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Too Many Checkpoints on Nigerian Boarders Discourage Investors – Bomodi

Comptroller Timi Bomodi, Customs Area Controller, Seme Border Command of the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) in this interview with Journalists says the border post has all capabilities of a normal port to facilitate import and export. He says that the recent anti-smuggling initiative of the Comptroller-General of Customs, code-name Operation Whirlwind, would boost the command’s result-oriented efforts to stamping out smuggling of petroleum products out of the country. PAUL OGBUOKIRI was there

How has the border fared in the first five months of 2024 compared to last year?

The first five months of activities here in Seme have been interesting. We look at activities from the perspective of our core responsibilities, which would be first, to facilitate legitimate trade, collect revenue for the government and enforce fiscal policy. When we look at it from those three perspectives, we will see that we are doing quite okay. Talking about facilitation of trade, about import and export; here, we have done remarkably well with facilitation of export because there has been a maximum increase in the number of goods that have left this country to other neighbouring African countries. We noticed a significant increase in terms of volume, value and diversity of products that have been taken out of the country. In the area of import, we did notice some increment at the time when ECOWAS had a problem with the government of Niger Republic as a result of the coup that took place there. When the borders were closed, traders that ordinarily would have taken that axis to carry on their trade diverted their trade towards this axis and we saw an increase in imports. We also noticed that once the borders became reopened, those figures started to slide. Just to highlight that the SemeKrake joint border post is fully opened. It has been open for a couple of years now and we have the same capabilities in facilitating import and export as other ports do and by this, I mean sea ports and other borders that are open for trade. The only item that cannot be imported through this joint border post is used automobiles and other items that are prohibited by fiscal policy, commodity policy and can’t come into this axis.

As I said, we are looking at trade facilitation, of which we have done remarkably well. We look at revenue generation and this year, we started off with an expected target of about N650, 000,000 monthly to be collected but as I mentioned, because of the reopening of the border in Niger, we saw a slight drop in the anticipated revenue and we have been operating at about 85-87 per cent of our expected revenue. We are also performing beyond what was obtainable for this same period last year. We are doing about 272 per cent above what was done for the same period last year, which is indeed remarkable. It is very high and we are encouraged by those numbers. Our failure to meet the target was due to certain reasons and for some of those reasons, we found out that way above the control of the service, we have the issues of exchange rate, heavy levies imposed on transit goods from Benin Republic, high Shipping Company Charges from Shipping Companies and all of these actually scared potential traders from this axis and the fact that our systems, a lot of what we do between us and Benin Republic is not automated as it happens in the ports. Even though they are significant, we have made gains in harmonising the IT infrastructure of both Nigeria and Benin Republic Customs Administration. These things have an impact on potential users because their primary concern would be the quick evacuation of their goods from their ports to their warehouses. Even though we know we have strategic advantages in terms of proximity to the port in Cotonou, and easy access to the market itself because of the proximity to two major markets in the countryAlaba and Trade Fair. The concern of traders needs to be addressed, which we have done in the Benin axis. We have engaged with them and we tried to tell them that they have a lot to gain if the frequency of trade is increased because of the potential of the market.

These two markets have significant impact on their own port activities. They have agreed with us and they are also making adjustments to accommodate the needs of the traders that will be coming in. On revenue, we are not doing too badly; we will like to do better hopefully when we adjust for exchange rate, the trade practices of Benin Customs and the Shipping Companies there. We are sure that ultimately, before the end of the year, we will begin to see tremendous increase even in our revenue. We talked about our enforcement of fiscal policy. The key component of border operations is the enforcement aspect. We do know that because of the nature of our border, so many entry points need to be manned. People take advantage of these well spread out locations to carry out certain illegal activities. We have made tremendous seizures. For those that tried to bring in rice illegally, those that tried to take out Premium Motor Spirit, that is Petrol, out of the country, those that import Narcotics or Marijuana .We have looked at the trend and the kind of methods that these individuals use either on water or on land. As they try to adapt to new ways, we also try to figure out new ways of catching them. In these areas, we have had huge successes. We have also had huge successes in implementing the Convention of Illicit Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), as it is commonly known. We have made huge arrest in the way people attempted to carry birds that are protected under CITES, even tortoise and other kinds of animals that are protected and that is in line with our obligations to international wildlife. The protection of certain wildlife and fauna is key because that is the very foundation of our existence. Protecting the environment, certain species within our ecosystem is also of vital importance because the world is moving towards maintaining ecological balance in ensuring that the ecosystem is preserved in such a way that we as humans can live in harmony with nature and try to cultivate a sustainable environment. When we look at these three aspects, we have done very well in the first five months. We hope to do better as the year progresses.

What is the Community Customs Relations looking like under your watch What is it like in terms of helping with intelligence?

