· Seme Customs Controller detains 5 over crossing fees
· 27 Checkpoints and roadblocks dot Benin- Nigeria corridor
By Ifeoma Iloh
Officials of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) and Nigeria Police Force (NPF) have been identified as the major violators of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) protocol on free trade and movement within the Nigeria–Ghana transport corridor, with 27 checkpoints and roadblocks mounted between Seme and Badagry bridge, less than one hour drive in a three hours journey between Seme border and Mile 2 in Lagos.
This negates the protocol on free movement of persons and goods as also enshrined in ECOWAS Trade Liberalization Scheme (ETLS) which has been adopted by member states, including Nigeria. ETLS equally aims at removing all tariff and non-tariff barriers on ETLS-approved goods including local agriculture commodities and intra-regional trade, among others. But there are still numerous implementation setbacks such as prohibitions on commodities of ECOWAS origin with the added complications of numerous roadblocks and checkpoints on international highways.
A breakdown of the checkpoints and road-blocks mounted on this international route by the Nigerian security personnel in less than 5 kilometer stretch shows that Customs has 11, Police 11, Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) 3, Department of State Security (DSS) 1, and the Nigerian Army (NA) 1.
At every checkpoint and roadblock on the Seme route, security officials demanded N1,000 each as an entitlement from the driver, with claims that the driver should know his obligation to them, MMS Plus investigation has revealed.
Our investigations show that within a four-hour journey of between Accra and Aflao border in Ghana, only four checkpoints of both the Police and Customs were noted, out of which money was demanded and given at two points.
Aside the border points with different security agencies’ post, no checkpoints or roadblocks were found in Togo and Benin Republic on the international route. While the driver tipped the Ghanaian police and customs officials with 5 Cedes (500 naira equivalent) a piece, he had to only tip the officials at border counters in Togo and Benin Republic for clearance with 5 Cefas (500 naira equivalent) a piece.
Surprisingly, irked by the defiance of most drivers plying the route to pay per trip crossing fee, the Customs Area Controller (CAC) Seme Customs Command, Compt. Mohammed Aliyu, last week, detained 5 drivers, alleged to be Crossers, who earn their living by leveraging on their closeness to security officials on duty to help the legitimate vehicle drivers cross the border at a fee of N5,000 per a car, whereas the driver could spend more than N10,000 doing same. So, it makes a better business sense to engage the services of a Crosser.
While the combined customs team at the ETLS office, Currency Declaration Section, Seme, collects a minimum of N5,000 per car, other Customs checkpoints spread along the corridor demand N1,000 per vehicle each.
Investigations penultimate Wednesday , revealed how the Customs officials in uniform led by one ASC Fadeyi Kazeem and Inspector of Customs, Momoh F, among others, would track vehicles on the road and then direct them to the officers in mufti at the scanning bay, now ETLS section.
The customs team led by an officer on mufti, who divulged how the CAC ordered the detention of the Crossers, held another Crosser who became reluctant to pay the actual crossing fee, insisting to see the real driver of the car with a stern warning that they would arrest and detain the Crosser and the driver next time if they fail to do the needful. Helpless, the Crosser called on the Driver who surfaced, making excuses that he had gone to defecate, having had a running stomach all through the journey. The officer had bitterly narrated how all the drivers give the same excuse, always.
Asked why they demand crossing fees in preference for searching, the officer evaded the question but rather asked theMMS Plus undercover reporter in the vehicle on investigation, why the drivers should relinquish their vehicles to crossers at this end of the border post.
At last, they made the driver pay N2,000 after the passengers had wasted about two hours on the spot with a statement from the officer, “Go and thank God that you have understanding passengers”.
While standing and watching, the Customs officers played host to some other vehicles, including The Young Shall Grow mini luxury bus and EFEX Motors mini luxury bus, whose conductors alighted and dropped bundles of Nigeria’s currency on the customs table with smiles and nodding of mission delivered.
According to Sani, the driver, he spends an average of N30,000 per trip from Ghana to Nigeria settling security officials at checkpoints when on a legitimate trip, while the total passenger fee is N80,000 for a four passenger capacity vehicle. Out of the N30,000, N25,000 is dedicated to the Nigerian security officials at roadblocks. Drivers engaged in illicit trade freight pay as much as N100,000 per trip depending on what they carry, he said, adding that owners of such cargo or luggage (traders) make personal arrangement with the relevant security agencies’ officials who collect “settlement” in huge sum periodically and settle others.
