· Traders accuse customs officials of extortion
Francis Sardauna in Katsina
The Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) yesterday shut Nigeria’s border with Niger Republic at Jibia, Katsina State less than 48 hours the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) reopened it in line with the directive of President Muhammadu Buhari.
Consequently, the decision of the customs service sparked mild protest among traders in communities around the border, alleging that the customs officers closed the border to continue their illegal activities in the area.
THISDAY uncovered the contravention of Buhari’s directive yesterday during a visit to the border post at Jibia, Jibia Local Government Area (LGA), Katsina State.
On December 16, 2020, Buhari approved the immediate reopening of four major land borders in Nigeria after 15 months of outright closure that stoked stern criticism across Africa.
While he directed immediate reopening of the land borders, the president did not approve the importation of rice, poultry and other counterfeit products.
Consistent with Buhari’s directive, the Comptroller General of Immigration (CGI), Mr. Muhammed Babandede had on Thursday directed the immediate reopening of the Nigeria-Niger border.
Babandede conveyed this directive in a three-paragraph circular addressed to the Katsina State Comptroller of the Immigration Service.
Babandede was quoted in the circular saying the federal government “has directed the Nigeria Immigration Service to reopen all land borders in the country but with strict adherence to Presidential Task Force protocols on COVID-19 pandemic.”
Consequently, there was ceremonial reopening of the border on Thursday which was well-attended by traders within and outside the country, including the Deputy Comptroller of Immigration in charge of the border, DCI H. Ibrahim, customs officers and police at the frontier of the border.
During the visit to the border post yesterday, however, THISDAY observed that the officials of the customs service restricted human and vehicular movement across the border post while its main entrance was under lock despite the directive of the president.
THISDAY, also, observed that the operatives of the customs service denied traders and travellers entry and exit at the border town.
It equally observed that there was restriction of movement as checking of goods and vehicles remained in place at more than 20 checkpoints mounted by armed customs and police officers along Katsina-Jibia highway.
The customs service, however, justified its action on the ground that it had not received a formal directive from its supervising ministry to reopen the border.
An official of the customs service, who spoke private with THISDAY, said security agencies at the border post were still expecting official directives to reopen the border.
He said: “We heard about the reopening of the land borders from the news, but we are still waiting for directives from our head office in Abuja. We can not just open the border like that.
“As you can see, when the border was closed, the federal government introduced Joint Border Patrol which comprises Army, Immigration, Police and Customs.
So, we must receive an official letter from our head office as members of border drill before we will open it,” the customs officer said anonymously.
Concerned about the conflicting directives, some traders in separate interviews in Jibia yesterday lamented endless extortions by customs officers, claiming that the customs officers closed the border to continue with their illegalities in the area.
One of the traders, Babangida Bako, said that residents and traders, who were rejoicing when the border reopened, were disappointed at the action of the customs service.
He said: “Immigration officers came to Jibia Thursday morning where they announced the official reopening of the Nigeria-Niger border and directed us to commence commercial activities with our brothers in Niger.
“Unfortunately, around 2pm that same day some heavily armed customs officers came and locked the gate of the border. As I speak to you, the frontier of the border is under locked and key. The officers are even threatening to kill us if we go there”.
While appealing to the federal government to order the officials to reopen the border, Bako said traders within the border town were ready to obey rules and regulations that would be given by the government when the border is reopened.
Another trader, Samaila Muhammadu Jibia, alleged that the prevailing extortion by customs officers and other security personnel was detrimental to trade facilitation and ease of doing business and also crippled the economy and impacted negatively on residents of the area.
According to him, there are more than 30 checkpoints between Jibia to Katsina being manned by officers of the NCS, the Nigeria Police, the Nigeria Immigration Service and the Nigeria Security and Civil Defense Corps.
“But they are doing nothing but extortion that is why they don’t want to reopen the border”, he added.
On her part, Farida Kabiru, said the security personnel were busy extorting money from legitimate businessmen and women rather than addressing the wave of smuggling activities that have been bedeviling the border town.
She said: “We are surprised that President Muhammadu Buhari has ordered the reopening of our border but customs officers have refused to open it. We are calling on Buhari to direct customs officers to open our border immediately so that we can commence our business activities.”