In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES’ Bakare Majeed, the Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Customs, Leke Abejide (ADC, Kogi), speaks on how the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) can generate more revenue for the country, his role as a member of a minority party in the lower house, Kogi politics, among other issues. Excerpts:
PT: Your committee has been holding public hearings on decongesting the ports. Is there a target the committee has set for itself?
Abejide: Ports are the gateway to the Nigerian economy. Once you have problems with the ports, our economy will not be okay. Let us even say we are not doing importation, there is no way we can be self-sufficient in all the raw materials. Let us assume we are an industrialised nation. We need the raw materials to come in through these same ports. Let us forget about the revenue generated by Customs and assume we don’t even need it. We need the ports to function efficiently before the economy can be okay. Once you have a problem with the ports, it is just multiplier effects that you will see. Every activity in the ports will get to the last man in the village because there is no way he will not need items. He needs for himself either clothing or shoes, even food items. Factories need input. If you want to produce locally, that comes through import, imports like machines, raw materials. So when the ports are having problems as it is now, forget it, we cannot get it right. And that is the target. It is how to make sure we free the ports from these congestions. Because if we are able to tackle the cumbersome system of the Nigerian Customs service, which we are trying to do now and we are almost done with it, then all other things will fall into place.
PT: Some would say this issue has been on for a while now. Efforts by the Lagos State Government to clear the roads of trucks, the call up system, we still have problems at the ports……..
Abejide: The call up system is from the Nigerian Ports Authority, which they have advanced, and it is better now. If you go to the ports, it is better than how it was six months ago. They are modernising the call up. We invited the MD of the Nigerian Ports Authority and he gave us what they are doing at the moment and very soon the congestion will be a thing of the past. If congestion becomes a thing of the past, the procedure for taking out these cargoes…. if it is not done, we have not solved this problem completely. So, when you want to cure an ailment, you go to the root cause. You will start from the procedure for taking the cargos out. If we are able to solve that, then we have finally resolved congestion.
PT: There are people who are of the view that the problem is over concentration of the ports in Lagos. With the Lekki Deep Sea port set to come on board and the existing infrastructure is struggling to cope, why not revitalise the ports in the East? What are the issues stopping the process despite promises to do so?
Abejide: The eastern ports, which you are referring to….the argument that people only concentrate on the western ports, that is Lagos, Apapa, Tin Can, QMT, security is the main reason. Any vessel taking containers or bulk cargo to eastern ports will spend more money to keep their vessels at the sea because of pirates. There is nothing like that in Lagos. There is, but it is minimal. So they spend less in maintaining their vessels in Lagos than eastern ports. So you have to work on security on the high sea. That is one. Then two, you can use baits. If you are coming to Onne or you want to come to Area One in Port Harcourt, if you are paying N10 in Lagos, you should pay N7 in those places, as an incentive. You can use that kind of rebate as an incentive to bring people to operate there. Some people will risk it because they want to also make profits in their business. So, these are steps you can take. The ports’ congestion is artificial; it is not real. Some people are benefiting from this decay, this chaotic situation and that is why they don’t want it to end. But we are determined to end it. As you can see, we have been working very hard since I became chairman.
PT: In one of your submissions during the recent hearing on 2022-2024 MTEF, you said if the issue of scanners at the ports are resolved, that the NCS could be remitting more than N2 trillion. At a time of high prices of food and other commodities, should attention be on increasing revenue targets or reducing duties to allow more importation?
Abejide: What we mean are the items that are not declared. You can’t see them with your naked eyes, but with scanners. Scanner will give you more details. So they (NCS) will be able to generate more revenues. It is taking care of those ones the people are jumping, all the loopholes. It is not like they will increase tariffs. No. It is an increment in tariff that will make things expensive. Once the tariff is not increased, prices will be fine.
PT: You are the chairman of a powerful party. For lawmakers in small parties like yours, what is the strategy for survival or is changing party the only option?
Abejide: In the National Assembly, party does not really matter, especially in the House of Representatives. Party issues do not really matter. Don’t forget, I was at the forefront when we were struggling for the speakership. Anybody can testify. People don’t even know that I am not a member of the APC. They see me as APC because whatever they do, I support. They asked the speaker to take me to the president. I went there. I met with the president one on one. All other members were wondering, ‘what is he discussing with the president?’ It is because I work in all areas with the APC and the reason is that I was in APC before. It was the issue of Audu/Faleke that made us leave APC. But I have all my friends in APC. They know why I am still in ADC.
Abejide: At the appropriate time, I will make my decision.
PT: In 2019, you pulled an upset by winning election on the ADC platform, in the stronghold of PDP, a key battle ground between Governor Yahaya Bello and Senator Dino Melaye. What is the secret to winning an election with a small party like ADC?
