In the near-absence of coastal shipping servicing West Africa, trade among the countries of the West African sub-region has mainly been by land. The Abidjan-Lagos corridor is the principal land route. But since August last year, the Nigerian government shut down the Seme border which is the last border to Lagos on the route, with the explanation that the move was to curb smuggling into Nigeria.
The border closure, Nigeria explained, was to last 28 days, but the government said if the objective was not achieved within the period, it would not lift the shut-down. The closure is still in force, some seven months after. Benin, Nigeria’s immediate neighbor by Seme which enjoys fiscal receipts from re-exports to Nigeria (not to mention undocumented income from smuggling) is distraught. So are Ghanaian exporters. In their restiveness, they’ve caused a shut-down of thousands of Nigerian shops in Ghana as a reprisal.
With Nigeria accounting for some 76% of the economy of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), it is the big market in the group and moves like this puts the little bit of regional trade within the group under threat.
Whenever President Buhari decides to re-open the border, though, it would bring only a short-term relief. The major problem with the regional trade from the Nigerian side is the abridged absorptive capacity of Nigeria’s economy since 2015.
When President Muhammadu Buhari came to power on May 29,2015, the Naira exchanged with the dollar at an official rate of N165 and about N186 in the unofficial market. By December of the same year, the exchange rate had hit N400 in the unofficial market and crossed N500 in 2016! Nigerians were thus devalued into penury and West African trade felt it immediately as Nigerian demand shrunk.
Emeka ran a restaurant at the Lome (Togo) terminal of ABC Transport, the company that introduced Nigerian coaches on the West African route. His customers were mainly Nigerians, with a sprinkle of other West Africans. In the first week of December 2014, it took one two days to get a seat on a Lagos-bound coach that took off from Accra, Ghana, passing through Lome. So many Nigerians were on the route shopping for Christmas sales. Business boomed for Emeka. He was sure that after the Yuletide of 2015, he would drive into Lagos with his own Renault Duster jeep.
But that was not to be. In 2015, crude oil prices crashed and Buhari that had just come into power did not defend the Naira, leading to the crash of the unofficial exchange rate from about N186 to the dollar to about N400. Second week in December 2015, Nigerian coaches that came from Accra to Lome were just about half of the previous year’s and had many empty seats. It took over twice more Naira to pay for a pair of shoes or delicatessens in Lome, and fewer Nigerians could afford that. Emeka’s business roasted, and he closed shop Easter 2016, returning to Lagos. Two years later, the space occupied by the restaurant was still largely empty. Rigobert, a Togolese, ran a money transfer business out of about 20% of the space and the remainder lay fallow.
Drivers on the route were hit too. Igwe who does the Mile2 (Lagos) – Cotonou taxi shuttle lamented, “We are only continuing because it is not good for a man to stay at home. We make nothing”. It was mid-afternoon when one boarded his car at John Quette park, Cotonou in 2017, and he took off with just me, explaining that he had been there since morning and got no passengers – a routine occurrence. He preferred waiting for the elusive passengers at Lagos which is his home.
The next time one boarded his car at Mile 2, I sat alone in the car for some three hours and a half while he hustled for passengers without success. Previously, taxis from that park left for Cotonou every 30 minutes, he said. Now, they were lucky to load two or three cars per day, he added. Igwe finally handed me over to another driver who had one passenger too but just had to leave. The passenger was a sister to a long-time client of his. She had a flight booked from Cotonou to Libreville, Gabon the next day. He carried just the two of us to Cotonou that day, lamenting his losses all the way. This situation remains the same.
But the picture is not all bleak. Some significant changes have taken place at the Nigerian border posts since the meltdown. One noticed that border officials on the Nigerian side are no longer as caustic and extortionate as they used to be. Whether that is a result of genuine change of orientation as happened at Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos in the 1990s when Peter Igbinedion was the boss at the airport, or as a result of less pressure since the meltdown, the outcome is pleasant.
The day that Igwe drove me from Cotonou, we passed through the Owode border. It looked like a forsaken route. Vehicular and human traffic were sparse. The Immigration officer didn’t ask me for a penny before stamping my passport. And while handing over the passport to me, he asked me if I was a university professor. I told him I was a journalist. Then, I looked at his name tag which read Abel Maida, and asked if he was from Adamawa State. Yes, he replied. From Michika or Mubi, I followed up. Mubi, he said, and asked if I had lived in his state. I told him I’d passed through and spent some days there but never lived there.
I went into a bar within the border area, while Igwe collected some goods from the area. Maida came in there, took a can of coke, and on noticing me, proceeded to pay for my beer! I would hardly have believed it if somebody else told me the story. Passing through Seme in 2018, and severally since, I also noticed that the Nigerian border officials were less hawkish too.
Another good thing to happen to the trade route is that the new Lagos State governor, Babatunde Sanwo-Olu, has announced the intention of his government to complete the work on the Lagos-Badagry expressway. Governor Babatunde Fashola had commenced work on an ambitious 10-lane superhighway linking Lagos to Badagry in his second term (2011-2015). But his successor left the road to rot after Fashola had dug up the entire stretch. For the past four years, vehicles have had to crawl, navigating the craters and pools created by flood on the highway. And every evening, robbers take lives and property from commuters that are sitting ducks. Finishing the highway will make life easier on the route.
However, the greatest hope for West African trade may perhaps be the increasing foreign remittances from Nigerians in the Diaspora which is providing a much needed boost to internal consumption. These remittances amounted to some $22bn in 2018, overtaking crude oil as the prime source of foreign exchange for Nigeria. These consumption dollars are sure to have a spillover effect into the sub-region, boosting demand whenever the border reopens. The West African party may yet restart.