By Eguono Odjegba
FOLLOWING last week’s closure of the Seme border under a joint security operation by the Nigerian government, several stakeholders in the nation’s shipping system have given different dimensions to the situation.
While most of them support increased capacity building for Customs operatives, others said the military should be allowed to concentrate on the challenges of terrorism, armed banditry, insurrection and increasing societal violence.
Those opposed to military involvement in purely Customs affairs were unanimous on the need for continuous joint intelligence sharing as the best approach to containing the increasing incidences of arms and ammunition smuggling, rather than military physical incursion. They expressed worry that direct intervention by the military could create distortions in Customs operation and further escalate perceived state of military siege in Southern Nigeria.
Maritime elder statesman, ship agent, importer and industrialist, Chief James Idornigie, said: “What is happening now is a military operation. You are talking about land borders, this operation is also felt at the ports, the whole South is under siege now. They can’t get anything at the land border, the operators don’t live at the border. Military and Customs can work together, they should do intelligence sharing to achieve whatever they want rather than occupying Customs post physically. If the Customs needs backup during critical operations, they can call on the military.
“Smuggling and arms smuggling take place all over the world, what other governments do is to build increased intelligence sharing, improve Customs system and capabilities. Now that soldiers are everywhere at the borders, it is the small petty traders and innocent travellers that will get harassed. Smugglers don’t live at the borders, they live in the cities. Some of them live in Abuja and have a sophisticated system of doing their smuggling.
“When there is this type of security situation, smugglers have a way of going under, diverting or slowing down their activities. That is why I said the best approach is intelligence partnership. Smugglers are too clever for this kind of security operation, it is the ordinary people the military or joint Customs/Military operation will find. Those doing arms smuggling and other forms of smuggling are in five-star hotels or their palatial homes.”
However, maritime practitioner and leading Customs broker and unionist, Prince Olayiwola Shittu, slightly differed. He said: “I believe that this operation is not meant to either supervise or control import job. It will be unfortunate for us if we throw away caution when intelligence comes based on our awareness that Nigeria has a lot of enemies. When you have a desperate situation, you also take desperate measures. So, we have to be very, very careful.
“I am sure the government will follow the intelligence report they have to make sure these people carry out their operations to the best of their ability. It is not when it has happened that we now say oh if we knew. Even the activities of terrorists and Boko Haram can necessitate joint border operations. Mr President has ordered the military to shoot any terrorist they come across, which is a desperate measure; he is not talking about the legal or human right approach, whether the terrorists are foreigners or Nigerians.
“You cannot use human rights propaganda to subject a nation to terrorism. You see, people want to create problems for this country, that we must understand, and we must understand that security transcends all other considerations, whether of human rights because the security of the nation is involved. Do you know what the champion of human right propagation, the USA is doing in Syria and Yemen? So, even in America, its security comes first.”
Also reacting, erudite port industry activist and businessman, Chief Ernest Elochukwu said, “I think that it is quite in order that government is worried about the proliferation of arms and controlled products, and the easy way these are moving across our borders. I am fully in support of efforts aimed at controlling the situation.
“However, it has become a worrisome development that a lot of things are attributed to import trade, and it just merely opens the underbelly of our system which doesn’t really depict anything but dysfunctionality. We know that it is the Customs that is best trained for border control as it relates to the movement of cargo or trans-shipments. My position is that government should train the Customs, motivate it with the required logistics and equipment to be able to carry out its statutory function.”
“Involving the military in Customs job under any guise will create distortion in the system because of the difference in their training.
“Ultimately, informed the professional position of Customs could arouse suspicion of the military counterpart. I don’t want to believe that the duty of the soldier is simply to stand by and observe, he would want to be active in Customs activities.
“Government should learn to provide the Customs with what it requires to efficiently deliver on its mandate and demand zero tolerance to breaches. “Does the Customs operative not recognize arm when he sees one? In the past three years, the Customs arrested cache of arms and ammunition at the Apapa and Tin Can Island ports. So why bring in other security arms to Customs job, is it to show that the Customs is not competent, professional, is overwhelmed or what?
“These other security arms have their respective statutory roles to play in the national security arrangement. Leaving their areas of engagement opens those areas to manipulations by criminal elements.
“After the fanfare of forming joint operations, what will it achieve other than place undue attention on the ports system?” he asked.
According to the President of the National Council of Managing Directors of Licensed Customs Agents, Mr. Lucky Amiwero, “Nigeria has three entry points, which are airport, seaport and land border and all these are legal stations in line with the provisions of the law and we have ECOWAS Protocol talking about free movement of people and goods, and Nigeria is a member of ECOWAS.
“If you want to do any closure, it must be country-to-country negotiations by member states, and the issues should be done according to information as contained in the World Trade Organization, WTO, agreement.
Seme Chapter Chairman of the Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents, Mr Lasis Fanu said, “Since the closure of the border, there is nothing agents are going there to do. We do clearing documentations, but since goods are not coming in there is nothing to do there anymore. We pray that the operation is not up to 28 days as we have heard because we have perishable items caught with the closure”.
Also speaking on the development, President of All Ports Unified Freight Forwarding Practitioners Association, APUFFPA, Prince Mike Okorie, averred that the joint operation is designed to stifle import activities in the South, noting that land borders in the North are more porous and account for 70 per cent of the total smuggling, be it arms and ammunition, illegal migrants entry, vehicular and other economic smugglings.
His words, “The problem we are having with this government is that they don’t study the situation before taking actions. What are the facts of the present fear and worry? The most porous borders are those of the North, borders in the South West are utilized and heavily manned. Is it not from the Northern borders that arms smuggling, illegal migrants and killer herdsmen are coming in?
“This closure is just a purposeful attempt to frustrate Southern businesses. Besides, closure of land borders must follow proper, adequate and timely information for people to prepare themselves. You don’t just take action overnight where there are no emergency security threats”, he concluded.