By Stephen Ubanna
The Beneinsese government appears to have prepared well in advance to embarrass the Nigerian government ministerial Team and Kayode Oguntuanse, the Ambassador to the French speaking country when information filtered out that they would be visiting the Seme/Krake Joint Border Community on Monday, November 25, 2019. The visit may have been approved by President Muhammadu Buhari in order to carry out on the spot assessment of the Border closure.
The Authorities may have taken opportunity of the media tour embarked upon by the ministers and the other top government functionaries including Journalists to evaluate the 3-mnoth old border closure starting with the Seme/Krake operations to register their protest . The next Borders to be visited of the Team , according its schedule are Ogun 1, Idiroko, on Thursday, 28, 2019 and Katsina, December 2, 2019.
Eyewitness account disclosed that when the Nigerian Air Force , NAF, Helicopter carrying Geofrey Onyeama , the Foreign Affairs minister, Babagana Munguno, a retired Major General and National Security Adviser and others and minister of State , Finance, Budget and National Planning , landed at the Border Community, it gave the security operatives and stakeholders hope that the visitation was real.
Note that the first attempt by a Team led by Munguno, the National Security Adviser, NSA, failed as the Helicopter could not land due to alleged bad weather , forcing the pilot to divert the flight to Port Harcourt, Rivers state, thus dispersing the crowd who had waited under rain and sunshine to receive them.
The ministers and the invited guests may have been greeted with a horrible situation as there was no light at the Conference room. The Beninese Authorities may have deliberately taken the light to embarrass the ministers over the Border closure. Those who were conversant with the style of politics of Patrick Talon, the country’s President believe that there is no way the power providing agency in could ha Benin could have tampered with the light without getting a signal from the approving Authorities who are at the becks and call of the President . The management of the ECOWAS building were said to have made a temporary arrangement to ensure that the standing FAS in the Conference room work pending when the power would be restored.
The situation was so bad that the ministerial Team and the guests were forced to leave the Conference room after Lai Mohammed, the minister of Information and Culture had read out the first Paragraph of his prepared speech: we are here to assess, consult and inform the world why Nigeria took the decision to close the Borders with the neighbouring countries of Republic of Benin and Niger’’ to give room to the Beninese power providers to put their axe together and do the right thing.
The short break was said to have provided opportunity for the visiting ministerial team members to interact with the stakeholders and to ask questions. The minister of Foreign Affairs, particular, may have taken advantage of his ability to speak French to ask the Benin Customs Administration Comptroller at the Joint Border certain questions , without an interpreter, to which she was said to have provided answers.
The minister who was however curious to know why there were so many truck laden cargoes at the Benin side of the Joint border but was said to have been told that the importers of the transit cargoes could not remove it from the Beninese Customs owned Atlas park to the temporary site provided for them on the Nigeria side of the Border because of the closure.
He was said to have also asked questions on the truck laden cargoes found on the Nigerian side of the Border, but was said to have been told by Muhammed Uba Garba, the Seme Command Comptroller, that they were mostly ECOWAS Trade Liberalisation goods, ETLS goods, which could not be released to the agents of the importer because of the Border Drills exercise.
He was also said to have been informed that most of the transit cargo owners had paid their duties into government coffers but that was how far he could go. The large turnout of Importers with their agents including local Community leaders at the Seme/Krake Border is speaks volume.
Aliyu Mohammed, Comptroller Federal Operations Unit, FOU, Zone, A, was said to have mobiilised the Command Operations and Patrol Teams to accompany him to Seme , in order to beef up the security arrangement that had been put in place at the Border Community by Muhammed, his Counterpart at the Brder Community the Border Drills, and Deputy Comptroller and Yahaya Usman led Comptroller General Of Customs , CGC, Strike Force, including the Nigerian Immigration service, NIS and the Police.
Many believe that the security situation at the Sem/Krake Joint Border Community may have been tightened up to avoid a break- down of Law because of the tense situation at the Seme Border Community as the agents and labourers were poised for action over the lack of job to do at the Border.
Insiders informed The magazine that when the meeting eventually reconvened after the short break due to the human induced power failure , Muhammed , the minister of Information and Culture, continued his temporarily suspended speech .He had attributed the closure of the borders across the country to the refusal of the neighbouring countries to comply with the International Law on transit cargoes code and the ETLS.
In a voice laden with emotion, the minister who could not hide his feelings had said that , ‘’ it is disturbing that some neighbouring countries circumvent the ETLS Protocol and transit cargoes’’ Code’’. He had alluded to the two West African countries of Republic of Benin and Niger. According to him , the lnternational Law on transit cargoes which was domesticated by the regional Economic bloc demand that when a Containerised transit cargo arrives at a neighbouring country’s seaport, the receiving country is mandated by law to escort same without tampering with the Seal to the border of the destination country. The Nigerian had expected the Beninese government to comply with the Law but it was never done.
That much was said by the minister. ‘’ They break the Seals of the Containers at their ports and trans load goods destined for Nigeria’’, he had said.
