President, National Council of Managing Directors of Licensed Customs Agents (NCMDLCA), Lucky Amiwero, has said Nigeria is to blame for the actions taken by the Republic of Benin against the country’s importers, as it was the first to breach trade convention with the West African neighbour by imposing unilateral border closure.
The government of Benin had imposed CFA9 million (N6.5 million) per transit truck on Nigeria-bound cargoes on transiting through the country, which are exempted from all forms of duty under the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) protocols on transit goods, a development that has left nearly 4,000 Nigerian-bound cargo-laden trucks from Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Togo stranded at Ilakoji.
But speaking in this interview with Business Hallmark’s OBINNA EZUGWU, Amiwero suggested that the move is in retaliation for Nigeria’s earlier border closure.
We understand that several Nigerian-bound trucks are now stranded at Benin Republic border because of the imposition of duty on them. What can you tell us what is going on? And has there been any attempt, to your knowledge, by the Nigerian government to resolve it?
I will say that Nigeria started what is happening. All the problems that we are facing now, was started by Nigeria. When the government imposed the border closure, I intervened and wrote several letters to the Nigerian government asking them to look at the law. I explained to them that it is wrong to do things this way, but I was ignored. The Nigerian government was trying to use political strength, but when you have entered into an agreement with a contracting party and you have conventions; a treaty which is very clear, you don’t take decisions without consulting the other parties. The point is that the problem we are having now will continue for a very long time, until Nigeria goes into a diplomatic talk and tries to raise what is called administrative mutual assistance.
The issue we have is that we are always primitive in our procedures. We don’t respect protocols and international conventions, and that’s why we will continue to have problems. We must understand that these nations we are dealing with have built their strength. Most of them are no longer looking at Nigeria, because Nigerians have moved down to Togo, Benin and the rest of them. Nigerian businesses are bringing in their goods from those countries. In the past, Benin Republic could not have done those things, but when you see them doing those things now you have to realise that they understand that they have now gotten some leverage. Today, Benin port is very developed; they have developed their port well, but in Nigeria we are still playing politics with our ports, putting people who have no experience and no expertise to run the ports. The Nigerian ports are being grossly mismanaged. We have wasted almost seven years because they put a girl who doesn’t know anything about managing ports to be in charge of the ports. And the girl was just there gallivanting.
It has taken them how many years to sanitize the port access road. Port access roads that are their own area, I had to fight them until they accepted that the roads are their responsibility. It took them time. They said the roads are not their own; that they do not have the responsibility for them. But the law is there. The Ports Act is very clear. Even the dredging they are mandated to do, they are not doing. What is the draft level of our ports compared to our competitors: Cotonou, Cameroon, Ghana, Togo, Ivory Coast and so on? These are our competitors and all of them have deep sea ports. So, they are all attracting cargo, but Nigeria is just there. When you don’t bring experts, it is a problem
Now, to the issue with Benin Republic. Nigeria willingly entered agreements, such as the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), trade facilitation agreement, ECOWAS and many other agreements. But when you want to take a decision that will affect trans-border trade and trans-border crime, you won’t consider the provisions of the agreements you signed. It speaks to the level of exposure of people who are at the helm of affairs in the country, they run a primitive system. Unfortunately, that’s not how the world works. You don’t just wake up one day and lock up the borders and say that Nigeria is a great country. No, you are not a great country. The problem is that you are talking about your greatness in terms of the population, but it is not in terms of what you are doing, the facilities you have and what you produce. Yes, you might also be great in resources, but it is not sustainable.
Nigeria should be careful because we are a trading nation. We are not a manufacturing nation. We are an import-dominated economy. We have to be very careful so that we don’t start to have issues with countries like Benin Republic. Benin Republic is almost on their own now, they have a good port; they have a good economy and many Nigerians are there. They have moved and many people prefer doing business there. This should be very clear.
You talk about Benin having a good port, but the point is that it mostly serves Nigeria because the most of the goods they’re bringing in are coming to Nigeria. With this in mind, do you think the country will be strong enough to take on Nigeria in this sense?
Yes, the ports in Benin are Nigeria dominated, but Benin ports don’t only serve Nigeria. Benin has taken over the transit within the landlocked countries, the upper north and all the rest. So, it is not only Nigeria. They have a very good port whose draft level is higher than those of Nigeria. We are just talking about big country but we have nothing. We have to be very serious and focus on getting people who are professionally sound in positions to bring about changes in the country, otherwise we will have an empty country in the next five or six years with the way we are going.
