The Nigeria Customs Service, Sokoto Command, is taking proactive measures to curb smuggling activities in the North. Mohammed Aminu writes

International trade is a well-known path to economic prosperity for many countries. That is why developed economies in the West, particularly those that engage in mass production of goods became prosperous. However, in Nigeria, the menace of smuggling and evasion of duties through its land borders, have wreaked havoc on the nation’s ailing economy.

According to the World Bank, an astonishing $5 billion (N1.45 trillion) worth of assorted goods are smuggled into Nigeria through Benin Republic alone every year. This amount represents about 15 per cent of total smuggled goods through that border.

The World Bank report also noted that over $400 million (N116 billion), representing about 25 per cent of the total current annual revenue collected by the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS), is lost through nefarious smuggling across the sub-regional borders.

Smuggling has really affected the economy of Nigeria in several ways. It hinders the local industry, discourages legal imports and reduces the volume of revenues collected from duties and levies by the state. A large proportion of the revenue to be collected by the federal government is being lost, over and above the adverse impact that the smuggled items cause to local industry.

According to the Nigerian Textile Manufacturers Association (NTMA), Nigeria loses a whopping $325 million every year due to evasion of customs duty and value added tax by smugglers of textile materials.

NTMA’s Chairman, Mr. Abiodun Ogunkoya has said that about 85 per cent of the $1.4 billion worth of textile materials that flood the nation annually are smuggled. “Wax print fabrics produced in China bear counterfeit trademarks of Nigeria manufacturers and fake Standard Organisation of Nigeria logo printed on the labels,” he said.

The illicit trade is also a threat to national security. According to a United Nations report, there are more than an estimated 350 million illegal light weapons smuggled into Nigeria. UN Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Africa said this accounted for 70 per cent of illicit small arms in West Africa. Some of the weapons are said to have originated in Mali and Libya, where there are on-going conflicts.  The report believes that the presence of so many illegal arms in Nigeria is a threat to peaceful co-existence.

It is equally disheartening to note that the agricultural policy of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration towards self sufficiency in rice production is being threatened by the incessant smuggling activities by a few nefarious individuals through the land borders in Sokoto, Kebbi and Zamfara States.

The Sokoto zone of the NCS, which comprises Kebbi, Sokoto and Zamfara States has somehow remained dormant in the last three years.

However, since the new Customs Area Comptroller for the zone, Mr. Nasiru Ahmad came in, coupled with the efforts of the headquarters and men, a lot of progress has been made in anti- smuggling operations on rice, vehicles, vegetable oil and other prohibited items.

The number of seizures recorded this year has been unprecedented in the last decade and this is due to the proactive measures undertaken by the Comptroller-General, Col. Hammed Ibrahim Ali (rtd), who has zero tolerance for smuggling activities. On assumption of office at the Command in April 2017, the Comptroller-General took decisive measures by deploying competent officers at the borders of Illella and Kamba in Sokoto and Kebbi States. The move yielded tremendous success as seizures of contraband are being recorded on a weekly basis while the smugglers are now on the run.

In fact, in the last eight months, vehicles, rice, second hand clothes, among others had been intercepted by customs officers. The items seized within the period  included 39 vehicles worth N83 million, 2068 bags of rice worth N48 million, 976 jerry cans of vegetable oil, 547 bales of second hand clothing worth N29 million, 52 kilogrammes of Indian hemp, as well as elephant tusk with a duty paid value of N14 million.

Speaking with THISDAY in Sokoto, Ahmad said the zone had recorded modest achievement since his assumption of office April this year. He disclosed that the Command recorded a revenue of N829 million as against N1billion generated within the same period in 2016. He said the Command recorded a deficit of 22.6 per cent in 2017 and attributed the shortfall in revenue to the fact that rice and vehicles which constitute the backbone of revenue in Sokoto, Kebbi and Zamfara States, were banned from importation through the land borders. “They are no longer part of dutiable items to be processed in our land borders which was not the case in 2016. Importation can only be done through the sea ports,” he explained.

He lamented that the smugglers had devised means of smuggling contraband goods by using small vehicles in order to evade customs officers. He however, emphasised that the officers had been provided with more operational vehicles and adequately motivated to tackle the menace. “The smugglers have stopped using trucks as means of conveying these contraband goods. They use small vehicles such as Toyota Carina as the means of carrying this rice. So, we have made efforts in this regard,” he said.

He attributed the challenge in the anti-smuggling operations to porous borders, especially many bush paths and farmlands during the dry season, that made it easy access for smugglers to illegally transport offending items across the border without proper control. “As far as I am concerned, there should be no smuggling of rice because the three states are in the forefront of rice production. So why should the people smuggle rice? We have WACOT and Labana rice mills in Kebbi State. Dangote Group and Honeywell are top producers of spaghetti but it is sad that our people import rice and spaghetti that are not good for human consumption.”

He emphasised that the Command was not relenting in its revenue generation and anti smuggling drive. He called on the smugglers to desist forthwith and embrace the policies of the federal government by engaging actively in farming. “Our people should stop taking our hard earned foreign currency to Niger and Benin Republics,” he said. “The federal government is trying to encourage local production of rice so that we can have self-sufficiency and conserve foreign exchange. We have WACOT and Labana Rice Mills in Kebbi State and the seaports are open for anybody who wants to import rice. We shall pursue this with more vigour and determination in order to reduce the incidences of smuggling to the barest minimum in the Command. “I am appealing to those who are in the habit of smuggling to desist forthwith, as this constitutes economic, social and health consequences. Our officers are committed to protecting the Nigerian economy by enforcing government policies on imports and exports.”