The communities play a very significant role in ensuring that we carry out our mandate. Indeed, no government agency will be able to function properly without the support of the home communities and that is why as Area Controller here, we have all gone out to engage with known community leaders, including the Obas, High Chiefs and notable persons within the community with the view to getting them to not only understand the thinking of the government but for them to buy into that thinking and then render help where necessary. We have seen that come to play at the time when the government required us to stem the exportation of certain grains from the country because we saw that we were beginning to witness grain shortage in the market and this had a significant impact on food security within the country. The Nigeria Custom Service needed to step up to see that the export of these items were curtailed but before we did that, we engaged with these communities; we explained the position of government to them. We got their buy-in and we were able to get them on our side because they became virtually like our spokespersons. They started engaging with their own community dwellers and encouraged them to think alongside us and to cooperate with us in the actions that we were to take at that time. It yielded very good results. The stakeholder engagement has been fantastic. They have also provided us with actionable intelligence when necessary.

A good number of the seizures we have made were made because of the intelligence we sourced from some of these community dwellers. It is quite cordial and it is a symbiotic relationship because here, the Nigeria Customs Service as exemplified by management has made it a point of duty to make itself available to our community and also make our facilities available to our host communities. We have our clinic here, which is not just a clinic for Custom Officers but a clinic for all community dwellers. We have a school here too, that is provided for in a significant way by the service. We also have other facilities that our community dwellers benefit from. We have some communities for which we built toilets, making it easier for them to carry out their duties.

The CG recently inaugurated a task force to carry out an operation code named Operation Whirlwind to curtail the smuggling of petroleum products out of Nigeria and I know that this border has been up and doing in intercepting such products in the past. What difference has that operation made in your work here? Regarding Operation Whirlwind, that is an operation that has been put in motion by the Comptroller General and carried out by some of our colleagues. We have an obligation to cooperate with them 100 per cent but before their com- ing, we have also not been resting on our oars. We have made significant arrests in that area. Just in the last three months alone, we have made arrests of over 12,000 drums carrying about 30 litres each of petrol. It is equivalent to about 8 tanker loads, carrying 45 metric tons of PMS and that is a lot. If we add what we have achieved since the beginning of this year, then we are talking about close to about 12 to 13 tanker loads of fuel, which is equivalent to about more than two of those per month, which is huge. We are not saying we are doing a 100 per cent but we are hitting them where it matters most and that is their pockets. With the coming of this operation whirl- wind, we know that whatever limita- tions we have as a Command, they will be able to add their support and if we are doing this, it is possible they can even do two times better even the kind of sup- port they will get. We hope to work with them closely to ensure that this particular challenge, which is the smuggling of refined petro- leum products is completely halted. We are looking forward to that close work- ing relationship.

Looking at other sister government agencies that operate within this axis, what is the degree of cooperation you get from them? I also want you to an- swer that with a view to also respond to the multiplicity of other agencies’ road- blocks along this axis? At the Seme-Krake joint border post, we have Customs regarded as the lead agency, which is true but here, we have full complement of all other government agencies that are allowed to work at the port functioning here. The relationship among us is very cordial. We hold regular meetings to discuss our challenges and to proffer common solutions to these challenges. We are constantly interacting with ourselves. Just as we were talking, the Head of Department of the State Secu- rity made an attempt to walk in. He is here every morning. We share notes as to issues that border not only on trade but on security and it is so with NAFDAC, NDLEA, SON. All of them are fully represented here. Where there is a need to come togeth- er to solve a particular problem, we do that, but we are all on the same page as to make every trader to abide by trade processes and procedures, to abide by regulations to trade and to simply be compliant. We have not had any major conflict among us and we hope to maintain that because we all understand that the chain that we built here among security agen- cies will only be as strong as the weakest link among us. We do not intend to keep any weak link. We want every link to be strong, so that the security around this corridor will also be strong.

We saw too many Immigration and Police checkpoints on the road. How is that affecting trade?

This is a trend that is common with us here on this side of the border .You don’t see that if you go across Benin Republic, from Benin Republic to Ghana. You won’t see that number of security personnel on the road, mounting road blocks or having checkpoints. It is a problem that is unique to us in Nigeria and it is one that I believe should be tackled at the highest level of govern- ment because as Customs, we can only focus on what we do as an organisa- tion. Other security agencies that you men- tioned, have their leadership and we hope that the government talks to their leadership to ensure that there is san- ity and decency on this side of the road because that is the impression they give potential traders. Anybody coming from outside this country that wants to get a feel of what it is like to do business here and comes to see this will be disincentified to do business and that is not what we want. We want to see more people coming here to invest; we want to see a freer flow in trade and if that is to happen, they also need to see if not the total eradication of these checkpoints, but very few of them on the road.

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