Alhaji Barr. Bisiriyu Lasisi Fanu is the Chairman, Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agents (ANLCA) Seme Border Chapter. In this internview with our correspondent at Seme last Friday, he made a peep into the business environment at Seme in last eight months, ban on importation of rice through land borders, diversion of already cleared vehicles from Seme to Idiroko or Abeokuta command by operatives of the Federal Operations Unit among other issues. He says that Comptroller Dimka is a man who has zero tolerance for smuggling. Excerpt;
How would you describe business here in Seme in the last eight months?
Business has been going on fine; there is no doubt about it. If you have been here on a Monday, you will know that business has been going on fine. Part of the reason why you see the whole place so dry is because of the Sallah break and people are just coming back. So when you come on Monday you will know that business activity is fine.
I am aware that other surrounding commands around have been complaining of low revenue collection and low business activity owing to the FOREX issues. How is it like in this place? Are you insulated from the FOREX crisis?
But you know without being told that we are in the era of change, as far as we are in the era of change, whatever is happening to A is happening to B. Even if you don’t have a business to do along the border area, it is the same all over because we are dealing with the same system in Nigeria as a whole, the Naira problem. We deal with Naira, like those of them that import, they import with converting their Naira to Foreign exchange either through the bank or the black market, whichever way you go, it is very high. It affect business, it will affect one timer business people that must have exchanged their money thinking that oh! We are going to get good market; you go to the market but by the time you come back, you discover that the exchange rate has gone up again, you are not in the business. It is all over, as it is affecting A, it is affecting B.
At the inception of the Col. Hameed Ali’s administration as the Comptroller-General of Customs, he lifted the ban on importation of rice through the land borders only for him to impose the ban again few months after. What is your take on this and what do you think is the general effect of this on the economy?
But you do know for sure that the Controller we have here now has zero tolerance for smuggling and in more than two or three occasions, they have gone out to bring in a number of full truckloads of rice. Yes! At the beginning of the year, when the Comptroller-General of Customs was appointed as the CG, he lifted the ban on rice importation through the land borders and the revenue that came in from rice was so enormous that we felt that that would continue to be, to bring down the issue of people trying to smuggle in rice, risking their money passing through the bush.
But with misinformation, I call it misinformation because whereby you imported through Cotonou, maybe two thousand bags of rice, you don’t expect that two thousand bags of rice to go into Lagos, at least, if you have about one thousand, six hundred that come into the country, of course, yes, you have generated money. That was the case but PAAR must concern the issue of rice was the reason why they said rice must not come in through the land borders.
Yes! The Seme and Idiroko commands realized great revenue as a result of the one month or two months the lifting of rice importation through the land border lasted. But the customs officers have not compromised; they still make arrest of rice every now and then. Even if you carry one bag or two bags of rice in your vehicle going now, they will stop you. We have had cases of customs and smugglers having fracas and shoot outs. Of course, some officers will die and some smugglers will die. It is as a result of fighting smugglers along the borders. The man Dimka has zero tolerance for smuggling; that is number one.
Some have argued that that the continuous ban on the importation of rice through the land border poses a great threat to the economy hence their call for its reversal. Some have also spoken on the need to get the government to see reasons with the policy. On your own as an association, what are the steps you have taken to get the government to totally lift the ban?
As far as we the stakeholders are here, government have their information but the decision is not a wise one because, one, they put the lives of the officers in danger, they put the lives of the people into danger trying to smuggle here and there and as a result of this, there is always a fracas between the officers and these people and the first time they tried lifting this ban, we generated money. I have just made an example of someone importing two thousand bags of rice and you discover that one thousand, six hundred paid the normal levy, you have made money, that is beautiful because you don’t expect the whole two thousand bags to go into Nigeria, other neighbouring countries, you have Ghana, you have Togo, other West African countries go to the same Cotonou and buy rice. So, it is not all the two thousand bags that you imported to Cotonou, that arrive Cotonou that you will expect in Lagos.
