Big InterviewCover

Border Closure: Ex-Customs Boss-turned-Senator Says CG Hammed Ali Lied

...Insists Nigeria is Losing Billions Everyday

(The Senator Francis Adenigba Fadahunsi Interview)

 

By Shola Oshunkeye

Things have not been easy with Nigeria’s West African neighbours since the federal government announced the shutdown of the country’s land borders on October 14, 2019, in a surprise move aimed at curtailing the ceaseless inflow of smuggled goods, such as rice and tomatoes, as well as arms and ammunition.

The neighbours, who hinge their protests on ECOWAS protocols on free trade and economic cooperation, said Nigeria’s decision has distorted trade balance in the sub-region, putting them at a great disadvantage.

However, despite the pressure and pleas from the Republic of Benin, Togo, Ghana and Cameroun for President Muhammadu Buhari to rescind the decision as quickly as possible, he has refused to commit his administration to any timeline for reversal. In fact, the administration has been silent, recently, on the initial promise of January 2020. Simply put, Buhari is not in a hurry to open the borders.

“We are strategising on how best the goods can be handled when we eventually get to the point where this operation will relax for the influx of goods,” Hammed Ali, a retired Colonel and incumbent Comptroller General of Customs, explained recently.

Regardless of whatever windfall the government may be realising from the policy, many are querying the propriety or otherwise of the border closure. While the government touts the gains that have accrued since the decision, including boosting agricultural production, making farmers millionaires once again, and generally swelling government revenue, there are those who insist that the shutdown has compounded what they perceive as an uncertain outlook for Africa’s largest economy. That is in addition to constituting a drag on the continent’s aggressive push towards free trade and cooperation. Yet, there are those who sit on the fence in a let’s-wait-and-see poise.

Chief Francis Adenigba Fadahunsi, a retired Assistant Comptroller General of Customs, and senator representing Osun East (Ife/Ijesa) Senatorial District, believes that though the economic policy is a step in the right direction, its timing is wrong, and execution not well-thought out.

Although the senate recently passed a motion praising President Buhari on the policy, saying it has brought smiles to farmers and boosted local production, Fadahunsi, a former Chairman of the Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria (2013), insists that the Buhari Administration put the chart before the horse in executing the policy. The senator argues that Nigeria was not prepared for the policy at the time it shut the borders. And that simple mistake, according to him, has cost the country billions of naira in revenue.

Fadahunsi’s position sharply contrasts that of Hammed Ali, who grins from ear to ear, trumpeting that the policy has brought a heavy harvest in revenue to the country.

Col. Hammed Ali
Col. Hammed Ali

In this interview held in Abuja, the nation’s capital, Fadahunsi, a recipient of the national honours of the Member of the Order of the Federal Republic, MFR (2002), and Officer of the Federal Republic, OFR (2014), punctures Hammed Ali’s claims with a step-by-step analysis of the situation.

Here are excerpts from the encounter:

Opinions are divided on the continued closure of Nigeria’s land borders. Some Nigerians like it and urge the federal government to sustain it, others kick against it, saying it is killing the economy. As somebody who spent virtually all his working life in the Department of Customs and Excise, retiring as an Assistant Comptroller General, ACG, what is your expert opinion on this crucial matter? Is it beneficial to the economy, and a step in the right direction? Or, is it a retrogressive act as some people would have us believe?

It is a step in the right direction but it came rather too late.

Too late? So, it should have come earlier?

Yes.

Like how many years back?

When Baba Olusegun Obasanjo was President, Nigeria had a father-son relationship with the Republic of Benin, Togo, Ghana and other ECOWAS countries. In fact, this father-relationship was so strong that Nigeria was like the oxygen these countries, including Ghana breathed.

For instance, Nigeria’s generosity to Ghana was so strong that then President John Kufuor named one of the longest streets in Accra Olusegun as Obasanjo Way.

God bless you, Shola. The result was that when Armani Tijani, that notorious cross-border robber was terrorizing Nigerians, killing and robbing our people of their prized possessions, and President Obasanjo decided to shut our land borders, these ECOWAS Presidents usually went to Baba’s house in Ota or his residence in the Villa to plead with him. That ended the matter. As soon as he (Obasanjo) threatened again, Togolese President Faure Gnassingbé-Eyadema (in office since May 4, 2005), whose father was Obasanjo’s friend, would come to Abuja and beg. Once he threatened again, Ghanaian President John Kufuor, who, incidentally was Nigeria’s friend only on the surface, would run to Baba.

Why did you say President John Kufuor was Nigeria’s friend by mouth?

Under him, Ghana was, and remains our economic adversary. Once Baba threatened, he (Kufuor) too would run to Abuja or Ota, and they would talk, and the matter would be over. Then, it would be business as usual. Baba OBJ, throughout his two terms, was like a father to all African countries, including South Africa.

So, what is your submission? President Obasanjo’s large-heartedness adversely affected our economy or enhanced it?

