Barely 10 months after closing Nigeria’s land borders over alleged security breaches and abuse of international trade facilitation procedure, the economy of border communities appears to have taken a turn for the worst with over three million people formerly engaged in legitimate businesses losing their jobs with about 90 per cent of Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) either grounded or relocated.
The Muhammadu Buhari administration had introduced a joint military operation codenamed “Ex-Swift Response” on August 20, 2019 across the nation’s borders, which in its wake crippled the economy of most border communities.
Since it’s launch, those living in the communities who had relied on border activities survival are now living in abject poverty leaving many with no option than to embrace illegal businesses around the border corridors to put food on the table for families.
Nigeria shares international land border with Benin Republic, Niger, Chad and Cameroon and border areas, communities like Ilaro, Idiroko, Oke Odan, Ipokia, Owode, Mawun, Alari, Koko, Badagry, Ajilete, Ago, Ighonyedo and Ifo, Okerete, Banki, Maitagari, Imade Dura and Jibia among others have relied on border economic activities including transportation, clearing and forward as well as currency exchange to legitimate businesses to survive.
Ironically since the closure of the border posts most of these villages now rely on aiding smugglers who always invade Customs duty.
This is because villagers involved in haulage of goods from one location to another for traders and importers are now left with no legitimate means of livelihood than smuggling of petroleum products and other movable goods.
For instance, before the border closure, most of them use their okada to carry legitimate imports and smuggled commodities for as much as N5, 000 per 50kg bag of rice. Sometimes, they also use their cars as ‘kabukabu’ to move these consignments in large quantities at night.
With the present border closure, activities of both legitimate and illegitimate trades have been crippled, thus putting the villagers completely out of business over the past 10 months.
Investigations revealed that even bank branches operating around the border corridors have lost both their Nigerians and neigbouring countries’ customers as no clearing agents go into the banking halls to do transactions with no imported goods coming into the border for clearing.
Regrettably, several clearing agents have died out of frustration due to the prolonged border closure over past 10 months.
A case in point for instance is, one of the senior clearing agents, Khalid Momodu, who died last week at Seme border.
Meanwhile since majority of the people living around the nation’s borders can no longer do any business due to the closure, many are now engaged in smuggling of fuel, exporting goods illegally to the neigbouring countries through the porous water channels as smuggling continues to thrive around the border towns.
On June 12, President Muhammadu Buhari in his democracy day speech recalled that “to reduce security challenges through our external borders especially smuggling of oil products out of the country, inflow of small arms and drugs into the country and equally protect our local manufacturers, we introduced operation “Ex-Swift Response” closing our borders from August 20, 2019, and have considerably succeeded in meeting its objectives as well as improving our national revenue.”
But experts and economists have countered the President’s claims that the gains of border closure are nothing compared to the negative effects on the economy and the hardship it had brought upon the genuine importers and people living around the border corridors.
Daily Sun learnt for instance that Nestle Plc, Dangote Group, Cadbury Nigeria plc, among several manufacturing companies across the country have reportedly lost over N1.3 trillion to the Federal Government’s border closure policy in the last 10 months, with over 2,000 trucks ladened with various goods and raw materials trapped and rotting away at various border posts.
Ironically, hopes of these manufacturers were dashed when Federal Government failed to reopen the borders at the target date, of January 31, 2010, leaving many with no option than to ship their consignments through the nation’s more expensive air and seaports.
The manufacturers are already bemoaning the loss of markets share to neighboring countries with the border closure.
Speaking with Daily Sun, Chairman of the Association of Nigeria Licensed Customs Agents (ANCLA), Seme border chapter, Bisiriyu Fanu, said that since the closure of the border, things have been so difficult for clearing agents operating across the border stations , with the story remaining the same and with no hope of reopening the border in sight forcing almost everybody to relocate to the Lagos ports with its associated snail speed pace of clearing of goods.
