Those who have travelled by road from Nigeria to neighbouring countries or those who have come close to the country’s land bordering other nations have observed, and rightly too, that we have porous borders. From the South to North, it is easy for people and goods to cross from neighouring countries into Nigeria, than for Nigerians and goods to go to these nations. The way it is, nationals of Nigerian neighbours are having a field day migrating into the country.
The current partial closure of the Lagos-Seme border, which has restricted the movement of people and goods into Nigeria, is, therefore, a welcome development. In justifying the action, the federal government said it was aimed at checking the smuggling of rice into Nigeria, as, according to President Muhammadu Buhari, the activities of smugglers, especially as they relate to rice, are a threat to food “self-sufficiency,” which the local production of rice aims to address.
President Buhari had declared: “Now that our people in the rural areas are going back to their farms, and the country has saved huge sums of money, which would otherwise have been expended on importing rice using our scarce foreign reserves, we cannot allow smuggling of the product at such alarming proportions to continue.”
The government said the partial closure of the border between Nigeria and Republic of Benin follows a joint border security exercise by the Nigerian Customs, Immigration, Police and military personnel, under the direction of the Office of the National Security Adviser. According to it, the exercise, code-named “Ex-Swift Response,” is aimed at securing the country’s borders. At the end of the day, Nigeria’s security agencies are supposed to develop a strategy to secure the borders.
The border security exercise is well thought! The intention is also good. Therefore, it is commendable that government has, at last, decided to do something about the porous nature of the country’s borders. No country in the world leaves its borders bare, to the extent that people and goods move in and out at will. This has nothing to do with the Ease of Doing Business. No! It is about security, ensuring that global standards, as they concern entry and exit into the country, are maintained. Therefore, it goes beyond checking rice smuggling.
In shutting the borders, the federal government should not devote its energy in fighting rice smugglers, just to protect those locally growing rice. Talking about rice, while smuggling is a problem, the government should take measures to ensure that local production of rice is optimised. Local producers must meet local demand. The quality of rice should be good. The price of the local rice should be affordable. These three factors must be addressed, as the government strives to stop the entry of foreign rice into the country. If these things are taken care of, smuggling of rice into the country would no longer be attractive.
If government wants to ban foreign rice completely, it should say so. There should not be a middle road. When this is done, it becomes obvious that foreign rice is contraband. And to enforce this, security personnel at the borders, especially the Customs, should “open their eyes,” as we say in local parlance. These smuggled goods pass through the boarders, with the connivance of Customs officers and other security personnel. There have been reports that smugglers of rice and vehicles “settle” their way, from the borders to their warehouses, by paying huge sums of money to those whose duty it is to prevent smuggling. If the Customs and other security personnel attached to the borders are made to do their jobs diligently, I believe that smuggling would reduce.
Away from the smuggling of rice and other goods, tightening the borders is important as it is at the root of the country’s security. It is a known fact that nationals of neighbouring West African countries come into Nigeria with ease. These people come into Nigeria and settle in without anybody registering their entry or tracking them. Most of them dig in, claim to be Nigerians and even get Nigerian documents. There are cases where citizens of the Republic of Benin and Niger Republic have been discovered to have been registered as voters in Nigeria simply because they come, live here and lay claim to the country. This does not happen is other countries. Even in some of these West African countries, it is difficult for Nigerians to settle down and claim to belong there.
The government should go beyond closing the Seme border. Granted that the landmass of Nigeria is enormous, but effort should be made to man and protect parts of the country that border other nations. In Katsina State, for instance, there are communities on the borderline. In these places, there is no clear demarcation between Nigeria and its neighbour. People from either side of the divide cross over when they like or live either side without let or hindrance. In Bakassi area of Cross River State, Nigerians and Cameroonian communities are lying back-to-back, just as Nigeria and Chad share common boundary in the same axis, and citizens of the neighbouring nations move across freely. Also, in the South West, communities in Nigeria and Republic of Benin do not have clear demarcations. People from the two countries cross over the borders easily. While Nigerians may not find the other side better, nationals of neighbouring countries find Nigeria more attractive. This is sure a big problem.
The time has come for the Nigerian government to evolve a policy whereby borders, round the country, are protected. Whichever way this could be done, either with a wall or security wire, it must be done. Agreed that Nigeria is big, but if there is a policy of fencing, for example, successive governments would take action and, before long, it would be completed. President Donald Trump of the United States saw the illegal migration of Mexicans through the land borders as a problem. He, therefore, decided that the way to check this was to pursue the border wall policy vigorously. Trump did not start the border wall policy, as the US Border Patrol started to erect barriers in the San Diego sector in 1990. At that time, 14 miles of fences were erected along the San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Mexico, borders. There was also a 2006 act on border fencing in the US. This shows a consistent policy. As US governments come in and go, following the policy and doing their bit, the project progresses. With it, the problem of illegal migration across land borders is being tackled.
The government of Nigeria had outlined outlandish strategies to curb illegal migration through the land borders. There have been talks about using technology to track people crossing the border illegally. Inasmuch as this is a laudable idea, implementation is key.
There should be effective manning of the borders. If we get it right, we will be heading somewhere.