By Isaac Anumihe
Few weeks after the implementation of the ban on the importation of vehicles through the land borders, Seme, which used to be a commercial border town between Nigeria and Benin Republic, has lost its glamour.
Apart from the major business of car importation that has been hurt, ancillary businesses in the town including eateries, parallel market (forex) among others have closed down or are running at fits and start, giving way to huge joblessness, hopelessness and idleness, a situation, the Chairman of the Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA, Seme chapter), Alhaji Bisiryu Lasis Fanu, said could lead to an explosion of crime in both Nigeria and Benin Republic.
According to Fanu, the car importation, as the main business in Benin Republic, contributes over 60 per cent of N1.2 trillion Seme Customs monthly revenue and employs over 500,000 Nigerians, including the licensed agents, their workers and beneficiaries from the fallout of activities in the area.
“If things continue like this, the government will start hearing that there is crisis at the border area. The crime rate will start rising again. We keep talking to our members to adjust. Whatever we do, there are always changes. The change we have seen from the Federal Government is a sudden change. It will definitely affect lives,” he said.
Considering the negative effect of job losses in the economy, the Senate, recently, unanimously rejected the Federal Government’s ban on importation of vehicles through land borders into the country. The red chamber described the policy as anti-people and meant to impoverish Nigerians.
Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, who presided, specifically urged President Muhammadu Buhari to listen to the cries of Nigerians and rescind the decision.
“From the contributions here, it is obvious that the policy is unpopular. We are representatives of the people and the people have spoken through us that they do not want this policy. I think those in authority should listen to them,” Ekweremadu said.
But despite the plea from the Senate, the Customs authorities seem to have stuck to their gun insisting that they are implementers of the Federal Government’s policy and only the executive arm of the government can reverse the policy.
When Daily Sun visited the ‘Vehicle Seat’, at Seme Border, a place where all vehicles from Benin are parked before their duties are paid, the garage was empty, implying that the order was fully being implemented.
However, the fear most people in the area are expressing now is the explosion of crime and attacks from the army of unemployed youths.
But Seme Customs Public Relations Officer, Taupeun Selechang, assured that the authorities are constantly meeting with the host communities to inform them that Customs did not mean any harm to them and that they are only implementers of the Federal Government’s policy.
He said the Customs authorities had set up “Customs-community Consultative Meeting”, which which holds regularly to avoid any backlash from the community. Even at that, he told Daily Sun that the Customs had beefed up security to curb or nip any crime in the bud.
At the Seme-Benin border market, which is a common rendezvous for commerce for people from both countries, most of the shops had closed and some of the traders confided in Daily Sun that business had dipped a great deal since January.
Madam Biodun Shagya who was caught sleeping inside her shop, said no customers had come to her shop “since morning”. Also, a local truck driver said that passengers had been very scarce since the enforcement of the ban on vehicle importation through the land border.
A trans-border trader confided in Daily Sun that the situation in the Seme-Benin border market has a direct semblance of the economic situation in Cotonou since January, this year.
“There is a huge sign of economic meltdown in Benin because the import duties paid by Nigerian importers contribute over 50 per cent or 60 per cent of the country’s total revenue,” he said.
Recall that in April last year, Nigeria placed a ban on the importation of rice, which made most of the imported rice for the country’s market to rot in Cotonou, a situation that discouraged most importers from importing rice.
As if that was not enough, the Federal Government in January this year, placed another import ban on vehicles. This was final death knell that brought the country’s economy to its knees.
However, an Assistant Comptroller of Customs said the ban on those major items was like a retaliatory move by the Federal Government because the Beninios government had on several occasions violated the trans-border trade agreement reached between it and Nigeria.
According to him, the Nigerian government agreed with the Beninios authorities that every vehicle that paid duty to Benin Republic should be escorted to the Nigerian border to also pay Nigerian duty. But this has always been violated. Rather, after collecting their own duty, Beninios Customs would allow the vehicles to go. As a result, most of the vehicles, which paid Beninios duty avert paying Nigerian duty.
Benin is a West African country bordered by Niger, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Togo. Despite its small size, Benin has an estimated 2015 population of 10.88 million, up from 10.6 million last year. This makes it the 83rd most populous country in the world.
Most of Benin’s population lives on the southern coastline on the Bight of Benin, which is part of the Gulf of Guinea. Its capital, Porto-Novo has a population of 265,000 but the largest city is Cotonou with a population of 685,000. Benin is a relatively small country – the 101st largest in the world – with a population density of 78 people per square kilometre or 120th in the world.
However, one group that has always paid glowing tribute to the ban and decried the Senate’s position, is the seaport importers.
According to the Co-ordinator of Save Nigeria Freight Forwarders, Chief Osita Patrick Chukwu, the Senate took such a position because senators are involved in importing bullet-proof cars and other heavy cars with little or no duties.
“The Senate is using its powers to bring in cars from the border because most of the cars are bulletproof and combat cars. They bring them in from the border because they don’t want to pay duty. Some of the bulletproof cars pay up to N30 million or N25 million as the case may be. So they want to carry it through the border and pay N2 million or N1 million.
“So if actually the senators are sincere, I don’t believe they could allow a thing of this nature to be a problem. They would even align themselves with the presidency because they want to avoid paying the correct duty,” he said.
The seaport importers, under the aegis of Seaport Terminal Operators Association of Nigeria (STOAN), also extolled the ban but with a caveat that the Federal Government should remove the high import duty on vehicles back to 10 per cent.
Above all, stakeholders have hazarded that the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) revenue for 2017 would be seriously affected and in recognition of this fact, there is a N48.8 billion cut in the projected revenue from the Customs. This is part of the proposals made by President Buhari when he submitted the 2017 budget proposals to the National Assembly.
Recall that based on the revenue projection of the Federal Government for next year, the NCS was expected to generate a total sum of N277.56 billion. In the 2016 fiscal period, the service was given a revenue target of N326.4 billion. The cut in revenue was necessitated by the fact that less emphasis was being placed on importation. While the revenue from the Customs was predicated on the cost of insurance and freight value of imports, as well as other applicable tariffs, the current economic climate had necessitated a review of some of the policies that would affect these fiscal items. Some of the policies that would affect Customs’ revenue this year include import duty from vehicles and rice ban, among others.
Responding to this, Seme Customs PRO said that the Federal Government was yet to give them a target. But he expected that this year’s target was likely to be lower than the previous years because of the bans.