- Reopening depends on attainment of govt’s objectives, say Customs
Iyobosa Uwugiaren, Ndubuisi Francis in Abuja and Eromosele Abiodun, Dike Onwuamaeze, Chris Uba in Lagos
Business leaders and other stakeholders have expressed support for the decision by the federal government to extend the closure of all the country’s land borders to its neighbours to January 31, 2020.
The Nigerian Association of Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (NACCIMA) and the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) commended the federal government, saying it is an indication that the government has the progress of Nigerian business community at heart.
They were reacting to the approval given by President Muhammadu Buhari for the extension of the joint border operations code-named “Exercise Swift Response,” which has necessitated the total shutdown of land boundaries.
In line with the president’s new order, the land borders will now be reopened on January 31, 2020, sealing the expectations of industrialists in the West African region, who were hopeful that the Nigerian government would reopen the borders on or before Christmas.
This is coming as the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) yesterday said the January 31, 2020 date, which was contained in what it described as a leaked memo is not the terminal date for the border closure.
But in a circular number: NCS/ENF/ABJ/221/S.45 dated November 1, 2019 and signed by the Comptroller of Customs in charge of enforcement, Mr. Victor Dimka, to the sector coordinators, joint border operations drill (Exercise Swift Response), Sectors 1, 2, 3 & 4, the federal government directed them to note the new development and comply accordingly.
The memo states: “I am directed to inform you that it is observed that despite the overwhelming success of the operation, particularly the security and economic benefits to the nation, a few strategic objectives are yet to be achieved.
“Against this background, Mr. President has approved the extension of the exercise to January 31, 2020. Consequently, you are requested to convey the development to all personnel for their awareness and guidance.
“Meanwhile, allowance for personnel sustenance and fuelling of vehicles for the period of extension will be paid as soon as possible. This is for your information and necessary action, please.”
The Comptroller-General of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Col. Hameed Ali (rtd), had on August 20 announced the commencement of “Exercise Swift Response,” a joint operation involving all military, paramilitary and intelligence agencies, in what he described as government’s efforts to sanitise the land borders that have become disreputable for cross-border smuggling.
While the Customs claimed goods worth N2.3 trillion had been seized from smugglers as at October 30, and many arrests made since the restriction against smugglers began, some economic analysts and experts had said the soul of the problem was a “network of wealthy smuggling cartels” assisted by corrupt border officials, which the federal government needed to urgently fixed.
Industrialists, who rely on genuine trans-border transactions, have strongly criticised the action as their economic prosperities have been hugely affected since the closure of the borders.
Borders Will Remain Closed, Says Customs
Meanwhile, the NCS said the January 31, 2020 date contained in the leaked memo is not the terminal date for the border closure.
NCS’s Public Relations Officer, Mr. Joseph Attah, said the January 31, 2020, was just for this phase of the operation.
He said the borders would remain closed indefinitely until the day objectives of government for the operation were fully achieved.
“Please note that the internal memo is referring to the end of this phase of the joint security Exercise Swift Response and not a terminal date for the partial border closure. Security operation of this kind is usually in phases. The partial border closure will continue until the set objectives are achieved,” Attah told THISDAY in a text message.
Businesses Welcome Extension of Closure
Meanwhile, business leaders and other stakeholders have expressed their support for the decision by the federal government to extend the closure of all the country’s land borders to its neighbours to January 31, 2020.
NACCIMA National President, Hajiya Saratu Aliyu, who spoke to THISDAY, urged members of her association to be patient with the government, saying the action is for the overall interest of the country.
She said: “Firstly, I want to commend the government for the step it took concerning the closure of the borders. Our neighbours are taking us for granted.
“There has been the ECOWAS treaty, which they signed and affirmed to abide by, unfortunately, they swept it under the carpet and were turning us into a dumping ground.
“The closure of the borders also adversely affected our members. We are happy to know that the government has made its point known and a new date has now been fixed for its reopening.
“I want to plead with our members to be patient because the government is fighting our course.”
