By Rogers Edochela
When the spokesperson of Nigerian Customs Service, Joseph Attah, gleefully announced to the whole world that the Service in conjunction with other sister security agencies namely the Nigerian Immigration Service, the Armed Forces of Nigeria, Nigeria Police, would be conducting a 28-day joint exercise code-named “Ex-Swift Response” to address security concerns, little did Nigerians know that it was merely a deceptive strategy targeted springing a surprise on Nigerians. And what is this surprise? The answer is not far-fetched: it is the closure of borders. But this veil of deception was lifted shortly after when the partial closure of the Nigeria-Benin Border was announced.
Mr. Attah, who said that the exercise would be coordinated by the Office of the National Security Adviser, further disclosed that the exercise will take place in four geo-political zones which are: South-South, South-West, North-Central and North-West.
According to him, the exercise is expected to ‘’promote inter-agency cooperation and increase preparedness to address trans-border security challenges such as terrorism, armed banditry, smuggling, proliferation of small arms and light weapons, among others.
Issues that necessitated the Closure of the border
At this juncture, the pertinent question to ask (and answer) is: what are the issues underlining this latest government action? In providing answer to this question, President Muhammadu Buhari at the sidelines of Yokohama, Japan International Conference for African Development, TICAD said that the “partial closure” of Nigeria’s border with Benin Republic was due to the massive smuggling activities, especially of rice, taking place on that corridor.
Similarly, the Minister of Finance, Zainab Ahmed, while lending her voice to the issue said that the borders were closed because of Nigeria’s commitment to African Continental Free Trade Area ‘(AfCFTA), insisting that the failure of neighboring countries to comply with the protocols they committed to upholding has been negatively impacting on Nigeria’s economy.
Recall that in July 2019, Nigeria signed the AFCFTA treaty, which is aimed at creating a single market for goods and services, with free movement of business persons, investments and a single currency across the continent. It is expected to boost regional trade and allow companies to expand and enter new markets.
Speaking on the same issue, the Comptroller-General of Nigerian Customs Service, Hamed Ali, who later announced full closure of the border in October, said that the action was aimed at ensuring that Nigeria takes total control of all manner of goods being imported into the country, maintaining that reopening the borders largely depends on neighboring countries ability to comply with the rules governing cross-border trade.
Of course, this sudden border closure did not take the discerning Nigerians by surprise because for several years, the problem of extreme porosity of Nigeria’s massive land borders has become quite worrisome to the extent that security experts have attributed the nation’s rising insecurity to this singular issue. Similarly, it has been proven beyond all reasonable doubt that the porous nature of the borders is responsible for the importation of all manner of goods, both legal and contrabands, which has led to the closure of several companies with its attendant loss of thousands of jobs.
Several Nigerians, who have lent their support to government’s current action, said that the move represents a bold attempt at tackling the rising menace of smuggling. Such supporters insist that if the borders are properly controlled and our local production capacity improved, Nigeria can produce at a good cost advantage.
Experts believe that merely shutting the borders for a few days and reopening same is not just the appropriate mechanism for solving the multi-faceted challenges that abound at our border posts, because such a move has the tendency to hurt legal exports and imports. They contend that though policies like border closure are designed to engineer local industrial capacity development, however, structural and systemic bottlenecks in Nigeria’s operating environment would continue to hinder adequate investments in local production.
Sadly, this would also ultimately lead to the creation of artificial scarcity, and drive prices of basic necessities of life higher, thereby hurting an already depressed consumer base.
Again, one fundamental factor that lends credence to Government’s current action stems from the fact that all imported goods attract appropriate import duty and trade tax which is paid to the Benin Republic, but when these goods are smuggled into Nigeria, nothing is paid to the Nigerian government, thereby hurting our economy badly.
In spite of the apprehensions expressed in some quarters about the negative consequences of the closure of the borders on the nation’s economy, there are lots of opportunities embedded in the closure.
Apart from security gains, the closure is also expected to boost local production capacity, create jobs and several other benefits. The point must be emphasized that security of Nigeria is key and germane in all ramifications because if this step is not taken now, it may be difficult to control movement of people, arms and ammunition into the country and win the war against insurgency.
Viewed from the prism of the huge unemployment crisis bedeviling Nigeria, this closure will go a long way in mitigating the scourge of unemployment. Our uncontrollable appetite for foreign goods and services is certainly to our detriment. As long as we continue to import these foreign goods into the country, we are creating employment opportunities for citizens of such countries, while our youths go without jobs. So, as long as our local goods are not patronised, it is tantamount to passing a cruel death sentence on employment opportunities in our country.
The closure will equally compel us to look inwards through massive investment in agriculture, which will lead to self-sufficiency in food production as well as general economic growth and development.
In the same vein, the closure has already led to a phenomenal rise in the daily impoundment of the number of smuggled goods into the country, especially rice, which is currently enjoying astronomical production in Nigeria.
