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Why Customs bans fuel supply to border communities

The Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) has directed the immediate stoppage of supply of petroleum products within 20 kilometres to the nation’s international borders.

Daily Trust findings reveal that hundreds of filling stations built in communities close to Nigeria’s borders with neighbouring Chad, Niger and Cameroon would be affected by the latest directive.

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Residents spoken to in the affected communities said the directive would further affect social and economic activities, but customs officials said the move was to further curtail smuggling of subsidised petroleum products to other countries.

They argued that most of the filling stations only served as conduit for stocking and thereafter lifting of the products for onward delivery to neighbouring communities to be sold at exorbitant prices.

The circular transmitting the directive, dated November 6, 2019, and signed by the Deputy Comptroller General, Enforcement, Investigation and Inspection (EI&I), Chidi A., said the instruction was from the Comptroller General of Customs (CGC), retired Col. Hameed Ali.

The circular, No. 27 is titled  ‘Suspension of Petroleum Products Supply to Filling Stations within 20 kilometres of all Borders’.

It said: “The CGC has directed that henceforth, no petroleum product, no matter the tank size, is permitted to be discharged in any filling station within 20 kilometres to the border.”

The directive was to all coordinators of customs at the zonal levels, Operation Swift Response, coordinators of the CGC Strike Force Teams and all Marine commands.

“Consequently, you are all directed to ensure strict and immediate compliance, please,” the circular stated.

Daily Trust reports that customs operatives along with other security agencies have been implementing a joint border exercise tagged ‘Operation Swift Response’ since August 2019, a development that led to the total closure of at least 57 borders across the country.

Those charged with responsibility of ensuring compliance at the borders said the aim was to curtail importation of foreign products into Nigeria without following due process.

The NCS said while the exercise in the first phase may probably end by January 2020, its officials would continue the partial closure of borders until neighbouring countries complied with the ECOWAS transit protocol.

When contacted to shed more light on the latest directive, the spokesman of Customs, Deputy Comptroller Joseph Attah, confirmed the issuance of the circular saying it was a directive issued by government.

He said there were observations since the joint operation began that more filling stations were springing up in border communities in Nigeria with reports of more petroleum products being supplied than the communities could consume.

“Customs is implementing this directive to tackle smuggling activities,” he said.

In September, the Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPPRA) said the volume of petroleum products transported from the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) depots had reduced significantly following the closure of some of the borders.

A statement by PPPRA spokesman Kimchi Apollo, said the development indicated gradual reduction in the volume of petrol trucked out from the depots.

According to him, records from various depots nationwide, between August 5 and 11 this year, revealed about 61 million litres of petrol was loaded and trucked out of NNPC.

He, however, said between August 19 and 25, which fell within the period the borders were partially closed, it recorded an average daily truck-out figure of about 57 million litres which was below the daily average figure recorded prior to the announcement.

‘It’s like a curfew in Ogun’

In Ogun, Albert Ashipa, a former chairman of Imeko-Afon Local Government, a border area between Nigeria and Benin Republic, expressed displeasure over the restriction of fuel supply to the area saying it was already taking its toll on residents.

Ashipa said the decision by the federal government was akin to “imposing curfew” in the area because without petroleum products, no vehicle could move and many activities would not hold.

A youth leader, Deji Imoleayo, also told Daily Trust that inasmuch as the federal government was trying to curb fuel smuggling, the restriction of supply would be dangerous to the lives of Nigerians living in border communities.

Kebbi resident say ‘It’s a red card for us’

Malam Albiyan Lolo, a councillor representing Lolo in Bagudo Local Government Area of Kebbi State, said the directive had paralysed economic activities in border communities of Lolo, Samia, Ilo and Kaoje.

“We are in serious problem here,” he said. “We have over 17 petrol stations here. There are 9 at Samoa, 5 at Lolo, 3 at Ilo, and 2 at Kaoje but none of them is selling petroleum.

“The smugglers always take the petroleum product to Benin Republic through the waters and we would have to get it from Benin Republic,” he revealed.

He added that a litre of petrol before the ban was N400. “We buy 25 litres of petrol for as much as N7,500 from Benin Republic. Now they are angry with us because our government has closed the borders. They no longer sell petrol to us,” he said.

