Eromosele Abiodun examines the efforts of the Nigerian Custom Service, Seme Command, to rid the border of smugglers

At the 2016 Comptroller General Annual Conference and Stakeholders’ Interactive Forum in Lafia, Nasarawa State, the Comptroller General of the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS), Mr. Martin Kure Abeshi disclosed that of about the 1, 500 identified land border crossings into Nigeria, only 114, covering about 4,000 square kilometres, had approved control posts manned by immigration officials and other security agencies.

According to him, over 1,400 illegal routes are not manned, stressing that “this has grave security implications for the country.”
He said NIS’s approximately 23, 000 staff strength was grossly inadequate for the task of policing Nigeria’s vast borders.
Nigeria has international land borders of about 4,470 kilometres (2,513 miles) with Chad, Cameroon, Benin, and Niger, and a coastline of 774 kilometres (480 miles), which are largely unmanned. Among the manned borders, there are some considered to be very important to the country in terms of their contribution to the Nigerian economy. One of them is the Seme border.

This border over the years is a household name and considered to be the only international land border that contributes substantially to the country’s socio-economic development. These historical facts are corroborated by the statistical documentation of economic activities that have thrived through the Lagos-Abidjan corridor both in terms of human and vehicular movements.

Being a renowned border that links most of the West African countries within the sub-region, and its pivotal role in the economic development of Nigeria and West Africa at large, it is a known fact that the corridor has attracted both legitimate international and local travellers across the frontier, this international attraction is also accompanied with its dare consequences of illicit and illegal activities like smuggling, drug trafficking, human immigration/trafficking, terrorism and money laundering amongst others.
Unfortunately, Seme border, which is an approved international route was known and seen over the years by the public for its negative trans-border crimes than the legitimate means of trade transaction, movement of people and the link it has with other West African Countries.

Global Customs Administration
Globally, the Customs Administration of any member country coordinated by the World Customs Organisation (WCO) is strategically deployed to the seaport, airport and land borders of all member countries as an institution to execute its mandates (revenue generation, suppression of smuggling and trade facilitation among others) of which Nigeria is not an exception.

As a global phenomenon where customs are the custodians of all the entry points to a country, the international designation has led to the Customs Administration of each member country playing leading role when it comes to the management of all the entry points, especially in terms of their statutory responsibilities.

This, experts believe, has caused the misguided perception of some averagely enlightened and the ignorant within the public domain, that all activities and other engagements emanating from the entry points be it legal or illegal are orchestrated by the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS).
The same negative perception about the service has eroded the public mindset over Seme border not minding the fact that an efficient border management is a factor of effective collaboration with all the relevant border security agencies of any country, hence despite the leading role of the customs at any seaport, airports or land borders, they can’t operate in isolation.

New Dawn
While the public perception of the NCS continues to overshadow the genuine effort of some officers of service, it is important to note that some have continued to do what is needful, hoping that someday their efforts will paint the service in a good light. One of such persons is the Customs Area Controller of Seme Command, Compt. Mohammed Aliyu who observers said seem to be operating in strict adherence to the reform agenda of the Comptroller General of Customs, COL. Ibrahim Hammed Ali (rtd.).
This, they said, was evident as his operational strategies were determinedly within the service mandate with the nation’s security in mind.

An official of the Seme Command, who do not want his name in print, said the command has also succeeded in stemming the impunity and the flagrant abuse of the federal government policies by ardent smugglers, who used to operate at the border with dexterity and reckless abandon at the risk of officers lives.

According to him, well-known travellers through the corridor will bear witness to the fact that smuggling is being confronted head long and there is no room for impunity in illegalities among saboteurs at Seme route now.

“The total and aggressive compliance level in the enforcement of relevant government policies is a thing of admiration in the command as seizures of different contrabands are reeled in to the warehouse in a perpetual manner. These exceptional performances within the country are felt in other countries as the command’s collaborative effort within the sub-region wax stronger daily. The synergy has yielded an unprecedented feat in the arrest of many items including over fifty stolen exotic cars at Republic of Cote d’Ivoire under the Interpol collaboration.

“If this performance could necessitate a commendation letter from the Cote d’Ivoire government to the Comptroller General of Customs as a way of appreciating the synergy at the regional level to rid of cross-border crimes, It is worthy of note that the Nigeria Customs Service is undergoing a positive metamorphosis that deserves the commendations of its citizenry than mere criticism born out of selfish reasons from the Nigerian public,” he stated.

Gathering Classified Intelligence
The official added that the command was always gathering classified intelligence on the berthing of some consignments in the neighbouring countries that are prohibited and restricted into Nigeria, and targeting Nigeria as her final destination.

