You have been at Seme border command for quite a while; can you do a comparison between your former posting at Tin Can Island port command and here?
On resumption of duty in July 2008 here at Seme, I did find out challenges that are similar to the ones I left at my former posting even though there is a little bit of difference here at Seme.
First, here at Seme, we have a challenge of the citizens themselves, that is, the inhabitants of the border community who are somehow ignorant and sometimes feeling that as inhabitants, they have no better way to earn their living rather that through some of these activities that impugn on Custom and Excise law.
Secondly, I was confronted with the fact that the greater majority of the citizenry do not even understand the role of the Nigeria Customs Service here at the border. Seme border is a very unique frontier in that it is the biggest gateway into Nigeria within the West African sub- region and you know we are saddled with the implementation of the ECOWAS trade liberalization scheme and the ECOWAS protocol on free movement of goods and persons.
There is this cynicisms from the public that some of the goods brought in from Seme are goods that are either illegally brought in or that will compromise their position for them to be brought in. So, I found out that the challenge is that I need to inform and educate the public here that there are three kinds of goods that come into Nigeria through Seme border.
First, I need to educate them that Nigeria is a member of the ECOWAS and that we have the ECOWAS trade liberalization scheme that gives conditions for some goods to come into Nigeria from West African countries. Secondly, in 2004 and 2005 the Nigerian government and the Beninoise government entered into a joint agreement on commerce that allows some goods that are manufactured in Benin Republic to be imported into Nigeria; even if they are prohibited items in Nigeria like textiles, but there are conditions attached to this. But, the average citizen does not even know that we have that agreement, so by the time he sees some of those goods, he believes that we are indulging in unwholesome practices.
These are some of the challenges. Then we have the challenges of the problem of welfare of the officers, there is problem of lack of equipment, communication, mobility, arms and ammunitions. However, we also know that some of these problems are equally affecting other commands of the Nigeria Customs Service and some other government establishments as well.
Specifically, what is the difference?
You see, Tin Can and Seme are operating at different levels. I have told you that Seme is a frontier that gives the greatest access from the West African sub region to Nigeria, and I have told you that there is this issue of free movement of persons and goods and services. Here, there are many entry points and if you look at Tin Can Island port, there is only one entry and one exit so you can be able to arrest some of those practices.
I have told you that the challenges are almost the same but depending on the situation at Tin Can Island and here. I have told you that here we have a border community that feels that the ban on importation of some of those things that we are enforcing is their birth right.
When you organised the recent town hall meeting, what did you set out to achieve and have you achieved it?
Prior to the town hall meeting, there was this continuous hostility between some sections of the inhabitants of this border community towards Customs. But, the greater majority of these indigenes are law abiding, but there are some of them who are very recalcitrant and very unruly. There was a day I was going to Lagos and I arrested two ‘uncustomed’ vehicles and goods and I called some officers to escort them to the station, it was when they were escorting those things that they were waylaid by hoodlums who attacked them using all sorts of weapons and even seized some of the goods from the officers. They managed to run away with the suspects and the goods, they held my men to ransom and threatened that my men would not be released unless the suspects and the goods were released to them.
Don’t you think that you need to re-appraise your strategy?
We appraise this strategy from time to time. I have told you that some of them living around this border have nothing to do except to indulge in some of these unwholesome activities; they are not ready to change, so every day as they device new tactics and we try to catch them, they decide to be violent and unruly. But we are constantly ahead of them. One of the measures that we are using or putting in place is this media interaction. We are now having an interactive section with you so that as a member of the fourth estate of the realm, you will be able to educate the public on some of those bad habits.
How impressive is your revenue collection profile so far?
The issue of revenue collection is a variable of so many factors such as the budget, the issue of tariff rate applicable and the issue of foreign exchange and so many other factors. You will discover that when the new tariffs came into place, some of the applicable rates of duties were reduced. That, in itself has affected collectable revenue. There is also the fact that this is a border and that some of the goods that eventually come into Nigeria are landed in another country first. There are cumbersome processes at the other side before they can be brought into Nigeria. This affects the importers, because it takes them time to queue at the border and for them to come and carry out the necessary documentation here. We are doing our best to educate them that it is better for them to go through the lawful process so that the money that we are losing through smuggling, we can recover them. I have said it earlier on that some of these goods that they are smuggling in are not prohibited items, they are items that you can bring in lawfully within the Federal Republic of Nigeria, but because of our penchant for refusing to do the correct thing, that has affected our revenue.
I cannot really quantify the value now, but between July and now (December 2008), we have more than 20 seizures and between July (when I came here to date), about 17 people have being prosecuted for various offences and for the first time, we have secured eight convictions, the other ones are still before the law court and I am sure that the judiciary will do its best.
How are you coping with the issue of oversized trucks bringing in goods into Nigeria across the border?
The Federal Government of Nigeria, through the minister of finance and the Nigeria Custom Service have been very serious over the issue of over sized trucks or over loaded trucks. The government has given us a strong warning and a matching order that it will hold the Area Controllers especially in Seme and Idiroko personally responsible for any over sized or over loaded trucks that did not conform to international standard. Since that time, we have been doing our best; we have had interactive sessions with clearing agents and with the importers for us to enlighten them and to draw their attention to the fact that this over sized trucks are coming into Nigeria illegally. Part of the challenges that we are facing which I forgot to inform you earlier is that we lack examination bay and a place where when these trucks come in, we can constructively warehouse them. The trucks which you see littered here are still within the confines of Benin Republic.
The whole thing about life is about facing challenges without being a fanatical. Even religion says that God created us to toil, to struggle. He did not create us for amusement. So, there is no reason why I should be scared, there is nothing unusual about my being here.