Ahmed: FG, Benin Republic in Talks over Border Closure

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* N1.4bn goods confiscated, says Customs boss

James Emejo in Abuja

The Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Mrs. Zainab Ahmed, yesterday clarified that the closure of all land borders manned by the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) and other security agencies will not “last forever.”

This is coming as the Comptroller-General of NCS, Hameed Ali, yesterday said goods worth N1.4 billion had been seized since the federal government partially close the country’s land borders on August 20 to tame the activities of smugglers as well as enforce compliance to anti-dumping practices by its neighbours.

She said discussions are currently ongoing between the government of Nigeria and the Republic of Benin on the need to comply with the various trade agreements signed by both countries but which had been reportedly subjected to abuses.

The minister said even though the closure had so far recorded positive outcomes for the economy, the borders would be reopened as soon as there is compliance to the treaties signed by the neighbouring countries.

The President of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN), Mr. Ahmed Mansur, had insisted that the continued closure of the borders could in the long run hurt the private sector as there appeared to be no end in sight.

This is as the minister also said President Muhammadu Buhari had ordered that no federal civil servants should be paid salaries henceforth, effective from October, until they are enrolled on the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS).

She explained that although the affected workers would not be disengaged from the service, the move is to compel those individuals and agencies who are reluctant to join the payment platform to do that.

Speaking at a town hall meeting on the breakdown of the 2020 budget proposals, Ahmed insisted that no agency of the government was exempted from the IPPIS, stressing that though members of the polytechnics and universities had objected to being enrolled because of the peculiar nature of their operations, they are nevertheless to comply.

She said the platform was designed to plug revenue leakages in public finances.

It further emerged that the federal government is seeking to finance the 2020 budget with about N237 billion it hopes to recover from looted public assets.

The minister, however, disclosed that the sum of N450 billion has been earmarked for fuel subsidy payment or what has been renamed as under-recovery by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC).

She emphasised that going forward, key reforms such as the Strategic Revenue Growth Initiative (SRGI) would be implemented with increased vigour to improve revenue collection and expenditure management.

Ahmed noted that in furtherance of the federal government’s objective of greater comprehensiveness and transparency in the budget process, its budget from 2020 will reflect the revenues and expenditures of Government Owned Enterprises (GOEs) and the multilateral/bi-lateral project-tied loans and related expenditures.

She stressed further that achieving fiscal sustainability and macro-fiscal objectives of government would require bold, decisive and urgent action, saying: “The government is determined to act as may be required.”

Meanwhile, the Comptroller-General of NCS, Ali, yesterday said goods worth N1.4 billion had been seized since the federal government partially closed the country’s land borders on August 20 to tame the activities of smugglers as well as enforce compliance to anti-dumping practices by its neighbours.

He also revealed that the Republic of Niger, one of Nigeria’s northern neighbours, had recently banned the export of rice into the country as a fallout the latter’s border closure.

Speaking at a media briefing in Abuja, the Customs boss revealed that 317 smugglers had been arrested, adding that 21,071 bags of 50 kilogrammes of parboiled rice were impounded.

Ali further foreclosed any plans to reopen the borders soon, adding that diplomatic engagements were ongoing with neighbouring countries on how to comply with established trade protocols.

He noted that the partial land border closure had affected all goods, advising that anyone who hitherto imported and exported legitimate goods could still do so through the seaports and other manned outlets for now.

Ali also disclosed that President Muhammadu Buhari had approved an e-customs project, which involves using drones and geo-spatial technology to further fortify the borders.

On why the security agencies are not putting free movement protocol of ECOWAS into consideration in the border closure issue, Ali said: “When we talk of security, human rights take a back seat. We want to secure our country. Nigeria must survive before you talk of rights and doing business.”

He noted that all the agencies involved in Exercise Swift Response (ESR) as coordinated by the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA) have been duly briefed on the target of the operation, especially in the area of using minimum force.

However, he said the government, through diplomatic channels, would continue to engage neighbours to agree on compliance with ECOWAS Protocol on transit.

Ali said: “Goods that are on the prohibition list in Nigeria, such as rice, used clothing, poultry products and vegetable oil, should not be exported to the country.

“As a result of this closure, Niger Republic has already circulated an order banning exportation of rice in any form to Nigeria.”

“There are rules of this operation to enhance ECOWAS protocol, which says you must arrive or depart via a recognised port with the right travel documents. You must travel where there is Customs and Immigrations Services.

“We will launch our e-border initiative next year. We also have forward operational bases, and will patrol them round the clock. We have 12 of such.”

Ali maintained that the border operation would continue until neighbouring countries comply with the rules of engagement, rather than becoming corridors through which illicit goods are dumped in Nigeria.