It made us a foolish Father Christmas.

How do you mean?

As we, the Yoruba, would say, oko baba ati ti omo kii papo ki o ma ni aala. Transliterated, it means: no matter how close a father’s farm and a son’s farm are to each other, there must be a demarcation. But they just would not allow Baba to have any breathing space. Because Baba was trying to stabilize the democracy we earned by blood, he had to play it cool with them. He had to play the generous father so that he can launch Nigeria through them. But he forgot that we are the largest market in Africa. Unfortunately, Umar Yar’Adua, who succeeded him could not do anything because of his ill-health.

Now, Obasanjo is an Ota man. As an Ota man, he knew that many Nigerians live in Port Novo. Yar’Adua, a border man from Katsina, knew that most Fulanis are in that area and they are always somehow related.  It is either someone’s mother comes this Maradi in Niger Republic or the father is from Katsina or Kano. So, we were seriously handicapped and that has really affected our economy. Two, Nigeria is a borderless country. Coming southwards, you find many Nigerians are either in Benin Republic or Togo, or Ghana. They come here to trade and we go there for the same purpose. So, rather than this complete shutdown, effective border management would have been adopted. It would have sufficed.

That should perhaps have brought some relief to Customs and Immigration at our land borders. Because they are also part of the problem. They compromise the system through bribery and corruption. Giving the right price, they would allow anything and anybody.

Rice smuggling?

Not only rice, even arms and ammunition; even human trafficking.

Well, I was in charge of border patrol at Customs for eight years. Yes, many things happen at the border because Nigerians are the ones crossing. They are the ones going. If you look at our Customs tariff, you will see trade, personal effects, and so on. All these things are allowed. For instance, if you do not carry up to five bags of rice, it is not considered as commercial.  It is considered as personal effect.

But now, they are even seizing one. Why? Because they suddenly realized that these are the same set of people crossing the border ten times a day. It is still the effect of bad border management. There must be stricter border control. There must be effective use of technology to police our borders. There must be cameras everywhere.

When I was in charge, President Obasanjo, in his efforts to manage the borders very well, approved 20 toll gates to be financed by NNPC. The toll gates would look like those of the Republic of Benin, with up to twelve lanes. Till date, nothing has been done. Yet, you cannot continue to do things the same way and expect a different result.

Two, virtually all the major importers in Nigeria and neighboring countries prefer to do business in countries other than their own. But when they get there, they refuse to pay correct bills. Yet, another major problem is our tariff. Our tariff is too high. It makes the cost of doing business in our ports astronomical. There is also the problem of multiplicity of agencies in our ports. There are lots of agencies that do not have any relevance at the ports, but are there; including Navy.

Including Navy?

Yes, because we have the Customs, the Marine Police, the NDLEA, and so on, but certainly, and not the Navy. There are more than 20 agencies doing the same thing on one single container. This slows down the process. The result is that the major importers prefer to go through neigbouring countries where things are cheaper. From there; they come through the land border. Though they will still pass through these agencies when they are coming through the border, the duties they would pay in those countries are cheaper by 30 per cent. This is because they are not the owners of the goods; and when they land, you see them at the toll gates. So, we found out that Nigerians have it easier there than at home. The development there is so heavy, and we use our economic policies to send them away. We have to relax. We have to reduce the cost of doing business, particularly at the borders through which we bring things to service our economy. We are not even producing enough of most of the things which the government says it is protecting, like rice. Again, in terms of revenue, how much have we gained since we slammed our land borders shut?

We must have gained a lot because the federal government says we now have rice millionaires, and our revenue based is widening.

(Laughs) How much is the cost of rice now? Almost N30, 000 per 50kg bag. Before the borders were closed, it was between N13, 000 and N14, 000. I’m sure government means well with the decision. Their aim must have been that when they close the border, things would become cheaper, and we would produce more. What they didn’t factor in are Nigerian shylock producers who are always happy when things like this happen. And when things like this happen, it is the masses that suffer.

So, is it a bad policy?

It is a good policy. But look at the farmers who the policy is supposed to protect. Look at the producers who the policy is supposed to protect. Weigh it against the cost of ordinary fowl in the market, which is now double. Cost of local chicken is going up rather than coming down. It ought to have come down so that the masses could enjoy. The policy ought not to protect the producers or the farmers alone but also the consumers. The consumers should not have any problem at all. But that is not happening.

Two, the government ought to have made sufficient provisions to produce more before you close the border. What we have on our hands now is that the goods we closed our doors against had been imported long before the policy, and upon arrival, they are now trapped in neighbouring countries, like Benin, Togo, etc. In the process, we are losing billions of naira and dollars.

How do you know we are losing? Is it Nigeria’s money that is trapped?