Has there been any attempt to resolve the current situation with Ben Republic as far as you know?
I don’t think the Nigerian government is interested in resolving the challenge. I don’t go into all those things again. The last time I worked very hard to reach out to the presidency and to the finance ministry. We quoted the laws, we looked at all the issues, we gave them advice but they did not take our advice. They will tell you that the president said that the border cannot be opened. When a government doesn’t heed professional advice it’s a problem. I have been in the business of ports for a very long time. I have served in 168 government committees, many of them presidential committees on how to reform the ports. I am not talking as a layman, I am talking as an expert and I don’t think there is anybody who has more expertise in the country than myself when it comes to international trade at the port. They should come and tell me where they have served, the experience they have. I have served in 168 government committees. It is not a joke. Let me see the person who has that kind of experience; that kind of pedigree. I was appointed to reform customs. I have worked with government committees severally and I gave proper advice, some of which were used to bring the changes we have had. But today we have lost most of those reforms.
Are you saying that decision of Benin authorities to impose the duty is a retaliation to the border closure that Nigeria imposed?
Let me say, first of all, that no country has any right to impose such a duty on any cargo passing through it. Benin doesn’t have any right by convention to do that. We have two kinds of cargo. We have the one that has to do with common external tariff; these are goods that are coming from third countries. Then, we have another one that has to do with ECOWAS trade. These are normal consignments leaving ECOWAS countries, manufactured in ECOWAS countries and being moved to another ECOWAS country.
The ones coming from third-party countries are just supposed to pass through the normal border area. So, Benin Republic has decided to impose any duty on them, they are just trying to introduce a new a system which may not be in line with the existing convention. But like I said, Nigeria started it initially with the imposition of border closure. I had written to the government to explain the implications, but nobody listened to me. Eventually, they opened the border at the wrong time, and I don’t know what we have benefited from the border closure. I think we need to actually make an impact assessment to be able to ascertain what really happened with the border closure.
Nigeria should start a negotiation process. You have different layers of ECOWAS treaty. There is one that customs can handle. There is the one that the minister can handle and there’s another one that the president can handle. The president himself should intervene because they are the people who created the problem. Otherwise the whole thing is going to snowball into a kind of border conflict and it will reduce the strength of ECOWAS and bring the convention to naught.
It does also put the recently signed continental free trade agreement in danger. Don’t you think?
Yes, but the point is that Nigeria does not have the capacity to implement the free trade agreement for now. We don’t have what it takes to implement that agreement. Do you know what free trade means? It means that all those goods coming into the country, you don’t pay duty on them. I don’t know whether people know the implication. The problem is that we are not serious in Nigeria. Nigeria is the biggest market in Africa, but we don’t have the facilities, even electricity we don’t have. No good roads; there is nothing that we have and you are talking about free trade. It is going to affect the whole manufacturing sector, the little ones we have. Already, many many people have pulled out of the country and you are talking about free trade. They will be bringing the cargos into the country free of charge. What they have done is that they have gone and put political interests all over the place, but they are crippling the economy. The economy is going, that is just the truth.
More and more companies are opting to set up in Ghana, Benin and so on. They cannot set up in Nigeria because we don’t obey laws and there is no infrastructure, that is the truth. So, they will just be bringing in the goods.
Is there a way to quantify the loss that Nigerian importers have suffered as a result of this action of Benin authorities?
You can’t quantify the loss because there are also psychological losses. There are economic losses and there are regional losses, because when you have this kind of thing coming up, it will continue for a very long time until both countries go into real diplomatic talk to resolve the issue. So, I think it is for us to really be serious and go back to negotiate. Nothing like this has happened before and Benin Republic is not grumbling, that means their economy is stable. They are not worried and this is what I have been saying. You will go to Togo and Togo will tell you to do your worst because there are many businesses there, and they are shipping all their things. Benin Republic is almost a hub. Nigeria is not a hub. Nigeria has no deep port, the ports have not been developed because we just put people there who don’t understand anything. And they’re playing politics with everything. Look at the Cotonou Port for example, the draft level is almost 16.5. Ghana is almost going to 19, Togo is almost going to 16.5. But Nigeria is politically 13. So, there are many ships that cannot come to Nigeria, whereas they can go to Togo, Benin Republic and Ghana. These are the advantages. Ghana has taken over our transit. So, we are missing a lot in the whole international trade. We are becoming like Grace. Greece was a big country in those days, but they killed all there knowledgeable men; they had them executed, but where are they today in the world? They are finished. We pray that Nigeria will not be history.
