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“We Revived 27 Operating Licenses And Help Secured A Bonded Warehouse” – Compt. Nnadi

When he discovered upon assuming control of the Seme Border Command in January this year that there was only three licensed customs agents, the Customs Area Controller, Comptroller Dera Nnadi mni,  said he panicked and worried how he would generate revenue without operators  licensed to drive import and export activities, from where revenue is expected to come from.

With his dexterity in administration, operations and strategic planning, he immediately took steps and by June, licensed operators have risen to 27, in addition to the steady climb in revenue generation; plus the licensing of a bonded warehouse.

In this interview with Eguono Odjegba, the cerebral customs officer spoke about the dynamics of business evolution along the Lagos-Abidjan Corridor, as well as reasons the sub region is yet to wake up in terms of trade integration; including how he has been able to raise the stakes building on capacities he inherited. Excerpt:

 

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Tell us about Seme border operations and what you are doing differently as it were, to improve on its service delivery and productivity. The place look lost compared to its bubbling nature many years back, importers and agents are not happy.

The border was closed for some years, it has just been opened. One of the first things I did when I resumed here was, first of all, to increase the morale of the officers, morale of the stakeholders themselves, because after few years of border closure, people felt all is lost. You will hear some agents tell you that our members died, agents that were doing very well, stopped doing well. Things were not easy. When I reported here, there were only three clearing licenses that were still operating. I reported here January 23, only three licenses were operating. So anytime I’m sending documents, it was the same three licenses, so I called the technical supervisor. I said, ‘what is going on here? He said Oga that is how it is. I said how many licenses are here? He said, everybody stopped work because nothing is going on, so they couldn’t even renew their new licenses. I said, okay, do you know what you’re going to do for me, can you give me the list of those licenses? So he gave me a list of 18 licenses, all dead. He said, these are the licenses that are registered under Seme. I said, okay, give me the phone numbers that are there, form a WhatsApp group with them, and add me. He did, he came here, I caught three or four of them, I said well, I don’t have time to start calling all of them. You go and call the rest, send them messages, tell them that the new area controller wants to revive this place, but we can’t revive here without license operators, and I can’t collect revenue without reviving this place. So we started encouraging them. Well, I’m happy to announce that as at three days ago, we have 27 licenses renewed. I have to do that because one, they’re the ones that will get the job and pay the revenue, isn’t it? Without them, there’s no revenue. Now, the next thing I did was to also call a stakeholders meeting when I arrived newly, and informed them that, ‘look, there’s a new federal government policy that lifted the ban, that is, Schedule 6 Item 8,which says “you cannot export what has been imported into Nigeria”. But under the new arrangement, if you go to federal ministry of finance in Abuja, you can get approval, with that approval, you can export goods and pay2.5% of the current value of that good. However, the process of obtaining that thing means that you have to go to Abuja. So if you have to export every time, you’ll keep going to Abuja and coming. So I called a meeting here and I made a public appeal, that if they can ease that process for the agents here. Some of them have obtained that approval, and we’re trying to encourage them. Now, the next thing we did was to say, ’okay, the roads…you also recall that during one of our press conferences, I appealed to government, and said you people are doing the road already, but please continue and make it faster. Why did I do that? You cannot lay emphasis on revenue without creating enabling environment for people that will pay the tax to come around. Again, when I came here, because of the border closure, all the security lights here…these big lights you see around here (pointing to the lightning infrastructure) were all dead. I was told that it is impossible to repair them. I told them I don’t believe in impossibility. I had to give people the little idea we have, I said, start repairing this lights. It took us about three weeks, we got all the light restored. Then we got this place repainted (the entire complex serving Nigeria agencies operating at the border), the only place I’ve not touched is this my office. But every other office here, the building, even outside, we repainted all of them, changed all the lighting bulbs. We started cutting the grasses, if you go out you’ll see for yourselves. I just felt that I needed to give people that sense of belonging, that this is an environment they can derive joy from because people are just disillusioned. People just felt no need…for those who knew Seme before, if you come here, you just feel that, it’s a dead end. I told them no, let there be hope. But the best way to also give them hope is to restore the infrastructure. We started doing that, you can see here now, the way it looks. I would deliberately take pictures and put it on my status to tell people that this place is no longer what it used to be, come. Some of them started coming and that’s the result you are seeing on this board (revenue scorecard board).That’s the result you are seeing here, if you look at that board, you will see what it was in January when I came. I want you to look at our VAT, for instance, look at the quantum leap from VAT from N14 million in February for instance, to N101,000,000, to 85 million and then to 140,000,000. Look at ETLS, from 248,000,000 in February to 472,000,000, to 539,000,000, to 507,000,000, so there has been steady increase. It may be slow, but my joy is that we’re making steady progress. Look at even the total revenue collected, from N130million overall in January to N64million in February, why? Because of the anxiety over election. But immediately after that, it came to155, then 147, then to 211,000,000. Well, you may think this is not up to what one SGD will pay in the seaport. But for us, it’s a steady progress that we are making. And I am excited about it, very excited in the sense that my revenue target for the year is N1, 960,000,000,which is almost N2billion for the year. Now the question is, ask yourself, for people like Okey who has been here, this is what you would have collected in Seme in one month. Seme used to collect N1billion a month as revenue. Now I’m going to collect 2 billion a year, it doesn’t give me joy. I wish that Seme would become what it used to be. But be that as it may, we are still trying, as at this morning when I called a meeting, I was told that my revenue as of this morning, from January till yesterday, is around N844 million, so I’m making progress. I want to believe that before the end of the year, God willing…when Christmas sales start and people come around and if they manage to do this road as they’re doing now and the road is okay, we will be able to still collect our N2billion naira as revenue. So that answers your question. Why I gave this narrative is for you to see and understand where we are. But somehow even the agents themselves are still feeling that…sometimes we have running battle with them…but I really don’t get angry with them. I sympathize with them. An Ibos say “what you’ve not tested before, you can never have appetite for it.” But if you have tested something before and you like t, that’s when your appetite for it keeps increasing. You can imagine people operating an environment where the annual revenue collection is N22billion, and suddenly they’re operating in the same environment where the annual revenue collection is N2billion.The people themselves feel frustrated, and who else would they transfer the aggression to? It’s me sitting down here, because l am the face of government as it were. So they get angry with me sometimes, what do you do? Petitions are written, I tolerate, I say I’m not angry. I tell people that I’m not angry with any person because I don’t blame them. These are people that have been growing, doing so well, suddenly…somebody mentioned somebody who had his wedding over there and the First Lady of the country came. Who has such resources to do that here anymore? And you think such a person will be happy and comfortable with you? I am the face of government and that’s why you see that any little narrative, they push the side that will make government think this way. So somebody will just wake up and tell you, Seme Border has opened for vehicle import. What do you expect? Those narratives are deliberately pushed to force government to look this way. Okay? But those things make my seat difficult and hot.

