There are assertions that over 80 per cent of the youths in the border areas are involved in smuggling. How have you been able to handle this challenge?
This is one of the unfair perceptions and narratives that we are trying to correct in this part of the country. Ogun is a very wide area. The state has boundaries with Lagos, Oyo, Osun and Ondo, internally. It also shares boundary with Benin Republic at Imekon, Idiroko, Owode, Ilarra, Ileshe, Ogungbe, among others.
It is expected that the youths in these environs would take advantage of the God-given location to improve the economy of their environment and also better their lives. Erroneously, people tend to associate this place with smuggling. There may be some elements of smuggling but it’s important to note that genuine trade was taking place here before the border closure. I want to remove this perception that all that happens here is smuggling because this has been an age-long trading route.
Talking about the youths, there are very few of them who are involved in smuggling activities. However, we are relating with all the stakeholders including the youths, elders, security agencies and the state government.
We recently visited the traditional rulers, sister security agencies as well as government parastatals that aren’t security agencies. We visited the state governor and just recently National Youth Council of Nigeria was here. We interacted with the Youth Council and I told them that we should have such interaction quarterly. The idea is to encourage them to embrace legitimate trading activities and supply chain activities across the border. They may be few that are misguided just as you can find in any human endeavour. For this category of people, we aren’t just appealing to them; we are putting modalities in place to ensure that they would be frustrated to the point that they would voluntarily withdraw from such illicit activities.
We try to encourage those doing the right thing by giving them enough support. I encouraged them to apply for Customs job when the recent application portal was opened. I sent the links to some of the youth leaders to encourage their members to join. We also try to bring some of the plights of those in the border communities to the Customs Management, especially the lack of basic social amenities. We have hosted the Border Community Development Agency which is a Federal Government agency. So, many of the stakeholders see Ogun 1 Customs as partners. Only few individuals see us as people who have come to disrupt the illegitimate things they are doing.
We already have the understanding and buy-in of the royal fathers, the state governor, majority of the youths and the entire populace in this environment. We are changing the narrative that this area is a war zone and replacing it by showing that this place is actually a gateway to trade within the nation and across the border.
There are about nine to eleven official border entry points in Ogun State and the citizens have an advantage that could be harnessed for economic gains. So, rather than see this region as a place where the youths fight with Customs, I want it to be a place where they partner with Customs in order to gainfully maximize the potentials of their geographical location. It’s not every community that has this kind of advantage
It takes about 25minutes to drive by car to Port Novo and the next piece of land after this Customs building is Igolo which is Benin Republic. This is an advantageous position for anyone who wants to do things right and not for those who want to snuggle. Nigeria is already a manufacturing hub and traders could buy from the big manufacturers like Fiser, Indomie, Nigerian Bottling Company and sell across the border when the border is reopened. We don’t have to smuggle Premium Motor Spirit (PMS) and rice. Nigerians manufacture plastics, tanks, etc and our neighbouring countries don’t produce these items. We could export these items legitimately.
I pray that the government decides to reopen the border because residents and traders in this area would have an advantage, particularly under the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). We can maximize this advantage if the people in the border areas would collaborate with Customs as much as we are willing to partner with them.
How would you review the activities of Customs at the Ogun 1 Command in 2021, a year where smuggling seemed to characterise the border region?
The fact remains that the borders are closed. So, the main work we do here for now is to enforce the anti-smuggling laws of the federation to ensure that there is no abuse of the law against border closure. Having said that, we are not expected to declare bumper revenue for close to two years.
I will like to state that the job of the Ogun 1 Customs Command and the closure of the land border is so significant that if we do the job very well, it would translate into more revenue for the seaports. The revenue that would have been declared at this border post is assumed to have moved to the seaports because the goods that should have come through the land border is believed to have utilised the seaports. So, the high revenues at the seaports is a collective win for Customs and the nation.
A more secured border would translate into increased revenue at the seaports until the borders are reopened.
Despite the border closure, we discovered that we still have over 25 checkpoints comprising Customs and other security agencies on the roads. Does this mean that smuggling still thrives?
I answered that question with my assertion earlier that the activities at this border isn’t all about rice and fuel smuggling. It’s also not just about trading also. There are other issues like cross border crime. We used to have issues of people coming in from the border to snatch cars and take them out of the country. Human trafficking is also a problem and there are other activities that require the presence of security agencies.
Nevertheless, the fact that the borders are closed doesn’t mean that security operatives should go home. It’s not like we put a padlock at the border. Even after putting a padlock on your gate, you hire a security man to watch the gate.
We, however, shouldn’t forget the fact that there are two approved ECOWAS checkpoints on this route. They are at Ajilete and Iwumbor; the rest are patrol base or camps that officers in the bushes set up to change. We can’t expect them to have their camps in the bushes, so they set up along the roads so that people can also see them.
Earlier, we talked about the approved routes but there also lots of unapproved routes which officers would also have to patrol. You can’t legislate character because the government’s directive that the borders be closed wouldn’t be respected by some people. Hence, the need to have officers on guard.
Some border community leaders have lamented that these Customs officers on patrol don’t conduct themselves in a civil manner as they harass residents. What’s your take on that?
In the course of carrying out their duties, there is a little divide between the good people and the bad ones. It’s just like passing through the airports. Everyone has to be frisked when passing through the airports. I’m also frisked even though I’m wearing my uniform. I’m asked to raised my hands, turn around, they scan me and frisk me, despite the fact that I’m a Comptroller on uniform. This doesn’t mean that all the hundreds of passengers boarding that airplane are carrying dangerous weapons to hurt the airline, airport or the airport community.
We all suffer the inconvenience because one or two people are being suspected. This is the same thing that happens at the border region.
Everyone is subjected to rigorous checks when entering or exiting the land borders because of the few who perpetuate illicit activities in the area.
Ghana recently shut its land borders to trade, Nigeria’s has been closed for over two years; what’s the future of AfCFTA with this trend of border closures?
This is one of the issues people who are concerned about trade facilitation worry about. Within the sub-region, there shouldn’t be border closures. If not for the illegitimate trade and economic sabotage by neighbouring countries, I don’t see why a country would want its borders closed.
Intra trade in Africa is 6%, but the least you can find in other continents is 41%.
Nobody is happy about this trade ratio but that is what happens with underdeveloped countries. Nigeria isn’t pleased with this development also, but when you consider that neighbouring nations import things they don’t need with the hope that they would be smuggled into Nigeria, we are forced to take certain decisions. The little trade in Africa is informal. No one keeps the records and this is very appalling.