Nigerian clearing agents operating at the Seme-Krake border have raised concerns that the numerous illegal checkpoints on the Lagos-Badagry-Benin Republic international highway may mar the good intention to allow Nigerians to legally clear their goods from the seaport in Cotonou in Benin Republic
This is even as they harped on the importance of safeguarding national security and trust deficit for personnel of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS).
Recall that the acting Comptroller-General of the Nigeria Customs Service, Adewale Adeniyi recently announced that Nigerian importers would soon be able to ship in their goods to Cotonou port in Benin Republic, from where Nigerian clearing agents would be able to clear the cargo and transport them to Nigeria.
However, while the government argues that this move aims to streamline trade and improve efficiency, clearing agents argue that it undermines the capabilities and trustworthiness of Nigerian Customs officers.
In a chat last week, the Seme Chapter Chairman of the ANLCA, Mr Onyekachi Ojinma alleged that the government has added more checkpoints to the ever-busy highway, rather than reduce them. He stressed that although the number of Customs checkpoints along the border corridor has reduced, the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) checkpoints are currently the primary culprit with over 40 checkpoints.
The ANLCA Chairman emphasized that the proposal to being clearing at Cotonou port is unsustainable with the current situation of over 80 checkpoints replete with security personnel from the Police, Immigration, Customs and Military along the route from Mile 2 to Seme.
Ojinma informed that these checkpoints often cause motorists to stop arbitrarily, even as he alleged extortion from those who regularly travel along these routes. He noted that there are several reports of travellers being embarrassed at the numerous checkpoints.
Ojinma said the excessive number of checkpoints continues to pose challenges to regional integration, economic activities and foreign relations while calling for swift and effective solutions to streamline the border checkpoints and eliminate extortion along these key routes.
“Nigeria is the country of just talking without following it up with action. Instead of the checkpoints to reduce they are adding more. Only immigration has more than 40 checkpoints on the road. They are checking Nigerians in Nigeria, and again stopping them and extorting money from them. The Diplomats plying that road are often embarrassed by the Immigration officers. Between Agbara to Seme, we have about 20 to 30 checkpoints manned by Immigration officers.
“There is no business in Cotonou, because their exchange rate is too high compared to Nigeria’s, so people are not buying anything from there. If they come to Nigeria, they won’t be able to see because their exchange is a high. I have met their Comptroller to reduce these checkpoints on the road because they constitute a nuisance.
“When you move from Cotonou to Ghana, you would not see more than five checkpoints and you will not be disturbed by any personnel because they work with information. But if you come to the Nigerian corridor, you will see more than 50 checkpoints. From Mile 2 to Seme, we have more than 80 checkpoints. We cannot continue like this, because they keep appearing even after several declarations by the government” Ojinma noted.
Also speaking, a clearing agent at the Seme border and Board of Trustees Secretary of the Association of Registered Freight Forwarders Nigeria (AREFFN) Mr. Innocent Elum noted that the ongoing problem of excessive checkpoints often accompanied by extortion remains a persistent challenge for cargo clearance operations at the country’s borders.
Elum lamented that despite being a recurring issue, it appears that the heads of the various security agencies have failed to take deliberate measures to reduce the number of checkpoints.
However, he expressed discomfort with the idea of Nigerians having to clear goods belonging to Nigerian importers at a foreign port, especially when access into the port is not guaranteed. He further questioned the underlying philosophy of the policy, which according to him appears to cast doubt on the honesty and competence of Nigeria Customs officers.
Elum explained that the policy implies a lack of trust in the ability of Nigeria customs officials to handle clearance at the border and safeguard national interests, adding that it reflects negatively on their professionalism.
However, the AREFFN BoT scribe acknowledged that the policy, if implemented will benefit Nigerian clearing agents in the sense that they can still earn income by facilitating cargo clearance in Cotonou.
In his words: “I don’t understand the philosophy behind that because it seems to me like we are blowing up our national security, so to speak. I find it very awkward for a Nigerian going to Cotonou port to clear goods belonging to a Nigerian importer. Whereas, the Cotonou people do not allow us to get access into their ports. So, I wonder how that will work out. If they have signed an agreement, they can go ahead and sign the agreement, but basically, I don’t like that.
“For the clearing agent, there is no problem. Once they sign the agreement and it becomes a policy that we have access to their ports, of course the clearing agent can always go to the port in Cotonou. It is very close to us. And of course, you can always make your money as a clearing agent because the importer or the owner of the goods will always pay for your services”.
On the contrary, the immediate past Seme Border Chapter Chairman of the Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA), Alhaji Bisiriyu Lasisi Fanu told Shipping Position Daily that the development is a positive one, adding that only the Pre-Arrival Assessment Report (PAR) fees will be paid at the Cotonou port, while other processes will continue to be handled at the border.
According to him, the main purpose of paying duty in Cotonou is to ensure that all cargoes exiting the port have duly paid their duties.
Addressing concerns about individuals who might attempt to evade duty payments by bypassing the Cotonou port, Fanu emphasized that anyone who genuinely intends to bring goods into Nigeria will ultimately have to pay the duty, whether in Cotonou or at the border. He argued that if a person chooses to pay or evade duties in Cotonou, it does not adversely affect the responsibilities of clearing agents at the border.
The ANLCA chieftain noted that the Comptroller-General of Customs took this decision due to concerns over goods entering Nigeria through unauthorized routes. He stressed that if the policy is implemented as intended, it will lead to a more efficient and regulated trade process.