John Ofikhenua, Abuja and Muyiwa Lucas
THURSDAY’S ban on supply of petroleum products to filling stations within 20 kilometers of land borders attracted a sharp criticism from the Independent Petroleum Marketers Association of Nigeria (IPMAN).
Lagos lawyer Femi Falana (SAN) also said the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) has no power to issue the order.
A November 6 circular issued signed by Deputy Comptroller-General in charge of Enforcement, Inspection and Investigation (EI & E), I. Chidi, reads: “The Comptroller-General of Customs 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. Consequently, you are all to ensure strict compliance, please.”
NCS Public Relations Officer (PPRO), Mr Joseph Attah, told The Nation that it was to stem the tide of smuggling of petroleum products out of Nigeria.
According to him, the NCS has realised that with the partial closure of the borders in August, some petrol stations have been springing up with the sole purpose of smuggling petrol products out of the country.
He added: “The circular is, therefore, instructing us (NCS) to stop that. And ours is to enforce the government’s directive.”
IPMAN National Vice President, Alhaji Abubakar Maigandi, told our correspondent that the measure will bring more hardship to the residents in the border towns.
He added that implementing the directive will short-change the marketers that are duly licensed by the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) to sell petroleum products in that domain.
Advising the NCS to seek other means of checkmating smuggling, he suggested that the operatives of the joint security team should arrest the smugglers at the borders.
He said: “If the Customs enforces that directive, we are going to go against it. There is no reason you should give somebody a license and you stop supplying him products because he is 20 kilometres from the border. They (marketers) have their license from the DPR; they can discharge their products in their filling stations.
“Even if the petrol stations are close to the borders, the NCS should go to the borders and put demarcations. With that, they can arrest anyone smuggling fuel through the borders.
“We are not encouraging smuggling but the government must not stop marketers from doing their legitimate business.”
Explaining that the directive will stifle the economy in the border towns, he noted that there is a border community called Kanba in Kebbi State, where more than three trucks of Premium Motor Spirit are off-loaded daily.
According to him, not only will the residents of that community suffer, the economy will shrink overnight.
National President of Association of Motor Dealers of Nigeria (AMDON), Prince Ajibola Adedoyin, told The Nation that the directive would stem the tide of economic sabotage.
He said: “If the reason is that the petrol stations are smuggling fuel out if Nigeria, it is a welcome development. We cannot sabotage our economy.”
He urged the government to implement the policy with a human face.
He also advised the government to put palliatives in place to cushion the pains on the border dwellers.
Some stakeholders contend that smugglers within these areas have since the commencement of the border closure on August 18, diverted to fuel smuggling into neighbouring Benin Republic.
“They have reconstructed their fuel tanks or built bunker under their vehicles to contain up to 200 or more litres of petroleum products. They will drive to Owode Apa and environs, discharge and sell the content to the ever-waiting customer. At times they do up to four trips a day,” said Olayinka Oduneye, a resident of Badagry.
Other stakeholders have challenged the powers the CGC Alli over the propriety of the directive. Besides, they contend that the Customs boss lacks the authority to make such pronouncements.
Falana and Chief Mike Ozekhome (SAN) disagreed on the legality of the restriction.
Falana said: “Since we are operating under a constitutional government, the Federal Government has no power to impose collective punishment on law-abiding citizens and corporate bodies. The filling stations were registered under the law by the Directorate of Petroleum Resources (DPR). So, the CGC Alli lacks the power to ban them from carrying out their legitimate business.”
Although he agreed that the NCS cannot be restrained from prosecuting the owners of the filling stations that engage in smuggling or any form of criminality, he maintained that Alli has no power to make such order.
But, Ozekhome disagreed, saying: “Alli has the power to do such. It is like asking if the chairman of NDLEA has the power to ban cannabis from being taken to certain parts of the country. He doesn’t need to seek any parliamentary approval to put such directives up because as CGC of Customs, he has a responsibility of safeguarding the country’s borders.”
According to him, Alli is simply exercising executive powers associated with his office, as any other minister can do. This development, he further said, should make the border towns wake up and fight the illegal exportation of fuel across the border.
The lawyer, however, noted that Alli should have considered the impact of the ban on the people living in those communities, meaning that outright stoppage of the products may not have been the solution to fuel smuggling.
Nevertheless, he suggested that border communities have been a shelter for illicit exports to neighbouring countries.
Ozekhome said: “The Government, through the CGC, should monitor the number of tankers allocated to those areas. If there used to be 50 tankers allocated, maybe they should allow two to go there so that the people can have fuel; it is not right and fair to ban it outright, although Alli has the power to do such because it is just an executive power to ensure that the borders are well policed.
“It will interest you to know that 94 per cent of the fuel taken to those communities is sm