But from what they recorded based on rice importation, I mean the figures they had then, Seme has generated a lot of money and they have done very good. If government will have a rethink over it because day in, day out, there is always a fracas on the roads, either through the waterside or through the bush, the officers are there doing their job but lives are always involved.
If I should quote you, you said Dimka has zero tolerance for smuggling, but if you go to the market, you still see these bags of rice still flooding our markets and you and I know that these rice don’t come in through our seaports as expected. How do you justify this Sir?
Let me tell you one thing, all eyes are on Seme just because Seme is closer to Lagos, you don’t have Abuja road in Seme. When I mean Abuja road, any other road that is not through the border, it is sandy, you cannot load truck and put it on that road. So, the road we have is this Seme border-Mile 2 expressway of which the zero tolerance is there.
Look at places like Shaki, Idiroko and other borders, they have several routes that most of these things pass through but all eyes are on Seme which is a bad impression. But Seme is doing its best to make sure they curb smuggling of rice into the market. If you investigate properly, you will discover that most of them don’t pass through this line. The type of vehicles that convey them, sometimes if you are going to Lagos you see them on the road, they can come in through Ibadan and take Toll gate, Berger and they come to Alaba to come and offload and all impression is that they are coming through Seme, it is not true.
The last time you spoke to us, you were full of praise for Comptroller Dimka for having the temerity to dismantle all the road blocks mounted on the Lagos-Seme Border route leaving only two officially approved road blocks. But a journey through this same route now would reveal the return of several checkpoints by the customs officers. Does it mean that Dimka has gone into slumber as to allow this to resurface again or what?
Yes, we investigated as the executive of this chapter, we have been to the Controller to ask why this, why that and he gave his reasons. He asked, “Do they disturb you?” They don’t disturb unless they are looking for criminals, some people who sometimes find one way or the other to cross their vehicles the bush paths, I mean cars, not trucks, anyone that manages to pass through the bush paths and come out at Ashipa would want to settle their way home. That is why you see some of them there. Seme Customs officers are there, Federal Operations Unit is there. The major points we have is Agbara and Gbaji, other ones you see, you will discover they don’t stop every vehicle unless those ones they suspect they stop them. They don’t stop every vehicle and if you check, depending on the hour you passed through the road, you discover that taskforces are there but they don’t disturb anybody. If you are going back to Lagos, take note of this, majority of them doesn’t stop people.
But according to the command, they are not to stop every vehicle, they van just watch, they stop and search and they mount a road block and they uncover a lot of things.
You National President visited the Customs Area Controller of Seme Customs command where he laid a complain of customs officers in Ogun State were in the habit of diverting duly cleared vehicles from Seme to either Abeokuta or Idiroko commands where another duty is raised on the same vehicle thereby amounting to double payment to which the CAC claimed ignorant of and promised to investigate. About one month after that promise, could tell us what the situation is like in that regard?
Yes! We have cases like that and because we had cases like that, that was why you heard of it. What happened is that when we reported to the Controller that this is happening, he promised to investigate the matter. I think he has investigated it and I am sure that has stopped because it is a slap on the command and a criminal act for you to pay a duty at Seme and somebody will ask you to come and pay additional duty at Idiroko, with which C-number? That is why the controller has s taken the step to investigate. I think it has stopped. Though we have about one or two cases like that that they came to report to us at our secretariat, but a step has been taken and we have not had a new case again.
How would you describe your association’s relationship with her sister associations under your administration?
When you talk about relationship, we don’t have any problem or have you heard any noise since I came to power? Since I became the Chairman of ANLCA Seme chapter, have you heard of arguement between NAGAFF, AREFF or Council of Managing Directors? No! We are working as a team, a team in the sense that they have their representatives among our taskforce members. Those of them that feel there is the need to work with us, those of them that feel we don’t need it, we have no problem, nobody is disturbing us.
