• Project wastes away, hinders movement of trucks with goods
Two years after the mega joint-border project by the European Union (EU) and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has been completed at Seme border in Lagos State, the edifice remains unused.
The project is now posing a threat to the legitimate trade and movement of vehicles across the nation’s busiest border, which directly links the Republic of Benin.
When The Guardian visited the border, it was observed that the modern gateway was gradually wasting away, with vehicles parked around the facility while the water that flooded the murky route was weakening the base of the perimeter fence.
The main gate into the new park remained locked, forcing traders and transporters to use the old Atlas Park which is currently dilapidated, with no facility to aid trans-border trade.
The Atlas Park belongs to the Republic of Benin and all payments and policies on movement of goods are in favour of the neighbouring country.Reports showed that the total trade of the West African region is about $300 billion. Exports are projected at approximately $137.3 billion while imports total about $80.4 billion. The main active countries in trade are Nigeria, which alone accounts for approximately 76 per cent of total trade, followed by Ghana (9.2 per cent) and Côte d’Ivoire (8.64 per cent). Traders are of the opinion that the trade growth statistics may nosedive if the commissioning of the border point is further delayed.
A representative of the border communities, who spoke with The Guardian, blamed the delay in commissioning the project on lack of consensus between Nigeria and Benin Republic.During the visit to the border, The Guardian discovered that over 80 trucks and other smaller vehicles laden with various goods due for examination to ascertain their contents were held up in queues at the Atlas Park bordering Benin Republic and Nigeria.
The Head of Free Trade Movement and Migration Division of ECOWAS, Tony Luka Elumelu, appealed for patience, assuring that work was in progress on the border infrastructure.
On why the facility has not been commissioned, he said: “When you put a structure that will be used by more than one entity, there are lots of efforts going into that. There are a lot of components in terms of border management. You need to equip relevant agencies with necessary tools and materials to be able to operate. For example, for Immigration and Customs services, you need to make sure that the data of travellers are enshrined.
“You should also know that when you put a border, there are some necessary components that should be ready for the border to be operational. The border is to facilitate trade, which means that both countries have to talk to each other and avoid delay. “As for me I want everything to be fast, unfortunately it’s not easy that way, but all hands are on deck. There was a time that work stopped on the project and now there is relative progress made, which means that we are on course,” he said.
The Public Relations Officer (PRO), Seme Area Command of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), Taupyen Senchen, said the border facility had been completed and they were hopeful that when commissioned, it would aid the customs’ operations and improve the ease of doing business at the Abidjan border corridor.
“Presently we are using an alternative route, which is always waterlogged when it rained. It is not conducive for movement, vehicles are stuck and it causes delays.
“The new border facility has every necessary facility, it is of international standard, and we hope that it would facilitate trade if commissioned. Everybody will pass through the approved channel and will undergo the necessary checks, but anybody that passes through the unapproved route will then be regarded as illegal immigrant,” he said.
Senchen said the Nigerian Customs had been moved to the Nigerian side of the border to ease their operations. He denied knowledge of any process that has been delayed by the Nigeria Customs.
Although The Guardian investigations showed that the officers on the border route are complying with the ease of doing business directive of the Federal Government by maintaining a single checkpoint at Gbaji, they are still demanding gratification from traders.A driver of one of the articulated vehicles, Azeez Lamidi, said himself and his colleagues were worried about the delay in commissioning the facility.
According to him, the alternative route damages vehicles and causes delay at the border. Azeez urged the Nigerian government to fix the international road (Badagry expressway), which, according to him, has become a death trap to many travellers.“It is very unfortunate that we found ourselves in this situation. We appreciate ECOWAS and EU for the facility, but it should be commissioned on time to ease movement across the borders. The suffering on this route is too much, the roads are bad and even the officers will not let you go without settlement. I always make provisions for them, because they will blacklist you as a transporter if you fail to comply,” he said.
On how much is spent on settlement, Lamidi said: “The amount has reduced now because of the reduction in the number of checkpoints, but I pay between N500 and N1000, depending on the load I am conveying.”The Spokesman for Gbaji-Aseri-Hulenu joint border communities (comprising 86 communities in Badagry), Tunde Hupatin, said: “I don’t see the reason the park should be under lock till this moment. If you see the design, you will see that a lot of trade facilitation will resume by the time it opens for operation. There won’t be need for all these illegal points. You won’t see people with mufti collecting what they are not supposed to collect. I don’t know why it is delayed, but I expect that the top officials should see into it and make sure that the challenges are resolved urgently.”
The project handlers lamented some hurdles posed by the neighbouring countries that contributed to the delay.The Project Manager of Grand Enterprise Route (GER-SA) Siam Togo, Ago Soule, said his company took over the project from the former contractor whose contract was terminated due to delay.
“Many challenges were encountered, especially on the Benin Republic side of the border, like court injunctions stopping us from demolishing structures on the right of way, movement of traders and transport operators during project execution, delay in getting exemption certificate to enable us to bring in our equipment and more. That was why we were given extension by ECOWAS.”