So now that they are snippet government has opened the border for vehicular trade…

There’s no such thing as snippet because nobody has made such pronouncement.

All right, even if it happens, how prepared are you? Do you have a vehicle seat?

Thank you for that question. Before I came here, my predecessor, ACG Jibo did so much and laid the foundation for everything I am consolidating on now. There’s a bonded terminal approved here which was never existent. All I did, when I came and asked questions about the bonded terminal, they said they have been built, everything is ready, but license has not been approved, the final license, only provisional approval was given. I asked, what stops us from getting final approval? They said ah, ah, the same thing that happened to those who didn’t have like it. I went to Abuja and I pleaded. I asked the man, can you put up further application requesting for this? Luckily for me, Abuja sent people here on a Sunday. In fact I was in Abuja, the people said, it’s only on Sunday they can come here and do it. I said come. They went to the place, inspected it, I came back, they gave me the report and I wrote back to Abuja and said, the people you sent have come. This is what I’ve done, this is pictorial evidence that everything required for this place to function is available. And two weeks later they approved, they gave them their final approval and their license. So we have a bonded terminal now. Again, we also have a space there that can accommodate up to a million vehicles. If they open up, they can accommodate trucks, everything is there. As you are going out, just where you have the arc, opposite, fenced, tiled and everything with a gate. So if you ask me if I prepared, why not? We are, everything I’ve done…I’ve told you the licenses that I encourage people to get, everything, the appeals we keep making for the road to be constructed, everything, we are ready. We have our CPC and NICIS ready. My TS is there, we have our accounts, we have everything, we’ve restored the light because we believe that this place is like the airport. There’s no closing time here, there’s no opening time. Every time, people are supposed to be on transit on the road.

