By Stephen Ubanna
Signs that President Muhammadu Buhari, has given approval for the Land borders across the country to be opened has started manifesting with the piling of hard stones at the bad spots between Agbara and the ancient town of Badagry to facilitate the movement of trucks. At the instance of the Katsina state born Nigerian President, Babagana Munguno, a retired Major General and National Security Adviser, NSA, who incidentally is the Chairman of the Operation Swift Response, popular, Border Drills, which have zonal offices in Lagos, Kaduna, Owerri, Ilorin and Bauchi, was said to have given the nod Hameed Ali, a retired Army Colonel and Comptroller General, Nigerian Customs Service, NCS, and Vice Chairman of the Operation Swift Response the go ahead to release the trucks laden with transit goods trapped at the Seme/Krake Border, between Nigerian and Benin Republic.
Recall that there had been pressure on the government , both within and outside the country to reopen the country’s closed borders with the neighbouring West African countries of Benin, Niger and the Central African country of Cameroon. The pressure became pronounced in 2019, forcing the Nigerian President to set up a high powered Team made up of four ministers including the Border Drill Chairman and Vice Chairman, to tour the Border locations to see things themselves and advise the government on what to do. Among the ministers on the Team were Geofry Onyeama, minister of Foreign Affairs, Raufu Aregbesola, a former governor of Osun state and now minister of Interior, Clem Ikanade Agba, minister of State, Finance, Budget and National Planning. The ministerial visit to the country Land border areas in 2019, including Seme, where scores of transit carges laden into trucks were trapped, despite the owners of such goods paying the duties on them. The ministerial visit had given the importer, with their their agents, particular, at Seme, hope of taking delivery of the goods, but that was how far the tgovernment Team could go as the matter died a natural death.
The Transit cargo owners trapped at Seme border may have taken advantage of the Nigerian President signing of the African Continental Trade Agreement, AfCTA, to become the 53 member of the larger African market to push for the reopening of the country’s closed borders and release of their goods. The Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents, ANLCA, Seme Chapter, according to sources , was said to have petitioned the NSA, to do everything within his powers to release the trapped trucks laden goods at the border to ensure that the country participate fully on the AfCTA project. Babagana, the NSA, may have alluded to this in his letter to Ali, the Customs boss, on November 13, 2020 authorising the released of the trapped trucks. Laden with goods worth over N314 million.
The letter , according to Presidency sources was said to have been signed by E.a. Ndagi, an Army Major General on behalf of the NSA. The letter which was cited by The Value News reads in part: I am directed to respectfully refer to a letter NCS/NV711/2020/ABJ/HQ, dated 9th November, 2020, and to convey the National Security Adviser’s approval for the release of goods held up at Seme border due to the ongoing border closure.
The goods, he had said, ‘’are being cleared by the Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents, ANLCA, as detailed at enclosure 1. The letter was said to have ended with an appeal. ‘’The NCS, is kindly requested to facilitate the release’’ of the trucks laden goods ‘’n line with the extant Laws’’ .The NSA may HAVE shown that there is no going back on the reopening of the over two years closed borders across he country with the approval allegedly give to Dangote Industries, which has Aliko Dangote, a multi-billionaire as its President, BUA Group, under the chairmanship of Abdulsamad Rabiu, another multi-billionaire investor from Kano state including an undisclosed Gas Company.
Rcall that prior to the NSA directive to Customs Authorities to release the trapped trucks laden cargoes at Seme border Community, Tony Iju Nwabunike, President , ANLCA, had drawn the attention of the government and the Lawmakers to the fact that ‘’goods on transit and mobile Asset trucks laden with cargoes worth over N130 billion’’, going by the market value belong to individuals and Companies including government establishments were trapped at the border since August 2018,as the retired Major General Munguno led Operation Swift Response, popular, Border Drills , overseeing the closed border went into action to implement he Law to ensure that noting enters or leaves the country .
There is no gainsaying the fact that that most of the transit cargoes with perishable timelines have either been destroyed due to the expiry date or damaged beyond redemption as a result of exposure to Criminal elements. The Criminal elements on both sides of the border divide may have taken advantage of the government policy to vandalise and rip open the trucks laden cargoes to steal and in most cases smuggled the items into the Nigerian market through unapproved routes.
Nwabunike had cited arson on some of the trucks between August 2018 and now. Investigations by The Value News shows that the border closure had sent some of the transit cargo owners who had borrowed money from the bank to import to their early graves. A senior Customs officer who spoke to The Magazine on condition of anonymity said he knew of four businessmen from the north who had staked their resources to purchase pineapples and Coconut from Benin, which were loaded into several trucks but were unable to take delivery of it. This is just one out of many other cases both known and unknown.
Besides the taking of lives caused by the Border closure, the ANLCA President may have painted a gory image of the situation when he said that no fewer than 10,000 people had lost their job, directly and indirectly through the border closure.
Many believe that if the government had given the transit cargoes owners a month notice to take delivery of their goods without hastily coming out with the policy, as if acting out a script, the country could not have come to this sorry stage where it is now struggling to make amends to fit into the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, AfCTA, which is expected to come into effect on January 2021.
Ever since the news leaked out that the government had concluded plans to reopen the nation’s land borders closed over two years ago, economic and social activities are gradually returning to the Seme jurisdiction. Most of the Agents are gradually coming back to the boarder Community in readiness to take delivery of their goods. Informed sources told The Magazine that Bello Jibo, Comptroller , Seme Command has been holding series of meetings with his Beninoa Counterpart and Heads other security agencies at the ECOWAS Conference room at the border , preparatory to the release of the trapped truck laden transit goods to the owners. Efforts to speak to the Comptroller through calls and visits proved abortive as he had maintained a closed lips on the matter.
Information pieced together shows the Command Accountant is doing everything within his capacity to put his records right to ensure that here would be no problem in the releasing process as some of the agents were said to have the duties for their client transit goods but could not take delivery of it. Agents who spoke to the Magazine believe that they would never experience any difficulty in taking delivery of their goods because they have their Bank payment receipts which was said to have been confirmed by the office of the Accountant of the Command which have Representatives from the Accountant General of the Federation office.
Those who think that the reopening of the border would give them the opportunity to increase their importation through the West African country of Benin, Cotonou and Bollore ports would be disappointed. This is because the last opportunity to import Foreign goods, which are mostly from the Asian country of China, was in 2018. There are indications that with the signing of AfCTA, by the country as the 53rd member last year in Niger, during the African Union extra-ordinary meeting, that opportunity may no longer be there. This is because only the goods which are manufactured and Agricultural produce from the African Continent which would be religiously monitored would be trade in the larger African market to avoid abuse. This may have been the major problem of the ETLS as the protocol was abused by members who see Nigerian Companies as taking over the market.
Note that within the EconomicCommunity of West African States, ECOWAS, Trade Liberalisation Scheme, ETLs,Nigeria, alone had over 2,4000 registered Companies participating in the market. The Companies, according a ministry of Foreign Affairs source manufactured between 60- 70% of the over 6,194 items traded in the market, leaving the balance 30-40% to the other member countries of the economic bloc to share.
Although, the hasty border closure may have destablised the Nigerian Companies and other businessmen in AfCTA arrangement, as that may have given South African, described as one of the largest economies in Africa for now to have an edge over Nigeria . The African countries may be struggling for the $3.4 billion market. Notwithstanding the late start, the Nigerian Companies, which had made appreciable impact on the ETLS,and other businessmen , appear to have geared up to the challenge and ready to dominate the market with the support of the government.