… Tale of woes, wolves
By Dr Ugoji Egbujo
Our land borders are still closed. Our neighbours are now bothered. They have sent emissaries. They have sent pledges. They have pointed to the ECOWAS treaty, and bitten their lips. They have predicted doom – the sub-region could be plunged into an economic crisis.
But the federal government seems adamant.
Our land borders are porous. Our rice substitution program is being sabotaged by rice flooding the country through the backdoor of Cotonou. Importation of frozen poultry is banned. But our local poultry industry is being suffocated by poultry products pouring into the country from distant lands through our neighbors who have become willing and open funnels.
Our economy has to be diversified urgently. We must create and sustain millions of new jobs. But how can we do these if we cant build local capacities, if young industries are not protected from unfair competition coming from outside?
Chinese and Brazilian industries manufacture and grow with cheap funds and stable power supply . They inundate our country through our neighbors. It’s all the more painful that we can’t use excise duties to even the competition because our borders are porous and our Customs fantastically corrupt.
We can’t compete with foreign firms with easy and cheap access to funds and electricity. We can’t collect the the fullness of import duties because of corruption and rampant smuggling. We cant control contrabands and ensure security. Our land borders are long. Our border control is flimsy. And we cant just sit and do nothing. So we did something.
I had thought the border closure was unimpeachably deft , until I listened to the ALABA and ASPAMDA Traders in Lagos. They have tales of misery and disillusionment.
They see the border closure as a knee jerk reaction to a chronic problem that requires thorough diagnosis and lasting systemic solutions. The traders want the federal government to do more of soul searching , thoughtful policy formulation and painstaking implementation less of barking and throwing of tantrums.
They have heart wrenching tales. Many have been ruined. Thousands of trucks laden with all sorts of goods are languishing in Cotonou. The goods worth billions of Naira decaying in Cotonou belong to ordinary Nigerians. They cant see any poverty alleviation sense in the abrupt closure of the borders.
A man had paid millions in import duties to the Customs. The announcement was made. His goods hadn’t passed. They are now trapped in Cotonou, perishing. And he says there are many suffering same fate as his.
Some streets in Cotonou are now impassable. Thousands of trucks sit idle with putrefying goods on their backs. The stench is unbearable. But they say stench will be transient . It’s the damage to the livelihoods of thousands of Nigerian families that would face telling effects of the country. They wonder why the government has chosen to slow down an already slowing economy. An importer of banned frozen poultry wondered why he was not asked to donate his thousands of tons of frozen poultry to IDP camps in Borno rather than let it go to waste in Cotonou.
They are licking their wounds. Some of their activities may be unwholesome. But they disagree that they are not sufficiently patriotic. They insist that the government is blaming others and finding scapegoats for its shortcomings.
They want the government to stop shedding crocodile tears and create efficiency at Nigerian ports. Goods are cleared at Cotonou ports in a maximum of three days. But goods take forever to leave Apapa. They are willing to patronize Apapa and forget Cotonou. But the government should go to Cotonou and learn ‘ease of doing business’. And make Apapa and perhaps Port Harcourt and Calabar understand the value of time.
They are all for Apapa or Calabar. But they also want a level playing field. They are businessmen . They do not want their rivals privileging on dubious waivers. They want the Federal Government to abolish all import duty waiver programs. Or regulate them strictly. But they wonder how with a thousand sons of Judas in the Customs service, import duty waivers will not always be abused by the rich and powerful.
And these abuses distort competition and encourage ‘cutting of corners’ Ogbuefi imports batteries from South Korea and China. He is in competition with some big rivals. His rivals have access to those who can move mountains in Customs. His rivals use Apapa ports. The import duties in Apapa are higher than the import duties at the Cotonou border. He doesn’t know why. But his rivals use Apapa because they bring in batteries through an import duty waiver granted another big man for a big project that is supposed to ‘help grow the economy’.
Ogbuefi’s business would die naturally if he followed his rivals and shipped through Apapa. His batteries could come in at higher prices than his rivals were selling at their Aspamda market shops. Ogbuefi cannot let his business crumble. He would have to use Seme. At Seme, there are no scans , he can do deals. The duties are less, he can pack five containers of batteries on one truck and clear them as one container. At Seme, he can secure some kind of informal duty waiver from a corrupt customs co operative society. It’s institutional corruption. Corruption is cultural in Customs.
Ogbuefi is patriotic but the society has not allowed him to play clean.
Ogbuefi wants the federal government to circumcise the Customs service . He says that even with closed borders whole shiploads are still being offloaded and brought into Nigeria through paths known by the Customs. Ogbeufi says that the closure has affected good people and legal goods more than bad people and contrabands . Ogbuefi says that contraband goods do not operate at the frequency that can be shut down by the federal govt.
The story of another friend corroborates Ogbuefi.
A friend , Small John, is a banker. He came to Lagos from Bayelsa on October 1, 2019. He came in search of Golf 3 Wagon car. That car is loved in the north. It’s used for carrying cows. Small John wanted it for his wife’s business. He checked the prices at the roadside car marts at ‘Berger’ and ‘Sunrise’. Then he called Cotonou. Cotonou gave him tempting offers, he could not resist. But he was worried about the closed Seme border. He was told to do his bit – pay- and leave the rest.
He went to Cotonou via Seme on the 3rd of October. The journey to Seme was rough and tough. That end of the Lagos -Badagary- Seme express way has crumbled completely. He had to use ‘Okada’. It must be one of the most difficult journeys he has ever undertaken. The road is a standard mess. At Seme, the immigration extorted a thousand naira from him. It’s a kind of gate fee. They stamped his passport. Their Benin colleagues collected five hundred naira. It’s sub regional corruption. Everyone pays.
In Cotonou, he closed a deal for a ‘tokunbo’ 1997 Golf 3 Wagon car. The car will be delivered to Lagos. He paid N1.1 million for everything , car and safe delivery. In Lagos, the best he had got for a similar car was N1.3m. He didn’t ask the Cotonou people how they planned to catapult the car to Lagos. The borders were closed.
His car was in Lagos October 8. It came without Customs papers. But without Customs papers it was registered in Lagos. Then it was driven through the litany of Customs and police checkpoints to Bayelsa. The Golf 3 wagon car has resumed business in Yenagoa. Cars older than 15 years are top on the import prohibition list .
Small John told me he saw over 50 Golf 3 wagon cars in Cotonou being readied for clients who wanted them in Kano. He was told hundreds went to northern Nigeria every week.
The borders are closed. But they are still leaking profusely. The tide may have been stemmed. But the problems are unsolved. We must act fast. The dam will burst at some point.
The government must find long lasting solutions. We will have to get our neighbors to stop helping to inundate us with goods that kill our industries and plans for self sufficiency , and drain our foreign exchange. But the government must find urgency. The borders cant remain shut much longer without harming our fragile economy. We cannot delegate border control to our neighbors. We must reform our Customs. That must be our priority.
Patriotism isn’t about shutting borders. It’s about about making our port operations efficient. We have to resuscitate Port harcourt, Warri and Calabar ports. And we must make them function more swiftly than the Cotonou port. Patriotism isn’t granting dubious waivers. Patriotism means giving everyone a level playing field.