Sometimes in mid-August, President Mohammadu Buhari ordered the partial closure of the Nigerian border with the Republic of Benin. The event codenamed Operation ex-swift response, (still finding it difficult to fathom how they arrived at that), jointly organized by the security agencies and coordinated by the office of the National Security Adviser (NSA) was to curb the brisk smuggling of rice and other products into the country.
Truth be told, there is a lot of brisk businesses of smuggling going on at the Nigerian-Benin border as far as one could recall. A fact known to most Nigerians inclusive of the hierarchy of the Nigerian Customs and the Nigerian leadership. Some of us have been beneficiaries of the smuggling activities, times, it was when if you needed to buy a fairly used car, Cotonou, Capital of Benin Republic was the place to go. It was as if the entire economy of that country was built on importing products through its seaport for smuggling into Nigeria.
The products across the border are too numerous to mention. It is from the Republic of Benin, apart from cars, that headless/bodiless turkeys are smuggled into the country. Textile materials, fairly used clothes, footwears and the likes are common items that make their way into Nigeria, all illegally. For some of the officials saddled with the responsibility of keeping our border secured against these items, they practice this in the breech. Our gate keepers turn a blind eye to these daily illegality and in the process fill their pocket with filthy lucre, unmindful of the damage to the Nigerian economy. Over the years, the damages have been massive, loss of jobs, relocation of manufacturing companies from our shares because we could not protect our markets.
Conversely, Benin republic is not a petroleum producing country, but Nigerian fuels are sold on streets of Cotonou, of course, the products are smuggled into that country through our border. Vehicles engaged in the business have special tanks for the purpose. Most of these tanks are so ingenuously constructed that a salon car could take as much as a quarter of an entire trailer load of petroleum. With time, the smugglers became emboldened such that trailer loads of petroleum product are driven through our border into Cotonou, once the necessary palms are greased. But I digress.
The border closure is really hurting our neighbors and they have not hidden that fact. They have made representation to PMB. At the ongoing Seventh International Conference for African Development in Yokohama in Japan, (Why would a conference on African development hold in Japan and not on the African soil?) the President of Benin Republic, Patrice Talon, who seems to have put his talons in the Nigerian economy, had sought audience with PMB on the matter. Although one was not privy to the discussion between the two, the takeaway however is that the border would be opened in no distant future. A report by France 24 quoting the Benin Republic’s Minister of Agriculture, Gaston Dossouhoui while visiting one of the communities affected by the closure described the situation as distressing and a disaster. Head of the Republic of Benin’s Chamber of Agriculture, Adjeoda Amoussou said the situation has led to financial disaster for his country’s producers who have “run up millions (of CFA francs) in debt”. They should come and ask our manufacturers how smuggling activities have laid them comatose.
For now the border should remain closed. If we are to save our economy and galvanize the production lines in the country, it is essential to take a long term look at what the Nigerian economy stands to benefit. Most people will say the closure goes against the spirit of the commercial and freedom of movement treaties signed under the Economic Community of West African and the free-trade agreement signed by 54 African countries of which Nigeria is one. One can also quickly point out that the different agreements did not state that Nigerian economy or for that matter the signee’s economy should be ruined by smuggling or that smuggling was part of the treaty.
One is not against free trade among African countries, but it should be under the cover of legality, goods coming into different countries especially Nigeria should come under the spirit of the agreement and not through the smugglers route with the attendant loss of revenue and most importantly the health hazard which the smuggled goods and produce constitute. Poultry products are smuggled into the country through the most hazardous means imaginable. Such items that are expected to be fully refrigerated while being transported to preserve its freshness are hardly that way leading to contamination and preventable health challenges.
By far the greatest of the downside to the smuggling is on the Nigerian economy. Most of the goods and produce coming in through the borders could be produced in Nigeria. Already, rice is being produced in abundant quantities, even if we are unable to meet the consumption demands for now at least we have reduced what comes in as import, saving our foreign reserves. Our poultry farmer would have a lot to do to also meet the demands that would be created by the border closure. The spin off from all these is more jobs creation. Other countries have done it. China did it and it is a better economy today, though some will argue that border closure did not take China to where it is today, but thrived when it flung opened its borders. That remains debatable.
Border closure and restricting certain items from coming into the country would enable Nigerians to look inwards and protect our industries. Indeed, the resultant effect of the border closure is that will challenge our production lines. Necessity is the mother of invention, so they say. Imagine closing our border against any form of vehicle importation,vehicle manufacturing companies would thrive. Innoson motors with its fantastic designs will thrive, local assembly plants such as PAN (Peugeout Automobile of Nigeria), VON (Volkswagen of Nigeria), Leyland and other would also wake up and provide needed jobs. We had all these before until the influx of imported cars ruined all. Any car manufacturing companies that desires to take advantage of our huge market should come in to set up its assembly plant here. Imagine the value chain implications if that happens. We would have the likes of Dunlop, Michelin coming back into the country, lubricants producing companies will spring up, the comatose steel complexes we have would be fired up, thousands of jobs would be provided. But in the spirit of brotherly correctness, we hardly want to take this necessary step. Whose interest are we protecting? Or citizens’ or our neighbours’?
There are contemporary examples of border closure exercised by countries to protect themselves and ultimately their economy. In spite of the hues and cries, Hungry has constructed a wall to protect itself against immigrants, Ukraine is also sealing its border against Russia, Romania wants to seal off Serbia. The US had sealed its border against Cuba at a time in its history while its border with Mexico remains sealed in order to protect influx of immigrants. All these point to a fact, take care of your country first.
You cannot continue to play big brother while your country is bleeding. No doubts there are legitimate traders who move across the borders to ply their trade, but our border needs to remain close in order to streamline activities that will protect our economy. Our neighbours have always taken their big brother for granted as efforts of previous administration leading to border closure have not solved the problem. For them, Nigeria remains a smuggling destination. Our economy cannot thrive under such atmosphere. Drastic problems encourages drastic solution. We need that drastic step now.