The minister may have observed that it was through the trans loading after examination of such Nigerian bound cargoes that arms and weapons may have been smuggled into the concealed in the truck laden cargo destined for the country which enter through the porous borders. He has every reason to think so. This is because when the land locked countries , particular, Niger, which uses Republic of Benin ports to take delivery of their transit cargoes, release the truck laden cargoes after collecting their revenue it give rooms for the goods to develop wing as it was no longer being monitored to ensure that it gets to border of the destination country.
The Border Drills Operations across the four geo-political rgions: south-south, south west, north central and north west, comprising about 19 states, may have shown that some of the arms and ammunition that at terrorists and Bandits are using for their operations in the north east and north west geo-political regions, particular, were exported from the neighbouring countries . This is evident going by the drop in terrorist attacks and Banditry in the two regions in the recent time.
Security watchers told The Magazine that the first battle which Muhammed, the Seme Comptroller faced on deployment to the Area Command in 2018, was the enforcement of the International Law on transit cargoes. He was said to have made it clear to his Beninese counterpart that all transit cargoes meant for Nigeria must be escorted in the Container form by the receiving country to the Joint Border where it would be handed over to the Nigerian Customs for proper documentation.
The decision was said to have led to stopped Nigerian transit cargo importers from using the Beninese Atlas Park to Keep their transit cargoes as he Command quickly opened a temporary truck park for hem at no cost. It was a big blow to the Beninese Customs Authorities Authorities who were sucking the Nigerian transit cargoes importers as they battled the Seme Customs boss but could not change his mind as he insts on enforcing the International Law on transit cargoes. He had his way.
Perhaps, what may have emboldened the Nigerian government to close the borders with the neighboiring countries was the use of their ports by some far flung countries, particular, the Asian countries of China, India, south Korea and Thailand, including some European countries to turn Nigeria into a third party goods instead of complying with the ETLS Protocol .
An aggrieved Mohammed had said that ‘’goods on the prohibition list to Nigeria , such as foreign parboiled rice, second hand clothing, poultry products and vegetable oil that should not be exported to the country are found in Nigerian markets. He cited the ships that were said to be carrying over 100 metric tons of foreign par boiled rice which had berthed at the Benin terminal, Cotonou and Bollore port , awaiting to discharge and sail back to base in Asia but which would find their way into the Nigerian market through illegal routes.
The minister may have gladdened the heart of the Stakeholders when he disclosed that Issoufou Muhammad, the President of Niger has already banned the exportation of rice in any form to Nigeria. Business analysts had expected the Republic of Benin to follow suit to facilitate the reopening of the closed Borders, but the country may not have be ready to do so because of the huge revenue the country was making from rice imports and other transit cargoes and .
Stake holders had expected the meeting with the ministers would give give them opportunity to ask questions but got it wrong. They were dismissed from the Conference room as soon as Mohammed, the minister of Information and Culture ended his speech.
Investigations by The Magazine shows that the road to the closure of the land borders started in 205 during the Administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo . It was quickly followed by a meeting between Nigeria and the two neighboring West countries to make to them see reasons why they should comply with the International law, on transit cargo codes and the ETLS Protocol in 2014.
It was learnt that a Memorandum of Understanding, MOU, was signed by the parties with a promise to comply with the transit cargo codes and ETLS Protocol. A similar meeting was said to have been held in 2015, 2017, and 2018 but Beninese and Nigerien Authorities were said to have failed to comply with it.
It was gathered that Nigeria government had donated six vehicles to the Beninese Customs Administration and another seven of such operational vehicles to Niger Customs to support their operations. Many believe that if the two neighbouring countries had used the operational vehicles as agreed , the situation may not have been so bad that transit cargoes from Benin or Niger could easily develop wings on the road if let lose .
Chidi,a Customs, Deputy Comptroller General, DCG, who spoke on the sidelines, had lampooned the Nigerian importers who patronise the neighbouring seaports of Benin, insisting that they have ulterior motive to smuggle their transit cargoes into Nigeria, thus denying the country the need vital revenue to develop basic infrastructural facilities in the country. He noted that if they were really doing genuine business , their best bet would have been to use the entral African country of Cameroon port to take delivery of their cargoes because it is closer to Nigeria.
An agent, popular, ‘’ Chairman’’ may have given room to Customs DCG to open up when he disclosed that hat they have been forced to reroute their clients transit cargoes through Lagos ports to beat the border closure but on their approval. This may have prompted the Customs DCG , to tell those that cares to listen the daily revenue generation of the Service has increased from N4 billion to over N10 billion as the cargo traffic at the ports have increased. From Lagos ports, Port Harcourt Area 1, Onne port, Onne Oil and Gas Free Zone to Calabar port, the story is the same: Improved cargo traffic which have translated to improved revenue generation.
Chidi, the Customs DCG, may have come out openly to declare himself as one of the cabal in Customs who had masterminded the on- going Border Drills which had resulted into the partial closure of the Borders in order to have effective control of the anti-smuggling Operations of the Service going by his comments and always making reference to his days at the Seme Border when things were done the wrong the way. He should be told that lot of things have changed in Customs under hameed Ali, a retired Army Colonel and Comptroller General , Nigerian Customs Service, NCS, particular, at Seme, where importers and agents now play to the rule under the current management led by Comptroller Muhammed as the Scanners are quickly fixed whenever there is problem with the support of the Customs CG.
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