‘It’s an unfair deal for Katsina border towns’

Jibia residents have also kicked against the policy, saying they were being unfairly treated simply because they found themselves living around the borders.

One of them, Gidado Farfaru, said the closure of the borders and the recent stoppage of supply of petroleum products will add to their difficulties.

“Why can’t the customs officials do the needful by stopping smugglers?” he asked adding, “It is not stopping fuel supply to our border towns that is the solution but going after smugglers is the problem…The customs officials should do their work by securing the borders.”

“Bribery leads to this smuggling at the borders; we see planes flying all day in the name of patrol but these things still happen, I am not a smuggler but an end user. My rights are being infringed upon,” he added.

Another resident, Sani Yellow, said: “Politically, this is good for the people for rallying support for the APC government; people are reaping the seed they sowed.

“How can government say for us to get fuel we have to drive close to 50km to other towns?” he asked.

A petroleum marketer, Aminu Lawal, said: “This is just going to further impoverish our people who are Nigerians and found themselves living at the border and a place of our birth.

“How can our people drive 47km to Katsina to get fuel? It is very unfair and for people like us who have invested in the business and having several pump attendants living under you, how will their life be from now?” he asked.

“In Jibia alone, there are over 20 filling stations and this means hundreds of people would lose their source of livelihood,” he said.

Shortage hits Jigawa border community

Shortage of fuel has been reported along the Nigeria-Niger border town of Maigatari as the two filling stations in the town were not dispensing.

Maigatari town is only about two kilometres away to the border post.

A resident of the town, Malam Haladu, told Daily Trust that the filling station located opposite Maigatari Local Government secretariat was under lock and key.

Also speaking to our reporter, a commercial vehicle driver, Habu Direba, said they bought fuel in Gumel, a neighbouring local government area about 35 kilometres away from Maigatari.

He, however, said in the meantime, not much impact of the shortage was felt because it was a market day, and that there was flow of passengers which made it easier for commercial vehicle drivers shuttling between Maigatari and Gumel to refill their tanks.

Lawyers differ on directive

Lawyers have expressed divergent views on the action taken by the customs.

Speaking on the development, Abeny Mohammed (SAN) said it will help to curb the smuggling of the products outside the shores of Nigeria. He, however, called for an approach that would not violate the right of the border communities to enjoy the petroleum products subsidy.

“You have to determine how to supply only that which meets their needs because you cannot deny them the product,” he said.

In the same vein, a former General Secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Afam Osigwe Esq., said the directive would help check economic sabotage, explaining that the country could not allow profiteering on subsidised petroleum products across the borders.

However, Okonache Ogar Esq. said the move by the customs was not only backward and primitive, but also irresponsible in the proper discharge of it duties to verify goods imported or exported outside the country.

“It is an admission that customs lacks the capacity to check whether goods coming in or out of the country meet the required criteria and payment of proper tariffs. It is not the duty of customs to regulate the supply and distribution of petroleum products,” he said.

Also reacting, Nnamdi Ahaiwe Esq. said the action was beyond the powers of the customs as stipulated in the Custom and Excise Act which mandated it to check goods coming in and out of the country not goods distributed inside the country.

“They have refused to do their job of manning the borders and that is why they resort to the wrong approach of going to hotels and buildings to harass people,” he said.

The ban was also noticed at the Seme border in Lagos where Customs clearing agents hailed the Federal Government’s directives on the grounds that the order will checkmate smuggling of the products into other West African countries.

The Public Relations Officer of the Seme Area Command, ASC Hassan Abdullahi, told our correspondent that the command had started the enforcing the directive.

Oil workers, marketers back move

The National President of Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG), Comrade Williams Akporeha, said the restriction was in the right direction and oil workers were not opposed to it.

“We are getting to the end of the year now when smuggling activities increase. All the products now are being imported and it won’t make sense to import product only for overzealous business men to smuggle them out after government paid subsidy on it,” Akporeha said.

The National President of the Independent Marketers Association of Nigeria (IPMAN), Elder Chinedu Okoronkwo, said the association was yet to deliberate on the matter but that the restriction, in his personal opinion, was good and commendable.

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