Nigeria-Benin Republic Joint Border Trade Portal: The Benefits, the Challenges.

Penultimate week, the Nigeria Customs Service and its counterpart in Republic of Benin, launched a joint interconnectivity platform which is meant to harmonise border trade between the two countries into a seamless single window.
It is an automated portal that will enable the two countries share vital information and statistics on the import and export trade across their joint borders.
To us in the, the collaboration is the consolidation of trans-border trade that has existed between the two ECOWAS countries from times immemorial.
It  will also deepen the several protocols of the 16-member states of the sub-regional body on trade liberalisation.
Just like all discerning stakeholders, we laud the joint interconnectivity programme that will surely enhance bilateral trade agreement between the two countries.
Afterall, as Hameed Ali, the Comptroller-General of Nigeria Customs Service rightly observed, the two countries are the same but only demarcated by an imaginary boundary.
Nigeria-Republic of Benin borders at Seme-Krake and Idiroko axis is the busiest borders in the country where several millions of dollars worth of import and export trade are transacted.
More than 80 percent cent of goods being handled at the port of Republic of Benin are Nigeria-bound which find their way into the country through both legitimate and illegitimate routes.
Through this new initiative of joint interconnectivity platform, all these goods could be tracked and hopefully,revenue accruable to them will enter into Nigeria’s coffers.
This will also help government to plan with the information and statistics that are expected to be generated and shared between the two countries for sound economic policies.
The initiative is expected to promote and enhance both import and export trade across the border.
This is however contingent on strict compliance with the rules of engagement.
Clearing procedures and other Customs formalities on cross -border trade between the countries are also expected to be faster, smoother and less cumbersome as there would be single declaration process.
For us, this is a good thinking on the part of the initiators of this programme because it will, expectedly, eliminate delays and other encumbrances which had hitherto hobbled cross- border trade.
However, we have our reservations as some  problems which may not have been envisaged by the promoters of the automation process but could have the capacity to encumber or circumvent its effectiveness could crop up.
Our reservation is not a function of doubt about the workability of the project or an attempt to shoot it down, but  warning messages to the promoters to always be at alert and work towards continued improvement of the initiative.
The first and most potent threat that may work against the effectiveness of the project, as laudable as it is, is human element.
The same human resource which is critical to the success of the programme, ironically, could also be its albatross.
It is what the people at both end of the divide (Nigeria and Benin Republic) who man the platform see or agree to see that would be fed into the system.
What we are saying is that the quickest way to make the project a mere paper tiger is to put men and women who are susceptible to being compromised to man the system.
As the common parlance in the ICT world, garbage in, garbage out.
Another fundamental problem which has become endemic among importers and their agents is their high propensity for breaking rules of engagement, not being compliant and their enormous capacity to compromise the system.
Though the system is said to be transparent and could not be manipulated but certainly not fool proof.
Webb Fontaine, the service providers who manage the system could not vouch for that either.
So we urge the managements of Nigeria -Benin Republic Customs to entrust the running of the platform with people whose integrity is not susceptible to the manipulation of the traders.
We are worried also on the “system failure” syndrome which has become the bane of the customs servers in the automation programme of the customs.
At the initial launch and operation of Nigeria Integrated Customs Information System II (NICIS)II, which is an enhanced form of ASYCUDA ++ , by the Nigeria Customs, the automation process was marred  by system failure which seriously affected cargo clearance procedures at the ports,  leading to congestion due to back log of cargo unable to exit the port.
The problem was eventually surmounted.
The new border joint interconnectivity platform is also not immuned against this malaise which to our mind, may cause chaos and confusion as cargo for import and export may be stranded,  leading to congestion at the border.
We call the attention of the promoters of the programme to this possibility so they could nip it in the bud before it rears its head.
We even learnt that this problem of system failure was recorded at the demonstration of the joint border interconnectivity programme when the server of the Customs in Nigeria used for the purpose almost messed up the launch.
We want to disagree with the impression being created by Webb Fontaine that the system will reduce smuggling.
This postulation could only be valid if there is going to be high level of compliance.
But with almost incurable passion for smuggling and other illicit activities among the trading public, the introduction of the system is not a guarantee for reduced smuggling.
As a matter of fact, it may escalate the illicit practice as importers and their agents will attempt to circumvent the system in a bid to continue their practice of under declaration,  evasion of duty and smuggling.
With our porous borders and the way some people in the border communities have come to regard smuggling as a means of their livelihood, the joint border trade platform is not an antidote to smuggling.
Hameed Ali, during the launch of the automation system, shared our thought when he expressed anxiety that the introduction of the platform will rather escalate  smuggling because of the legendary propensity of the cross-border traders for smuggling  as they will made attempts to
compromise the process.
We however commend the customs administrations of the two ECOWAS countries for this initiative to promote cross-border trade that will deepen the long-time relationship between them.
We only hope the dream and aspirations of the promoters of the idea will be allowed to take firm root and change the narratives of cross-border trade between the two sister countries.
This platform therefore urges the promoters of this noble idea to guide, guard and nurture this dream so that it would not be aborted by forces against trade liberalisation policy among the ECOWAS countries.

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