Patrick Ozobialu is the Chairman, Association of Nigerian Licensed Customs Agent (ANLCA), Seme chapter. In this interview with SHIPS & PORTS DAILY’S Shulammite Foyeku, Ozobialu talks about the implementation of the Vehicle Transit Scheme which was recently introduced by the Nigeria Customs Service as part of measures to reduce smuggling of vehicles through the borders. He also speaks on why the borders should remain open despite the outbreak of the deadly ebola virus disease among other issues.
Since the outbreak of the ebola virus, the borders have remained open on the orders of the Federal Government. What is your take on it, should the borders be closed?
I am fully in support of the Federal Government decision to leave the borders opened. They should not close the border but rather put in place considerable measures to control the spread of the disease. Nigeria, Benin Republic and other neighboring countries have a very slim line that demarcate the border which means you can put one leg in and one leg out. If they close the border, we have several illegal routes and it will become worst because when you close the approved route people will look for another unapproved route to come in. Apart from that, some persons have families in Cotonou, and regularly they visit their families, how would they control such people? If they close the border, does it mean Nigerians overseas can’t come into the country when they want to come in? What I am appealing that the government do is to put considerable measures in place to curtail the spread of the disease.
Since the outbreak of the disease, has it in anyway affected your operations in Seme?
It has not affected us in any way. We go about doing our normal businesses. The most important thing is that people should be aware and I can tell you that over 90 percent of Nigerians in Seme, I mean the Nigeria side is aware of Ebola.
Recently, Customs introduced the Vehicle Transit Scheme whereby all Nigeria-bound vehicles imported from Benin Republic and other neighbouring countries will be handed over to customs for due clearance. Since its introduction, has there been any significant reduction in smuggling of vehicles through Seme border?
It didn’t start today. It started when Dikko was the Controller in Seme. All these were what we all joined hands to put in place because it is as if the Benin Republicans (sic) are extorting more money from us but with the policy, we have been able to help ourselves and also stop the numerous extortion from Benin. We are happy now that it is being implemented today. Now, all the cars that are on transit to Nigeria come through one channel whereby the escort from Benin escorts the whole vehicles that are declared to come to Nigeria. When they bring it in, they hand over the vehicles to Customs and from there, it goes to the Customs Park. From there, all the duties will be paid on the vehicles and for those that have paid duty before the vehicles came in, they will be examined. We give kudos to the Customs management and also to agents who complied as well to make the scheme a success.
Is it true that the Benin Customs is trying to frustrate the effort of the Nigeria Customs Service on this policy by not declaring the right number of vehicles that are on transit to Nigeria?
Yes and this is because there are some vehicles that would have been declared to come to Nigeria but are sometimes dropped in Cotonou because they want us to pay some money. But we are combating it and the association has done a lot in helping Customs. One thing with the Nigeria Customs Service of today is that when they are informed they also pass on the information to the association and that has made their work easier for them unlike before when they want to do something, association and agents will not know about it.
Initially, vehicles that are moving from Cotonou pay N5,000. I mean officials of the Benin Customs demand that N5,000 be paid on each vehicle in their various parks ever before you clear it to Nigeria. But because of the scheme, these cars don’t enter their park anymore, but they are insisting that we still pay the N5,000 which we have rejected. They don’t give us any service – like our cars entering their car parks and securing it – so why must we pay such money? We are vehemently opposing that. In fact, we had wanted to go there and let them know we are stopping work until they stop the extortion but because the arrangement is still new, we are still taking our time. There was a time the CAC Seme met with the Benin Controller and we equally had a chat with them but we came to understand that there are some big men in Cotonou that are benefiting from it and so they did not want the scheme to work. Therefore, they are still putting a hitch on it but I believe with time, we will overcome it.
What is being done about the lack of cargo examination bay at Seme which has been a source of concern for several years?
Well that did not start today. It started a long time even before I became the chairman but we are trying to find a lasting solution to that. In fact, if you go there now, we have mapped out an area and work has already commenced. It is just that we need more incentives because we are the ones that contributed to make it look the way it is presently. Right now, trailers can now go in and come out.
Is it the responsibility of agents to create examination bay where cargoes will be inspected?
It is the responsibility of everybody including Customs and agents but we are taking it upon ourselves because we are like those the organization is looking on to do one or two things and I hope by next year we won’t be talking about it again, we would have finished it.
What is agents’ relationship with Customs like in Seme?
It is very cordial because we are living like a family and whatever is the problem of Customs is also our problem and the problem of agents is also that of customs too. Initially, before I came in that’s when you can say because of orientation or lack of information you hear of smugglers but recently, people now know the benefit of paying duty especially on cars. Presently, 90 percent of cars that come in through Seme pay their duties which are even higher that what is paid in the port because people are beginning to know the importance of paying duty.
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