Aidoghie Paulinus, who was in Addis Ababa

The Nigerian Ambassador to Ethiopia and Permanent Representative to the African Union (AU) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), Amb. Bankole Adeoye, has warned Nigerians travelling through Ethiopia about the dire consequence of exceeding the $3,000 per traveller law by the Ethiopian authorities.

Adeoye said that as a result of ignorance, over 25 Nigerians have had their money and valuables confiscated by the Ethiopian authorities, pointing out that the Embassy of Nigeria in Ethiopia had taken practical steps to engage the Ethiopian authorities at the highest level over the issue. Excerpts:

Your Excellency, what is the issue of the confiscation of money exceeding $3,000 into Ethiopia all about? Is it a new law or it has been in existent?

The question of foreign exchange export in Ethiopia has been a long standing one and the government is trying to enforce an existing legislation on confiscation of foreign exchange currencies much more than $3,000 or its equivalent. And it is for any Ethiopian or traveller who has stayed in the country more than 14 hours, either on transit or overnight transit. Therefore, we are trying to create greater awareness amongst Nigerians that since our task is to ensure that all Nigerians passing through, using the Ethiopian Airlines, one of Africa’s largest airlines, and most profitable airlines, that while they are in Ethiopia, they must declare. It is not forbidden. It is the declaration on entry into Ethiopian territory. So, we are trying to create greater awareness, using all means – the traditional media, the social media and indeed, government’s sources to push for that awareness, that information circulation so that all Nigerians will have hitch-free travel experience when they come through Ethiopia on their onward journey. Only 10 per cent of thousands of Nigerian passengers from the five destinations in Nigeria! Ethiopian Airlines, as you know, flies to Lagos, Abuja, Kaduna, Kano and Enugu. And because of these five largest destinations in the world, apart from China, there are a number of Nigerians who have been caught breaching the law allegedly. But it is because of the lack of awareness and the job of the embassy, the task before us is to make sure that awareness is created, is greater, is intense and most Nigerians are aware when they come that they need to declare on arrival. Due to this new push, we are making progress and we have consulted with the Government of Ethiopia, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the tax authorities and indeed, the Ethiopia Airlines itself. So, on Ethiopian Airlines flights, there are now greater announcement and awareness being created. And for those who are staying overnights on transit in hotels, we are also making sure that they are fully aware of this peculiar law because the standard international threshold is $10,000. But we assure Nigerians that we continue to protect their interest, but knowing full well that ignorance of the law is not an excuse.

What led the Ethiopian Government to enact that law in the first place?

It is a national sovereignty issue and the thinking is just to conserve foreign exchange because sometimes foreign exchange is scarce in Ethiopia and as you know many countries are going through hardship in terms of foreign currency earnings and they are trying to protect their economy from any form of abuse. For us, it is a long-standing law and legislation, but knowing full well that the most important thing is that Nigerians must not be seen to be flouting the law.

How much money has been confiscated from Nigerians so far? And how many Nigerians have been involved?

We have over 25 Nigerians that have been involved. And it is not only cash, foreign currency; it is also valuables to the tune of thousands and hundreds of thousands of dollars in all currencies that we know. But we are assured by the commitment of the Government of Ethiopia that they will. They are investigating and indeed, they will refund where the cases have been thoroughly examined by their tax and revenue authorities.

Has there been any refund so far?

Yes. In two or three cases, there had been refunds because the circumstances were different and we hope that the step will continue. And since we came, we have raised it with the highest level of the authorities and indeed, the former Prime Minister did give a go ahead for the refund of some of the seized foreign currencies. But due to the transition, that has not been effected in full and we hope that with patience and with continuous push from us in the embassy, we will get to the end of this. Meanwhile, our job now is to stem that tide to ensure we don’t have more and more innocent, small enterprising Nigerians and indeed, some going for medical treatment in India, who indeed could not undertake their medical treatment, have been subjected to this very harsh rule. But we know that it is in the sovereign right of Ethiopia to continue to protect its own economy the way it deems fit.

If this trend continues since it is not in tandem with the international law of $10,000 per traveller, is the Nigerian government going to take practical steps by telling Nigerians to boycott Ethiopia Airlines?

That is not an option for us in Nigeria because we want to promote good, friendly relations with the people and Government of Ethiopia. And that is our goal. Our goal is to ensure that we respect the laws of the land where Nigerians step in and at the same time, continue to engage the Government of Ethiopia to see reason this law should also be relaxed in a way where it does not affect the fortunes of Africa’s largest airline which is Ethiopian Airlines.

What role is the embassy playing in assisting those whose money has been confiscated?

We provide consular assistance. Indeed, we sourced local lawyers for the last case where we had a $141,000. We actually assisted the person in question who is a Nigerian, but who lives in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And he has lived there for 18 years and he was going back to Nigeria to purchase some spare parts, but his $140,000 plus was seized by the Ethiopian authorities. He is still in their custody, but I can assure you that immediately that occurred, as ambassador here, I met with the State Minister of Foreign Affairs, I met with the CEO of Ethiopian Airlines, I met with all those who are in charge to ensure that we protested highly that this was not a question of money laundry, that this was a question of ignorance of the law, a peculiar law.

Why is it that the Ethiopian Airlines, having been plying the Nigerian route for a long time, has not been creating awareness in this regard? Doesn’t it look as if they are setting a trap for Nigerians?

We don’t want to believe that this matter is an entrapment or a direct assault on Nigerian people because I can tell you that the ECOWAS group of ambassadors here and permanent representatives, have started taking full measure to address this matter. Indeed, most West Africans and Central African traders have been affected by the same rule. So, what we are doing is to make sure that as a group, we put pressure on our host government and to see reason why these funds should be released. But I can assure you that from our vintage position in Addis Ababa, it is not a direct assault on the people of Nigeria.