The Nigeria Customs Service has suspended supply of petroleum products to petrol stations within 20 kilometres of all the border posts.
The Comptroller General of Customs, Col. Hameed Ali ( retd.), gave this directive to all commands through the Deputy Comptroller- General Enforcement, Inspection, and Investigation, Agustine Chidi, late Wednesday in Abuja.
But residents of border communities, who spoke to our correspondents on Thursday, expressed concern about the government’s directive.
They said the decision would worsen their suffering.
However, in spite of the government’s order, smuggling of petrol products was still going on in border communities visited by our correspondents on Thursday.
Ali had in a letter dated November 6, 2019, titled, “EII/2019/Circular No 027 suspension of petroleum products supply to filling stations within 20 kilometres to all borders,” ordered all customs zonal coordinators, Operation Swift Response and other sector heads to effect the suspension of sale of petroleum products at borders.
The letter stated, “The Comptroller-General of Customs has directed that henceforth no petroleum product no matter the tank size is permitted to discharge fuel in any filling station within 20 kilometres to a border. Consequently, you are to ensure strict and immediate compliance please.”
The Federal Government had on August 18, closed borders between Nigeria and its neighbours, citing massive smuggling and illegal immigration as the reasons.
On Monday, it gave conditions for the reopening of the borders. It said Nigeria would no longer accept repackaged imported goods from its neighbours. The Federal Government also insisted that all aliens coming into the country through the land borders must have travel passports.
Unions in the oil sector supported the government’s decision. The General Secretary of the Nigerian Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, Afolabi Olawale, said the union was in support of the suspension of the supply of fuel to border filing stations.
He said the number of filing stations within 20 kilometres radius of Nigerian borders were more than the number of filling stations inside the towns.
Olawale said, “One wonders what economic motive drives the establishment of such a large number of filling stations close to the border.
“The only explanation would be that they are being used as conduit pipe through which smuggled petroleum products are taken out of the country.”
He said the effect of the action would not be felt by Nigerians, adding that 10 litres of fuel was enough to drive around 20km distance.
He said, “We are in full support of the move. It is in continuation of the efforts to stop smuggling of petroleum products and other goods across the borders.”
PENGASSAN backs Customs on petroleum
Also, the spokesperson for the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria, Fortune Obi, told one of our correspondents that the move was in order.
He said, “It is a good development because this is one of the things we have been talking about. Why do we often have products’ insufficiency in Nigeria?
“Why is this so when those who share borders with us are taking the products, which, of course, is not good for the country?
“We import petroleum products with huge foreign exchange, so why should it be smuggled out of the country when we don’t even have enough at times in the country?”
Customs’ incompetence responsible for smuggling – Community leader
But while NUPENG backed the action, residents and community leaders of Idi-Iroko , Imeko-Afon and other border areas in Ogun State have frowned upon the decision of the Federal Government.
They said the suspension would compound their plight.
A former Chairman of Imeko-Afon Local Government Area, Tosin Adeluyi, said, “The Federal Government is trying to compound the suffering of the people at the border areas. No matter how laudable the idea is, the border dwellers should not be suffering because of customs’ ineffectiveness because the fuel tankers can only go through the normal road and they know the capacity of each community .”
A resident of Idiroko border area in the state, Adewale Bamgbose, said, “We still have fuel for now but, definitely our problem will soon start.”
Smuggling persists despite govt’s order
A source in the area, however, said that despite the closure of the borders, contraband goods were still being brought into the country.
Checks by one of our correspondents revealed that at Jibiya and Kongolam border towns in Katsina State, fuel stations in the towns continued to sell fuel.
An attendant at a fuel station at Jibiya said he had not received any instruction directing him to stop selling fuel.
He stated, “Nobody tells me to stop selling fuel. Even, the security operatives at the border post were here this morning to buy fuel for their vehicles.”
At a fuel station at Magamar-Jibiya, suspected smugglers were seen loading several 25 kilogramme kegs of fuel into a vehicle with the intention of taking them to Niger Republic.
A resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the practice had been going on before the Federal Government’s directive.
At the Seme border, a petroleum product dealer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “Smugglers have reconstructed their fuel tanks or built bunker under the vehicle to contain up to 200 or more litres of petroleum products.
“They will drive to Owode Apa and environs discharge and sell out to ever- waiting customers.”
Border closure not against Ndigbo – Ali
Meanwhile, the Comptroller of Nigeria Customs Service, Ali, on Thursday dismissed a claim that the border closure across the country was targeted at businessmen and women from Igbo extraction.
Ali, who spoke during a meeting with stakeholders, including businessmen and women, in Aba, Abia State, explained that national security and improvement in the country’s economy were the reasons behind the closure of the nation’s borders.
Maintaining that the policy was not a punitive measure against Igbo importers, the customs boss, who was represented at the event by the Public Relations Officer of NCS, Joseph Attah, urged members of the public to disregard such speculation.
“This question of targeting Igbo importers over the border closure has come repeatedly. When you go to the North, the people there will ask you; are you sure that the intensity with which you carry out this here is what you do in the South-West?
“When you go to the South-West, they will ask you if what you are doing there is what you are doing in the South-East. And here, we are in the South-East; we are getting the same question.
“Let us face the facts; what is being done is about national security and economy. Over a period of time, trans-border crimes and criminalities have affected our safety on our roads, our homes and have affected our ability to yield dividends from our investments,” Ali added.
In a related development, the Africa Finance Corporation plans to invest $450m in the automation of the operations of the Nigeria Customs Service in 12 months.
The Managing Director, Bionica Technologies West Africa Ltd., Mr Umar Kuta, made this known in Abuja on Thursday when he appeared before the joint House of Representatives Committees on Finance; Customs and Excise; and Public Petitions.
The House had mandated the joint committee to probe into the modernisation of the Nigeria Customs Service.
Kuta explained that the modernisation would improve revenue generation by the NCS and enhance security at the country’s borders.
He said, “A complete automation of the activities of the NCS within 12 months will boost revenue and eliminate all forms of sharp practices in the system.”
According to the presentation made by the MD to the committee, a copy of which journalists sited after the meeting, his firm has five technical partners, namely Paramout Group, Huawei Technology, Smiths Detection, Larsen & Toubro Group and Nuctech of China.
The partners, he said, were mobilising about $450m in investment to attain the complete turnaround of the customs.
Kuta told the committee that the Africa Finance Corporation had also indicated its interest in supporting the customs’ automation programme.
Also on Thursday, the NSC said it had impounded a number of prohibited items worth over N2bn and arrested 239 illegal immigrants since August 20, 2019.
The spokesman for the Federal Government Strategic Communication Team, Joseph Attah, disclosed this at a forum in Owerri attended by the representatives of the All Farmers Association of Nigeria, the National Orientation Agency as well as fish and poultry farmers.
Attah, who listed the items seized to include 4,321 bags of 50kilogrammes of par boiled foreign rice, 8,982 jerry cans of petrol, 399 vehicles, life cartridges and hard drugs, explained that the borders were closed because of the abuse of ECOWAS protocols by some neighbouring Africans.
He said the closure of the borders would continue until such errant nations began to abide by the ECOWAS protocols.
By: Chukwudi Akasike, Anna Okon, Leke Baiyewu, Okechukwu Nnodim,Olaide Oyelude, Adeniyi Olugbemi, Gibson Achonu and Daudu Olatunj