Yes, of course. For instance, the Republic of Benin man has no money to bring anything. Ghana has no money. Togo has no money. It’s Nigerians that are bringing vehicles; eventually, you find them here. So, when the government closed the land borders, did they close our marine borders too? We did not.  If we must close our borders, it has to be total like we did in 1983 when President Muhammadu Buhari first came (as military Head of State). And it must not be more than 7 days, or maximum 21 days. It would have been more effective than now. But with the way we have done it, with the sea border open and things coming in, and we now ban tokunbo vehicles, we are going to lose a lot of revenue. Things are coming in and going into the market. We are now running all over the place, closing car shops. It doesn’t add up. Imagine, we have a border where we had been collecting N2 billion, N3 billion in a month; now, we do not have anything. And somebody is claiming that we are making more money than ever before as a result of the closure. It is laughable.

The ideal thing would have been to collect your money (duty) and warn them. The convention is that the government should have given notice that in the next three months, we want you to do this and that. Then, you allow all your money to come in. If we had done that, we would have gained more than N300 billion within two months. Sure, I’m in support of the closure but the timing is wrong. We were just not prepared for it. The people the government claimed they are supporting are not even prepared to support the programme. What matters most to them is their gain. Why is it that Nigerian producers cannot do some things on behalf of the people?

If you insist that we are the one losing, why are Benin, Togo, Ghana and Cameroun protesting against the closure?

I’m sure you read what the IMF said. The IMF said that despite Nigeria closing its land borders, the economy of the Republic of Benin is growing stronger and stronger. This is because they do not have anything to lose. It is Nigeria that is losing money every day. It is Nigerian imports that are trapped in Benin, Togo, etc.

Okay, who owns all the cold rooms, all the stores? Foreigners? They are owned by Nigerians. Is it, therefore, not better to have called them (importers) to a meeting and tell them what you want to do? Look at the port in Lagos. It is congested. Yet, the ports in Calabar and Warri are empty. Why don’t we encourage our people (importers and exporters) to go there, and make things easier for them? Why must everybody and everything come to Lagos? How about the establishment of dry ports which we have been talking about over the years without any meaningful action?

Since you have condemned the timing and procedure adopted by the federal government on this border closure matter, what are your recommendations for the federal government? If you were to advise the government on the best method to adopt, what would your suggestions be?

One, the federal government could give a two-year moratorium to boost local production. They should have given all stakeholders in the economy- manufacturers, importers, exporters, etc., a long notice, say two years, before closing the borders. During the period, they would then implement a sustainable plan to boost local production, and sector it. Instead of pumping money into white elephant projects like airports, the federal government could, within these two years, encourage the states to invest heavily in agriculture. Every state should pump money into whatever agricultural products that do best in their soil and aim at not only local consumption but also export. Meanwhile, if there is a glut, government could buy the excess farm produce off the farmers and keep it in a strategic reserve as a way of encouraging them to do more. We could even come up with a policy that makes us to consume only what we produce.

In addition, the states could also be encouraged to invest heavily in small scale industries. Like agriculture, let every state manufacture products using raw materials available within their jurisdictions. For instance, Ilesha has gold. The federal government should allow Osun State and Ilesha to mine their gold, establish gold refinery and related industries, refine their gold, export it, and pay rent to the central government.

As part of the preparation, if I were in the President Buhari’s shoes, I would develop an economic formula that would build the economy on MDGs.  For example, in Lagos State, we can have up to 10,000 plastic industries. Kaduna and Kano could be made the industrial hub for textiles. Lagos could also join in the manufacture of Ankara, to produce Ankara massively for our people. Imagine the thousands of bundles of Ankara that people use as aso ebi use for owanbe parties in the south west every weekend. It is huge. A factory could be built around that.

Like General Olusegun Obasanjo did in his first coming, Buhari should indigenize the Nigeria Railways, get a national airline, and get more and more Nigerians involved in building the economy. Our economic salvation is our hands. If we don’t build it ourselves, nobody would build it for us.

Then, the government should scrap all the moribund industries that litter the whole place. The Ajaokuta Steel Complex is the chief among them. Building airports all over the place and continuing to pump money into the dead elephant called Ajaokuta Steel Complex is a sure way of diverting funds. Ajaokuta, as it is, can never be used for any meaningful economic benefit. It can never be beneficial to Nigeria because the technology is obsolete; dead. If Ajaokuta, which was established in 1983, and has gulped trillions of naira over the years, has not been producing, it can never produce again. It is brain dead. It should be buried.

In addition to all the measures you have enumerated, people have also canvassed the overhaul of the National Border Commission.

Yes, it is ineffective. The place needs total turn around.

But this whole policy is not about food imports alone. It’s also about curbing smuggling of arms and ammunitions.

(Cuts in…) When people talk about arms smuggling, they are not smuggling arms and ammunition into the country again. What we have now is a situation is where military boys who deserted the warfront are now bringing in most of the arms and ammunitions. Many of those boys deserted with their guns and the relevant authorities are not looking for them. And we are chasing shadows.

 

 

 

 

 

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