Joseph Attah, the National Public Relations Officer of Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), in this interview with PAUL OGBUOKIRI listed the gains on the ongoing partial closure of Nigeria’s land borders and the collaborative efforts between NCS, NNPC and DPR to ease fuel supply to the border communities. Excerpt
How has the partial closure of the land borders affected Customs revenue generation?
Are we sure Nigeria is not losing in terms of revenue since there is no more imports through the land borders of the affected areas? Nigeria as Nation is not losing in any way in terms of cargo throughput at the port, we have recorded increase. In terms of revenue, we are recording increase.
We were making between N4 and N5 billion in a day before but now, it has increased to N5 and N6 billion daily. The revenue collection is on the increase and on the side of security; we are recording improvement in the security situation in the country.
Gone are the days when you wake up to the news of bandits sacking villages here and there especially in the North West. You hardly hear such things now and that is as a result of cut is supply of things that encourage or instigate such act of criminality Some of the criminal elements no longer have the working tools, they no longer have the supply of the dangerous weapons like arms, ammunition and chemicals used for improvised explosive devices. Again, looking at local economic activities, farmers are smiling to their banks especially poultry farmers, the rice farmers and others. There has been a paradigm shift from the foreign food items to our local products which are more nutritious.
The farmers are getting more money and they are expanding their farms which mean engaging more hands which is more job opportunities. So, it has been a win, win situation for the country.
NNPC has said there is reduction in consumption of petrol since the closure of the fuel stations close to the borders. Are the borders going to remain closed indefinitely?
It is true that the ongoing border drill has exposed a number of things. One of which is the fact that we have been subsidising fuel for our neighbouring countries. So certain tough and decisive actions that have been taken by government are exposing these things. For instance, the restriction of discharge of fuel to 20 km distance to the border has also significantly exposed how the figures of fuel consumption in the past have been. As a result of that decision, some Nigerians especially are having tough times in the supply of energy has been a challenge.
So, a lot of discussions have been going on. Last week, the Comptroller General of Customs and his counterpart in NNPC and DPR were at the National Assembly to meet the a joint committee on this issue and they had robust discussions and suggestions have been made and already palliative measures are being considered including the possibility of getting a number of the fuel stations that would eventually be approved after thorough investigations to make sure that the fuel is not diverted. Having said that, all in all, stakeholders are in agreement that this decision even though tough, it is for the overall interest of the country in terms of the economy and security and so far, we have arrested 424 illegal migrants. You can imagine the consequence of having half of that number of people coming into the country daily with the mindset to kidnap or engage in one crime or criminality.
Those are the challenges we have been facing before August 20, when the operation started. We also seized NPK fertilisers which are raw materials for improvised explosives, we have seized over forty five thousand bags of rice, 4874 kegs or jerry cans of PMS, 7178 kegs of vegetable oil, 444 motorcycles and 621 vehicles and lots of other seizures. The ones that we can quantify in terms of monetary value so far amounts to N3, 823, 565. A lot have been achieved and will continue to be achieved until such a time that the reasons that necessitated this action are dealt with and objectives of the operations achieved.
With the tight security measures at our borders, have smugglers shifted their attention to the port considering the huge seizure of rice made by the Service recently at the Tin Can Island Port. Is there increase in smuggling through our ports?
Let’s make it clear, the seizure made of expired rice at our ports some of them were not necessarily new. Somehow, some people brought some of these things and could not have their way to get them cleared into the market and they abandoned them for reasons best known to them. But then, the closure of the land borders meant that we have to step up our surveillance around the sea and airports because when the land border gets hot, the tendency is to explore the opportunity of the seaport or the airport.
It was in the process of this tightening and profiling of virtually everything around the seaport and airport that some of these things were discovered in unutilised bill of lading and physical examination and search led to the discovery of those rice that were already expired. Having said that, I won’t say that there would be no such possibilities; some of the smugglers are desperate people, they will use all sorts of ways to see if they can have it in the market for monetary gains.