He said: “Our strategies to work on such information are only disclosed when the information are effectively treated. The command therefore remains resolute in the enforcement of the federal government policies across the frontier. The surveillance of the command over the year has led to the arrest of over 32,000 bags of smuggled rice with a duty paid value of over N530 million attest to the command’s uncompromising stand to working in conformity to the current reforms of the CGC.

“As a revenue generating institution of the federal government, the border command apart from enforcing government fiscal policies has generated the sum of N1.57 billion into the federal government coffers, which represent 78 per cent of the monthly revenue target allocated to the command from January to March this year. The command has also made a total of 270 seizures with a duty paid value of N235.64 million for the same period under review.”

Despite the success at riding the Seme border of smugglers, stakeholders believe changing the public perception towards its workforce is a task the present leadership is instilling among its officers and in the modus operandi of the service to comply with international best practice, considering the fact that the corridor is a gateway to the most populated black country in Africa, hence the need for international travellers to be treated with dignity, high degree of respect, transparency and professionalism.

However, the official told THISDAY that the NCS, Seme Command was conscious of this fact which has guided the way officers are deployed, to be strictly dependent on the training experience of the officers in order to curb with the public domain
“An average traveller is therefore expected to meet with an enlightened customs officer along the Lagos-Abidjan corridor who is expected to be exemplary in discipline, approach and human relationship, this is because every trained officer is expected to be an embodiment of all the seven operational golden Cs that will help him to be articulate in courtesy and responsible while on duty.

“It is therefore, not out of place to say, Seme border in the eye of the public is undergoing a positive metamorphosis despite the fact that often times few recalcitrant officers are always seen among the committed and patriotic ones. The NCS, Seme Command made bold to say that discipline permeate the highway among its officers now, while cross border crimes is abhorred among officers who are ready to do the right thing.

“We therefore enjoin the public to change their perception as the approved border is meant for legitimate trade and not smuggling activities. We enjoined Nigerians who know their right and are not smugglers to challenge that officer who is seen doing the wrong thing, as this will not only be a collaborative effort but also help the Service to fight smuggling along the international route through Seme border,” he stressed.

Ending Smuggling
To put an end to the menace of smuggling, the Seme Area Command in recent times has engaged in a renewed effort of aggressive anti-smuggling operation there by tightening the land border against smuggling activities.

The command is deploying all necessary tools to ensure that the core mandate of the service (revenue generation, facilitation of legitimate trade and suppression of smuggling) amongst others is vigorously achieved. This is because actualising the functions of revenue generation and legitimate trade facilitation depends solely on how smuggling activities are aggressively suppressed to the barest minimum.

It is against this backdrop that the anti-smuggling unit of the command has intensified its operations in order to curb the menace of trans-border crimes (smuggling) and other vices.
The ongoing aggressive patrol by the anti-smuggling operation unit of illegal routes and flanks of the border is yielding tremendous results, and has translated into the seizure of numerous items.

Fiscal Policies
Commenting on the items seized, Aliyu disclosed that combating smuggling was a major responsibility that the Nigeria Customs Service is saddled with, and as such, compliance with federal government fiscal policies is not an option to an institution that is bestowed with such enormous responsibilities.
He further stated that officers are adequately motivated and re-oriented to execute their functions creditably and discretionally without compromise.

Aliyu further reiterated that in order to key into the presidential mandate (reform, restructure and revenue generation), smuggling activities have to be confronted headlong in order to prevent revenue leakages. This reality has necessitated the proactive approach of the enforcement unit to ensure smuggling activities is maximally suppressed in order to enhance and boost revenue generation.
The command’s helmsman while showcasing the seizures made, charged all officers and men to maintain the tempo in combating smuggling activities across the frontier.
He added that though the drastic reduction of economic activities through the corridor has impacted negatively on the revenue profile of the command.

“The Command remains undaunted in ensuring that smuggling is suppressed to its barest minimum. The seized items include the followings: 3200 x 50KG bags of rice, 1000 cartons of frozen poultry products which has since been destroyed in accordance with the extant laws,720×25 jerry cans of vegetable oil and 57 bales of second hand clothing, with a total duty paid value of fifty four million, four hundred and sixty five thousand naira only (N 54, 465, 000.00),”he said.

The Comptroller used the opportunity to call on all concerned Nigerians, stakeholders and other relevant agencies at the borders to help the service in giving credible intelligence for all kinds of trans-border crimes to be nib in the bud.
He reiterated that the NCS Seme command would continue to protect the Nigerian economy by ensuring that our local industries were protected to give employment opportunities to the teaming population of our unemployed youths.

He further stated that this could only be achieved by ensuring that the fiscal policies of the federal government were fully enforced.