It is equally noteworthy that this development is gradually restoring sanity to our hitherto chaotic borders, thereby promoting accountability and strict compliance with shipping statutes and laws by neighbouring countries.
And that is not all as the closure has the potentials of taming the fraudulent export of petroleum products and fight against the importation through land borders of second-hand vehicles, rice and some other products. As of today, several trucks of major consumer companies remain stuck at the border hoping to move goods into neighbouring regional markets.
Since the closure was announced, over 10 million litres of petrol is now being saved. The country’s previous daily consumption of petrol that was approximately 61 million litres, has now been reduced to 51.7 million litres. This development is a veritable indication that the much-ballyhooed 60 million litres of petrol said to be consumed in Nigeria were actually been smuggled to neighboring countries.
Another wonderful opportunity embedded in the closure is that it has also led to drastic reduction in crime rate in Nigeria as reports indicate that the hitherto incessant clashes in the northern part of the country with Fulani herdsmen have reduced significantly since the closure was announced. Overall, the general security in Nigeria has improved greatly, just as revenue accruable to the nation has increased significantly as it would save the country about US$400 million hitherto spent on smuggling rice into the country. It is common knowledge that a lot of rice consumed in Nigeria is smuggled from Benin Republic.
The closure has also offered our security agencies at the borders a wonderful window of opportunity to identify the security lapses in our borders.
Investigations conducted revealed that the enhanced revenue notwithstanding, the closure has negative implications on perishable goods. Available reports indicate that over 500 trucks have been stranded at Seme border.
One major implication of the closure is that smugglers have resorted to using the waterways for their nefarious activities. According to a reliable source, smugglers now use the Isashi Jetty, Ijanikin water route, Agbara area, and Vespa to smuggle in contraband in the dead of the night. The restriction is currently enriching some officers, who are acting as escorts to illegal products being smuggled into the country.
Another noticeable implication of the closure is the loss of revenue estimated to about N464.4 billion due to the activities of some die-hard smugglers in cahoots with unscrupulous security agents.
Apart from the loss of revenue, Nigerians are suffering as prices of foodstuffs and other commodities have risen astronomically in most cities of the country. Nigerians who do trans-border business are currently experiencing difficulties and have been forced to cut down on their demand and at the same time increasing the prices of their little stocks.
Available statistics indicate that prices of rice, poultry products, some brands of vegetable oil, beans and fairly used clothes popularly called ‘okrika’ have increased tremendously.
This explains why the prices of one kilogram of frozen chicken and frozen turkey now sells for N1,600 and N1, 700 respectively instead of N1,200 that they were been sold prior to the closure.
It is already a well known fact that Nigeria cannot meet up with the food demands of the citizenry. So, in order to meet up with the shortfall, Nigerians have resorted to importing all manner of food products into the country. It is on this note that some are of the opinion that this closure of the border is tantamount to pouring gasoline into a combustible mix.
The recent border closure in Nigeria and its attendant consequences has indeed triggered off several pertinent issues that require urgent solutions, at least with a view to averting unpalatable outcome in case a similar situation arises in the future.
First and foremost, Nigeria need to up the ante of policing of its borders to stop the dangerous cross border infiltrations that are negatively impacting on both national security and the economy. Aside from placing more security personnel at the borders, there is an urgent need for aggressive investment in modern technology to secure the borders.
It is gladdening to note that there are reports about a plan to install electronic surveillance systems round the country’s borders with assistance from the United States and China. But how far the government has gone with this arrangement remains hazy.
Nigeria equally needs a comprehensive mapping of its borders with a view to identifying the levels of migration risks posed by the various sections. This would help in deciding the types of policing measures to adopt at the different areas. And where possible, portions of the borders can be walled.
The border communities also have a critical role to play in the effort to properly police the national boundaries. The communities and their traditional rulers always know those that belong to them and those that are infiltrators. So they are in a position to provide vital information to the authorities that would help to control the infiltration of dangerous elements.
Considering its location in a largely unstable region, with volatile socio-political situations in countries like Ivory Coast, Chad, Mali, it is highly imperative that robust security measures be put in place.
Similarly, Government needs to come up with an action plan on how to evolve workable laws with neighboring countries on how to jointly patrol borders in the region. To this end, it is of utmost importance to officially declare all products coming into the country, and their country of origin.
This is where the National Assembly comes in. The nation’s parliament should enact a law that will protect Nigeria from being turned into a dumping ground for all manner of goods that will ultimately serve as an undertaker for the nation’s economy.
Knowledgeable experts aver that border closure is so mechanical and simplistic that the costs may actually outweigh the benefits to both the economies of Nigeria and Benin republic. They therefore suggest that a more comprehensive appraisal of the problems at all the borders should be undertaken to proffer workable solutions to them. In the interim, it is advisable that government should endeavour to open these borders for the free flow of commercial activities, while permanent solutions are being sought.