We are mindful of that and not also forgetting the recent seizure of poultry products at Murtala Muhammad International Airport which is a very rare catch. We link all these to the actions at the land borders because if the land border gets hot as it is now, the tendency is for smugglers to look for alternative routes.
But then I think the seaport and the airport are the hardest ways because there is more equipment there, it is a restricted area and not as porous as the land borders especially in some parts of the north . So, the seaport is not like land borders, so also the airport. Once you disembark from the aircraft, there is a place you have to go through.
The opportunity for you to cash in on any outlet is highly limited.
Sometime back, Customs launched interconnectivity with Benin Republic, not long after that, the border was shut, what is the correlation between the interconnectivity and the border closure?
The decision to partially close the land borders was a painstakingly considered one. The interconnectivity you are talking about just happened recently, the partial closure of the land borders has a history that dates back to the days of President Obasanjo. Recall that such closure was done and was immediately opened because of interventions here and there and since then, a number of MoU have been signed with our neighbours to comply with ECOWAS protocol which mandates them to escort every container which is in transit to Nigeria to their border with Nigeria.
Under that protocol, once something arrives at your country, you are not supposed to open the container, you are to provide escort to the border but they have been breaking the seal and opening the containers which is a flagrant disregard of the dictates of the ECOWAS protocol. We have had series of treaties with them, MoUs we have signed and broken as soon as they were signed until at a point when they came to say that they are not as strong as Nigeria, they don’t have enough money to buy patrol vehicles.
While they continue to flagrantly abuse, disregard the treaties to their own national advantage, we on the other side have been confronted with myriad of security challenges ranging from armed banditry, smuggling, proliferation of light weapons and illegal migration all of which have added to make the life of average Nigerians less secure on the street and in their houses. The smuggling of food items especially rice has made the robust support of the Federal Government to the agricultural sector not to be able to yield desired dividend.
Over the years, successive governments have been a little bit reluctant to take this decisive action. Today as a nation, as a people, we are blessed with a leader that is bold and decisive and said enough is enough and has taken this action in the interest of Nigeria and Nigerians. So, on the issue of connectivity, we can only talk about connectivity when these fundamentals are dealt with, addressed and streamlined. The connectivity can then work because it is an electronic process.
The Customs Service has done well in recent times in terms of revenue collection for the country. What is the driving force?
The Nigeria Customs Service as constituted is driven by target and it is not afraid to take bold actions and decisions that are in the right direction. To this end, strict adherence to standard operating procedures by the service and strategic redeployment and other administrative measures were stepped up Gone are the days when an officer will overstay in a command; robust deployment of ICT infrastructure that is increasingly blocking and shutting down all avenues that were hitherto available and also enabling vices to thrive is playing very key role in this. We also have a leadership that says do this and I will do this and if you do that, he does what he promised to do, a leadership that rewards hardwork and punishes wrongdoing. That is also a source of motivation.
These are what keep us going higher.
There were speculations that the partial closure will be lifted in January, we have about four countries we share border with, have they come to the table concerning what the government is expecting. Are they ready to comply?
I wish I know their mindset, I can only confirm to you that discussions, meetings and consultations are ongoing. The gaps are narrowing; we are understanding ourselves better because Nigeria as a nation has been unambiguous on the reasons for the partial border closure of the borders and what should be done.
We read about an award you recently bagged in the media, tell us about it.
The award ceremony was organised by Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC) in collaboration with Crisis Communication Centre. These are prominent organisations in this country that concern themselves with issues of security agency management.
Well as you saw, virtually all the security agencies especially those who made the final list were there. Customs, in the area of crime prevention came up as one of the finalists considering seizures of drugs, partial border closure which is considered as actions that greatly impact on the nation against criminality in the country.
Customs came as one of the leading crime prevention agencies of the government and with that effect, they were given certificate of excellence. On the area of public information, Customs came up as one of the finalists and was also given certificate of excellence.
But among those who were given the certificate of excellence, customs again came as the best overall and clinched the trophy for public information using the robust sensitisation of the “Exercise Swift Response” and a number of issues, crisis and challenges that have been sorted from the past decisions which customs have been involved in in the last one year.