- President says measure taken to curb rice smuggling
Omololu Ogunmade in Yokohama, Japan and Eromosele Abiodun in Lagos
Smugglers continued to suffer huge losses Wednesday as President Muhammadu Buhari in Yokohama, Japan confirmed the closure of Nigeria’s border with Republic of Benin, saying the measure was taken to stem the tide of smuggling of rice into the country.
The border had been shut last week although the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) had told THISDAY wednesday that the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA), which is coordinating the ongoing joint border security exercise, did not close the borders.
But Buhari at a meeting with President of Benin Republic, Mr. Patrice Tallon, on the sidelines of the ongoing seventh Tokyo International Conference for Africa Development (TICAD7) in Yokohama, explained that the border was shut by the federal government as a decisive measure to curb smuggling of foreign rice into the country.
With the ban on movement of goods and services across the borders, THISDAY gathered that N21.6 million daily revenue, and N16.5 million daily revenue generated by the NCS along Idi-Iroko and Seme borders respectively are under threat. The figures exclude revenues from other three sectors comprising the North-west, North-central and South-south geopolitical zones, which were not readily available as at press time.
The NCS had told THISDAY earlier yesterday that the border was not closed, saying that what was going on was the resolve of Nigerian security agencies to better secure the country’s territorial integrity particularly the land and maritime borders against trans-border crime and criminality.
The meeting between Buhari and Tallon, which held behind closed doors at the Royal Park Hotel, was attended by Nigeria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Geoffrey Onyeama.
Speaking with Nigerian journalists after the meeting, Onyeama said Tallon expressed concern over the hardship the closure had caused his citizens and pleaded with Buhari to reopen it.
He said the border was closed because of the frequency of rice smuggling into the country through the borders, pointing out that the president saw the unwholesome development as a threat to Nigeria’s pursuit of food sufficiency.
Onyeama said: “They were discussing the issue of the closure of the border. You may not know but Nigeria closed border with Benin and it is causing great difficulties for Benin. So, the president said he had to see our president as a matter of urgency and because of the great problem that it is causing.
“They talked about the reason for the closure which essentially was about smuggling across the borders, especially rice smuggling, and Mr. President is extremely concerned that now that Nigeria through our agricultural policies has become self-sufficient in rice production that this is now threatened.”
But the minister said Buhari, following the concern expressed by his Benin Republic counterpart over the plights of his people as a result of the closure, promised to reopen the border in future but did not tell him the exact date he hopes to do so.
Onyeama added that both leaders resolved to formally hold a meeting over the matter after returning to Africa along with the President of Niger Republic with a view to officially reaching a joint agreement on how to end smuggling across Nigerian borders.
According to the minister, the decision to close the borders was the fallout of a concrete search for a permanent solution to smuggling across the Nigerian borders.
Onyeama added that the president believed that smuggling must be decisively dealt with particularly at this moment when Nigeria is no longer depleting its foreign reserves to secure foreign exchange for rice importation.
“The fact that our citizens can now work in rural areas, farming, it is a threat to our country to allow this smuggling to persist on that scale,” he said, adding: “The president talked about the amount of money we now save by no longer having to spend our foreign reserves to buy foreign rice.”
He explained that the measures already taken were to allow the security forces to develop a strategy, to know exactly how the smugglers operate and where they operate from.
However, the NCS has said the joint security exercise at the borders would continue indefinitely until the security agencies develop the capacity to man the borders effectively.
The National Public Relations Officer of the NCS, Mr. Joseph Attah, told THISDAY that the exercise was targeted at only illegitimate businesses.
He had said: “The border is not closed; what we are having is a joint security exercise, intensive security patrol along the border. The idea is to raise our state of preparedness against trans-border crimes and criminality. Today if you have your document you can cross the border out and you can come in. If you go to other countries, some even smaller than Nigeria, you see how strict they are. I don’t know why people think that we should be a country of all comers; anybody can just come into our country through anywhere both approved and unapproved. We are facing increased security challenges; shouldn’t the security services come together and build their capacity to police these routs?”
He said the exercise, code named, “Exercise SWIFT RESPONSE,” would continue until the security services were satisfied they had fully developed the capacity to effectively man the borders.
On what informed the exercise, he said, “In the face of increase in security challenges in the country such as terrorism, arms smuggling, dangerous drugs and proliferation of light weapons, the Office of the National Security Adviser (NSA) put all the security agencies together to conduct an intensive patrol along our borders. The necessity for this is to ensure that our national economy and security interest are not compromised.”
On the possible impact on neighboring countries like Benin and Togo he said people were over making references to these countries.
He said: “This thing is not one sided; the exercise is being conducted in the four geographical regions of the country. We are talking about borders like Gibia, Jibila, Nsum, Migatiri, Kasamutu and other domain. Why so much emphasis on Togo and Benin? This is not about one country; border, it is about all the states in Nigeria that has land borders and even water. If you go to somewhere like Kebbi State there is what they call river Yauri and the navy is there. You can’t restrict this to two countries and use it to summarise what is happening around the country. Why the emphasis on Seme road?”
Importers Lament Losses
However, apart from the loss of revenue by NCS, clearing agents operating at the Seme and Idiroko border stations have rued revenue losses as transit cargoes remained trapped.
In his reaction, the National President of the National Council of Managing Director of Licensed Customs Agents (NCMDLCA), Mr. Lucky Amiwero, said borders should not be closed that way because Nigeria was not at war.
He said: “I don’t think it is right to say the borders are closed; it is a normal security situation.
“We signed an ECOWAS protocol for free movement of people. Has Nigeria complied with the procedures of ECOWAS protocol? You don’t just close borders like that because the borders are actually entry point. It is just like you are closing your airports or closing your seaports. Nigeria has three entry points, which are airport, seaport and border stations and all these are legal stations in line with the provisions of the law and we have ECOWAS protocol and the protocol is talking about free movement of persons and goods and you have signed this protocol. If you want to do any closure, it must be a country-to-country negotiations and the issue should be done according to information, which is contained in World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreements. ”
On his part, the Chairman, Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), Seme border chapter, Mr. Lasisi Fanu, said the border was still closed, adding that all the borders across the federation were affected.
“Since the border is closed, there is nothing agents are going there to do. Agents are to do documentations at the border for the goods coming in. Since goods are not coming in, there is nothing they are going there to do. We pray that the issue is not up to 28 days we heard earlier because we have perishable items at the border and everything will be perished,” he added.
Ramaphosa: Killings of Nigerians in South Africa Upset Us
Meanwhile, South African President, Mr. Cyril Ramaphosa, yesterday in Yokohama said his government was upset about the protracted killings of Nigerians in South Africa, noting that the trend has necessitated the call for a meeting of the leaders of both countries on how to promptly stem the killings.
Ramaphosa spoke in Japan while answering questions from journalists after holding a bilateral talk with Buhari on the sidelines of the ongoing TICAD7 in Yokohama.
The South African president said his country’s justice system had already taken up the matter, pointing out that he is not in support of the killings and there is no justifiable reason for anybody to be killed.
He described the meeting he had with Buhari as a good forum for both South Africa and Nigeria to renew the bond of unity between them and simultaneously share together issues of common interest in the overall interest of Africa.
“We are going to be discussing all that because we have very good relations. We’ll talk about the issue of Nigerians who are dying in South Africa.
We feel very upset about that.
“Obviously, our criminal justice system is working on it. We don’t support killings. Nobody should ever be killed; but it’s also good to use this opportunity here in Japan to renew the bond between us; to talk about common things between South Africa and Nigeria. We know we have to play key roles in the overall development of the continent,” Ramaphosa said.