You are talking about the Nigerian government initiating a process of negotiation, but we now see the developing situation with Sunday Igboho. Won’t it further compound the diplomatic issues between Nigeria and Benin?
Well, politically I don’t know what it is they are doing there, but I think Benin is simply trying to follow protocols; to follow laid down rules for expatriation. But you know, Nigeria wants to just take the man out of the country, which is against international law. When a man comes into your country, you don’t allow him to be smuggled out, or you don’t just go and smuggle him out like what they did to Nnamdi Kanu. Nigeria is breaching protocols. What they should have done is to go through the normal expatriation procedure, which has to do with international treaty. But what Nigeria has done to Kanu is wrong, and it is going to affect the country. There might also be be a time when people who are in government now will be repatriated back to the country, and they will tell you, ‘Yes you did it when you were in government.’
If you refuse to follow the law, the consequences will also come back to you. It is important that we begin to operate as a country of laws. We cannot be a people who believe in body language. Body language takes you nowhere. We have to dance around the Igboho issue and see how we can resolve it. It is a political issue, and they should resolve it politically, otherwise it is going to also affect the economy.
In Nigeria, it is becoming a regional thing. Now you have two regions – East and West – being attacked. But bandits are there and nobody is attacking them. The criminals who are kidnapping, nobody’s arresting them. So it is becoming more sentimental, and people are looking at it and understanding Nigeria to be a country where all citizens are not equal. You are rehabilitating Boko Haram. You release them and say they have repented and all those things, but you come to the other side and you arresting and killing agitators.
You talked about playing politics with the ports. We have also seen situations where the ports in the Eastern corridor are not functioning to capacity. Could it also be politics that explains this?
Let me correct this impression. There is no politics in the ports in that sense. Cargos go to where the importers want them to go. The government won’t carry cargo to anywhere, it is the importers. You have to ask yourself how many companies you have in the East that can take a cargo there. The companies are in Lagos. I think we should also learn to leave politics in some of the issues and talk to professionals. You don’t, for example, have anything in Calabar. What are you taking cargo there to do? How many industries is do you have in Calabar? Again Port Harcourt doesn’t have the kind of concentration of industries that Lagos has. How many cargos go to Port Harcourt? How many industries do you have in Port Harcourt? It is industries that attract the cargo. This is why it is important to always talk to experts. I was telling you that if you don’t have an expert, you will continue to make mistakes. They are supposed to have used those parts as commodity ports because they are river ports; they are not ports where modern ships can berth. What is the draft level? Some of them 8 meters, some of them are 9 meters, when you are already talking about 19 to 20 metres draft levels.
Again, this is the challenge where you bring unqualified people to run the ports. You bring people who have no experience and no expertise and you make them MDs because of politics. At the the end of the day, the system collapses. That is not how people built their countries. Here, we are so sentimental. We are too tribalistic; we are ‘regionalistic’. We don’t look at experts, we do everything based on sentiment.
But if you want to get results, let the best people to run institutions and everybody will be better for it. If you look at Nigeria now, the country is finished. You have an employment opportunity where they require two persons for example, and thousands of people are applying. The country is going down. But we have all the potential, everything is here. However, we are not exploring them. The politicians are more interested in driving best cars and flying the best of private jets. We go to Dubai to buy the best property and do shopping. That is not how the white man developed his country. We live a life of waste; a life of nuisance; a life of truancy.
The Lekki Deep Seaport is coming on board in the free trade zone. Is it going to solve some of the problems you have highlighted?
Free trade zones have been existing for years. We have them all over the place. What is the free trade zone? Free trade zone is just an area that is pronounced by the government. It simply means that the company there will not pay duty; it means that import duties are not paid; that procedures are not followed. That is free trade, there is nothing wonderful about it and we have them all over the country. We have one in Calabar, we have one in Port Harcourt. We have had them in Lagos and everywhere, but what has been the impact? It is not going to have any impact tomorrow. The point is that you have to put your structures right. The Lekki Port is not even a free port. When you have a free port. Nigerian don’t have a free port. There’s nothing special about Lekki Free Trade zone. You have Calabar Free Trade Zone, what has it done? What has been the effect? It depends on what you are trying to do; what your intentions are. Are you ready to push for free trade zones? It is not a new thing.