Vice-Chairman, Senate Committee on Customs, Senator Francis Fadahunsi, who is a retired Deputy Comptroller General of Customs, tells SUNDAY ABORISADE that the current partial lockdown and the continued border closure could have adverse effects on the economy, among other issues
some experts have argued that the continued closure of the nation’s borders is affecting the economy because smugglers are still having their way. Do you agree with such submission?
Apart from the outbreak of the COVID – 19 pandemic, which necessitated the closure of the borders, I have never supported the idea of closing the borders of this country. Before the advent of COVID – 19 pandemic, the earlier border closure by the Federal Government was illegal if the essence was economic consideration. I can support the government if it is closing the borders based on health or security challenges. At the moment, most countries of the world have closed their borders just to prevent foreigners from infecting their people with coronavirus.
Why are you not in support of the FG’s border closure done before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic?
If the Federal Government had respected all the ECOWAS protocol agreements which were signed at various times, Nigeria wouldn’t have closed its borders unilaterally. I have made the management of the Nigerian Customs Service to understand that they cannot close the borders against their own people because almost half of the population of the Republic of Benin are Nigerians. Go to Cotonou, you will see many Yoruba people residing there. Porto Novo is partly inhabited by the Yoruba. Go to Katsina State and see a lot of Nigeriens from Niger Republic. If you also go to Cameroun, particularly the southern part, there are many Nigerians living there and they must come into their country. If you go to Equatorial Guinea, you find out that Nigerians are also living there. If you now go through the West African sub-region down to Burkina Faso, you will see alot of Nigerians there.
Will you say the current border closure is effective?
No, it is not effective because you can’t close your borders against your people. If you look at the local arrangement they are making, I mean the interstate lockdown, it is not working; people are still moving. If you say they should not move in the daytime, they will move at night. Are you not using the police to man the interstate borders? Also, I have told them that the man (Customs Comptroller General) who wants to close the nation’s borders has no sufficient officers. The highest number of officers he can boast of at the moment is 15, 000 and we don’t have up to 10, 000 of them wearing uniform. 15, 000 Customs officers cannot man South-West borders alone, not to talk of the entire country. So, the border closure arrangement is also not working because of the state of unpreparedness by the NCS. They would have put up a proper arrangement before implementing such a policy. Nigeria would have also carried other countries along in the process. For instance, our country has not submitted the list of prohibited goods. I mean those things we don’t want in the protocol and the sanctions when any prohibited good passes through a country into Nigeria. Any country that appends its signature in such a protocol is always afraid of international sanctions because such agreement must go to the United Nations. That’s the reason the border closure is not effective; we have not been able to force the list on them.
Are you saying that government should have allowed importers to bring in all imported items, including the used ones, through the normal channels?
Take for instance the issue of rice importation, I have told the Customs CG that the ban will not necessarily cover the inadequacies of the Nigerian farmers. Over 200 million Nigerians are consuming nothing less than 7.3 million metric tons of rice in a year. The total figure of rice being produced locally in Nigeria is not up to four million metric tons. How do we get the remaining 3.5 million metric tons? We have lost over N300bn as a nation since the borders were closed.
I told the Customs CG that his men were carrying guns because border management has collapsed. This has also affected ports management, if you observe what’s happening at the ports too. All the ports are in the South. The one in Calabar is under-utilised and nothing has been done in Warri port, too. There are about three ports in Delta State alone. There is one in Kokori. Instead of clearing fish in Apapa, you can take such activity there. Most of the traders are in the East while half of the goods are going to Onitsha, Aba and Owerri. Let some clearing be done in other ports, not necessarily everything in Apapa. You can then transport the goods by road.
Is it the ineffective utilisation of the nation’s ports apart from the one in Apapa that has led to the increase in smuggling activities?
The Customs managed to sustain the border closure up to December last year but by January this year, foreign rice has found its way into the various markets in Nigeria and had dislodged local rice. The local rice producers were very happy with the border closure because the price for a bag of local rice increased to about N26, 000 but the price of foreign rice has overtaken that of local rice now. This is the same foreign rice that was prevented from entering through the land borders. Foreign rice is now finding its way into the country through other means. More than 10, 000 containers of rice are being cleared in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. The Senate Committee on customs went there and we saw the whole thing.