At one of the checkpoints, where over an hour was wasted , two police Sergeants who are, ironically, members of the Enhanced Joint Border Patrol of Nigeria-Benin Republic, insisted on collecting N1,000 from Sani who had resisted their affront by saying , ‘Leave us, we don’t have money again”. Sergeant Henry Onyekpe retorted, “You for know say every checkpoint get em own price. You never reach anywhere you dey complain”. Irritated by the driver’s complaint, sergeant Popoola Fatai interjected, “Bring your money and it must be N1,000”.
Not surprised though, the spokesperson of Seme Customs command, told MMS Plus that only two Customs checkpoints were authorized on the Seme–Mile 2 route. He said one at Agbara and the other at Gbagi, adding that they have a mobile customs monitoring team that ensures compliance against illegal roadblocks on the road, but however wanted to know the time and day of the investigation. When we said 4pm on Wednesday, he said the monitoring team must have completed their patrol for the day. However, he could not confirm the arrest of the Crossers by the CAC.
The question that readily comes to mind here is: Is the Federal Government’s policy on ease of doing business not applicable here? Most drivers plying the route spoken to say they spend more on Nigeria’s side of the border at checkpoints on security agencies.
ECOWAS stakeholders have equally noted these challenges and perpetual flouting of the sub-regional protocols by the Nigerian law enforcement operatives and have always stressed the urgent need to remove trade barriers in the sub-region.
At a one-day workshop in Lagos State, they urged member countries to adhere to trade conventions to revamp fortunes of the region. The workshop, organized by the Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC) and Borderless Alliance was tagged: “Trade and Transport Facilitation in Nigeria”. Four papers were presented at the workshop, which dwelled mostly on trade barriers encountered by trans-regional traders along Nigerian land borders.
The Chairman of the event, Mr. Taju Olanrewaju, a former Area Controller of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), said officials of government agencies were not helping matters. “Implementation officials operating at our borders are doing things that inhibit free trade in the sub-region with so many of them making unreasonable demands on goods on transit. There is the need for the agencies to harmonize their `Standard Operation Formats’ to reduce numerous human contacts that encourage corruption”, Olanrewaju said.
Mr. Justin Bayili, the Executive Secretary, Borderless Alliance presented the “Caravan Objectives”, a compilation of what the concept aimed to achieve. He said the concept would spur Nigeria to open another vista of revenue window from inter country trade. “There ought to be a better appraisal of Tariff and Non-Tariff Barriers on Benin and Nigeria Corridors to avoid Nigeria losing transit cargoes of neighboring land-lock countries to other countries”, Bayili said.
Mr. Hassan Bello, the Executive Secretary, Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC) said as a regulatory agency, NSC had been on its toes to put-up templates to aid trade along the West African Corridor. The NSC boss, who was represented by a Deputy Director in the agency, Mr. Winners Anayo called for reduction of agencies operating at the borders. “We are worried that a lot of officials are still operating along the border communities halting the Ease of Doing Business as directed by the Executive Order. The number of days it takes to transact business or shipment both in Nigeria ports and the Nigeria borders surpasses the number of days spent by shippers in other climes”, Bello said.
Mr. Femi Odusanya, Vegetable Consultant, Mile 12 International Market, Lagos said almost all protocols of Member States were being flouted by operatives. “They are making trade within the sub-region a difficult thing” Odusanya said he plies the Ghana-Nigeria trade route on regular basis.
Reacting to the alarming high rate of illegal checkpoints of Nigeria Police and Customs, the Founder of National Association of Government Approved Freight Forwarders (NAGAFF) Dr. Boniface Aniebonam stated that such acts of abuse of office by Policemen and Customs officers were part of the reasons the ease of doing business ideology was conceived by the government.
“If you notice these unauthorized road-blocks; if you see something, say something. It is when you say something that you give government the opportunity to react. The government may not be privileged to know what is going on at the various borders” he said.
Meanwhile, he urged the heads of government parastatals to curb the excesses of erring officers, admonishing the helmsmen to utilize the powers delegated to them from the presidency.
“The good news is that Nigerian Shippers’ Council (NSC) has developed an enforcement unit and I’m aware that they have sealed about three shipping companies and the companies are now compliant. Laws are made to be obeyed by people and that’s how you get a good society” the NAGAFF Founder added.