ANLCA has been the umbrella association, it still the umbrella association and it will continue to be the umbrella association, the mother of all associations.
That is only if the other associations will agree to that claim?
But they know! You know they know.
Is your association in this chapter still collecting the transaction fee from members?
When you talk about that, you are working with me and I am working with you, we gather ourselves together, like you were at our secretariat, you saw the fans working, you saw the generators running, you saw the chairs there, we just bought them, when we have our meetings, you don’t expect us to tax ourselves one Naira, two Naira to maintain our secretariat. That is what we do and every association does it, it is not a new thing.
Within ourselves, we tax ourselves, whatever name you want to give to it, all I know is that we tax ourselves, you are paying two Naira, you give us this, you give us that but as far as you doing this give us this. If you are in a cybercafé now and somebody comes to capture, won’t you collect money from him? We pay little token within our members to maintain our secretariat, to maintain our members. We never force anybody to give us money, you must pay this you must pay that, no! But we tax ourselves, a token.
Like tomorrow we are going out, we are going to spend up to two hundred thousand Naira, four vehicles will be on the road very early tomorrow because we are going to Igboho. We lost a member, two of our members are due for marriage this weekend, we give them a token, it is from the little we get from our colleagues that we use in settling them.
How does the withdrawal of password from the Direct Trade Input (DTI) operators by the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) affect your business here in Seme?
It doesn’t affect us because we have one or two or three licensed that are attached to DTI cafe. Myself I have gotten a password but I have not started using because I am still waiting for radio but about two or three people here already got their radio and they are already capturing.
The cost of setting up a DTI centre, how costly is it for one to acquire it?
Any business you want to establish, you must invest. The investment is what they do, you buy radio two million Naira, you buy computer, you buy other accessories because we are going to the paperless world. We are already in paperless world, all these things put together, they cost money, by the time you charge your customers, you put your agency fee there to recover back your money spent. Of course, it is not too tedious, it is just the process.
We recall that the day your administration was inaugurated, you did promise that you will continue work on the ANLCA Secretariat as well as continue from where your predecessor stopped. Few months into your administration, how far have you gone?
Whatever way you look at it, we have been making some improvements. First of all, among our members, we have a perfect command, go and investigate from any other command. Seme command now is perfect. You can see, the other time we left here and went as far as Abuja to go and resolve the issue of cars which is about seven digits up and the exchange rate is up. So, nobody is doing it for us but we do it by ourselves and that gives all the practitioners, almost everybody here the sense of belonging that yes, that this administration, they are putting in their best.
We are trying our best, before we came, people don’t capture vehicles at the borders again, Idiroko, Kwara and all the rest. But after that movement, we went to the command, we called their attention, we need your cooperation, we want to raise revenue here because we are revenue generators for the Federal Government through the customs.
So, now, Seme command is working very well and if you look very well, you will see that they are molding blocks you are asking for project, but the blocks they are molding is for that project they are doing. Rome was not built in a day, we will do the best we can do on that project. You might not see physical thing this year, but by the grace of God, let God keep us alive, you will see greater things as far as you keep coming to Seme.
We also recalled that you National President during your inauguration advised you to see how you can incorporate women into your administration so as to reflect gender friendliness. How far have you gone with that advice?
The association is free, as far as you are a corporate body, any woman who has her company registered with CAC, when you are talking of executive, a woman cannot be an executive of this chapter without first being an executive of a company because what gives you the right to be a licensed owner is because you have a registered company with the CAC.
If we find any woman today with a license, of course that person will be part of the executive if she shows interest. But now we have women among our taskforces, we have women among the welfare committee and others.
Three months more to go to the end of this year, what are your plans for the remaining part of the year for the members of your association?
Everybody will have a plan and aim, my plan is that number one, that there must be peace in the command. Every agent should be able to conduct his business in a peaceful environment.
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