Dixon, who attributed the development to the border closure said 35 per cent increase in vehicle imports was recorded in the third quarter of the year 2019.

Notwithstanding these benefits, the closure has visited pains on migrants and traders, who are currently grappling with poor patronage, loss of capital and stalled business deals.

Many producers and traders who deal with imported products have faced tough moments, while migrants find it difficult to move freely across the border. This is also as Nigerians residing in Benin Republic and Ghana are finding it difficult to trade freely in those countries, as their citizens have declared “war” on Nigerian traders.

The President of Nigerian Union of Traders Association in Ghana, Chukwuemeka Nnaji, said about 300 shops were closed in Ghana even when Nigerian traders did not violate any Ghanaian law, but as a retaliation to the border closure policy.

The measure is also taking its toll on border communities, businesses as the Federal government continued to halt supply of petroleum products to their base.