By Stephen Ubanna
For two consecutive working days, Monday, October 22 and Tuesday, October 23, 2018,Economic and social activities at Seme, a border town ,between Nigeria and Republic of Benin was paralysed with the coming of President Muhammadu Buhari and President Patrice Talon to perform the official handing over ceremony of the multi-million dollar Seme-Krake Joint Border Post, JBP, which had been abandoned for months after completion by the multi-national Contracting firm.
The JBP was said to have been built by the European Union Commission, EUC, under Special arrangement with the Economic of West African States, ECOWAS, and the Economic and Monetary Union of West Africa. The project which started in 2011, was supposed to have been completed in 2012 but dragged to 2018, because of Financial Constraints. About N37 million euro was said to have been committed to the projects.
Plans for the official handing over Ceremony of the JBP, was said to have started last September but was heightened early October 2018, with the Border In Transition, BRIT, Conference, organised by the Institute of Peace and Strategic Studies, IPSS, University of Ibadan and Universite’ d’Abomey-Calavi, Cotonou.
The five days Conference which started in Nigeria on Monday, October 15, 2018, was said to have ended on Friday, October 19, 2018, in Republic of Benin. The Conference may have exposed the Customs officials to the different fiscal policies of the two countries and how to complement each other and prepare , for the challenges ahead: one shop clearing process at the Border.
The official handing over of the JBP to the two west African countries may have became necessary to forestall the frequent conflict between the Customs Administration of the countries over implementation of their respective fiscal polici.es. Take for instance in Nigeria, the importation of foreign parboiled rice, poultry products, vehicles and second hand clothing are banned from coming into the country through the land border. But the government of the Republic of Benin fiscal policy allows these items to be imported into the country which find their way into the country through unapproved routes. There was a an incident in which a former Customs Comptroller at Seme Command was said to have to have pleaded with his Beninoa counterpart to hand over a suspected ship allegedly loaded with foreign parboiled which had berthed at Cotonou port to discharge the items to the Nigerian Customs Authorities after collecting their duties. The appeal was said to have been turned down. The Beninoa Customs Authorities may have feared that handing over the Ship to the Nigeria Customs would scare other foreign Shipping Companies with cargo to discharge at the Cotonou port from sailing to the port to do so and the implication would be loss of revenue to the government.
Aware of the fiscal policies of the two West African countries by their respective Customs Administration officials , the stage was set for the official handing over of the JBP at Seme-Krake to the the two governments.
As a prelude to President Muammadu Buhari and who incidentally is the current Chairman and his counterpart from the Republic of Benin, Patrick Talon, to perform the official handing over of the new ECOWAS Joint Border post on Tuesday, October 23, 2018, the Department of State Security , DSS, operatives, Soldiers, policemen and other security operatives took over the Seme Border Community and its environs. The illegal police checkpoints along the Lagos-Seme road were said to have disappeared overnight. Also, the unapproved Customs Checkpoints along the road fuse into Baji and Agbara, which are approved by the government.
Vehicular movements to the border town was equally restricted by the security operatives. The worse hit were the importers with their agents who could not take delivery of their trucks laden good as the border was temporarily closed to host the two Presidents by the Border officials. The trailer park was empty as the border market was closed to traders. The hawkers and street traders were nowhere to be found. The motor cycle, popular, Okada and tricycle riders were said to have disappeared from the road.
Bello Samuel, a resident of the Seme Border Community informed the Magazine that as early as 8 am, on Teusday, October 23, 2018, plain cloth security operatives, fierce looking soldiers and policemen armed to the teeth were everywhere at the border to maintain law and order.
Muhammed Uba Garba, the Area Comptroller Seme Command, who was said to have been with Hameed Ali, a retired Colonel and the Customs Comptroller General and his officers were said to have put the Command under lock and key to be at the JBP to welcome the President. The Beninoa Customs personnel, were also temporarily on forced holiday as they could not attend to Customs to give a rousing welcome to the two Presidents, Buhari and talon.
importers and agents who had been out of job since January 1, 2017, because of the ban on the importation of foreign parboiled rice and vehicles through the land borders had trooped out in their hundreds to the land border area to catch a glimpse of the president. They saw the President’s coming to the JBP as an opportunity to express their feelings to the government about the bad state of the Lagos -Seme road . They were, however, disappointed as security operatives barred them from getting to the JBP site at Seme- Krake. Indeed, they never had any opportunity of displaying their Banner to the public.
Many had expected Buhari to take advantage of the opportunity of coming to the Border town to performing the official handing over Ceremony of the Seme- Krake, JBP, to the governments of Nigeria and Republic of Benin to make a policy statement by re-opening the land border for vehicles and foreign rice to come into the country.
Importers and agents including security personnel who spoke to the Magazine said they were disappointed that throughout his speech, he never made any reference to the border closures, an indication that there is no hope in sight over the reopening of the land borders.
The Seme- Krake Joint Border is the busiest boundary lines ,in the West Africa, sub-region, and Africa in general,. which records daily huge movement of goods and services. That much was confirmed by Buhari. It is one of the multi-million dollar projects envisaged by the EU for the ECOWAS sub-region.
The Noepe, project, which is between Ghana and Togo, was also said to have a been completed and would be handed over to the governments of Ghana and Togo on Friday, October 26, 2018. The third Joint Border post which is expected to be constructed along the Lagos-Abidjan corridor by the EUC, is at Melanville, which is between Republic of Benin and Niger.
Buhari, who could not hide his feelings at Seme-Krake JBP site, noted that Nigeria and other countries in the West Africa sub-region, are” suffering from adequate transport infrastructure and sufficient services”, described by analysts as the ”major bottlenecks to the attainment of socio-economic development and integration in the region”.
Perhaps , to ensure a proper Coordination and management of the JBP, facility, Buhari confirmed that a joint Committee, with members drawn from Nigeria and Republic of Benin has been established. Appealing to the Committee, to note the complex task ahead of them, the he said , the ”Committee must ensure that border officials are sensitised on the mode of operation of the JBP concept which is a departure from traditional method of operation”.
There are fears in both officials and unofficial quarters that power struggle among the border officials from Nigeria and Republic of Benin may lead to the neglect and collapse of the JBP building. It would be recalled that Nigeria and Republic of Benin in the past had owned a joint office Complex at the border, baptised ECOWAS building, which Republic of Benin government claimed belonged to the country, forcing the Nigeria g border officials to protest repeatedly to the ECOWAS leadership.
Ironically, the illegal Customs and police check points, which disappeared from the Lagos Seme road because of the rumour that Ali, the Customs Comptroller General and Idris Ibrahim, Inspector General of Police, IGP, were in the President’s entourage came back fully on the road to do what they know best: extortion of traders and motorists. For the Customs officers, they will be happy to see passenger vehicles carry rice, at least a bag to collect their N1,000.00 which is not negotiable. The police checkpoints collect between N100.00 and N200.00, irrespective of what the vehicle is carrying. This is where Imohimi Edgal, Commissioner of Police, Lagos state, may have to keep a close watch , on his officers along the Lagos-Seme road to stop the mess.