By Stephen Ubanna
Barely two weeks after president Muhammadu Buhari officially reopened four, out of the 84 approved International Border routes across the country with the neighbouring West African countries of Benin Republic, Niger and the Central African, CA, country, of Cameroon, but nothing appears to have changed as the status quo remains.
This is because the anticipated free movement of goods and services that should have come with the lifting of the Seme border closure, south west Nigeria, Mfun border in Cross river state, south-south Nigeria, Ilela and Maigatari borders, Jigawa state, north west Nigeria and home region of the Katsina state born Nigerian President are still illusive .
The Value Newsran into a professional Colleague in the oil city of PortHarcourt, Rivers state, who is from Ikom, in Cross river state on December 26, 2020. We took time out to discuss on what is happening in the four reopened Borders in the country. Being from Ikom, he gave an insight on what is happening at the Nigeria -Cameroon Border. He disclosed that though the Katsina state born Nigerian President has given his approval for the four busy international Boders to be reopened but it is as good as not haven been reopened .
According to him,not much is happening at the Mfun Border as the Customs personnel have not resumed normal office work . He further disclosed that the Nigerian Immigration Services, NIS, under the close watch of Mohammed Babandede personnel may be seen to be working as they are attending to the documens of Cross-border travellers to facilitate their movement during the Chrisstmas period.
Based on the discussion , with the Ikom native, The Magazine took time out while in Lagos to do an undercover reporting at Seme /Krake Joint Border Jurisdiction and Idiroko axis in Ogun state. Recall that all the Land borders across the country were closed to movement of goods and services in August 2019. The Magazine findings confirmed the story of the Ikom native on what is happening at the Mfun Border as it has not been fully opened for normal operations.
The intention of the Nigerian President in giving the approval for the reopening of the borders may have been defeated as only the NIS, personnel could been doing some. skeletal jobs by attending to cross border travelers while the NCS personnel are yet to resume operation The situation is not different from what is happening at the busy Seme/Krake joint border between Nigeria and Benin.
The discussions The Magazine had with some of the security operatives including Customs personnel shows that the Customs Commands, particular, overseeing the reopened borders in the three geo-political regions of the country may not have started attending fully to importers and Exporters with their agents as expected as thee may not have any official letter from Hameed Ali, a retired army Colonel and Comptroller General, Nigerian Customs Service, NCS, to do so.
The most worried are he cross border traders and companies which goods were registered by Economic Community Of West African States, ECOWAS, Secretariat, to participate in the economic bloc Trade Liberalisation Scheme , ETLS. Many believe that the Customs Comptroller General may not have received any memo from Hajia Zainab Ahmed, minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, start full operation, who in turn should have communicated the Area Comptrollers overseeing the reopened land Borders.
A senior Customs officer who spoke to the Magazine on phone disclosed that there is no way any of the Comptrollers overseeing any of the officially reopened borders could have jumped the gun to start implement the Presidential order without the backing of the Customs Authorities.
The officials of the over 2,400 Companies operating in the country which are manufacturing various brands ETLS products for export who could not do so over the last 19 months had expected to take advantage of the reopened borders to start exporting their ETLS goods in the ECOWAS Sub-regional market to earn Foreign currency and thus, force down the current naira exchange rate to the United States , US, dollar, and other world curries , including the EURO and British pounds.
They were , however, disappointed that they could not access the ETLS market with their goods as the Customs personnel in the ETLS, office, and export Seats were not ready to listen to them to avoid playing into Ali, the Comptroller General of Customs’, hand.
This may have fueled the speculations making the rounds that with the refusal of Customs personnel to allow cross-border traders and ETLS Companies access their respective offices to avoid being dragged into any discussion on the politically reopened Borders , described as a plot by the Nigerian President to win the people’s heart may have given Nigerians the impression that t he will not reopen the other closed borders before December 31, 2020 as promised
The argument in both official and unofficial circles was that even if he decides to do so, it would not make any difference, as the Four Border routes already opened, one each in the south west and south west as well as the two in the north west have not fully started Border operations, except the NIS, personnel who are doing sketetal works.
For the Customs, not many are surprised that Ali, the Customs Comptroller General , is reluctant to reach out to the Area Comptrollers, under whose jurisdictions the reopened borders are located.
They had cited the November 13, 2020, letter that had originated from the office of Babagana Munguno, a retired Major –General and National Security Adviser, NSA, who incidentally is the Chairman, Operation Swift Response, popular, Border Drills, overseeing the Border closure with the neighbouring countries to release the over N300 million dutiable trucks ladden goods trapped at the Seme/Krake Joint Border, described by Tony Nwabunike, President, Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents, ANLCA, as having a market value of about N130 million which he had failed to do . The letter was said to have been signed by one E.A.Ndagi, a serving Major General, in the NSA’S office, at the instance of the retired army General, who many believe has the ears of the Nigerian President.
Maritime analysts had expected Ali, the Customs boss to take advantage of the new Presidential directive of reopening the Seme border alongside three other international border routes to give the nod to Bello Jibo, Comptroller, Seme Command , described as a workalic and a tariff expert in Customs circles to start the process of releasing the trapped trucks laden with cargoes at the one-time busy border.
The trapped Trucks laden goods which are found on both sides of the Seme and Krake joint border including the trailer park provided by the Seme Customs Command are still at the same location awaiting for Clearance. Even the trucks load of ETLS and two other released transit truck load of cargoes trapped along the Badagry-Seme road as a result of the Border closure IN aUGUST 2019, are still on the road.
Efforts by The Magazine to speak to Joseph Attah, a Deputy Comptroller and Customs Spokesperson on the continued delay in the reopening the four approved land borders by the Nigerian President for Cross-Border traders and travellers to access the joint Border with ease to transact their business did not materialise.
There are indications that the Customs Authorities may be working out an arrangement to ensure that once the four international Border routes that had been reopened by the retired army General resume full operation , preparatory to reopening the other Border routes, the Benin, Niger and Cameroon based smugglers would not flood the Nigerian market with the Asian country of Thailand par boiled rice that is a threat to the local rice market because of its relative cheap price and easy to import through the Benin port, Cotonou and Bollore port, both in Benin Republic.
Only recently , The Magazine published a story why Benin Republic is a haven for rice smugglers , an indication it would be difficult to stop but could only be minimized through intensified anti-smuggling Operations by the Federal Operation Units, FOUs, Border Drills and the Comptroller of General of Customs , CGC, Strike Force, across the country .
Their anti-smuggling drive, analysts said would go a long way to complement the efforts of the Land Border Commands anti-smuggling efforts. Take for instance at the Seme/Krake Joint Border, the Command anti-smuggling officers have tightened security at the border forcing may of the rice dealers who had dominated the Seme Border Community market to relocate to Idiroko, Ilaro and other porous Border Communities in Ogun state to do their business of sponsoring rice smugglers into the country.
In a related development, Jibo, the Seme Customs Comptroller,may have cashed in on the delay in throwing the reopened land border routes to resume operation to embark on the Construction work for the expansion of the Command trailer park at the Seme border Community to accommodate more trucks laden cargoes that may be released by the Beninois Customs Authorities to the transit cargoes owners as soon as the coast is clear.