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This is the best time to close Nigeria’s borders – Customs spokesman

•Says 143 foreigners entering nation without reason intercepted
•Dismisses claim operation limited to South
•‘Our deal with car dealers on smuggled exotic cars’

By Godfrey Bivbere, Ebuka Oko & Gideon Nnaemezie

Spokesman for the Nigerian Customs Service, NCS, Deputy Comptroller Joseph Attah, in this interview, explains the reason for the clampdown on car dealers across the country and the gains of the closure of borders.

What is the reason for the sudden visit to a hotel in Abuja to seize exotic vehicles?

All vehicle dealers have been asked to pay duty for the vehicles in their shops. It was in the course of that, that we got intelligence that some people quickly moved their exotic vehicles, including bulletproof vehicles, from their shops in Abuja to a hotel.

We received that information and had to follow these people to the hotel and we engaged the manager after which we picked four available vehicles.

The following morning the manager came and gave a written undertaking alongside some documents and we assured him that if he provided evidence of duty payment, the vehicles would be released without him even coming to the command. However, social media blew the story by saying that some guests at the hotel were harassed. Meanwhile, journalists have followed up on my statement and asked the manager of the hotel his side of the story and he confirmed that no guest was harassed. That is why one has to be wary of what is reported on the social media.

Why focus on car marts?

The answer is simple. Since the Federal Government restricted importation of vehicles through the ports, there have been challenges in ensuring that car dealers comply with that, because many people have been taking advantage of the porous borders to smuggle vehicles into the country. If you have been covering Customs seizures, I am sure you would have been severally surprised when you see a bulletproof jeep of 2018, as expensive as it is. Somebody would spend money to import it through Cotonou port. Of course, the importer will not want to pass through the normal border since you know it would be impossible and you would see him bringing in the expensive car through the bush. And when such a car is seized, you see dust and grasses on it and underneath.

If you can spend that kind of money, why can’t you pass through the normal route and pay the appropriate revenue to your country? That is why we have been visiting car marts. Some car dealers approached the NCS requesting an opportunity to pay duty on vehicles not properly imported and the management has been reluctant to grant that request because, if we grant it, sometimes it could be misunderstood. For instance, if the request is granted, freshly smuggled vehicles could be brought alongside old ones. In 2017, we wanted to create the window for it, but different meanings were read into it.

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Now, there is a joint security exercise going on along our borders. This increased manpower enabled us to effectively block approved and unapproved routes, especially those in the bush and forests. We said this might be the best time because it is difficult for anybody to take advantage. Initially, when our people went around sealing their shops in the first 2-3 days, they did not understand our intention. There were complaints here and there. I remember I issued a response saying that they should calm down and that the management would sit down and deliberate on what should be done.

The management met and decided to give them a reprieve, which entailed that all car dealers that have smuggled vehicles in their possession can proceed and pay the duty plus 25 percent penalty. Now let me explain this, if we were to go strictly by law, all such vehicles should be seized. It is called reprieve because they can now pay their duty alongside the 25 percent penalty as against the law that says such vehicles should be seized and, even in situations where seizures could not be made, the duty should be four times but because it is a decision to grant reprieve that the penalty was pegged at 25 percent.

On car dealers in Kaduna

The Chairman of car dealers in Kaduna addressed a press conference and he gave assurance that they will comply. It is a welcome development. It is a reprieve done to empower Nigerians who are into that business to do their business legitimately. The management also magnanimously approved that even if your vehicle has been intercepted already by Customs and is under detention or subject to detention, you can go and pay your duty and collect your vehicle. This, however, does not include vehicles already seized.

What this means is that it is a reprieve for them. It is an opportunity for them to regularize their documentation and engage in their legitimate business of car dealership without having to look over their shoulder to see if Customs officials are coming to seal their marts, and this period is also for people who have vehicles in their houses whose duty has not been paid and they are scared of driving them.

They can also take this opportunity and pay their duty. For this class of people or individuals who voluntarily come forward like that, the management has even directed that such should be applied to them. The idea is to leverage on the joint security exercise going on along the borders and regularize certain things that are wrong in the interest of Nigerians who are engaged in that sector or who are caught in the web. Those who understand are very happy.

Going back to borders closure, is it nationwide?

I have already said the exercise covers four geopolitical zones. Anyone who interprets it to be the South alone is not being fair to other parts of the country. What are we saying? I do not know why any nationwide exercise is always perceived by some to be in the South alone. A journalist told me that we have sealed over a hundred car shops in Kaduna and I asked if Kaduna is located in the South. Let us be fair to the system. Before this operation started, we issued a press statement informing Nigerians that this would affect four geopolitical zones: South-South, South-West, North-Central and North-West.

What results have the border closure yielded?

We have arrested 143 illegal migrants.

Illegal migrant means those who were coming through illegal routes without valid papers and without any reasons for coming. You can imagine if a few out of those 143 were coming with the motive of committing various degrees of crime. We have 131 NPK fertilizer bags and those are raw materials for improvised explosives. We have 4,765 litres of Premium Motor Spirit, PMS, and two tankers of petroleum products, we have over 19,000 bags of rice and so many other things that were seized.

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