In a controversial move, the Nigeria Customs Service on Thursday announced the cutting of petroleum products to Nigerians living within 20 kilometres of an international border.
At least 57 borders have been shut across Nigeria since August as the government intensified steps to limit foreign products into Nigeria.
The border closure has already started taking a toll on the nation’s economy, with many Nigerians complaining of a shortage of rice and other essential products.
The fuel restriction was, on Thursday, communicated from the Customs headquarters in Abuja to all formations across the country. PREMIUM TIMES has seen a copy of the November 6 circular.
The Customs said petroleum tankers can no longer go beyond 20 kilometres inwards an international border. Nigeria has dozens of official international borders, and at least 57 had been shut down since August.
It was not immediately clear whether alternative solutions had been provided for the millions living in border areas across the country to get petroleum products, which represent a key part of economic activity.
Joseph Attah, the Customs spokesperson, told PREMIUM TIMES he could only confirm the authenticity of the circular, but would not speak on its legality or alternative solutions for Nigerians in border areas to access petroleum products.
“I have no information about legality or how people can get fuel in those areas for now,” Mr Attah said. “But if it is whether the circular is a genuine Customs document, I can confirm that.”
But legal questions would loom over the directive for some time, said Chidinma Mbah, an Abuja-based business lawyer.
“I am not aware of anywhere in the Customs and Excise Management Act that allows the Customs to ban legitimate trading activities within Nigeria,” Ms Mbah told PREMIUM TIMES. “This is a very contentious move.”
While insisting that Customs was only established to control the movement of goods into and out of Nigeria, Ms Mbah said petroleum products are a legitimate part of economic activities within Nigeria, and many of those involved in it had been adequately licensed.
“We are facing a situation in which people’s lives could be put in jeopardy in the border areas, while economic lives of legitimate fuel supplies will be put in jeopardy in all parts of Nigeria,” she added.
Two senior Customs officers who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES under anonymity because they did not have permission to comment on an internal circular said the action was to curb criminalities in the border areas, even though they admitted it was unprecedented.
“I have 21 years’ experience with Customs and I can tell you this has never happened before,” the official said. “But it was done because they recently detected some criminals were supplying fuel to the border areas more than the population there could consume.”
Another top Customs officer admitted the legality of the policy would be controversial, but said Nigerians should look at it in a wider context.
“The constitutionality or otherwise will be debated in the coming days, but we can hope that Nigerians will cooperate and show good understanding that this is being done in their best interest,” the official said.
The Nigerian government has repeatedly claimed that petrol was being smuggled from Nigeria to neighbouring countries through the border communities, mainly due to price differential between Nigeria and neighbouring countries.
About a month after it announced the border closure, the Nigerian government through the PPPRA suggested that the volume of smuggled petrol through the borders had reduced.