MAN President, Mansur Ahmed, also told THISDAY that the news of the border reopening by January 31 was cheering, saying it would enable businesses to begin to plan as against the earlier information that the closure would remain indefinite, “which would have been unfortunate.”
“It means that we are moving forward with the tentative date, which will allow people to plan their business and know how to organise themselves even though the remaining 89 days to the reopening date will still have substantial impact on people that have legitimate to do across the border,” Ahmed said.
He added that it should be necessary for government to carry out extensive consultation.
“We had always believed that policies of this magnitude in consequence should be thought through and shared with the organised private sector because of their unpredictable potential impact on businesses. The essence of the consultation is to give businesses ample time to adjust.
“Moreover, it would not be out place to expect that government should pay some compensation to businesses that have suffered significant losses due to the suddenness of the border closure, especially companies that have borrowed money from banks to bring in industrial inputs or exportable finished goods that were halted at the borders for nearly six months,” he said.
However, the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) viewed the entire closure of the border and its anticipated reopening in an entirely different manner.
The chamber, in a statement by its Director General, Mr. Muda Yusuf, said it, however, appreciated concerns of government regarding security and economic sabotage which informed the action.
“But the demands of sacrifice imposed on business and the citizens by the border closure is disproportionate and becoming unbearable. The effect is perhaps more pronounced in the south western part of the country being the financial and commercial hub of the country and the sub-region,” he said.
He added that the continued closure of the borders had led to complete shutdown of cross-border trade (imports and exports) between Nigerian business and their counterparts in the sub-region.
He said: “This has grave consequences for investments and jobs. Many industries have invested in products registered under the ECOWAS Trade Liberalisation scheme (ETLS). These are investors whose business models were anchored on market opportunities in the ECOWAS. These investments have been completely disrupted and dislocated.
“Majority of the victims of the border closure are small businesses, most of them in the informal sector. Their means of livelihood has been put in great jeopardy. This class of traders does not have the capacity to move their products by sea because of the modest scale of their operations. Supply chain of some business has been completely disrupted.
“Maritime sector investors have been denied opportunities offered by transit cargo destined for landlocked countries which normally comes through the Nigerian ports. The closure has triggered an unprecedented hike in prices with a devastating impact on the poor. This implies further aggravation of the poverty situation in the country.”
But the Centre for Social Justice, (CSJ), a foremost non- governmental advocacy organisation for fiscal responsibility and Pan-Africa organisation, Feed Africa Advocacy Network (FAAN), said the border closure was welcome.
FAAN’s Executive Director, Mr. Chika Okeke, said the group supported the border closure to tackle smuggling of agricultural produce, especially rice, palm oil and poultry products.
“However, beyond the forced closure of the border, we call on the federal government to adopt a more sustainable approach especially by tackling the issue of corruption among Customs officials who are major collaborators in the smuggling business.
“The government also needs to roll out a sustainable policy to support local rice producers and also local farmers across other agricultural produce and value chain to stimulate local production.
“There is a need for the federal government to also find a way to ensure that other local businesses, which depend on neighbouring countries for their sales are not crippled as the economy extends beyond agriculture,” he said.
He urged Nigerians to support the government and also do more by patronising locally-made agriculture produce, especially rice, tomato and poultry products to grow the naira.
CSJ’s Lead Director, Eze Onyekpere, said no one in his right senses would support smuggling and flooding the country with banned goods and substances.
He said it also made no sense that individuals and companies evade the payment of appropriate duties to government or even evading the payment of duties at all, thereby causing a loss of revenue and misallocation of resources.
He added: “However, border closure seems like a knee-jerk reaction to the challenge of smuggling. There must be systematic ways of curbing smuggling beyond border closure. If the government insists on border closure, the question remains for how long? After January 31, 2020 date, what next?”
According to him, the Customs and the government must constructively engage neighbouring countries and work out acceptable ways and means to allow legitimate trade to grow and flourish while curbing illegal trade.