Abejide: My election, any time, any day, is not about the party. Even those that voted for me did not know the party; it is my name they will ask. They will ask ‘where is the man paying WAEC fees, where is the husband of widows? That is the name they call me. Some call me by my direct name. They don’t talk about parties, so it is not a matter of parties in my place. You see why I have a stronghold, all my friends are in APC, they are in PDP, they cannot say no, because they know that if I have, they will benefit, and that is how God created me. That is what I am doing now. I don’t care if you are from APC or ADC or from PDP, I do for everybody. I carry everybody along.
PT: Some would say that politics is expensive?
Abejide: Yes, it is expensive, it is expensive, but that is what it is? Are we going to carry the money to heaven? We will spend it here. Let me tell you the secret – giving is the secret of blessing. If you know how to give, God will open ways. My own life is a good example. I give, except I don’t have. I have borrowed money from the bank and used it to help people. I can say it as a human being, but God knows that it was not my money and my account was in the negative. But when God came back to bless me, it was an embarrassing blessing.
PT: There has been clamour for power shift to Kogi West after the tenure of Governor Yahaya Bello in 2024. Will your approach be a template for Kogi West aspiration?
Abejide: There is a possibility of it. There was a day I went to see the governor. I went to see him purposely because of my road. There is a road that connects from my home town, Igbagun-Aluu to Ijowa. So I told him that I am going to put this road in the budget, I mean attract it to the national budget, which I succeeded in doing. So I met him for him to start from Ijowa. I started it from the Omuwo axis. I have done almost 20km now. So I am still expecting their own. On that day, the deputy governor was there, the speaker was there, and some of the commissioners. I said Mr Governor, you know why you won the last election from our side? I said it is because we need the governorship to come to us in 2023. The election is November 2023, by God’s grace, as God lives, Kogi West will occupy Lugard House (Government House, Lokoja) by 2024 January. Look at what Ebira people did; they did not party, they preached party to Kogi West, they preached party to Kogi East and in their home town, they preached their son. That is what we are going to do. We will tell whoever—except you are not part of us — then don’t come home again. However, I don’t want to care about any party. When we see a strong candidate, we have to rally around that candidate. I did Yahaya Bello in the 2015 primary. There were a lot of people from Okun land that were also contesting with him, but I saw that they were not too serious. Bello was the most serious. So, I supported Yahaya Bello for the primary against Audu. I did not do Audu, we did Yahaya Bello and he came second. And when he came second, all of us got angry because we wanted a power shift. I want to use this medium (I don’t know if it will get to the governor or not), to tell him that we have supported him wholeheartedly. I, Elder Leke Abejide, did not know him from anywhere, but I believed in his cause then. I supported him and I lost friends because of him. Once (Kogi) Central finishes its own eight years, automatically it will transfer power to us.
PT: There are people who are of the opinion that the governor will favour a Central candidate who will do another eight years to make it Kogi East 16years, Kogi Central 16years…
Abejide: That must be a rumour. It is better for it to be a rumour, not to be a reality because it can’t work. How would it work? It will be only a bastard of Kogi West that will vote for other tribes.
PT: Does Kogi West have the votes to take the position?
Abejide: Kogi West has more votes than Central. Lokoja is Kogi West, most of the people in Lokoja speak my dialect. Okun land is in the heart of Lokoja. Kogi West has more votes. Apart from Kogi East, in terms of voting strength, we have it. We have the votes, check INEC latest registration. if I am the governor today, for instance, (I don’t have the ambition even though people have been asking me. I want a Kogi West man) and I have spent my eight year, even before the eight years expires, we will do a joint agreement that we will also pass into law that power should rotate among the three major tribes. It will be in the law.
PT: But the last election saw a lot of violence. It appears that the fortune of Kogi politics favours those who have the muscle. Will a gentleman’s agreement survive in this world of violence?
Abejide: There would be no violence. That is what we are saying in order to reduce tension… The last election was ‘I want to take it by force’ that will not be there. It will now be Ebira to Ebira, Okun to Okun, Igala to Igala. So there should not be any violence if you are popular. If you are popular, everyone will know. If you are not, everyone will know. Last time, the reason for the violence was because some people resisted it. Some people looked at the state government and they were not happy. They believed that they cannot take it away for the next four years. Let me tell you something: if you are a serving governor, even though nobody tells you or nobody accuses you, just make sure you make the majority of the people happy. Even if you are not contesting and you are bringing a candidate, you have less work to do because you are popular. They will believe whoever you are bringing will copy you. They will feel that if you don’t know him well you will not bring him. But if you are not popular, it will be very tough for you to bring a successor.