You’ve made a lot of dollar seizure recently, what has become of those dollars, one. Were you able to get some suspects, and what has become of the suspects?

The dollar seizure there were suspect arrested. The suspects were granted bail, the dollars has been handed over to the EFCC, and the case file handed over to them to continue the investigation and prosecution of the people. If they need people…like I said when they came here, the people are not readily available, but we can revoke their bail anytime. They were taking on bed, we couldn’t have killed them indefinitely, okay, and then prosecution for such crime…economic crime, is that of the EFCC. So we handed over to EFCC, it was also in the news when we handed over, and we handed over the fake currency along.

 Were they entirely fake?

Yes, they were entirely fake.

 Before now, we use to read about seizures of petroleum products, that was when the products were been subsidized, I don’t know whether it is too short to begin to ask you to assess what the situation is.

 Okay, thank you very much, the issue of the smuggling of petroleum products…definitely with deregulation, the price parity between Nigeria and Benin definitely is going to be almost the same. That means the incentive for smuggling will stop, definitely.But that doesn’t mean that we still don’t make seizures, but the volume we seize may not be like before, because the incentive is really going down, there’s no doubt about that.

While you were speaking, you said you are literally the face of government, and it is true. In fact, your own seat is very peculiar because when you think that you still have to implement sub continental fiscal policies like all the CET, ETLS, and all the rest of them, and when you think about the Africa Free Trade Agreement (AfFTA), how has it been? Do you think Nigeria has taken full of opportunity of this agreement?

We are taking substantial advantage of ETLS. African Continental Free Trade Agreement, if it fully takes off, is just going to be like expanding trade beyond West Africa, which is what ETLS is all about. It’s going to include other African countries now. In the morning, I showed you people trucks that were ETLS trucks, the sub region, no matter what any person says, depends on Nigeria. I have statistics of trade between Nigeria and Benin, between Nigeria and Togo, between Nigeria and Ivory Coast, the kind of goods each country takes or gives, the volume, the percentage, the amount spent. I have the data; I have developed a template for that. So what you asked is yes, Nigeria is prepared. It’s just that we still need to create more awareness and that’s where the media can also help. Awareness can never be enough. You can see this (showing graphics of trade charts on his phone), l have very thing here, I’ve segmented everything, I can tell you how much trade is between us and Togo, how much trade is between us and Ghana, and how much trade is between us and Benin. Unfortunately, like what one of you said awhile ago, we have this thinking that customs is only about anti smuggling, no, please. It is not just smuggling, please, I beg you people, I hate blowing my trumpets, I don’t like it. I just like doing work, and keeping records. Everything you see here wasn’t done because you people are coming here, okay; I will give you an instance. This (pointing to the chart on the wall) is export is summary, January to December last year. This is Nigerian Custom Service Seme Area Command Export in January, 2023.This is just for January. For Niger Republic, the volume of trade was 12.6 billion. Cote D’Voire, if you take it in terms of percentage for that January alone, it is zero percent, we didn’t do anything with them. For Buckina Faso its 3percent at 23 million. For Mali 6percent, and look at this, for Togo, it’s 6.36percent, just January. For Ghana, 8.37percent, for Benin 1.2percent, now ask yourself, this is our closest neigbhour, now the business we did with them in January is just 1.2percent export; so it’s just a transit route. And this are the kind of things l like doing, I’m not doing this because I am just the area controller here. I like doing things like this to help our economy. And that’s why, if people want to write about here now, the only thing that comes to their mind is smuggling, that’s not fair, because we are doing much more than that. I’ve just mentioned export; we also do that for import. I just want to disabuse our mind that what people do here most of the time is smuggling, no, we do much more than that.

 

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