He added: “Here at Seme border, many of our members are dying almost every month. We lost one Khalid Momodu, a popular guy and one of the senior agents last week who died of frustration and depression because our members don’t do anything doing again. They will just wake up waiting for border to be opened but the Nigerian government has continued to dash their hope hence many became frustrated.
At the last count, Nigeria’s border closure has made more than two to three millon people jobless being the only active industry in most of the border communities having no direct route to Abuja.
“For those of us that believe in genuine business of the Customs brokerage, we don’t do shady businesses others are doing. Most people in these communities now use their vehicles to ferry fuel across the border to various locations just to make a living. Similarly, police checkpoints have increased in numbers and they are always at the outward of the border. People use their commercial vehicles to siphon fuel in 25/50 jerricans to resell to people across the border stations at night through bush parts to make a living.”
To compound their woes, the COVID-19 pandemic has worsen the whole matter with long lockdown and stay at order has turned many clearing agents into beggars with thousands of them unable to feed themselves.
According to him, the government just created an illegal avenue for people doing Illegal export through the waters, adding that officers manning the borders are even frustrated having not seen their families for long.
“ These officers don’t live on their salary. So when it comes to living on salary for two or three months, they conspired. Conspiracy has been going on among them. If one road is closed it will favour another set of people. Those that do shady businesses have increased in numbers,” he said.
The story of frustration has not spared the commercial bank branches around the border stations as they are lamenting the downbeat effects of the border closure, which has left their transactions significantly down.
The huge drop in volume of their transactions was attributed to the lack of border activities grounded since August last year.
A bank official who spoke with Daily Sun on condition of anonymity lamented the loss of huge businesses with the importers, clearing agents, Customs, commercial bus drivers, Okada riders, cart pushers, border traders and some of the SMEs around the border communities.
According to him, majority of the SMEs have closed shops, relocated to Lagos or neighboring countries, stressing that it has become a pain in the neck for border users, residents, business community and stakeholders doing businesses in the border corridors.
The bank official said: “We felt the impact on importers, because Customs brokers who usually come into our banking hall to make different transactions have disappeared suddenly. Today, only few people that live around the border communities and Customs officers that come to do one or two transactions can be seen.The situation is so pathetic.” He lamented.
Mr Kabiru Alao, who lives around Idiroko border, said the closure of the border created an avenue for some set of people to be rich. He said since August last year, some bad officers and smugglers have found avenues to make money.
He said: “Despite the border being shut as directed by the Federal Government, smuggling of foreign rice and frozen chickens is still thriving. Go to markets, you will see foreign rice everywhere and most of the rice were repackaged and made to look like local rice. We are just deceiving ourselves.
“Look at those vehicles, they are carrying foreign rice and other stuffs. They are not paying duty. You see the man sitting in front of the first car is an officer. He’s the one leading the other four vehicles and no one will stop them. The officers know themselves. The officers only go after Okada rider that are carrying rice and other smugglers who usually prove stubborn. That is why they always attack Customs officers around the villages here.”
Micheal Akpoyan, an Okada rider said the border closure has made things difficult for him since last year. He said before the border closure, he used to make up to N10,000 or more in a day by carrying rice and other goods for traders.
He said: “Presently, I hardly make N2000 in a day. No customers again and the people who come to the border to buy goods are no longer coming. The Coronavirus has compounded the situation because people are also scared of coming out. As it is now, no sign that the Federal Government will open the border soon. We never had things this bad since I have been operating here at Seme border.”
Ideally, it is normal for border communities to rely on trade, economic and commercial activities within and across borders to earn a living. As landlords of gateways into the country, these communities also serve as solid economic bases for legitimate economic activities to thrive.
Research has shown that international border markets are located in these communities where the exchange of various goods and services from various countries can be carried out.
However, when such economic activities thrive, it promotes the collection of various tariffs; reduced smuggling with most people in the area gainfully employed. When people are engaged they will be less prone to violent activities as well as crimes. But when such economic activities are altered around borders, it fuels smuggling and other related crimes.