Won’t the scenario you painted in the NCS affect the attitude of the professional Customs officers?
The morale of the officers is dead. It is gone. The issue of contracts and financing is being handled by an assistant director from the CBN. How will you run an organisation like that? Is that the way they are running the Nigerian Army? Have you ever seen a civilian running the Nigerian Army? The Nigerian Army is run by the soldiers. The Nigerian Navy is run by Navy personnel, the same goes for the Air Force, Police and the Department of State Services. It is Customs that the government usually posts non-professionals to handle and Customs happens to be the ‘original owner’ of the economy. They even went to the extent of removing Customs from the oil industry. The day Ernest Shonekan removed Customs from the oil industry marked the end of accountability in that sector. There is nobody to submit statistics there again. Nigeria does not know how many tonnage of crude oil that goes out of the county due to all these issues. Before Shonekan came on board, things were going on right and the Federal Government knew because government must give statistics of what is going out and what is coming in. Today, they said they closed the borders; the government doesn’t want refined petroleum products and chose to close the borders. We have to talk about rice; we have talked about the ban on used cars. Why should we implement a ban when you know you don’t have enough personnel to man the borders? Over 200,000 used cars (tokunbo) have come into this country since the ban and Nigeria hasn’t gained a dime as duty on them.
Are you saying that we should throw our borders open to the banned items now?
Let rice come in and let the importers pay duty, the country will gain more money if that is done. Let the rice producers continue to struggle until they can meet up. Set a limit for manufacturers and let used cars (tokunbo) come in. This is better than moving from one car mart to another looking for the ones that have come in the night. Are they not the same people that passed them? The order that petrol should not be sold in border towns won’t work because about 20 million Nigerians who are living in border towns will be affected. I have said it is an illegal law because we can’t use circular to pass law. Laws on restrictions of this nature are usually done by the National Assembly and endorsed by the President. If we want to curtail fuel smuggling, there is a way to achieve it. What we need to do is to establish fuel stations in their country. They won’t come here to smuggle again. All we need to do is to share, maybe ratio 40 to 60. Nigeria will take 40 per cent while they take 60 per cent. The latest issue is the 250 tankers of petroleum products that was said to have been escorted from Nigeria to the Republic of Benin. That case is subject to National Security Adviser’s public probe. The President had heard about it and the officers involved had been court-martialled. The Customs CG has done enough. He cannot act beyond his powers. He should allow a professional to take over that place, now that we need funds to pay our foreign debt.
That brings us to the aspect of foreign debts; do you think we have the capacity to service these loans as a nation?
We need more than N4trn every year to service both our internal and external debts. That is why the Customs and other revenue-generating agencies must generate enough funds so that we can use the little resources at our disposal as a nation for capital development.
The Senate passed a resolution recently asking the Customs to consider waivers for importers of medical equipments as part of the measures to fight COVID – 19, but the importers are saying the Customs have yet to comply. What are you doing about this as a committee?
Why should we give waivers for advanced malaria drugs? We know that COVID – 19 comes with symptoms like pneumonia, high fever, serious cough and so on. We have all the drugs for these in Nigeria. COVID – 19 has so much used human beings to instil fears in us, to the extent that it sent us out of churches and mosques. The traditional herbal producers are saying they have drugs that can cure COVID-19 but the orthodox medicine practitioners are disputing their claims. Look at the drugs from Madagascar, which we bought in dollars; it is purely a concoction made from herbs. Professor Maurice Iwu said he could come up with something better. Until the traditional medicine producers and the medical professionals come to terms on this issue, we will still remain on the same spot. In any case, if the importer is genuine, government can give waivers but it must not be for a long period.
For how long are we going to continue to import foreign drugs, when we have our own? The doctors always say that the herbal remedy has not been tested. Most of these medical doctors are from the villages and they drink agbo (herbal concoction). Let the Federal Government ease the lockdown and let the economy move because we can’t afford the current lockdown for six months, otherwise the country will collapse. Let people return to churches and mosques to pray for healing; after all, the rate of recovery is even high in the first instance.
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